Identity and attribution as lenses to understand the relationship between transition to university and initial academic performance

W McMillan


Background. Most students experience the transition from school to university as challenging. First-generation students are particularly vulnerable, as they receive little preparation for the expectations of university.

Objective. To understand the relationship between preparation for university, transition experiences, and academic performance in the first two years at university.

Methods. Sixteen second-year dentistry students were interviewed in this qualitative pilot study. Their marks for the first 18 months at university were accessed. Two theoretical frameworks were used to analyse the data – academic identity and attribution. Analysis resulted in four groupings: academically competent middle-class students, academically struggling middle-class students, academically struggling working-class students and academically competent working-class students.

Results. Findings suggest that students’ academic performance is influenced by social class and assumptions of controllability and causality. Assumptions about control over their environment influenced how they engaged at university. These assumptions resulted in some students being better positioned for integration into the practices rewarded at university. Irrespective of social class, those who attributed academic performance to factors outside their control performed less well.

Conclusion. The study suggests that interventions are required that help all students to control their academic performance. Attributional retraining (AR) has the potential to assist students who attribute academic performance to causes beyond their control. The article concludes with suggestions for ways in which AR might be implemented to assist all students towards obtaining competent academic performance. Suggestions are also made for further large-scale studies.

Author's affiliations

W McMillan, Faculty of Dentistry, University of the Western Cape, Tygerberg Campus, Cape Town, South Africa

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Higher education; First-year experience; Transition from school to university; Academic identity; Attribution

Cite this article

African Journal of Health Professions Education 2015;7(1):. DOI:10.7196/AJHPE.356

Article History

Date submitted: 2013-10-29
Date published: 2015-02-23

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