Research Articles

A failure by any other name: The phenomenon of underpreparedness

Jill Bradbury, Ronald Miller
South African Journal of Science | Vol 107, No 3/4 | a294 | DOI: | © 2011 Jill Bradbury, Ronald Miller | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 26 May 2010 | Published: 10 March 2011

About the author(s)

Jill Bradbury, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa
Ronald Miller, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa


This study presents an analysis of the performance of students from disadvantaged schools (DS) on first-year psychology examination questions. The analysis focuses on the process of enquiry that underpins different kinds of questions (factual, relational and conceptual) of increasing levels of difficulty. The findings indicate that success or failure is not simply a measure of the reproduction of content but is a function of the (in)appropriate form of responses that students generate in engaging with different kinds of questions. This has important implications for the conceptualisation of academic literacy and the development of responsive curricula in the South African higher education context. In order to further understand the reasons for the disproportionately high failure rate among students from disadvantaged schools, the responses of DS failing students are compared to those of their peers from advantaged schools (AS) who also failed the course. This comparative analysis reveals very different patterns of questioning engagement among the two failing groups of students, providing empirical support for the argument that underpreparedness is a distinct systemic phenomenon rather than simply failure by another name.


academic literacy; disadvantaged schooling; education; psychology; questioning; underpreparedness


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