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Hannah Whitcomb and Spencer Mathews, Bellevue University

Hannah Whitcomb.jpgSpencer Mathews.jpgMost of our institution’s 13,000 part-time and full-time students are adult and distance learners; however, the campus is striving to develop a more vibrant residential community.  As a result, we chose to measure the correlation between level of understanding of degree requirements and academic performance among the aforementioned residential population of approximately 450 students.  Based on the lack of literature on this topic, further research is necessary to discover if a relationship exists.  It is important to us to better understand what factors may impact students’ academic performance and what we, as advisors, should focus on in our work with students.

We conducted this study at a private, non-profit institution located in a Midwestern metropolitan area. The following questions were developed based on the lack of knowledge regarding the relationship between level of understanding of degree requirements and academic performance among college students:

  1. Does a positive correlation exist between level of understanding of degree requirements and academic performance?
  2. Does the level of understanding of degree requirements differ among various student groups?

We hypothesized a positive correlation would exist between level of understanding of degree requirements and academic performance.   We also predicted academic class standing and full-time enrollment status would positively influence students’ level of understanding of degree requirements. 

We began by developing a 20-question survey designed to obtain student demographic information (i.e. sex, age, academic class standing, enrollment status, citizenship, and intercollegiate athletics participation) and measure participants’ level of understanding of our institution’s degree requirements.  Question topics included, but were not limited to, the minimum number of total credit hours, minimum grade point average, minimum upper-level credit hours, and general education course requirements necessary to obtain a bachelor’s degree.  We conducted a pilot study consisting of 13 daytime, residential students prior to administering the survey.  This helped ensure proper organization of the instrument and provided us with an opportunity to improve the surveying process. 

We developed our participant selection criteria based on access to residential students, professors’ willingness to allow us to survey their students during class, and a wide range of academic rigor (i.e. upper and lower level courses).  We surveyed 116 participants within eight daytime, residential classes during the fall and winter terms of the 2013-14 academic year.  Of the 116 participants, 57 identified as female and 59 as male.  The sample included two non-degree seeking students, seven first-year students, 19 sophomores, 35 juniors, and 53 seniors; over 97% were between the ages of 19 and 39.  The sample consisted of 25 international students, 46 student-athletes, and 12 part-time students.

Participants’ average level of understanding of degree requirements was 52% and their overall grade point average was 2.83 (4.0 scale).  Although we hypothesized a positive correlation would exist between level of understanding of degree requirements and academic performance, a strong statistical significance was not found.  Even so, we discovered several trends.  We believe these trends are important to understand and keep in mind during our work as academic advisors.

For example, male participants had a higher level of understanding (53%) yet a lower grade point average (2.78) than females (51%; 2.89).  Furthermore, sophomore participants had the lowest level of understanding (50%), but their grade point average was the highest (2.93).  Additionally, juniors had the highest level of understanding (54%) yet had the lowest grade point average (2.77).  Moreover, international students had a lower level of understanding of degree requirements (45%), but had a higher grade point average (2.86) than domestic students (55%; 2.82).  Also, student-athletes had a lower level of understanding of degree requirements (50%) yet had a higher grade point average (2.9) than non-athletes (54%; 2.79).  Most interestingly, a moderate negative correlation was found among part-time students who had a 52% level of understanding and a 2.80 grade point average (r=-.50). 

Based on the results of this study, we have developed several learning outcomes.  First, we encourage academic advisors to not attempt to predict students’ understanding of degree requirements solely based on grade point average.  For instance, a student with a 4.0 grade point average will not necessarily have a stronger grasp of degree requirements than a student struggling to meet minimum standards of academic progress.  We attribute this phenomenon to an increased number of sessions struggling students have with advisors.  For example, if students on academic probation are required to meet with academic advisors for course registration, they may have more frequent interaction with advisors and, as a result, experience increased levels of understanding of degree requirements. 

Furthermore, academic advisors should not attempt to predict students’ level of understanding of degree requirements based on academic class standing.  For example, a senior will not necessarily have a higher level of understanding of degree requirements than a first-year student.  Therefore, advisors should discuss degree requirements with students based on individual need rather than academic class standing.  Moreover, academic advisors should be aware of perceived biases when advising certain student groups.  For instance, the results of this study provided evidence that suggested student-athletes had higher grade point averages than non-athletes, which challenges the antiquated “jock” stereotype.  Lastly, if students’ level of understanding of degree requirements does not predict academic performance, academic advisors should focus advising practices on other influencers of academic success; possible factors include time management, test-taking strategies, stress management, and study skills. 

We identified multiple limitations and delimitations of this study.  Limitations included lack of randomization, instrument reliability, and sample size utilized.  Also, we determined not all questions were applicable to the sample size.  For instance, transfer students with associate’s degrees from community colleges have no need to be knowledgeable about general education requirements.  Delimitations of the study included the population chosen to survey, length of study, and participant selection. 

Although this study uncovered valuable information on the topic, several avenues of future research still exist.  For example, a similar study utilizing a larger sample size that includes participants at different institutions of higher education could increase generalizability of the results.  Our study only surveyed students taking daytime, residential courses.  With the recent increase in adult and distance education, a study that examines non-traditional student populations could help practitioners improve best practices.  Lastly, we attributed multiple touch points with advisors as a possible explanation for why students with low grade point averages had a higher understanding of degree requirements. Therefore, it would be beneficial to explore the relationship between number of advising appointments and level of understanding of degree requirements. 

Hannah Whitcomb, M.S.
Academic Advisor – Residential Student Affairs
Bellevue University
Hannah.Whitcomb@Bellevue.edu

Spencer Mathews, Ed.D.
Manager, Academic Advising – Residential Student Affairs
Bellevue University
Spencer.Mathews@Bellevue.edu

 

Cite this article using APA style as: Whitcomb, H., & Mathews, S. (2014, December). Exploring the relationship between student understanding of degree requirements and academic performance. Academic Advising Today, 37(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]

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