Academic failure is in the news recently due to the new higher education reform package. One aspect of this package seeks to “put students’ interests first” by ruling that students who fail more than half their units in two progressive semesters lose their Commonwealth Supported Place, thereby at least theoretically, preventing the student from accumulating additional debt for that degree. This assumes a deficit discourse where students are blamed, then punished, for failing.

What do we know about academic failure? We know that it is common, with about 40 per cent of students failing at least one unit over their degree. Students report multiple factors that lead to failure at university including poor study habits, work/caring responsibilities, financial stress, mental health problems and poor curriculum design. The majority who fail one unit will go on to fail multiple units, and the risk of dropout after the first failure is raised four fold. Failure compounds; some students fail further units of study as they prioritise repeating the original failed unit, further exacerbating financial stress and mental health problems.

In our research on failure and persistence we saw a range of responses in relation to failure. Many students described the experience as a critical learning one that prompted them to mobilise networks of agency – seeking help from peers, friends, teachers and university support services – which led to development of their learning processes, their sense of self as a learner and prioritisation of learning. About a third of students reported doing nothing different in response to multiple failures: they felt powerless and stuck, not sure how to move forward and yet wanting to persist. In between these two extremes, others continued to struggle and persist, drawing on some of the supports available to them but continuing to lack confidence in their abilities as learners.

All universities have support services for students who fail, ranging from course advice, language and learning advisors and peer mentoring to counselling (as well as regulatory processes). As is the case for any learning opportunity, the student must engage with it for it to make a difference. Getting the interaction between the individual student and the structural affordances right matters. In others words, helping students mobilise their agency to make use of the support structures makes for a more productive, as well as a more compassionate, reframing of students’ failure away from an individualistic and punitive one.

Rather than blaming and punishing students for failing, investigating the relationality between the metaphorical horse and water might lead to better outcomes.

Associate Professor Rola Ajjawi, Centre for Research in Assessment and Digital Learning, Deakin University [email protected]




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