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Study links a gap year to better university grades

Students who take gap years are more successful in their university studies than mature aged students or students who enter…

Students who have a gap year achieve more highly at university than students who enter university straight after school and mature age students, the study found. Frontierofficial

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.

Other factors

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.

Join the conversation

8 Comments sorted by

  1. Janet Georgouras

    logged in via Facebook

    For many students taking a gap year is dependent upon having the opportunity for paid work or the financial ability to volunteer or travel.

    If students have parents who can financially support them in their gap year those same parents are more than likely going to support them through university. This mean that the students will not have to undertake working hours that undermine good study routines.

    Therefore, the results of this study could simply show that students who are able to be supported throughout their study by parents will do better at university,

    1. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Janet Georgouras

      I agree that is a possible finding - hence my disappointment that the study's measure of socio economic status didn't appear to be sufficiently robust to test this hypothesis. On the other hand, some students may undertake a gap year or 2 to qualify as independents for the purposes of student income support, which may lead in the other direction.

    2. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      I wouldn't count as a 'gap year', taking a couple of years to work full-time to become eligible for Austudy.

  2. Emilie Choukry


    I am very interested in going back to basics.
    When these students started school were they 41/2, 5 or 6.

    There can be a two year variance in maturity with school leavers.
    This can make a substantial difference.

  3. Chris Lloyd

    Professor of Business Statistics, Melbourne Business School at University of Melbourne

    How can you write an article about a study and not provide a link to the study??? This is supposed to be an academic site. There a difficult endogeniety issues at play here and I would want to see that they have been properly considered before I bother talking about the results.

    1. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Chris Lloyd

      Good point. The citation is Martin, Andrew J, Wilson, Rachel, Liem, Gregory Arief D and Ginns, Paul (2013) Academic momentum at university/college: exploring the roles of prior learning, life experience, and ongoing performance in academic achievement across time, The Journal of Higher Education, volume 84, number 5, pages 640-674.

    2. Sunanda Creagh

      Editor at The Conversation

      In reply to Chris Lloyd

      Hi Chris. Apologies, that was my oversight. I simply forgot. Have updated the story to include this link.
      Couldn't agree more with you about the importance of providing readers with a link to the study so they can draw their own conclusions. A glance through our other research news stories will show you that is what we normally do. This time I plum forgot -- apologies.

  4. Robert Heal


    Better university grades, and also later graduation, later career establishment, later family formation, and fertility issues. Or having no family at all.