In this study, we investigated the experiences of students who encountered difficulty learning course material; their ease or difficulty getting help; and how this access to help was related to academic effort, grades, and risk for attrition. The findings show that students who get help with coursework invest more time in their studies and make greater use of effective learning strategies, and that these behaviors pay off in higher academic achievement. Students who get the help they need are also less likely to consider leaving their institution. Despite these positive findings, we also noted that one in five first-year students experienced difficulty in both learning course material and getting the help they need.
Academic challenge is an important element in college-level learning, but challenge needs to be complemented by support for learning (Sanford, 1962; Upcraft, Gardner, Barefoot, & Associates, 2005). Students can get help with coursework from many sources, including peers, instructors, and learning support services (e.g., tutoring, writing centers, and success coaching). In this study, we investigated the experiences of students who encountered difficulty learning course material; their ease or difficulty getting help, and how this access to help was related to academic effort, grades, and risk for attrition.
This report was published in the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) Annual Results, November, 2016. Data were from nearly 25,000 first-year students at 140 institutions who completed the NSSE Topical Module on First-Year Transitions in spring 2016. In this analysis, we focused on students who had difficulty learning course material, dividing them into two groups: those who had low difficulty getting help with their coursework (26% of all first-year students) and those who had high difficulty (21%) getting such help. The latter group--about one in five first-year students--merits special concern: They reported difficulty learning course material and getting help with coursework.
Of students who had difficulty learning course material, first-generation, African American, and Hispanic students were somewhat more likely to have difficulty getting help with coursework. Students who had difficulty both learning course material and getting help also had somewhat lower average SAT scores, devoted about one hour less per week to class preparation on average, and were less likely to use effective learning strategies. Importantly, they were also more likely to say they had seriously considered leaving their institution, suggesting a possible link to attrition.
For first-year students who experienced difficulty learning course material, spending more time preparing for class increased their likelihood of earning an A or A- (Figure FY1). But within levels of study time, those who had difficulty getting help were about 10 percentage points less likely to earn high grades than their peers who were more successful at getting help. This demonstrates the importance of both study time and academic support for academic performance.
Figure FY1. High Achievement Among Students Experiencing Difficulty Learning Course Material, By Weekly Class Preparation Time and Level of Difficulty Getting Help with Coursework
Note: Percentages were adjusted to control for differences with regard to sex, race/ethnicity, full- or part-time enrollment, first-generation status, SAT/ACT score, and major.
How students use their study time also matters, so we investigated the relationship between the use of effective learning strategies and high grades, independent of the effect of study time. More engagement in Learning Strategies (LS) corresponded to higher grades, with about 11 percentage points separating the low and high LS groups (Figure FY2). We also found that those who had difficulty getting help were less likely to have high grades, regardless of their use of learning strategies.
Figure FY2. High Achievement Among Students Experiencing Difficulty Learning Course Material, By Use of Effective Learning Strategies and Level of Difficulty Getting Help with Coursework
Note: Percentages were adjusted using the same variables as figure FY1 plus weekly study time
Students do not necessarily enter college with the tools needed to be effective learners. These results call attention to the importance of availability and effectiveness of learning support services and to the imperative that students take advantage of those services when they confront academic difficulty.
For more information, please see the full article in NSSE's 2016 Annual Results.