Factors affecting academic performance of secondary school students and possible solutions to tackle them


Nations all over the world spend fortunes to enhance the education process. This is because education is considered the cornerstone of economic and social development. It improves the productive capacity of societies and their political, economic and scientific institutions. It helps to reduce poverty by mitigating its effects on population, health and nutrition. It also increases the value and efficiency of the labour offered by the poor. As technology advances, new methods of production depend on well-trained and intellectually flexible labour force.

Many governments in both the developed and developing countries allocate much of their resources to education (UNESCO, 2005). This has resulted to considerable growth of educational activities world over. To date, education is one of the largest sectors in most countries (UNESCO, 2005). Kenya is no exception to this trend of increasing allocation of resources towards education. For the investment in education to bear fruits, students are expected to progress from one level of education to the next. However, this progression can be hampered by poor academic performance at national examinations.

Otieno (2002) argues that examinations tell children how they are succeeding or failing. He contends that education is very important and failure in the national examination especially at the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) spells doom for the students whose life becomes uncertain and full of despair. Examination performance determines whether the students will proceed to university or to other tertiary institutions. Therefore, a student’s life is determined by academic performance in the national examinations.

In Kenya, the means to judge academic achievement is through examinations. Kyalo and Kuthuka (1992) argue that a certificate must not only certify that a candidate has fulfilled the set requirements but also has attained results that compare favourably with similar cohorts elsewhere. People who perform well in education are known to get better paying jobs and to have a proportionately high productivity. Examinations are used to decide the course one pursues in the institutions of higher learning. The top achievers usually end up being placed in the socially prestigious careers like medicine, engineering and accounting. These jobs are well paying and these people are usually placed highly in production structures.

Researchers have shown that academic performance is affected by a number of factors, including student-related factors like intelligence quotient (IQ) and willingness to learn (Magiri, 1997); school-related factors like adequacy of resources and facilities (Musoko, 1983; Kunguru, 1986); teacher-related factors like teacher morale, teaching methods (Muchina, 2003) and job satisfaction (Guthrie, 1982); and school administrators‟ leadership traits (Anyango, 2001; Orina, 2005) among others. Another factor that could influence academic performance is school leadership. Often, when a school performs well the principal is the first to be congratulated, while poor performance leads to the principal receiving the blame.

The school principal is the most important person in a school setting. As the chief executive of a school, he/she is charged with the responsibility of managing the day to day affairs of the institution, and ensuring that all members of the school community are moving in the right direction. A prime task of school heads is to exercise leadership of the kind that results in a shared vision of the directions to be pursued by the school, and to manage change in ways that ensure that the school is successful in realizing the vision. In a world of increasingly rapid change, what is the terra firma on which a robust concept of the headteacher as a leader and manager of change can be built? Sullivan and Glanz (2000) have proposed that the profession should adopt school improvement as its centre of gravity. This means that the headteacher, in making school-related decisions, should always have school improvement in mind.

Placing school improvement at the centre of the profession ensures that the job of the head is pedagogically and educationally grounded, and tied directly to the core business of schooling. It requires heads that have a solid knowledge of the learning process and of the conditions under which students learn in the school setting. It also places a premium on knowledge about educational change and school improvement. In short, it emphasizes the role of the head as a knowledge manager with respect to the core business of the school, namely teaching and learning, in a context of change and the ongoing imperative for improvement (Glanz, 2000). This implies that headteachers are at the centre of school improvement, and if they fail in this task then the entire school fails.

A key role of the headteacher is to ensure that each of the elements that contribute to improved student learning outcomes is present, working effectively and in alignment with all other elements (Hill, 2006). This means that the headteacher is thus, as it were, the chief architect of the school, the one who has the overview of systems, processes and resources and how they combine to produce intended student learning outcomes.

This implies that the headteacher is able to articulate the significance of all key elements, to justify their design and configuration, and to be in a position to make judgments regarding the operational effectiveness of each element and of the total impact of all of the elements as they function in combination with one another. When outcomes are not being realized, or when evidence accumulates that particular elements are not working effectively, the head is responsible for ensuring that the redesign work is carried out (Hill, 2006). This could mean minor readjustments but, in cases of endemic failure to reach required standards, is more likely to involve transforming the whole ecology of the school in order to obtain the desired results.

