Academic performance of first-year bachelors students at university

Publication Details

The study considered a population of first-year bachelors-degree students at university, who had all achieved the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) level 3 and attained the University Entrance standard.

Author(s): Ralf Engler, Senior Research Analyst, Tertiary Sector Performance Analysis and Report [Ministry of Education]

Date Published: May 2010

2. Previous studies

There is a rich literature on the factors that influence a students’ performance in their first year of study. Useful summaries and reviews are given in Evans (1999), Birch and Miller (2004) and Scott and Smart (2005).

The factor that is most correlated with first year tertiary students’ performance is their previous academic performance in school4. Students who perform well in secondary school, or even primary school, do well at university (Birch and Miller 2004).

The qualification a student enrols in also plays a role. In New Zealand, students who study qualifications in the fields of health or education have the greatest likelihood of completing their degree. Students in the fields of natural and physical sciences and information technology, and society and culture have the lowest rates of completion (Scott and Smart 2005). For bachelors courses5, Scott (2006) found natural and physical sciences had the lowest course pass rate (78 per cent) with health the highest (89 per cent). Other studies have shown links between students’ domain-specific knowledge and their motivation to study a subject, which also relates to their course preference and academic preparedness (Evans 1999). The link is strongest for science disciplines (Evans 1999).

The gender of the student is also important. Overall, females generally perform better than males, but there are exceptions in some disciplines (Evans 1999).

Ethnic group is also sometimes associated with academic achievement (Evans 1999). The few Australian studies that have examined the impact of ethnic background on grades have indicated only a small impact on academic performance (Birch and Miller 2004). Australian students from non-English speaking backgrounds have been found to have slightly higher grades than students from English speaking backgrounds. This was attributed to there being a greater motivation to study at university due to cultural factors that place a premium on education (Birch and Miller 2004). Scott & Smart (2005) showed that in New  Zealand, Māori and Pasifika had the lowest degree-completion rates, even after adjusting for various demographic and study-related factors.

Some studies have found that gaining entry to tertiary studies and students’ persistence and success in tertiary study, are related to socio-economic status (Evans 1999). However, Birch and Miller (2007) in another Australian study, found that students from middle-level socio-economic communities performed better than lower socio-economic students of the same ability level, who in turn performed slightly better than higher socio-economic students, again, of the same ability level. They suggested this was because higher socio-economic families disproportionately send their children to non-government schools. Studies have shown that non-government school students in Australia do not perform as well at university as government school students when school achievement is controlled for (Birch and Miller 2004).

The age of a student has also been found to be important. Younger students are more likely to complete qualifications than older students in actual terms, but older students generally out-perform their younger counterparts when controlling for full-time and part-time study status (Scott and Smart 2005). Age, though, is correlated with taking a gap-year. That is, a student who takes some time off before starting tertiary study will generally be older in their first year of study than a student who progresses directly to tertiary study after leaving school. Students who take a gap-year out-perform students who progress directly (Birch and Miller 2007). The age of a student is also correlated with maturity and motivation, which has been shown to be a good predictor of academic performance (Evans 1999).

There are also a number of psychological characteristics that affect students’ tertiary performance.

Academic preparedness, learning strategies, goal commitment and academic motivation have all been shown to be important (Evans 1999). Self-efficacy is particularly important (Chemers et al 2001). Self-efficacy is described as the particular actions a person chooses to pursue, the amount of effort expended, the perseverance shown in the face of challenges and failures, resilience, and the ability to cope with the demands associated with the chosen course of action. Students with confidence in their ability to perform well academically perform significantly better than less confident students. Likewise, students who have higher expectations for academic success show higher performance (Chemers et al 2001). Recent New Zealand research has questioned the general validity of this. Otunuku and Brown (2007) found that in spite of high expectations, positive attitudes and high self-efficacy, Pasifika students have low academic performance. They questioned the validity of the applicability of self-efficacy and preference attitudes to predict academic performance for low socio-economic immigrant students from ‘agrarian or traditional’ societies.

Academic preparedness for tertiary education was also highlighted by Madjar et al (2010) for New Zealand students in their first year at university. In their study, students who had the cultural capital and the competencies and skills to interact with the university environment had fewer problems with academic engagement. Such skills included ways of speaking, subject specific vocabularies, prior exposure to relevant ideas, knowing how to participate in discussions, and how to seek help. It was not that the students with these skills did not need help to adjust to university life, but that they knew how to obtain this help in the course of normal classroom activities. They did not have to access learning support services, which some students saw as an admission of failure, which in turn affected their motivation, and academic performance.

Family and peer support, study mode and financial hardship have all been shown to have an effect on study performance, although some studies have shown no difference between full-time and part-time students. In addition, attending the institution of their choice, and studying subjects that interest them, also improves students’ performance (Evans 1999).

Some studies suggest that there are factors that affect academic performance that are specific to minority ethnic groups, and relate to the interaction between the student and the institution. Among those factors are isolation, alienation and lack of support (Allen 1992), and perceptions of prejudice and discrimination (Nora and Cabrera 1996). Although these studies refer in the main to American students, institutional factors may also be playing a part in the New Zealand context. A study of New  Zealand school students (Tuuta et al 2004) found that teachers’ low expectations of Māori students contributed to Māori students’ lack of success. Tuuta et al reported that it was a lack of professional knowledge regarding effective pedagogy for minority ethnic group students. It is possible that similar patterns of behaviour may be occurring in tertiary providers.

This present study looks at a number of the factors explored in the literature summarised above. Achievement at school, ethnic group (including within ethnic group distinctions), and the tertiary subject studied are included. The socio-economic rating of the last secondary school attended is included – this is a proxy for the socio-economic standing of the student’s community and for a number of school-based factors. The timing of the progression to tertiary study — whether the student went directly after leaving school, or took a year off — is also included. Gender, whether the student studied intra- or extramurally, and whether the student studied full-time or part-time, are considered, and controlled for. Age is not considered separately because this study is restricted to a narrow age range, and within that range, age is correlated with the timing of progression.


  1. There are two other factors that have a large impact on tertiary success; the level of study (certificate, diploma, bachelors, post-graduate) and study load. This study only focuses on bachelors-level students, who in the main, study full time.
  2. In New Zealand, a course refers to a distinct module, paper, or unit of study that forms part of a larger programme of study that may or may not lead towards a recognised qualification. This differs from other countries, such as Australia or Britain, where the term ‘course’ is commonly used to refer to the whole qualification.