Academic underachievement and recovery: student perspectives on effective career interventions.

AuthorHwang, Mae Hyang

Students who have a history of low academic achievement often experience significant problems, including low academic self-concept (Schunk, 1998; Whitmore, 1980), negative attitudes toward peers (Mandel & Marcus, 1988) and teachers (McCall, Evahn, & Kratzer, 1992), low interest and engagement in school (Majoribanks, 1992; Mandel & Marcus, 1988), severe emotional distress (Baker, 2004), lower career aspirations than their peers (McCall et al., 1992), and uncertain career pathways (J. S. Peterson, 2000). Students who fail to achieve academically because of these and other similar problems are likely to have difficulties in pursuing career goals (Arbona, 2000; Mau & Bikos, 2000). Research also suggests that students with academic issues are inclined to have vocational problems, both while in school and later in life (Diemer, Wang, & Dunkle, 2009; Draper, Jennings, & Baron, 2003; Rubinshteyn, 2012) . Diemer et al. (2009) found that students who sought counseling services at a college counseling center often had academic problems and career decision-making issues. Boyd et al. (1999) also reported that issues related to academic success were the main concern of students in their 1st and 2nd years of college.

An individual's personal experience with academic achievement is proposed as a predictor of career development and career choice by social cognitive career theory (SCCT; Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 1994). SCCT posits that learning experiences and past performance are precursors of career development. Lent (2005) suggested that a person's ability or accomplishments arc likely to lead to interests in a particular domain to the extent that they foster a growing sense of self-efficacy in that domain. Therefore, academic failure or academic underachievement would result in low self-efficacy and low outcome expectations, which in turn leads to low interest in certain domains.

Although career-related variables have been reported to be strongly associated with academic achievement, little research has been conducted to establish the relationship between career development interventions and academic outcomes (Collins, 2010). A few empirical investigations have shown positive effects of career intervention on students' academic achievement. For instance, a yearlong career course that engaged middle school students in 6-week units on various careers made students more likely to be involved in careful academic planning and improved students' math and science grades (Fouad as cited in Hughes & Karp, 2004). Interventions designed to enhance self-efficacy were also found to be effective at improving career decision-making skills in a sample of students considered at risk who had experienced academic underachievement (O'Brien et al., 2000).

Because academic underachievement circumscribes individual career alternatives (Gottfredson, 1981) and educational attainment constitutes the bedrock of career choice and self-efficacy, underachieving academically is likely to lower students' career aspirations, limit their career choices, and lead to unsatisfying decision making. Arbona (2000) advocated that career counselors understand the factors that influence academic achievement, particularly in the career counseling and development context. If career counselors help clients with a history of underachievement to understand the genesis and ameliorate the effects of their academic problems, then clients might develop an expanded and more apt list of careers to which they aspire.

Most earlier studies defined underachievement "on the basis of the subjective opinion of teachers and others" (Mandel & Marcus, 1988, p. 2). However, in more recent studies, researchers have argued that many definitions of underachievement are based on a discrepancy between expected (e.g., potential) and actual performance in the assessment of academic achievement (Reis McCoach, 2000; Whitmore, 1980). Still, there is no universal agreement on the precise distinction between typically achieving and underachieving students, partly because of the lack of consensus when assessing and determining the discrepancy between ability and achievement. Underachievers are commonly defined as "students[s] who perform more poorly in school than would be expected based on [their] ability" (McCall et al. as cited in Borkowski & Thorpe, 1994, p. 46). In the clinical setting, underachievement is defined as a symptom caused by various factors such as personality, learning disability, changes of schools, family breakup, illness, and teacher absence (Mandel & Marcus, 1988).

To effectively help underachieving students, career counselors must be knowledgeable about the process of recovery from academic underachievement. Furthermore, counselors should understand that academic underachievement is strongly associated with students' career development and psychological issues (Baskin, Slaten, Sorenson, Glover-Russell, & Merson, 2010; Richardson, 1996). Until recently, there was relatively little literature available about the reversal or recovery of underachieving students (J. S. Peterson, 2001; Preckel, Holling, & Vock, 2006). A theoretical framework addressing academic recovery has not yet been established. Furthermore, few empirical studies have focused on understanding how underachieving students successfully overcame their difficulties and ultimately achieved academic and career fulfillment. The lack of literature in this area strongly suggests the need for further study focused on effective intervention strategies to help academic underachievers recover from their academic experience and refine or redirect their course through appropriate career interventions (Arbona, 2000; Mandel & Marcus, 1998).

Because little is known about the individual experience of academic recovery, appropriate interventions, and its impact on career decision making, we explored this area using consensual qualitative research (CQR; Hill et al., 2005; Hill, Thompson, & Williams, 1997) methods. We aimed to identify common themes indicative of students' experiences of academic underachievement and subsequent academic recovery. Furthermore, we wanted to describe processes and activities in which students engage to become academically successful. We expected that this could inform career interventions to support students struggling with academic underachievement.



The participants were nine college students (two men and seven women) from a university in the midwestern United States. Two participants were graduate students, and the other seven were undergraduate students. Their ages ranged from 21 to 59 years, with an average age of 31.89 years (SD = 13.08 years). With regard to race/ethnicity, one of the participants was African American, two were Korean, and six were European American. Six participants were born and raised in the United States, and the other three were foreign born. One of the Korean participants was an international student who had been studying in the United States since her freshman year in college. The other Korean participant and one of the European American participants immigrated to the United States from South Korea and Russia, respectively, when they were young. Five of the participants experienced academic underachievement in college, and two participants had academic difficulties in high school. Additionally, two participants experienced academic underachievement as early as their elementary school years because of learning disabilities.


The first four authors composed the primary research team and included three counseling psychology faculty members and one educational psychology faculty member, all from universities located in South Korea. The first author constructed the interview questions, conducted the interviews, and participated on the data analysis team. The third and fourth authors conducted the data analysis, and the second author served as an auditor for the data analysis. All of the researchers had experience working with underachieving college students.

Interview Protocol

A semistructured interview protocol (available from the first author upon request) was constructed based on a review of the relevant literature on academic underachievement, academic recovery, and career development and decision making. The protocol included nine general questions. After each response to each general question, the interviewer asked follow-up questions to clarify and enhance the richness of the responses. The interview started with a question about the participant's past experience with academic underachievement. To explore the experience, the interviewer inquired as to when the academic underachievement occurred, how long the participant struggled with underachievement, the level of academic performance when academically underachieving, his or her feelings toward poor academic performance, and his or her reactions from...

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