Theoretical Framework

According to Lezotte, an Effective School is a school that can, in measured student achievement terms, demonstrates the joint presence of quality and equity. Lezotte (2001), after a series of studies, came up with seven correlates of effective schools – strong instructional leadership, clear and focused mission, safe and orderly schools, climate of high expectations for success, frequent monitoring of student progress, positive home-school relations, and opportunity to learn/time on task.

According to Lezotte (2001), strong instructional leaders are proactive and seek help in building team leadership and a culture conducive to learning and professional growth. In the effective school, the principal and others act as instructional leaders and effectively and persistently communicate and model the mission of the school to staff, parents, and students.

Related Topic  Deploying adequate and efficient cost-saving measures in improving KSCE performance among students in public secondary schools

Having a clear and focused mission means everyone knows where they are going and why. A clear focus assists in aligning programs and activities for school improvement. To effectively determine a specific focus, school leadership and stakeholders use a collaborative process to target a few school goals and then build consensus around them. A safe and orderly school is defined as a school climate and culture characterized by reasonable expectations for behaviour, consistent and fair application of rules and regulations, and caring, responsive relationships among adults and students (Lezotte, 2001). Classrooms are warm and inviting, and learning activities are purposeful, engaging, and significant. Personalized learning environments are created to increase positive relationships among students and between students and their teachers. Students feel that they belong in the school community, and children are valued and honoured; their heritage and background are viewed as “assets,” not deficiencies.

In a climate of high expectations, the mantra “all students can learn” must be followed by instructional practices and teacher behaviour that demonstrate that teachers believe in the students, believe in their own efficacy to teach students to high standards, and will persist in teaching them. Teaching advanced skills and teaching for understanding together with basic skills are required for all students to achieve at high levels.

Frequent monitoring of teaching and learning requires paying attention both to student learning results and to the effectiveness of school and classroom procedures (Lezotte, 2001). Learning is monitored by tracking a variety of assessment results such as test scores, student developed products, performances, and other evidence of learning. Teaching is monitored by teachers themselves through self-reflection and by supervisors for program and teacher evaluation. Assessment results are used for planning instruction for individual students as well as for school-wide decision making and planning. Classroom and school practices are modified based on the data.

According to Lezotte (2001), family and community involvement is a general term used to describe a myriad of activities, projects, and programs that bring parents, businesses, and other stakeholders together to support student learning and schools. Families and other adults can be involved in the education of young people through a variety of activities that demonstrate the importance of education and show support and encouragement of students learning. These are legitimate approaches for involvement and do not necessarily require adults spending time at the school site.

Opportunity to learn and student time on a task simply means that students tend to learn most of the lessons they spend time on. Time on task implies that each of the teachers in the school has a clear understanding of what the essential learner objectives are, grade-by-grade and subject-by-subject. Once it is clear what students should be learning, they should be given time to learn it. In an effective school, teachers allocate a significant amount of classroom time to instruction on the essential skills. Students of all abilities, races, gender, and socioeconomic status have equal opportunities to learn.

The theory is relevant to this study in that the seven correlates of effective schools require effective leadership in the part of the principal. This is in line with Sullivan and Glanz’s (2000) assertion that a prime task of school heads is to exercise leadership of the kind that results in a shared vision of the directions to be pursued by the school, and to manage change in ways that ensure that the school is successful in realizing the vision.

By identifying the correlates of well performing schools in Kenya, the study will not only test Lezotte‟s (2001) effective schools model, but also suggest measures that schools that consistently perform poorly can take to improve academic performance.

Factors affecting Academic Performance

Researchers have shown that there are many factors that affect academic achievement of students. According to the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC, 2005), high-achieving students are likely to have the following characteristics: positive feelings about their school experiences; attribute their success in high school to such things as hard work, self-discipline, organization, ability, and high motivation; tend to watch relatively little television during the school week; tend to associate with students who also were successful in school; and avid readers. In this section, a number of factors that have been shown to have an influence on students‟ academic performance are discussed.

