Challenges faced by students that hinder their academic success

By John Sande

Students in university face a variety of obstacles in their pursuit of academic success. While many students are able to surmount these barriers, others find it difficult to navigate and overcome the demands of university life. My recent interaction with a group of students highlighted some of the typical obstacles they face as students in USIU-Africa, and generally in higher learning institutions:

1. Time Management was cited as one of the biggest obstacles to success. Transitioning from a setup that was governed by timed alarms and teacher follow-ups, to one that is self-paced proves a major challenge for many.

“I struggle to wake up to attend my 7.00am class. There is no bell, and no house captain to shout us out of bed. This was the norm in high school. Right now, I am no my own, and have to adjust to pace myself,” said Mitchelle, a freshman, who is fraught on time management.

At the university, students are faced with a wide range of responsibilities, including coursework, that often have extensive reading lists, numerous assignments, and exams that require significant preparation. In addition, students may need to balance their academic workload with part-time jobs, internships, or extracurricular activities.

“As a single mum, I have to juggle between office, taking care of my 3-year old daughter and my classwork. It’s really hectic and this drives me to the edge sometimes,” added Chrystal, a junior IT major.

All of these demands require effective time management skills to ensure that students are able to meet their obligations without sacrificing their well-being. With so much on their plate, prioritizing work and meeting deadlines can be challenging. Without effective time management skills, many students find themselves falling behind in their coursework and struggling to keep up with their academic responsibilities.

2. Financial Challenges was cited as another major barrier to success by many students. These challenges have a significant impact on a student's academic performance and overall well-being. The cost of tuition, textbooks, study materials and other expenditures can be overwhelming, particularly for students from low-income backgrounds.

“As much as I desire and wish to, I cannot afford some of the food items sold in the outlets here, nor can I join my classmates on the various (club) trips or excursions that require additional payments. I just don’t have the finances,” a dejected Troy confessed. His sentiments were echoed by a number of the students in the discussion.

Students who are worried about their finances may find it difficult to concentrate in class or on their assignments, and may also have to engage in hustling activities in order to make ends meet, leaving them with even less time to study and prepare for exams, thus making it more difficult for them to succeed academically.

“I sleep quite late trying to prepare these roasted peanuts which I sell to make a slight margin in order to make ends meet for me. Sometimes I find myself snoozing off in class, which in the end affects my studies. But I have to soldier on,” said Beth showcasing a couple of peanut bowls yet to be sold. Many other students admitted to hustling part-time to make some extra monies for ‘survival’ purposes.

Students who are struggling financially may be more likely to drop out or take longer to complete their degree program. They may also be more likely to experience stress, anxiety, and depression, which can further impact their academic performance.

“My dad passed on in 2020, and with him went all the financial support that I had depended on. I was forced to drop out for a couple of semesters since we could not afford to pay the tuition fee. I am however grateful that the Financial Aid Scholarship gave me another chance, and I will be graduating this year,” shared Prisca, a Bachelor of Science in Information Systems & Technology finalist.

“It’s been 3 years out of campus, many of my friends we joined with have graduated, the program has morphed, but I am just glad to be back, and I am determined to finish, hopefully. The County Development Fund (CDF) came in handy,” added Amina, a senior student in the International Relations program. Amina’s sentiments resonated with many other students in the discussion, particularly those from the marginalized and under-represented regions of the country.

3. Mental Health Issues refer to a range of conditions that affect an individual's emotional, psychological, and social well-being. These conditions can manifest in a variety of ways, including anxiety, depression, eating disorder, substance abuse, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, schizophrenia, and other mental health difficulties (including stigma associated with seeking help) can impact students' ability to concentrate, manage their time effectively, and perform academically, which can further exacerbate their mental health issues.

For instance, the transition from High School to University can be stressful, as students often leave their familiar support networks behind and face new academic and social pressures. The pressure to perform academically, combined with the daily life stresses, can take a toll on students' mental health.

Mental health issues are widespread and affect people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. Seeking help from mental health professionals, such as therapists or psychiatrists, can be essential in managing mental health issues and improving overall well-being.

4. Lack of access to resources and support systems often results in students feeling isolated and struggling to navigate their academic journey thereby making it harder to succeed academically. Students often face challenges such as financial constraints, lack of academic support, inadequate technology and limited access to resources such as textbooks, libraries, laboratories and academic counseling. The absence of a supportive environment can result in students feeling overwhelmed and disengaged, leading to lower academic achievement as they find it challenging to keep up with their coursework, which can lead to a decline in grades and performance, increased stress, and decreased mental health status.

For example, students who attend universities in rural or remote areas may not have access to the same resources (for instance critical laboratory facilities and attachment or internship opportunities) as students who attend universities in more affluent urban areas.

