An exploration of the factors that affect the academic success of college sophomores

Steven S. Graunke

Researchers have suggested that, although they have not received much attention in the research literature, college sophomores may face academic difficulties. Pattengale and Schriener (2000) said that the sophomore year may be a time in which students disengage from academic life, thus creating an adverse effect on their grades. Tinto (1993) also suggested that the important issues for first-year students may not be important issues for students at other stages in a college career. Because much of the research regarding retention has focused on first year students, further research may be needed for other class levels, specifically sophomores. This study used a survey of second semester sophomores to explore how sophomores’ experiences and attitudes affected their academic success. Commitment to an academic major and satisfaction with faculty interactions were both found to be significant predictors of grade point average. The results suggest researchers and practitioners need to be cautious in applying what is known about first-year students to students who have progressed beyond the first-year. The findings also suggest that institutions may want to develop sophomore specific programs.


Over the past two decades, a great deal of attention has been devoted to why students succeed or do not succeed in college. In his classic work, Leaving College, Tinto (1993) outlined a longitudinal model of institutional departure. The model suggests that individual student attributes interact with experiences within the university environment to foster integration into the social and academic context of the institution. This integration impacts students’ academic goals, future plans, and commitment to the university. Consequently, negative experiences within the university, such as poor interactions with faculty or lack of involvement in campus activities, may cause the student to lessen their commitment to the university and possibly leave the institution.

Tinto’s model has provided the framework for many studies. Because previous research has highlighted the large numbers of students leaving during their first year of college (e.g. Tinto, 1993), much of the research regarding student success and attrition has focused on first-year students. These studies have shown the potential importance of social integration (Berger, 1997; Strage, 1999), extracurricular involvement (Berger & Milem, 1999; Milem & Berger, 1997) and institutional commitment (Allen & Nelson, 1989; Cabrera, Nora & Castaneda, 1993: Nora, & Cabrera, 1993) as well as their impact on the retention and academic success of first-year college students. College and university students at other levels or stages in their college career have not received as much attention. Tomlinson-Clarke’s 1998 study of women indicated that juniors and seniors scored significantly higher on a measure of academic adjustment than did first-year students. Also in 1998, Mohr, Eiche and Sedlacek studied seniors who left before graduating. They found that seniors who had departed did not differ significantly from returning seniors in terms of dissatisfaction with university policies or levels of campus involvement. It is interesting to note that Mohr et. al (1998) found that these issues were not significant for seniors. In contrast, previous research regarding first-year students has shown these same issues may be linked to first-year student success and attrition. Thus, it may be that different components of Tinto’s model adopt different levels of importance as students progress through their college career. Previous research is limited, though, when it comes to students at specific class levels or specific points in their college career.

Sophomores, in particular, are at a stage in their college career where institutions may need to be especially aware of relevant issues. Increasingly, the second year is being viewed as a time of moratorium, in which students seek to solidify their career decisions and personal goals (Anderson & Schreiner, 2000; Boivin, Fountain, & Baylis, 2000). Gardner (2000) found that sophomores were more likely than students in other classes to state that “confirming their major selection or deciding on an appropriate career was their biggest personal problem” (p. 72). The dilemma is that the second year is often a point at which institutions tend to provide the least amount of support to the students. According to Pattengale and Schreiner (2000), institutions feel as if they have succeeded in retaining students after the first year, and that attention may then be directed to the next incoming cohort. At the same time, not all sophomores have found a major and those that have are not especially involved in classes in their major. Therefore, sophomores may have few interactions with faculty in their major. Because most sophomores have also not had opportunities for campus leadership and do not receive much programming or attention from student affairs (Pattengale & Schreiner, 2000), they may be relatively isolated from meaningful contact with other faculty as well. Thus, sophomores may become increasingly distant from the university community and more engaged in individual activities. Gardner (2000) found that sophomores exist in their own “sphere” which is running “counter to the academic path of the engaged learner” (p.73). Sophomores were less likely than students in other classes to be actively involved with their own learning or to see faculty as actively engaged in their personal and academic development. In addition, they spent less time than students at other levels engaged in academic activities and more time engaged in social activities (Gardner, 2000). These results may be especially concerning when the findings of other researchers are taken into account. Juillerat (2000), for example, found that sophomores at private colleges rated factors such as a sense of belonging and approachable faculty as more important than students at other class levels. Overall, the research suggests that sophomores may have needs that differ from students at other levels and those needs are being largely overlooked by institutions of higher education.

