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  • Investigating Differences in Personality Traits and Academic Needs Among Prepared and Underprepared First-Year College Students
  • Dawn K. Melzer (bio) and Ruth M. Grant (bio)

In the past two decades there has been an increasing amount of research conducted on the needs of students in diverse college classrooms (Brock, 2010). Particular focus has centered on aiding those students considered underprepared for the college environment.

Students are classified as underprepared if they perform below college standards in math, reading comprehension, and/or writing skills (Hughes, Gibbons, & Mynatt, 2013). Underprepared students face many challenges while navigating the college system. Radford, Berkner, Wheeless, and Shepherd (2010) reported that many colleges require these students to take remedial courses that do not count toward the credits needed to graduate, thereby adding increased financial burden and time to complete their degree. In addition, these students are often separated from the rest of the population due to their remedial status (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2003). Underprepared students are more likely to drop out of college and have lower GPAs compared to their more prepared peers (Radford et al., 2010). First-generation college students, students from lower socioeconomic statuses, and minority students are more likely to be characterized as underprepared compared to other groups (NCES, 2005). Research has discovered that underprepared students are more likely to exhibit an external locus of control and low self-efficacy than those considered prepared (Lease, 2004). These characteristics are also associated with poor academic performance, higher drop-out rates, and poor decision-making skills (Baiocco, Laghi, & D’Alessio, 2009; Gifford, Briceno-Perriott, & Mianzo, 2006; Lease, 2004). Underprepared students feel that they have little control over the events in their lives, both positive and negative, and have less confidence in their decision-making abilities and career planning objectives (Gati et al., 2011). These students appear unrealistic about their own academic abilities and the preparation that will be required of them in a college environment (Trippi & Stewart, 1989). Underprepared students seek emotional and academic help less often than prepared students (Palmer, Davis, & Hilton, 2009) and struggle more with career decisions (Lease, 2004). These students also do not take advantage of campus resources, such as tutors or counseling centers, when they are struggling during college (Deil-Amen & Rosenbaum, 2002).

Making a college degree more accessible for an increased number of students of various [End Page 99] backgrounds and academic levels has left universities examining how to accommodate these students. Research on the underprepared student’s personality traits and needs remains limited, but focusing on these characteristics will illuminate a path toward effective teaching and engagement techniques.


Although underprepared students exhibit a great deal of resiliency and perseverance to reach the college level, they still underperform academically and socially compared to more prepared students. What differences exist between prepared and underprepared college students that may account for the variation in college performance? The objective of this study was to explore differences in personality traits and perceived academic needs between prepared and underprepared first-year college students to improve teaching strategies for instructors of underprepared students and provide insight to administrators and co-curricular educators that work with this population. At Sacred Heart University, students considered underprepared for college classes, based on high school performance, SAT scores, and their performance on an English Placement Exam, are placed into an Academic Incentive Program (AIP). The AIP curriculum is based on traditional courses in a specific area of study (e.g., history, psychology, computer science, and English), but instructors focus assignments on reading, writing, and study skills. These classes are smaller in size than traditional classes, and the students are among others with similar academic difficulties. In the present study we compared AIP classes to non-AIP classes. Non-AIP classes were populated with students considered prepared for college courses. It was hypothesized that AIP students would exhibit differing needs compared to non-AIP students and that there would be significant personality differences between the two groups.



A total of 109 freshman students from AIP Introduction to Psychology classes and traditional Introduction to Psychology (non-AIP) classes were studied from a small private university in southern Connecticut. The students in these classes were...


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