Failure is commonly associated with attrition, or “dropping out.” As a shared experience among undergraduate students, many studies have identified factors that contribute to attrition. However, there has been a gap in the literature on students’ perceptions of failure. In order to understand failure from the students’ standpoint, Ajjawi et al. (2020) aimed to answer the following three research questions:


  1. What proportion of students fail and how does academic failure influence their likelihood to persist or drop out?
  2. What are persisting students’ perceptions of precipitating factors for academic failure?
  3. What are persisting students’ emotional responses to academic failure? (p. 188)


For the study, Ajjawi et al. (2020) collected institutional data about enrollment status and course completion from over 9,000 students in an Australian college. To answer these questions, the researchers focused on the data of approximately 200 students, who had failed at least one course during their 2016 academic year, but persisted (or continued) with their studies.


Findings indicated the following about the first research question: 23% to 52% of students experienced failure. Students who failed were 4.19 times more likely to drop out than students who did not fail. However, that did not mean students who failed decided to drop out. Instead, data indicated that approximately 70% of students who failed one or more courses still persisted with their studies.


In response to the second research question, data showed that failure was multifaceted. It incorporated dispositional (students' character-related), situational (life circumstances), and institutional (procedures, policies, and structure of students' institutions) factors. Dispositional factors were defined as the students’ characteristics, such as their skills, abilities, beliefs, and self-confidence. Situational factors referred to the students’ life circumstances, including health concerns, employment status, and responsibilities outside of school. Lastly, institutional factors were operationalized as procedures, policies, and structures of the institution that the student was enrolled at.


The most common dispositional factors that contributed to failure were poor time management, lack of interest in the course, difficulty understanding the material, and personal lifestyle. Some prevalent situational factors included mental or physical health, financial responsibilities, and family responsibilities. Lastly, the most prevalent institutional factors were that there was too much memorization, the material was unengaging, and there was a lack of support from the staff and university. Though the three factors seemed independent of each other, they actually worked in conjunction, thus indicating the complexity of students’ decisions to persist or not. Students’ identities, both inside and outside of school, as well as the support they received from their institutions of education influenced students’ decisions about continuing their education.


Furthermore, student responses revealed that they had negative emotional responses to and conceptualization of academic failure. Many students correlated failure with disappointment towards the self. As a result, failure led to the loss of confidence and self-efficacy. 


Overall, the study debunked the notion that most students who fail will drop out of college. It also served to inform institutions of higher education to support students who are failing, so that they can recover from the academic failure, and persist with their education.


The study’s findings and the research questions also highlighted the current work being done at EPIC. Similar to the third research question, EPIC tries to understand students’ perception of failure by asking high school students to describe failure and to understand students’ stories of failure in school. Our data revealed that disappointment is a common theme associated with failure corresponding to the findings of Ajjawi et al. (2020).


To learn more about the study, visit the following link for the article:



Ajjawi, R., et al. (2020). Persisting students’ explanations of and emotional responses to academic failure. Higher Education Research & Development, 39(2), 185-199.