Given the potential issues associated with sophomores, relatively little research has focused on this group of students. This study contributed to filling the gap by focusing on second semester sophomore students and the issues that may impact their academic success. Tinto suggested that “long-term retention efforts beyond the first year should focus on three major sources of student departure: academic difficulties, the inability of individuals to resolve their education and occupational goals, and their failure to become or remain incorporated in the intellectual and social life of the institution” (1993, p. 176). Tinto also said that institutional commitment “arises from and is demonstrated in the everyday interaction among students, faculty and staff in the formal and informal domains of institutional life” (1993, p.201). This study focused on the issues of faculty/student interactions, involvement in activities, commitment to an academic major, and institutional commitment.



This study utilized a cohort of currently enrolled, degree seeking students at one predominantly residential Midwest public university. The students had completed between 42 and 57 credit hours, and were therefore defined as second semester sophomore students. An initial survey mailing of the entire cohort occurred during the second half of the spring 2002 semester. Two subsequent mailings were also completed before the semester ended. The survey was not anonymous, although responses were kept confidential. Of the 2,259 second semester sophomore students, 1,093 students returned useable survey responses, creating an overall response rate of 48 percent.

Dependent variable

The dependent variables measured in the study were spring 2002 grade point average (S-GPA), taken during the semester in which the student responded to the survey, and fall 2002 grade point average (F-GPA) taken one semester later. This information was obtained through university records. Astin (1993) stated that “GPA, despite its limitations, appears to reflect the student’s actual learning and growth during the undergraduate years” (p.242), thus making it an appropriate variable for measuring academic success. The mean S-GPA for the sample was 3.101, while the mean for F-GPA was 3.088.

Independent variables

Two categories of independent variables were included in this study. The first category included demographic variables, such as sex, ethnicity, transfer status, placement in the university honors program and employment status. Factors such as these have been suggested by Astin (1993) as being important in predicting undergraduate grades. Sex, ethnicity, transfer status and honors information came from university records. Sex was coded as an indicator variable (0-female and 1-male). In the sample, thirty-one percent were male (n = 337) and sixty-nine percent were female (n = 756). Ethnicity (Eth) was likewise coded as an indicator variable. Students who, according to university records, were not Caucasian were coded as 1 while Caucasian students were coded 0. Consistent with the university population, the number of non-Caucasian students in this sample was small (n=57, 5%). Transfer status (Tran) and Honors status (Hon) were also coded as indicator variables. Transfer students, which were defined as students admitted to the university as transfer students, were coded as 1 and non-transfer students as 0. Students who were members of the honors program were coded as 1 while all other students were coded as 0. Fourteen percent of the sample were identified as transfer students (n= 157) and twelve percent were identified as honors students (n=127). Employment status (Employ) was identified using two survey questions that asked about on campus and off campus employment. These questions asked students to indicate the number of hours they typically spend per week working at an on-campus or off-campus job. Students who indicated that they typically work at least one hour per week at either an on or off campus job were identified as employed and coded as 1. Students who stated they did not work any hours at either type of job were coded as 0. Sixty-one percent of respondents indicated that they worked at least one hour per week (n=664).

