What does it mean to be academically successful?


We want you to feel successful here at Flinders.

For most students, when they think about ‘academic success’ they think about their performance on assignments, exams, placements and the subsequent grades and GPA they receive. This makes sense. Those are what are used to determine whether someone has obtained the necessary knowledge, skills and competencies to be awarded a degree and whatever else might come along with that (e.g. a professional qualification).

Because of this I would encourage students to use grades and GPA as indicators of their progress and performance whilst at uni. 

But I wouldn’t recommend using them as the ONLY indicators. 

You see, there is more to the concept of being academically successful than simply grades and GPA. Using only these as your indicators of success may lead you to lose sight of the benefits one can get from studying at university. Furthermore, the broader the definition you have of ‘academic success’, the more likely it is you will capture value from your time here at uni. 

This is not intended to be some psychological ‘sleight of hand’. My intention is not that you take your eyes off grades and GPA and live in denial if you aren’t doing well. But I am suggesting that your time at university can be described in a much richer way than simply your grades. 

Having a richer description of what it means to be academically successful can:

  • Help you whilst you are at uni be more mindful of the range of benefits you might be getting from study
  • Help you recalibrate when you have a setback such as a poor grade or subject fail
  • Help you not abandon the university experience if it isn’t quite all going to plan
  • Help you once you have left uni to reflect back more accurately on what you got from your degree


So what are these other metrics of academic success?

As you read them, ask yourself whether they resonate as being important parts of the university experience for you. 


Acquisition of knowledge skills and competencies

We focus on grades/GPA but those are really just proxies for what actually happens at uni, which is that you acquire new knowledge, skills and competencies. 

After getting an assignment back, we tend to focus on the grade – ‘i got a credit!’ but if we dug a little deeper, then what actually happened was something more like ‘I learned about kinematics (motion of objects) and practised applying theory to a practical problem’. 

Yes, keep an eye on your grades, but more importantly, take a moment to note what specific knowledge, skills and competencies you are acquiring. What are you getting better at? What do you know more about? What can you do now that you couldn’t do before coming to uni?


Attainment of learning outcomes

In many degrees, not only are you acquiring knowledge, skills and competencies, you are also working towards some formal qualification of some sort. For example, in a psychology degree, you are learning about psychology, but also maybe progressing towards becoming a psychologist. 

From this perspective, academic success reflects getting closer to this desired outcome – “I am 6 units closer to being a registered physiotherapist’. There might be ups and downs along the way, but progress towards those learning outcomes should be considered in your assessment of your academic success.  


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. I’ve seen that happen for a number of students and it happened for me as well. 



It might seem superficial, but I assure you it isn’t. Part of ‘academic success’ is just whether you are having a good time at uni. 

Are you enjoying yourself? Do you feel like you fit in? Have you met some cool and interesting people? Have you been able to take advantage of the many social opportunities that being at uni affords a person?

I’ve met students who have ok grades who are having a great time. I’ve met students who are getting amazing grades who are having a horrible time. How much fun and enjoyment you are getting from the uni experience can be different to your performance. 


Confidence and self-efficacy

Self-efficacy is the belief one has in one’s ability to do something. 

For students who come to uni, not sure if they will do well, one of the greatest things they can get from the experience is discovering they have the ability to learn and get better and improve over time. 

Yes, their early grades might be a bit ordinary, but when they see those grades get better over time as they learn more about their topic and learn more about how to study (SLSS is a great place to learn this stuff), their confidence increases. This is a great outcome and a great marker of academic success. 

I think this category is particularly relevant for International Students. International Students are pushed pretty far out of their comfort zone by studying in a new country, and most often in a second language. Many start out not feeling confident at all, but gain confidence as they begin to master their studies, but also the challenges of living in another country.


Engagement in educationally purposeful activities

Being at university opened up opportunities for me to do things that I likely wouldn’t have got the chance to do otherwise: to work on research studies, to be on specific committees, to network with experts in different fields. 

A university is a unique environment with unique opportunities. Part of your academic success will be taking some of those opportunities. Whether that is joining a student club or participating in a research study or attending on-campus concerts/events. Study is only part of the university experience. 


Persistence/ resilience

University study is at times very challenging. 

Adapting to and coping with challenges is part of how we build resilience. 

So for some students, what they gain from the university experience is resilience, by persisting through the difficult times and setbacks to complete their degree. 

It might take you longer than expected, you might have to repeat topics or there might be other 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.


How does your university experience stack up when considering these other indicators of academic success?

When you look at the outcomes above, does it shift your perceptions of your own 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, a shift in their course, a decision to pursue some of the other opportunities at uni (social, professional development).


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 presenting a one size fits all solution), but here are some simple reflection questions to get you started.

  1. Are you spending the required time on your 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). Maybe you just aren’t allocating the necessary time to get the outcomes you want. 


  1. 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 are needed to get good outcomes at university. Read our guide. Book an appointment with a counsellor. Contact the Student Learning Support Service.


  1. 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.


  1. 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, even just an old fashioned pub crawl. 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.


The 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. The sting of a fail grade 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

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