Students who take gap years are more successful in their university studies than mature aged students or students who enter university straight from high school, according to a new study.
Professorial Research Fellow Andrew Martin from the University of Sydney tracked 904 Australian students, noting their high school achievements and whether or not they had deferred. Of the group studied, 65% were female and 35% male.
The research followed the results of students from arts, social science and science disciplines through their first four semesters of university.
The study found that, when used constructively, gap years helped students gain skills, better grades and did not slow down their academic momentum.
“For many students, a gap year is about crystallising their decision-making; developing self-directed and self-regulation skills, broadening their competencies and self-organisation and perhaps their confidence,” said lead author, Professor Martin.
While the study did not explore what activities were undertaken during a student’s deferred year, Professor Martin said structured volunteering, part time work and language-based travel may help develop skills useful for university study.
The study said that high school achievement was a significant predictor of early university success, but the impact diminished over time. People who are motivated and successful early on in their degree are more likely to be successful throughout university, Professor Martin said.
“Parents fear [gap years] may disrupt momentum, but it is possible it is part of the momentum,” he said, adding that his findings could help shape advice to school students, policy on scholarship selection, and admission guidelines.
“However, it’s important to understand that when we report there are positive effects of a gap year, that does not apply to all students. It’s important to be comfortable with having a gap year; a gap year does not suit all students,” he said.
Gavin Moodie, Principal Policy Adviser at RMIT University and a higher education researcher, said that the new findings should reassure school students and their parents that taking a gap year is unlikely to harm and may very well improve their performance at university if they subsequently enrol at university.
However, students' motivation, aptitude not measured by school or university results, and other factors not analysed in the study had a far bigger effect on students' university results than the factors analysed in the study, said Dr Moodie.
Professor Martin agreed, saying his previous research had found that gap year students reported higher academic motivation and engagement than students who had not taken a gap year, which may help explain the higher achievement found in the present study.
“In general, the study found that the best predictor of students' future scholastic attainment is their most recent scholastic attainment, which has been found by many other studies,” Dr Moodie said.
“Gap year students also had lighter study loads. The authors make a reasonable suggestion that a gap year may contribute to students' informal learning and experience which stands them in good stead throughout their university study. Unfortunately, the authors' findings on socio-economic status do not seem strong, as the authors acknowledge,” said Dr Moodie.
“A better measure of socio-economic status may have found that gap year students have higher socio-economic status, which many studies have found is associated with higher scholastic attainment.”
Dr Moodie said data from other university sources and state tertiary admissions centres show that a rather low proportion of students who defer their place take up their deferred place.
“This may be because they take up another place, resume studying more than a year later, or develop a rewarding career without returning to study,” he said.