The second type of variable, academic experiences and attitudes, included factors that were included in Tinto’s (1993) model of institutional departure. Institutional commitment (Inscom) was measured using two survey items with three point Likert response scales (1 = no, 2 = don’t know, 3 = yes). Students were asked about their plans to enroll in the fall semester and their plans to finish their degree at the same institution. Responses from these two items were combined to form the measure of institutional commitment ([alpha] = .7777). Faculty and staff interactions (Fsint) was measured using a scale composed of two items ([alpha] = .7286). These items asked students to rate the extent to which they were satisfied with their interactions with faculty using on a five point Likert scale (1 = Strongly disagree, 2 = Disagree, 3 = Undecided, 4 = Agree, 5 = Strongly agree). To examine the issue of involvement in activities, students were asked to indicate their participation in various campus activities (including student organizations and campus events) on five point Liken scales (1 = Never, 2 = Rarely, 3= Sometimes, 4 = Often, and 5 = Very Often). An overall involvement in activities score (Invact) was calculated by combining the responses to ten activities questions ([alpha] = .8354). The final educational experiences and attitudes variable measured the students’ commitment to their major (Majcom). Students were first asked if they had made a decision regarding a major. Those who indicated they had selected a major rated their certainty on a four point Likert scale (2 = Very Uncertain, 3 = Somewhat Uncertain, 4 = Somewhat Certain, 5 = Very Certain). Those who indicated they had not yet decided on a major were coded as 1. Therefore, commitment to major was measured using a five point scale.

The purpose of this study was to investigate the effects of sophomore students’ experiences and attitudes on academic success, as defined by grade point average. Because the dependent variables were continuous, multiple regression models were used.


Table 1 provides the means, standard deviations and correlations for all variables in the study. Of the demographic variables, sex, ethnicity, transfer status and honor status were all significantly correlated with both fall and spring semester GPA. Regarding the academic attitudes and experiences, the only variables that were significantly correlated with GPA in both semesters were commitment to major and faculty and staff interactions. Institutional commitment was significantly correlated with fall semester GPA and involvement in activities was significantly correlated with spring GPA.

A multiple regression analysis was performed in order to determine the predictive capabilities of the independent variables. Results are included in Tables 2 and 3. The linear combination of both demographic and academic attitudes and experiences variables was significantly related to both spring semester GPA (F (9, 1078) = 18.016, p = .000, with an [R.sup.2] = .131 and adjusted [R.sup.2] = .123) and fill semester GPA (F (9, 1029) = 14.037, p = .000, with an [R.sup.2] =. 109 and adjusted [R.sup.2] = .102).

Of the demographic variables, honors status was a significant positive predictor of GPA for both spring and fall semesters (p < .01). Sex and ethnicity were significant negative predictors of spring and fall GPA (p < .01). Employment status was also a significant negative predictor of spring GPA (p < .05) and transfer status was a negative significant predictor of GPA in the fall (p < .01).

Interactions with faculty was a significant positive predictor of GPA in both semesters according to the model (p < .05). Major commitment was also a positive predictor in the model predicting spring GPA (p < .01) but it was not significant in the model predicting fall GPA.


Because researchers have suggested the need for concern regarding sophomore students, this study focused on college sophomores and the potential issues that could impact their academic success. Pattengale and Schriener (2000) have said that the sophomore year may be a time in which students disengage from academic life, thus creating an adverse effect on GPA. Previous research has focused primarily on the first year, and more evidence was therefore needed regarding factors pertaining to students at the sophomore level.

One factor that has been an important predictor of first-year success is involvement in activities (e.g., Milem & Berger, 1997). This study found that involvement in activities was not an important predictor of sophomore academic success. Therefore, unlike first-year students in other studies, the extent to which the sophomores in this study were involved in student activities was not related to their grade point average in either semester. It may be that some sophomores are being more selective about their student activities or are taking on more active roles, making student involvement a more complicated issue than just quantity or frequency of activity. In addition, given that much of the research regarding first-year students has focused on retention rather than performance, it may be that involvement in activities is more closely linked with retention and can have varying effects on academic performance. Therefore, the issue of involvement in student activities and its relationship to academic success may be more complicated for sophomore students than it is for first-year students.