Student-Related Factors Influencing Academic Performance

Using the framework of public choice theory, a number of studies have tried to establish whether the amount of effort exerted in the classroom can be an effective criteria used to evaluate student performance. Two studies (Schuman et al 1985 and Michaels and Miethe 1989) used a random sample of 424 and 676 undergraduates respectively. The Schuman et al (1985) study (1) used hours studied under different time frames as a gauge of effort while the Michaels and Miethe (1989) study (2) used quantitative and qualitative measures to gauge effort. The Schuman et al (1985) study found no relationship between hours studied and grades, while the Michaels and Miethe (1989) study only found a positive relationship for freshmen and sophomores.

Few studies seem to focus on the role that class effort plays in determining academic performance. While in the field of educational psychology, empirical studies of primary and secondary school students have shown that effort is a key indicator of academic outcomes, these samples usually contain students at two extremes. These extremes are those who care excessively about studies and hence put in a lot of effort and those who do not care at all and therefore put in little effort. In previous studies with samples of students who obviously care about grades, no strong relationship between the amount of time spent studying and final year end grade was found, controlling for socio-economic status (SES) (Cheo 2002).

Yet effort can have many indirect effects that may explain the lack of direct correlation with academic outcomes. The presence of externality effects from high achievers to lower achievers highlights the role that knowledge and effort plays in the modem classroom. A significant amount of research has focused on the issue of the “peer group” effect in recent economic analysis of education. Education economists such as Ferris (2002) and Johnson (2002) have done studies that highlight the spill-over effects that higher achievers tend to generate within a classroom learning environment to increase the overall quality of education for all students.

Related Topic  Deploying adequate and efficient cost-saving measures in improving KSCE performance among students in public secondary schools

Knowledge need not necessarily be communicated explicitly, i.e. the high achiever tutors the low achiever, but may be communicated as a social norm for performance. To illustrate this, Marks (2002) explains that academic standards operate like social norms which exhibit public good characteristics. ‘Academic standards’ help identify the quality of academic performance (e.g. a grading system or peer review) but the benefit they confer strongly resembles a public good (Marks, 2002). In our setting, the norm would then be to participate actively in class, however since participation itself requires personal cost while conveying benefits to non-participants, this would lead to free-riding and an inefficient production of this norm.

To illustrate this, a previous study by Summers and Wolfe (1977) used differences in composite achievement scores between grade three and grade six as a measure of schools’ value added and found that an increase in the percentage of high achievers in a student’s school has two offsetting effects on student scores: one that significantly improves all students’ scores and a second that reduces individual scores by an amount that correlates with student ability. Marks’ (2002) interpretation of the externality effect of class participation as a public good could account for Summers and Wolfe’s (1977) finding of an offsetting effect that reduces individual scores according to ability. Once knowledge is surrendered in a classroom via a written or oral presentation, homework or even a set of well-written notes, it can be available at almost no cost to the other members of the class, subject to memory and time constraints. This externality may be negative or positive depending on how competitive the class environment is in assessing the quality of knowledge freely propagated.

Cheo (2003) concludes that greater effort in the classroom does not necessarily lead to higher marks (direct causality); adding that instead, it may convey externality effects to other people. A competitive environment ensures that all observable information prior to decision-making correctly reflects the market value of such knowledge. In this way, misperception is not a significant problem. To maintain such a classroom environment necessitates the facilitator, usually the teacher, to openly critique students’ contributions in the form of highlighting useful knowledge and downplaying the bad (Cheo, 2003). Without adequate feedback to students, it is possible that lecturers or tutors who had originally assumed that their charges were learning what they were trying to teach, will be regularly faced with disappointing results from exams.

Home Environment Factors Influencing Academic Performance

The family is the primary social system for children. Rollins and Thomas (1979) found that high parental control were associated with high achievement. Cassidy and Lynn (1991) included a specific factor of the family’s socioeconomic status, crowding, as an indicator of how being disadvantaged affects educational attainment. They found that a less physically crowded environment, along with motivation and parental support, were associated with higher educational levels of children. Religiosity as an aspect of the family environment is another independent variable possibly influencing academic achievement (Bahr, Hawks, & Wang, 1993).

