Is academic success more than just grades and GPA?



Is academic success more than just grades and GPA?

Tim Adler and Gareth Furber

Hey everyone! Nurse Tim here.

In my wanderings through research articles looking for my next fit of inspiration I came across an article written by Travis T. York called “Defining and Measuring Academic Success”. I was telling Gareth about it at the printer one day and we got into a passionate discussion about whether grades and GPA are the only or best indicators of academic success.

You see, Gareth had recently written a blog post about how to be a ‘good’ student, at least in terms of academic outcomes. In that post he emphasised grades and GPA as the primary academic outcomes of interest. He went on to emphasise that to achieve better grades and GPA, you need to get better at the process of learning, and he outlined a number of ways you can do this using evidence-based study techniques.

Knowing his focus on grades and GPA, I presented Gareth this article. After reading it Gareth reluctantly agreed that there might be other metrics of academic success that students could use to self-assess their university experience, so we decided to collaborate on this blog post.

University has a way of making smart people doubt themselves and people with low self-esteem feel even worse. For some people it’s a completely new way of learning and as such, quite a struggle. For others, they thrive in an environment where grades and GPA are the primary outcomes [Yep, that was me – Gareth]. For me (Tim), it certainly felt like the former. I remember all too well the stress of having my assignments assigned a grade and the disappointment felt when the mark did not live up to my expectations.

An important skill you develop at university is to be able to reflect back on your own performance in order to identify areas where you can improve. This might mean reading in detail the feedback you get on your assignments (especially the ones with bad grades) to extract the concepts and ideas that you need to do better on the next one.

But if I travelled back in time and tried to convince ‘young Tim’ of this idea, I reckon he might have had a hard time wrapping his head around it. He would have been focused instead on not having done as well as he’d expected. The main reason is he had a limited framework for understanding ‘success’ and that was based on grades.

Many students find that when the grades start rolling in, they get tunnel vision and become fixated on them. This can be highly motivating if the grades you get back are above expectation but debilitating if you are not meeting your or someone else’s expectations. This focus on grades can obscure other metrics of academic success and cause undue stress on students.


What other metrics of academic success are there?

In the article I gave to Gareth, York set out to capture the various ways that the term ‘academic success’ had been defined. Based on a comprehensive reading of the literature, he argued that academic success consists of the following six metrics.

  • Academic achievement – This is the most common metric and refers primarily to a student’s performance on the standard tests associated with most topics – e.g. assignments, exams, quizzes. It is the marks on these items that directly translate into grades and GPA. They are by no means ‘bad’ metrics of academic success, but they aren’t the only metric.
  • Satisfaction – This refers to a student’s subjective experience of being at university. Are they enjoying themselves? Do they feel like they fit in? Are they feeling good with how they are going? Satisfaction tends to reflect overall wellbeing and is a strong predictor of academic achievement (i.e. we stick with and perform well at the things we enjoy). Whilst grades might strongly influence satisfaction in some students, for other students, they can be very happy with the overall experience of university, without necessarily having the best grades.
  • Acquisition of skills and competencies – This overlaps highly with ‘academic achievement’ but refers to measurable skills that you gain from studying that may or may not be captured in the formal grading process. For example, you might become a much better writer as a result of doing a degree which is a highly valuable skill. But this might mean that your early grades aren’t as good, because you are still developing your writing skills. Had you used only grades as your metric of success, you would ignore the obvious writing improvements you made over the course of your degree.
  • Persistence / resilience – This basically refers to whether you complete the required components of your degree. It might take you longer than expected, or there might be hiccups along the way, but completing the requirements of your degree (even if that is just getting through with passes) is a big achievement and a legitimate metric of academic success. In the case of degrees that lead to qualifications, your completion of the degree (even with a lower GPA) still gets you the qualification.
  • Attainment of learning outcomes – This metric overlaps highly with ‘academic achievement’ and ‘acquisition of skills and competencies’ but it is essentially about whether you are getting from the degree, what the degree advertised itself to provide. Look back at the marketing materials that originally inspired you to do the degree. Are you getting from the degree what it says? If yes, that is a good thing, independent of grades.
  • Career success – This is about whether your studies have improved your career prospects and outcomes, for example, helped you get a better job; helped you progress further in an existing job; got you a better salary; got you into a job you like more. Often this is hard to tell until you have completed your degree, but sometimes aspects of your degree can lead to career progression. For example, you might do a work placement as part of your degree, and then get some work with that company as a result.

What this illustrates is when thinking about your experience of the academic side of university, grades and GPA are only one part of a bigger picture.


How does your university experience stack up when considering these other metrics?

When you look at the factors above, does it alter how you perceive your academic success?

For some students, they realise that even though their grades aren’t perfect, they do feel they are learning a lot, are getting through the course requirements and enjoying the degree. Seeing the metrics above helps them not get overly focused on grades and GPA.

For other students it works in the opposite way. They might be getting good grades/GPA but realise they aren’t really enjoying their degree, or building a set of skills that is valuable to them. It might trigger a re-evaluation of what they want to do.

What about you?

How does breaking down academic success into these parts alter how you see your university experience?


What if you aren’t doing well by any of these metrics?

For some students, it doesn’t really matter what metric they use, they don’t feel like they are academically successful. There are lots of reasons that this could be the case, which prevents us from providing advice that will suit everyone, but here are some simple reflection questions to get you started.


  1. Are you spending the required time on the university work? Consider that a full-time degree is equivalent to a full-time workload (and pro-rata for less than full-time). A full-time student should basically be spending 38 hours a week directly involved in university activities (lectures, tutorials, readings, study, assignments etc).
  2. If you are spending the required time, could it be that your general study skills need improving? One of the most common things we see in students seeking counselling is not knowing some of the basics of study and learning. It is not an issue of intelligence or ability, it is simply the case that students haven’t learned the types of study strategies that work at university. Read our guide. Book an appointment with a counsellor. Contact the Student Learning Centre.
  3. If you aren’t spending the required time, what is getting in the way? Most commonly, students have other things going on in their lives that are getting in the way of them allocating the required time to their studies (e.g. family, work, health/mental health issues, financial problems). It may be that you need to take specific action to address those issues before you can devote the appropriate time to study. Alternatively, you may need to look at reducing your study-load (e.g. going part-time) in order to juggle your responsibilities.
  4. Are you participating in any activities, outside of the topics themselves, that could get you more engaged with the course material? Most degrees have additional activities that you can get involved in: associations, part-time work, volunteering. Sometimes engaging in those activities can make you feel closer to your subject of study and have flow-on effects for other metrics of academic success. For example, you might do some part-time work for a lecturer, that really helps you get excited about what you are learning.


Take home message.

Throughout your university degree and future career, it is always a good idea to step back and reflect on what your definition of success is. As a university student it is important to recognise that “P’s make degrees” and there are other indicators of success, other than grades and GPA.

I (Tim) can honestly say I know the sting of getting a fail grade and at the time it can seem entirely overwhelming. However, getting a lower than expected grade does not amount to academic failure. Persistence and resilience in the face of setbacks is just as important to academic success and even more so going forward in your career. So take the time to reflect on the post above and map out a more nuanced picture of what academic success means to you.

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Academic skills Nurse Tim Resilience

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