Home > Uncategorized > A bit more on student outcomes

A bit more on student outcomes

Periodically I’ve written about success of today’s student and what faculty can do to support them. I’ve got a bit more data that muddies the waters even more.  First let’s look at a new set of GPA data.  The figure at left shows a plot of final at-graduation GPA vs. first semester GPA for 442 graduates in a recent academic year, all of whom started with us in the fall, and graduated in the spring 4 years later.  We have more graduates than this on an annual basis, but this data does not include transfer students (for whom we don’t have a first-semester GPA), or students who didn’t graduate in 8 semesters.

Final at-graduation GPA vs first semester GPA

Final at-graduation GPA vs first semester GPA

The story is tells is rather astounding.  First, the correlation is remarkably strong.  There appear to be very few true outliers in the data, with most of the data points hugging the best fit linear model (the red line) reasonably well.  The best fit line essentially says that if you finished your first semester in the vicinity of the average GPA of the group (which was about 3.15), you probably finished right around 3.15.  And if you finished your first semester with something like a 4.0, then you probably came back to the pack a bit and finished your career with a GPA a bit lower than 4.0.  And if you finished your first semester with a below-average GPA, say around 2.5, you probably graduated with a GPA slightly higher than that.  This sort of thing is probably to be expected, because it’s really hard to maintain a perfect or near-perfect GPA record throughout your career. Similarly, it’s hard for academically very talented students to continuously under-perform throughout their career.  To be sure, students do both (maintain either their 2.0 or 4.0), but it’s not easy and it’s fairly uncommon.

Histogram of (final GPA - first semester GPA)

Histogram of (final GPA – first semester GPA)

The figure at right shows the same data, only this time expressed as a histogram.  About 60% of students graduate with a final GPA within the interval (-0.25 to +0.5) points of their first semester GPA.  Among all the available predictors of overall, global academic performance, first semester GPA is a staggeringly good one.  Only about 22% of students graduate with a GPA that is appreciably (defined as more than 0.25 points) above their first semester GPA.  Moreover, less than 5% of students graduate with a final GPA more than 0.75 points higher than their first semester GPA.

The histogram data also shows that it is very difficult, and very uncommon, for students to make drastic changes in their academic performance , and we can precipitate a hypothesis about what we see.

Let’s establish a baseline profile of students who enter UVA:

  • they have generally been academically successful in every academic environment they’ve experienced
  • they have rarely if ever had to ask for help in their academic setting
  • they have had extraordinary support from their families in their academic pursuits
  • they have managed their total experience (academic + work + volunteering + athletics + …) very effectively and have been highly scheduled throughout their teen years

This is obviously a composite of what our students look like, and of course individuals vary quite a bit from this general picture.  But this is a fair characterization of our population as a whole, especially the part about academic performance and asking for academic help.

The right side of the histogram includes students who improved their GPA throughout their career, and there are clearly more of them than there are students whose GPA declined.

Then the hypothesis about why it’s so difficult for students to make very large changes in their academic performance that follows from this baseline description is:

  • Transition issues:  The right side of the histogram includes students who improved their GPA throughout their career, and there are clearly more of them than there are students whose GPA declined.  It is well established that students often struggle when they transition to a new academic environment, especially one that is quite different from their previous environment.  Students who struggle in their first semester, but who have been completely successful previously, often have the self-efficacy to identify critical changes they need to make (and of course to actually make them) so that their academic performance improves.
  • Success issues: In the high-expectations environment of the engineering school, it is really difficult to maintain a 4.0 average across 8 semesters.  It’s a very intuitive argument that most students who start with a 4.0 will migrate a little bit back to the pack as time goes on.
  • Extrinsic issues:  But the “success” argument does not capture the students whose performance changes drastically, negatively throughout their career.   In many cases, students experience unfortunate extrinsic factors that impact their performance.  I believe the “classics” are only occasionally true:  the student pledged a fraternity or sorority, he/she spent too much time partying, he/she got involved in too many extra-curriculars.  Instead, I believe that students who see this substantial decline face all sorts of non-academic factors such as relationship problems, family problems, mid-college crises about their chosen career path, and the general “grass is always greener” syndrome that can challenge the confidence of students who have always had confidence to spare.

My contention is that the shape of the data can be explained largely by non-academic, and in fact non-cognitive, factors rather than resorting to arguments about academic competencies.  It’s students who have the self-efficacy to make good decisions, make academic and personal adjustments if they are not getting the results they want, and who generally have a level of (yes, here’s that word) grit that ensures that they will find a way to succeed.

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