Do gap years improve marks?

As I have noted in several posts, there is a clear trend towards school leavers starting university at a slightly older age. My hunch has been that this is not necessarily a bad thing, but there has been little evidence either way.

Research based on UWA students reported in today’s SMH suggests that there may be academic advantages. Taking a ‘gap’ year correlates with higher marks, with gap year students on average getting marks that are 2.4 percentage points greater than other students.

The gains are largest for students with lower ENTER scores. Someone entering on an ENTER of 80 received average marks 4.2 percentage points higher if they had taken a gap year, while the difference is only 1.3 percentage points on an ENTER of 98.

What isn’t entirely clear here is whether the gap year’s main effect is to remotivate people burnt out after year 12 – as seems to be the case for Jerome Doraismy, written up in the SMH story – or whether the positive results are due to other causes, such as removing from the pool students likely to do badly, better choices of courses or institutions, or improved finances due to savings and Youth Allowance eligibility lessening the need to work long hours while studying.

The fact that the benefits are greatest for students with lower marks who are at greater risk of doing poorly suggests that there might be a selection effect, but that there is some advantage (though not a large one) even for the most able students suggests that the year off confers some benefits even for those who were always likely to study and do well. It is, of course, possible for all factors to make some contribution.

Like virtually all the literature on school to university transition, this study focuses only on first-year university results. It would be interesting to see if the benefits persisted into second year. My guess is that they don’t; or at least not on the same scale. By then other students will have achieved a better match of course and institution, and after twelve months the positive effects of a holiday from study probably start to wear off.