Exploring the factors which influence and support the development of academic growth in Higher Education

  • Richard Gamble

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Higher Education (HE) continues to have a significant impact on the economy in the United Kingdom (UK) and on the lives of the students who participate in it. The HE sector plays a paramount role in acting to underpin and support the development of the nation’s economy while creating the knowledge, capability and expertise which allow the UK to compete internationally (BIS, 2016). For the individual, HE has the potential to fundamentally change lives, challenging them to develop deeper learning, analytical and creative skills which benefit them for the rest of their lives. Achievement outcomes and the possession of a high-level degree (often considered a 2:1 classification and above (BIS, 2016) have been demonstrated to greatly influence a students’ opportunity to progress within the education system and to successfully enter employment upon graduation (Ramsden, 2003; Brown & Knight, 2012; Brown & Heaney, 1997; Universities, 2017). As such, high levels of student achievement can act as a catalyst for social mobility by opening doors to a greater range of employment outcomes and offering graduate’s higher life time earnings than their non-graduate peers (BIS, 2016; Walker, & Zhu, 2013). Students who leave HE with lower levels of achievement, are more likely to experience greater difficulty in securing employment that makes the most of their skills, which offers them a good return on their graduate investment (BIS, 2016; ONS, 2017). Given the importance academic achievement in HE plays in the UK economy and to the individual, the continued support and development of student academic achievement is an important concern to the HE system, students and employers alike. Recognising the importance of ensuring student success in a climate of increased benchmarks and quality assurances (Nichols & Berliner, 2007), recent conversation in psycho-education has seen a growing emphasis on examining academic growth and how indices of student learning develop over time (Anderman, Anderman, Yough, & Gimbert, 2010; Dweck, 2010; Anderman, Gimbert, O’Connell & Riegel, 2015; Martin, 2015; 2011; Gamble, Cassidy, McLaughlin & Giles, 2018). Motivating the academic growth movement is an international rise in accountable requirements aimed at developing student preparation and learning, but also the assessment of teaching skills and educational quality (Anderman., et al 2015). Accompanying the growing interest in academic growth is the recognition of the progressively diverse backgrounds, academic attainment levels and goals of those entering HE (Rubin, & Kazanjian, 2011: BIS, 2016). HE in the UK is no longer dominated by 18 to 21-year-old students, who having progressed from grammar school, move to live on campus and study a subject full-time due to an inherent interest. Instead, an increasing number of students are working in full-time and part-time jobs while studying to fund their education (Endsleigh, 2015), choosing to live at home with parents (HEFCE, 2009) and are selecting a topic of study based on its potential return in the labour market (HESA, 2018). Indeed, given the success of initiatives, namely widening access, to increase participation levels, students are also becoming more consumer orientated, demanding more from the HE sector than ever before (Kandiko & Mawer, 2013; Tomlinson, 2014, 2016; Universities, 2017). Given the current demands on Higher Education Institutions (HEI’s) and students to experience ever greater levels of academic achievement, understanding the factors which influence academic growth could assist greatly in one of educations ultimate goals of facilitating long-term learning and growth in academic achievement (Murayama et al., 2013). Nonetheless, creating an ideal environment to encourage and develop academic growth of all students regardless of their initial levels of achievement (Dweck, 2015) will be exceedingly difficult for educators, HEI’s and students given how little we currently know about the factors which predict and support the development of academic growth in students attending HE. As increasing transparency and enhanced reporting on HEI’s unique ability to support and develop student achievement outcomes becomes a central focus, driving the decision of where students chose to attend, and the funding each institute receives, failure to ensure academic growth could influence an institutes future survival. Indeed, only when the system can support and ensure a greater number of students reach their academic aspirations, can inequality truly be reduced; simply opening the doors is not enough as “access without support is not opportunity” (Engstrom & Tinto, 2008, p. 50). With this in mind the current investigation set out to examine the factors which predict and support the development of student academic growth. A wealth of empirical evidence based predominantly with students attending primary and secondary school has highlighted a range of factors which are important in the prediction of academic achievement and which can also serve to offer insight into the role these factors may have in predicting academic growth. This psycho-educational research has evolved into two largely separate bodies of study, one demonstrating the influence of contextual factors, while the other has emphasised the role psychological factors can have upon achievement. Contextual factors for example: socioeconomic status (SES) and family environment are considered to represent the environmental and social-developmental context a student has encountered throughout their development (Claro, Paunesku & Dweck, 2016). Whereas, psychological factors namely: motivation, problem-solving and optimism to name a few, are said to concern a range of individual differences which represent an individual’s goals, aspirations and overall outlook on life (Robbins et al., 2004; Richardson et al., 2012). Similar to the prediction of academic achievement, the developing body of growth research suggests that the prediction of academic growth may be more accurate if based on the inclusion of a variety of contextual and psychological factors (Richardson et al., 2012). With this in mind Study one of the investigation set out to examine the efficacy of the contextual factors of SES and family environment and the psychological factors of motivation, problem-solving style and optimism have in the prediction of academic growth in a group of 646 students participating in a three-year undergraduate HE degree programme. In keeping with the subject of growth and development, psychological growth, considered development in each of these psychological factors from year one to year two and the impact this has on academic growth was also explored. Findings suggest that family environment and maternal education level in addition to intrinsic motivation, problem-solving self-efficacy and optimism were significant predictors of student academic growth. Further analysis revealed that psychological growth also predicted student academic growth, further suggesting that targeting these psychological resources could provide researchers and educators a means of developing academic growth, and as such overall achievement.Inspired by findings from Study One, and reinforced by the importance of each and every student to experience academic growth (Dweck, 2015), Study Two explores the relationships between the positive psychological factors of Psychological Capital (PsyCap), Emotional Intelligence (EI) and academic growth in a group of 131 students attending HE. Consistent with the psychological factors examined in Study One, in particular optimism, EI and PsyCap are widely considered state-like in nature, and benefit from a developing literature which demonstrates their tendency to be open to development through the use of short class-based interventions (Luthans, Avolio & Avey 2007). In an effort to address a notable research limitation in the available literature, the ability of PsyCap and EI to predict student GPA over the duration of a three-year degree program was also examined. Results confirmed that student EI shared a significant relationship with student academic growth, suggesting that efforts to develop student EI could offer an additional means of supporting the development of student academic growth. As the importance of ensuring students experience academic success in Higher Education increases, as to will the need to explore the factors and characteristics which predict and encourage the development of academic growth. The findings from this investigation will be of value to students, educators and Higher Education Institutes interested in designing interventions aiming to jump-start the development of academic growth and therefore overall academic achievement. The investigations discussion section outlines recommendations which could be advantageous to those wishing to develop student academic growth.
Date of AwardOct 2019
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorMelanie Giles (Supervisor), Tony Cassidy (Supervisor) & Marian Mc Laughlin (Supervisor)


  • Academic growth
  • Growth
  • Student development
  • Gain
  • Academic gain
  • Psychological growth
  • Psychological capital
  • Emotional Intelligence

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