The importance of knowing the reasons students attend university

Student in the library, 1981by Maureen Reed, Director, Learning & Teaching Office

The reasons students go to university in the first place may impact their later success.  We often talk about internal and external motivations for students and suggest that it is the internally motivated students that have academic success.  However, we have found that individual students have both internal and external reasons for attending university and the pattern of reasons do have an impact on success or lack thereof (Kennett, Reed and Lam, 2011).

Internal reasons to attend usually include self-improvement and achieving life goals, whereas external reasons relate to career and family.  Further, upper-year students list more reasons for attending university, and tend to list reasons pertaining to self-improvement/satisfaction and societal contributions.  On the other hand, first year students want to prove to others they could earn a degree.

Recently, we found that students with internal reasons for attending cope with academic challenges better than those with external reasons.  In addition, those with internal reasons also expect, and receive, higher grades.  Students who fail to persevere at university cope less well with academic challenges but also hold an attitude that they would fail regardless of effort and this attitude is reflected in their reasons for attending, which have little to do with academics  (Kennett, Reed & Stuart, in press).

Finally, our recent study showed that those who endorse more internal reasons (like learning, or being interested in their program) were better adjusted during university.  However, university adjustment was also strong in students who reported that they came because of what the university had to offer in terms of student services (e.g. varsity sports). It is not surprising that reflective attitudes of students result in more adjustment and success at university.  On a final note, we also found that students who attend university to make others happy, to be with friends, or to delay responsibility were more likely to attribute their failures at university to a lack in their own abilities.  Such attitudes have a negative impact on university outcomes.

The bottom line is that the reasons people attend university in the first place may indeed be a critical link to understanding student persistence and success.  We as an institution have valuable opportunities to shape student success by better conveying to them the many benefits, both internal and external, of academia.

Read more: Kennett, D., Reed, M., and Lam, D. (2011). The importance of directly asking students their reasons for attending higher education. Issues In Educational Research, 21(1).

Photo credit: London School of Economics Library

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