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Demonstrating the link between sports and student success

Mike Kerrigan shows how data on participation in campus sports exhibits a strong correlation with student academic success
This article is more than 4 years old

Mike Kerrigan is Head of Research and Insights (Access and Participation) at Nottingham Trent University.

We know from our research that student engagement with their course, as measured by the Nottingham Trent University (NTU) learning analytics dashboard, is highly correlated with student success, irrespective of socio-economic and demographic background.

The higher a student’s engagement, the greater their chances of completing their studies and achieving higher degree qualifications. Whilst this finding in itself provides us with opportunities to identify students at risk of episodes of poor mental health and invoke support mechanisms as appropriate, student engagement is not merely about interactions with course-related criteria.

Participation in extracurricular activities has long been seen as having a positive influence on the educational development of beneficiaries; for primary school, secondary school and higher education students alike. To this end, as part of evidencing and informing our access and participation plan provision, we have undertaken a comprehensive tracking analysis to understand the relationship between student participation in various extracurricular activities and subsequent learner outcomes.

Richard Metcalf recently argued – correctly in my view – that we need to do more to better evidence the contribution that sport makes to the student experience. While NTU Sport represents just one extracurricular activity that we have investigated, it is by far the most popular, with over a quarter of NTU’s undergraduate students subscribing to an NTU gym and/or sports club membership. Richard asks if we can establish a link between those who participate in university sport and those who are more likely to succeed, both at university and beyond. I believe we can.

Does it correlate?

So what did we find from our analysis? At the aggregated level, NTU Sport participants were more likely to achieve higher average grade based assessment scores across all years of study. Indeed, between 2014/15 and 2017/18, an average of 56 per cent of year one, 59 per cent of year two and 68 per cent of year three NTU Sport participants achieved average grade based assessment scores equivalent to a 2:1 or First. This compared favourably with 49 per cent, 52 per cent and 62 per cent respectively of the year one, two and three NTU undergraduate body at large.

We know that subject area and student characteristics and, in particular, pre-entry qualifications, are highly influential factors in student achievement, hence aggregate trends come with a health warning. It could be that the success of NTU Sport participants merely reflects a different propensity to take part. If NTU Sport is undertaken primarily by middle class students with high pre-entry tariffs, we would expect them to achieve higher rates of success. However, we find that participants achieved higher attainment irrespective of their equality and diversity groupings and/or pre-entry qualifications, as illustrated in the graph below.

Average grades equivalent to 2:1 or First, by student group, NTU Sport participants v non-participants (excludes withdrawn students)

This has also been tested statistically via logistic regression modelling, which confirmed very strong evidence against the null hypothesis of no association between participation in extracurricular activities and students’ grade based assessment scores, when controlling for other known (and available) influential factors, including gender, ethnicity, disability, age, socio-economic background, subject area and pre-entry qualifications. For those wonks of a non-statistical persuasion, this basically means that the higher attainment rates of NTU Sport participants was highly unlikely to have occurred by chance.

We replicated the statistical analysis for module failure rates, final degree classifications and graduate destinations, using Destinations of Leavers of Higher Education (DLHE) data. In all cases the above findings held: there was effectively strong statistical evidence that students taking part in NTU Sport opportunities were less likely to fail modules, more likely to achieve a final degree classification of a First or 2:1 and more likely to progress to professional employment or further study.

Behind the numbers

So, we have indeed found a link between participation in sport and improved student outcomes. However, we don’t know why this may be the case. A scan of the literature gives us some clues. Public Health England has reported that students with better health and wellbeing are likely to achieve better academically, noting a positive correlation between students’ physical activity and academic attainment. Promoting health and wellbeing of students therefore has the potential to improve their educational outcomes. It has also been suggested that even a single session of exercise has a small positive effect on students’ subsequent cognitive function. Exercise can help improve attention, memory and skills that help the brain to organise and act on information. Studies also suggest that taking part in physical activity can improve mental health, reduce the risk of depression and help students connect with other people. To this end, identifying with a sport team (or any group extracurricular activities for that matter) enables students to gain a sense of belonging. Student engagement is key.

I’m aware that the statistically eagle eyed amongst you will be thinking “yeah, but correlation does not imply causation.” And of course you’d be right. Extracurricular activities are intrinsically voluntary pursuits, and whilst the evidence of their value to students is strong, I cannot conclusively claim that NTU Sport participants’ higher achievement was a direct causal result of their participation in sport. Participants’ inherent yet unquantifiable motivation is likely to have invoked at least some self-selection bias, for example. Therefore, further research should be undertaken which seeks to build causal evaluation methodologies into ECA programmes from the offset, potentially with support from The Centre for Transforming Access & Student Outcomes (TASO).

Conclusive evidence or not, it remains clear that engagement with out of classroom pursuits such as sport is an important element of the student experience. However, for a variety of economic, social, logistical and course related reasons, not all students are able to – or indeed choose not to – access such opportunities. Indeed, for NTU Sport, low income students were considerably under-represented, so we have introduced a 50 per cent discount to such students in the attempt to equalise participation of opportunity. Early indications suggest considerable increased take-up for eligible students. We will be keen to track their subsequent achievement.

Positively promoting extracurricular opportunities to those student groups who may not normally access them is likely to add value to the overarching student experience, both at university and beyond. Positive action to increase student take up need not be overly burdensome. Simple interventions such as adjusting promotional material to embed messages of positive affirmations and a sense of belonging can provoke interest, and in some cases disadvantaged student groups in particular.


2 responses to “Demonstrating the link between sports and student success

  1. “I’m aware that the statistically eagle eyed amongst you will be thinking “yeah, but correlation does not imply causation.” And of course you’d be right.”

    The research findings presented don’t appear to be peer reviewed, there is no effect size stated, and it is not a randomised control trial.

    There have been a few peer-reviewed studies on school attainment and preadolescents. These report either i) no effect of physical activity on overall academic performance of school children or ii) no evidence that sports participation is harmful, some evidence that it may be beneficial to learning but no clearly specified causal causal mechanism linking the two states.

    In fairness, the author endorses Richard Mecalf’s view that “we need to do more to better evidence the contribution that sport makes to the student experience.” Committing to improve knowledge in an APP looks commendable of NTU & so credit for that as well.

  2. A couple of years ago I looked for evidence that participation in sporting activities might be correlated with student satisfaction or continuation, and found little.

    The data I used was institutions’ degree of involvement in BUCS (British Universities & Colleges Sport) activities as an indication of sporting activity, HESA non-continuation PI for continuation and various NSS measures for student satisfaction.

    There was little to indicate that support for sporting activities has an effect on NSS results. There was a weak association between student participation in sport and continuation. [R^2 0.1, if you care].

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