The Psychological Impact of Academic Probation

When university students face the possibility of dismissal for low academic performance, their sense of self and well-being are likely to suffer. They may have already met with their academic advisor about their grades, but in many cases have not received the psychological support to deal with their situation.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, are investigating the correlation between physiological distress and poor grades, and have developed a program designed to help their low-performing students by addressing both needs at once.

The Goals in Action research project, or GIA, fuses the work of the university’s academic support office with the efforts of the student health and wellness department to address social, behavioral and psychological functioning, both inside and outside the classroom.

Principle investigator Dr. Daniel Singley, a psychologist who piloted the program in the spring quarter of 2006 along with his colleague Dr. Jeanne Manese, is already seeing positive results.

“Students are showing very good results. They are getting a full GPA (point) higher, and show improvements in their psycho-social ability,” he says. GIA participants increased their average GPA from 1.2 at the beginning of the 2006-07 academic year up to 2.2 by the January start of the winter 2007 quarter. Singley rated the students’ psycho-social ability with a before and after program survey.

GIA students participate in a series of five 75-minute workshops facilitated by personnel from Psychological and Counseling Services. If there is a need, students can obtain additional psychological services outside of the workshops.

“That’s the exception, not the rule. But it is a perk to get students who underutilize our services to talk to a counselor,” says Singley.

Before the workshops, students hear testimonials from provosts, deans, assistant deans and/or academic advisors who share their stories of hard times, some even facing academic probation when they were in college.

“The upshot is that students have an increased sense of hope about their own situation, when they hear from these campus leaders how they managed their own situation,” says Singley.

Students are also paired up with “study buddies” who experience the same distress and who they can relate to. “But we also connect them with campus resources and make contact with others, to socialize more, and feel comfortable in the campus atmosphere,” says Dr. Brian Murray, a physician who is also assistant vice chancellor of student health and wellness.

Although tutoring in a particular subject is not part of the GIA program, students are directed to the campus learning center or office of academic support. During his research, Singley found that low academic performance isn’t unique to any one major. However, the participants in need of services are disproportionately underrepresented minorities.

Of the 149 students in the intervention group, 41 percent were Asian, 18 percent Hispanic and 21 percent White. While Blacks make up just 1 percent of the student body, they represented 7 percent of GIA students.

The GIA program was designed to be culturally sensitive. For instance, says Dr. Loren Thompson, assistant vice chancellor of student educational advancement, there’s an expectation in many Latino cultures that women help the family rather than go to college, so counselors are cognizant of the fact that female Latino students may be falling behind in school because they’re spending study time helping their families.

“We want to empower all students, not just the cream of the crop. We want them to be able to matriculate with their degree,” adds Manese, director of the counseling center at UC Irvine.

With the GIA program initiative, students will be able to gain further ground in their academic conquests. Still, colleges are challenged by the “old-fashioned” way of thinking that all college students must perform at the college level by themselves, and shouldn’t receive a great amount of academic support.

“And part of it goes back to the historical perspective, that if you are in college, you should know how to make it work,” says Thompson. He notes that student retention within the UC system is an issue that administrators take seriously, but funding plays a big factor. “There is never enough money to cover all the programs everyone wants to be covered, and academic support isn’t always a high priority.”

But the team behind GIA believes their program, with its comprehensive approach in combining health and wellness with academic support can move the needle on retention.

–Molly Nance

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