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Seeking answers

Teaching students how they can do better in university

A message to first-year students at exam time

November 25, 2013 — 

Every year legions of students apply to universities and only those showing sufficient intelligence and academic stamina get in, but then, oddly, many fail in the first year. Why?

Raymond Perry, psychology

Raymond Perry, psychology

For over 20 years psychology’s Raymond Perry has been gathering data to answer this question and solve the problem he calls the “paradox of failure”.

“The paradox of failure is predicated on the assumption that you only let the best and brightest in,” Perry says. “So if you’re accepting the best and brightest, how come some fail? And it’s not like 5 per cent of new students fail. It’s 20 to 25 per cent across the board, and in in some cases, up to 35 per cent. It’s astounding.”

In Canada, roughly 30 per cent of first-year students do not return for a second year, and roughly 40 per cent graduate after five years – this in spite of an average entering grade of 77 per cent (B+).

His lab is a partner in an international research consortium consisting of the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of California at Irvine, McGill University, and the University of Munich.

“The university system is designed to educate highly-educated people because they are your brain trust for the future. We can’t afford to jettison 30 per cent of these talented people. Sure, some will recover. But that’s a heck of a way to nurture your resources.”

So why is this happening?

The main culprit, Perry has found, is how students explain what happens to them in their courses. When failures happen, students ask why? How they answer determines their scholastic success, and their explanations have three properties: the cause is framed as something either internal or external to them; their explanations will be either transient or enduring; and they’ll decide if the situation is controllable or not.

In short, failing students think they either lack ability or lack effort. “Does it matter? Absolutely. That lack of ability attribution is devastating compared to the other,” Perry said.

A low-ability attribution is motivationally dysfunctional because it affirms the expectation that failure can reoccur (thereby making failure seem a stable, uncontrollable foe). Lack of effort, however, boosts motivation because it promotes expectations that change is possible through, say, better note taking or more consistent and systematic study.

This attribution theory applies to many areas of society. Indeed, Perry’s, colleague, Judith Chipperfield, who examines it in the context of health and aging, found seniors who feel psychologically in control live longer and use the health care system less.

For students, Perry developed a method to modify their explanatory thinking. It’s called attributional retraining and it replaces dysfunctional attributions with functional ones. Groups of 15 to 50 attend an intensive and regimented one-hour treatment intervention that involves a communication about success and failure, and procedures that consolidate the intervention’s message.

Afterwards, on average, students see a 10 to 12 per cent increase in their grades by year’s end and in GPA several years thereafter. What’s more, the intervention increased students’ graduation rates five years post-treatment to more than two times their no-treatment counterparts. These results underscore the significance of such program treatments for long-term motivation and persistence in novel and competitive achievement settings, Perry said.

“When we first saw the effects of this I refused to believe it, but it’s been 17 years,” Perry said. “As to why it works, but I spend less time trying to figure out why than I do trying to make it more impactful.”


This story originally appeared in The Bulletin in February, 2007



Research at the University of Manitoba is partially supported by funding from the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.

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