According to Hammer (2003) the home environment is as important as what goes on in the school. Important factors include parental involvement in their children’s education, how much parents read to young children, how much TV children are allowed to watch and how often students change schools. Achievement gab is not only about what goes on once students get into the classroom. It’s also about what happens to them before and after school. Parents and teachers have a crucial role to play to make sure that every child becomes a high achiever. Parental influence has been identified as an important factor affecting student achievement. Results indicate that parent education and encouragement are strongly related to improved student achievement (Odhiambo, 2005).

Phillips (1998) also found that parental education and social economic status have an impact on student achievement. Students with parents who were both college-educated tended to achieve at the highest levels. Income and family size were modestly related to achievement. Peng and Wright‟s (1994) analysis of academic achievement, home environment (including family income) and educational activities, concluded that home environment and educational activities explained the greatest amount of variance. In conclusion denying the role of the impact of a student’s home circumstances will not help to endow teachers and schools with the capacity to reduce achievement gaps (Hammer, 2003).

Allen and Kickbusch (1992), cited in WEAC, (2005), found that the higher-achieving students plan to continue their education after graduation from high school, participate extensively in extracurricular activities, have a few absences each school year, more likely to engage in recreational reading and to check books out of the school or public library on a regular basis, watch less television, spend more time each evening doing their homework, have friend who have positive attitudes toward school and who rarely cut classes or skip school, have positive feelings about their teachers and about specific courses they take and attribute success in school to hard work rather than ability. This study attempted to reveal the relationship between motivation, family environment, student characteristics and academic achievement.

School-related Factors Influencing Academic Performance

Research exploring school related factors that explain why some students achieve high academic performance than others has revealed three theoretically important determinants. They include, school plant, leadership behaviour of the principal, teacher and characteristics. Eshiwani (1983) identified the following policy-related factors that may cause poor academic performance:

  • School plant and resources (Textbooks, library and laboratory facilities).
  • Leadership behaviour of the principal (school administration and management).
  • Teacher characteristics (training, teacher certification, professional commitment, experience and transfer index).

Research conducted in the United States indicated that very small schools have lower academic performance than large schools. However, a school cannot provide a reasonably well-qualified staff for the different subjects of curriculum below a minimum size. There will be an optimum size of school beyond which the level of attainment falls.

A number of studies in several African countries (Foster and Chigret, 2006; Heyneman, 1984) found a strong relationship between resources and students achievement. They gave the laboratory a central and distinctive role in education. In addition, studies done in less developed countries such as Uganda, India, Ghana, Brazil and Malaysia, indicated that access to textbook availability is positively related to students achievement. For example, the data for India and Chile showed that a block of factors, which included textbook availability accounts for more of the variance in test scores than does a block, which includes home circumstances and student’s age and sex (Heyneman et al 1984). Among the most recent studies undertaken in Kenya regarding factors influencing academic performance are those carried out by Kathuri (1984), and Eshiwani (1983).

Related Topic  Deploying adequate and efficient cost-saving measures in improving KSCE performance among students in public secondary schools

Kathuri’s (1984) research reveals that schools resources including textbook availability are not significantly related to performance in Certificate of Primary Education (CPE). However, he summarizes his work by saying that teaching resources may not be significant in totality but very critical in some situations and subjects. Eshiwani (1983) identifies that schools which consistently perform well tend to have sound and efficient leadership. He further stresses that school leadership is a crucial factor in the success of a school. The qualities that are expected of a school principal include setting a climate of high expectations for staff and students, encouraging collegial and collaborative leadership and building commitment.


In the light of the foregoing the following recommendations if implemented will help in improving student’s academic performance:

  • Schools must seek to establish factors that lead to poor academic performance and hence find ways of addressing such factors
  • Government should be involved in the running of schools by providing the necessary resources and materials that would enhance improvement of academic performance
  • Schools that deteriorate every year should evaluate all aspects of learning to establish the root cause of the same hence find ways of solving the problem.


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