Tinto’s (1993) model of student attrition suggested that institutional commitment may play an important role in student success. Also, previous research regarding the first-year transition has highlighted institutional commitment (e.g., Allen & Nelson. 1989; Cabrera, Nora & Castaneda, 1993; Nora & Cabrera, 1993). This study found that institutional commitment was not a significant predictor of sophomore success. In other words, whether sophomores were clear in their intentions to return to the institution and complete a degree was not a significant predictor of the grades they made. It may be that the strength of the initial decision to attend a university is important to the success of first-year students but that those students with lower levels of institutional commitment depart early, meaning they are not included in studies of sophomores. On the other hand, it may be that sophomores view institutional commitment from a more superficial view. First-year students are provided with connections and contact to the institution through first-year programs. Junior and seniors have connections through participation in their academic major and greater leadership roles in student activities. Sophomores, who have fewer opportunities in these areas, may view the university from a more global perspective than other students. As a result, commitment to the institution represents a commitment to a relatively ambiguous entity rather than a commitment to specific people, organizations or ideas and the power of that commitment may be weakened. Overall, therefore, the results suggest that institutions that are concerned with sophomore success may not want to focus solely on increasing institutional commitment but instead may want to focus on other factors more pertinent to sophomores.

Sophomore students are often in the transition from general education courses to courses in an academic major. Issues such as uncertainty about a major may create tensions that could have an adverse effect on their success (Anderson & Schreiner, 2000). This study found that certainty in the choice of major was a significant predictor of sophomore academic success, at least in the semester that certainty was measured. In other words, sophomores who expressed higher levels of certainty about their major also achieved higher grades. This finding may reflect increased motivation among sophomores who have a focus or direction or it may be the product of a higher degree of integration into their program. For institutions, faculty, and practitioners, the importance of major selection among sophomores may suggest an area of focus. To increase sophomore success, institutions may want to offer programs and classes during the sophomore year that would help students discover more about their academic or career interests. Individual departments could also work with sophomores to aid them in the transition from a general curriculum to one that focuses on their major.

Interactions with faculty have always been an important issue in student success research (Tinto, 1993). This study found that faculty interactions were a significant predictor of sophomore success. In other words, the extent to which sophomores were satisfied with their opportunities to interact with faculty and the extent to which sophomores felt that faculty were concerned with their academic success had an impact on sophomores’ academic performance. It may be that sophomores with more positive interactions with faculty receive better feedback or are motivated by those interactions. Because sophomores are transitioning from general education to their academic majors, it would seem logical that attitudes and experiences regarding faculty would take on a more central role for them and possibly have a greater impact. This is likely a reason why Juillerat (2000) found that sophomores rated approachable and available faculty as significantly more important in their college experience than other classes of students. Juillerat (2000) also found sophomores at private schools are significantly less satisfied than students at other class levels with “the approachability and concern” demonstrated by faculty (p. 24). If previous researchers are correct in suggesting that sophomores are, in general, not satisfied with many of their faculty interactions (e.g. Juillerat, 2000; Gardner, 2000), this study’s finding that faculty interactions may impact sophomore success could inspire new solutions to addressing the sophomore slump. Consequently, institutions that wish to enhance the academic success of their sophomores may want to focus on providing opportunities for positive faculty interaction, both within and outside of the traditional academic environment.


Overall, this study highlighted the issues of commitment to an academic major and satisfaction with faculty interaction as being significant predictors of sophomore academic success. These results support the need to create programs that enable sophomores to enhance their certainty regarding their choice of academic major, to improve their relationships with faculty, and, ultimately, to increase their chances of success at their current institution.

Table 1

Means, Standard Deviations and Correlations

1. 2. 3. 4.

1. S-GPA … .59 * -.12 * -.13 *

2. F-GPA … .16 * -.11 *

3. Sex … -.02

4. Eth …

5. Tran

6. Hon

7. Employ

8. Inscom

9. Fsint

10. Invact

11. Majcom

5. 6. 7. 8.

1. S-GPA -.10 * .26 * -.05 .04

2. F-GPA -.14 * .23 * -.03 .07 *

3. Sex .05 .01 -.11 .00

4. Eth .01 -.05 -.01 -.05

5. Tran … -.14 * .03 -.03

6. Hon … .02 .02

7. Employ … -.02

8. Inscom …

9. Fsint

10. Invact

11. Majcom

9. 10. 11. Mean s.d.

