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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

Summary

KEY POINTS

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. 

While academic achievement at school was the strongest predictor of first-year university performance for these students, not all higher-achieving school students performed equally well at university, and some who had lower school achievement out-performed students with higher school achievement. 

Among higher-achieving school students, those who:

  • studied part-time or for only part of the year, or
  • were from the sole-Pasifika1 ethnic group, or
  • were low-decile school students from ethnic groups other than sole-European

showed lower levels of university performance than other higher-achieving school students.

Among those with lower school achievement, students who took a year off before starting their tertiary studies—particularly students from low-decile schools—showed higher levels of performance at university than those who progressed directly to tertiary study after leaving school.       

But this better performance among those who took a gap year was not seen in European, or sole-Pasifika students.

Lower-achieving students from low-decile schools performed better in their first-year of tertiary studies than similar students from high-decile schools. This suggests that among lower achieving students, NCEA underestimates the ability of those from lower decile schools. And conversely, NCEA overestimates the ability of those from higher decile schools.

This analysis looks at intramural, first-year bachelors-degree students at university.  It analyses which factors were linked to successful performance at university. The factors studied were: the last school they attended, the field of study at university, demographic factors, whether the student took a gap year2 and the level of school achievement. Each student in the study population had gained the National Certificate of Educational Achievement level 3 and achieved the University Entrance standard. The indicator of performance at university is whether the student passed 75 per cent or more of their first-year courses.

School achievement was found to be the most important factor associated with students’ academic performance in their tertiary studies. Students with below-average school achievement were less likely to pass most of their first-year tertiary courses, with likelihoods ranging from about 0.3 to 0.8. For above-average students at school, the likelihood of passing most first-year courses ranged from 0.8 to near certainty.

For most students who showed above-average academic success at school, their gender, ethnicity, what school they attended, what qualification they enrolled in, or whether they progressed directly to tertiary study or took a year off after leaving school, made almost no difference to their tertiary performance.

However, there were some exceptions. Students with above-average school achievement from ethnic groups other than the sole-European group, who attended low-decile schools, were less likely to pass most of their first-year courses compared to similar students from other schools. Sole-Pasifika students showed the greatest difference. Similar sole-European students who had attended low-decile schools did not show this affect.

For students with below-average school achievement, the qualification they enrolled in made a substantial difference to their likelihood of them passing most of their courses. Students enrolled in creative arts and teacher education qualifications were more likely to pass their courses when compared with students enrolled in engineering, natural and physical sciences, society and culture, and management and commerce qualifications. The likelihood of passing most first-year courses for students in health qualifications fell between these two groups. Above-average school students were far more likely to pass most of their courses, with few or no differences between students enrolled in different fields of study.

Below-average students who took a year off before starting their tertiary studies improved their chances of passing most of their first-year courses. If these students were from low-decile schools, the improvement was substantial, but for similar students from high-decile schools, the improvement was far smaller. Taking a gap year did not significantly improve university achievement for European students with lower school achievement, or for sole-Pasifika students, from either low or high-decile schools.

The improvement in university performance for students who took a gap year probably derives from the fact that only motivated or confident students enrol in tertiary studies after taking a break. Those students who are not motivated, or lack confidence in their ability, do not continue with their studies.

Among those with below average school achievement, the decile of the school attended affects university achievement.  For sole-European students (who comprise the majority of students in the study population) those with below-average school achievement from low-decile schools out-performed similar students from high-decile schools. A similar result has been observed in Australia and the UK. This suggests that school achievement scores may over-estimate the ability of some students—those with lower ability—who attended high-decile schools. This means that when school achievement is controlled for, the students from high-decile schools perform at relatively lower levels than similar students from low-decile schools. Conversely, school achievement scores may understate the ability of below-average students who go to low-decile schools.

Part-time or part-year students were less likely to pass most of their first-year courses than students who studied full-time for the full-year, although at the extreme ends of the school achievement score range, there was little or no difference between students with different study loads.

There were essentially no differences in tertiary performance between male and female students when controlling for ethnic group.

Footnotes

  1. Ethnicity is reported in this study using never-, ever- and sole-ethnic categories. The sole-Pasifika category, for example, represents those students who indicated Pasifika as their ethnic group while at school, and also while in their tertiary studies, and did not indicate any other ethnic group identification during this period. A more detailed description of the ethnic group categories can be found in the body of the report.
  2. A gap year means the student didn’t progress to university in the year after leaving school but progressed a year later.

 


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