1. S-GPA .15 * .08 * .14 * 3.10 .67

2. F-GPA .10 * .05 .10 * 3.09 .75

3. Sex -.03 -.04 -.15 .31 .46

4. Eth -.04 .06 * -.04 .05 .22

5. Tran -.06 * -.20 * -.04 .14 .35

6. Hon .02 .05 .04 .12 .32

7. Employ .04 -.03 -.02 .61 .49

8. Inscom .13 * .10 * .11 * 2.94 .29

9. Fsint … .16 * .13 * 3.52 .79

10. Invact … .11 * 2.48 .72

11. Majcom … 4.66 .70

* p < .05

Table 2

Linear regression predicting spring grade point average.

Variable B SE B [beta]

Sex -.158 .042 -.109

Eth -.360 .087 -.119 **

Tran -.079 .056 -.041

Hon .514 .061 .244

Employ -.084 .040 -.061

Inscom -.006 .069 -.002

Fsint .099 .025 .116 **

Invact .031 .027 .033

Majcom .082 .028 .086 **

* p < .05

** p < .01

Table 2


Variable B SE B [beta]

Sex -.247 .049 -.151 **

Eth -.311 .101 -.092 **

Tran -.203 .067 -.092 **

Hon .480 .069 .206 **

Employ -.065 .046 -.042

Inscom .147 .121 .036

Fsint .065 .029 .068 *

Invact .006 .032 .006

Majcom .056 .034 .050

* p < .05.

** p < .01


Allen, D. F. & Nelson, J. M. (1989). Tinto’s model of college withdrawal applied to women in two institutions. Journal of Research and Development in Education, 22(3), 1-11.

Anderson, E. & Schreiner, L. A. (2000). Advising for sophomore success. In L. A. Schreiner & J. Pattengale. (Eds.), Visible solutions for invisible students: Helping sophomores succeed (Monograph 31) (pp. 55-77). Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.

Astin, A. W. (1993). What matters in college: Four critical years revisited. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Berger, J. B. (1997). Students” sense of community in residence halls, social integration, and first-year persistence. Journal of College Student Development, 38(5), 441-452.

Berger, J. B. & Milem, J. F. (1999). The role of student involvement and perceptions of integration in a causal model of student persistence. Research in Higher Education, 40(6), 641-664.

Boivin, M., Fountain, G. A. & Baylis, B. (2000). Meeting the challenges of the sophomore year. In L. A. Schreiner & J. Pattengale. (Eds.), Visible solutions for invisible students. Helping sophomores succeed (Monograph 31) (pp. 1-18). Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.

Cabrera, A. F., Nora, A. & Castaneda, M. B. (1993). College persistence: Structural equations modeling test of an integrated model of student retention. Journal of Higher Education. 64(2), 123-139.

Gardner, P. D. (2000). From drift to engagement: Finding purpose and making career connections in the sophomore year. In L. A. Schreiner & J. Pattengale. (Eds.), Visible solutions for invisible students: Helping sophomores succeed (Monograph 31) (pp. 67-77). Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.

Juillerat, S. (2000). Assessing the expectations and satisfactions of sophomores. In L. A. Schreiner & J. Pattengale. (Eds.), Visible solutions for invisible students: Helping Sophomores succeed (Monograph 31) (pp. 19-29). Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.

Milem, J. F. & Berger, J. B. (1997). A modified model of college student persistence: Exploring the relationship between Astin’s theory of involvement and Tinto’s theory of student departure. Journal of College Student Development, 38(4), 387-400.

Mohr, J. J., Eiche, K. D. & Sedlacek, W. E. (1998). So close yet so far: Predictors of attrition in college seniors. Journal of College Student Development, 39(4), pp. 343-354.

Nora, A. & Cabrera, A. F. (1993). The construct validity of institutional commitment: A confirmatory factor analysis. Research in Higher Education, 34(2), p. 243-51.

Pattengale, J. & Schreiner, L. A. (2000). What is the sophomore slump and why should we care? In L. A. Schreiner & J. Pattengale. (Eds.), Visible solutions for invisible students: Helping Sophomores succeed (Monograph 31) (pp. v-viii). Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.

Strage, A. A. (1999). Social and academic integration and college success: Similarities and differences as a function of ethnicity and family educational background. College Student Journal, 33(2), p. 198-205.

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college. Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Tomlinson-Clarke, S. (1998). Dimensions of adjustment among college women. Journal of College Student Development, 39(4), pp.364-372.



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