5. Faculty Teaching Styles & Unclear Expectations also creates a barrier to students’ academic success. Faculty members are responsible for designing and implementing courses, creating assignments, and evaluating students' performance. However, some faculty members' teaching styles, and communication skills (including first language influence) can make it challenging for students to succeed in their academic pursuits. For example, some faculty members rely heavily on lectures as their primary teaching method, which can be challenging for students who learn better through hands-on activities, discussions, or visual aids. Similarly, some faculty members use jargon and technical language that may be difficult for students to understand, particularly those who are not familiar with the subject matter.

Unrealistic expectations of the faculty on their students' abilities can also create a significant amount of stress and pressure on students, particularly those who are struggling to keep up with their coursework. Faculty members who are dismissive of their students' questions or who provide inadequate feedback can also make it challenging for students to succeed, as they may not know how to improve their performance. Additionally, some faculty members may not provide enough support or resources to help their students succeed. For example, they may not offer enough office hours, provide inadequate or outdated course materials, or fail to communicate clearly about course requirements and expectations.

Furthermore, faculty members who are biased or discriminatory can create additional barriers to success for some students. This may include discrimination based on race, gender, religion, sexuality, or other factors. Students who experience discrimination may feel unwelcome or unsupported in their academic environment, which can impact their ability to succeed.

“My lecturer is determined to fail me. I have put in so much effort, but he’s uncooperative. Just yesterday, we had a group presentation, and one of the members was running late. We requested the lecturer for more time by swapping groups, but he refused. When the member arrived, the lecturer again did not allow our group to present citing we were time barred. And worse is, he kept interjecting when the groups were presenting. Honestly, it’s very frustrating and I feel discriminated upon,” said Sagal, an International Relations major.

In a recent survey conducted (Colleen Flaherty, Collen (2023). "Survey: Students Cite Barriers to Success, Seek Flexibility", Inside Higher Education) and published by Inside Higher Ed’s magazine, students also cited faculty teaching styles, Professors’ unclear expectations, overly difficult coursework and balancing schoolwork and other obligations as the top barriers to their academic success.

How to overcome these barriers to success
Many universities including USIU-Africa have provided resources such as tutoring services, mental health support, and financial aid to help students succeed. Students can also take steps to improve their time management skills, seek support when they need it, and prioritize their academic responsibilities. With the right resources and support, university students can overcome these barriers and achieve academic success. Some of the measures available for students include:
1. Time Management
It is important for university students to prioritize effective time management. This may involve setting realistic goals, creating a schedule or to-do list, and setting aside dedicated time for studying and completing assignments in order to avoid burnout. It may also be helpful for students to limit distractions, such as social media or entertainment, during designated study times. Finally, seeking out support from a tutor, academic advisor, or counselor can be beneficial for students who are struggling with time management or other academic challenges. By prioritizing time management and seeking out support when needed, students can improve their chances of success and achieve their academic and career goals.

2. Mental Health Issues
Many universities have recognized the importance of mental health support for their students, and have implemented counseling and other support services to assist students who are struggling. At USIU-Africa, the Counseling Center is fully equipped to handle all student requests. Through counseling and therapy, and other wellness programs, students can develop healthy coping mechanisms, reduce stress levels, and manage their emotions better, leading to improved academic performance.

In addition to seeking help from mental health professionals, students can also take steps to manage their mental health and improve their chances of academic success by prioritizing self-care, such as getting enough sleep, exercise, and healthy food.

Recently, the university released health emergency numbers that can be used for any urgent medical situation or occurrence while on campus. They include: +254 730 116 760 /761 /762 or 0798 294 538 or +254 730 116 271.
The Counseling Center also shared the following numbers +254 730 116 748 /797 /746 /791 /750 should anyone need services of a professional Psychological Counselor or a Peer Counselor. They are willing to listen to you, explore and come up with ways to help you improve/overcome your current situation.

3. Lack of resources
In order to address these challenges, many universities offer financial aid and scholarships, providing access to affordable housing and transportation, and offering resources and support services to help students manage their finances and succeed academically. The Financial Aid Office located on the 2nd Floor, Freida Brown Student Center has a budget of KES.102 million designed to provide students with full access to all available sources of both internal and external financial assistance in order to meet their educational costs while pursuing their studies at USIU-Africa. The Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program at USIU-Africa also provides full-cost scholarships to young Africans who are first-time undergraduate degree-seeking applicants. By addressing these challenges, universities can help ensure that all students have the opportunity to succeed at the university level.

For more information on Financial Aid, please contact the Financial Aid Office, on +254 730 116 745 /776 or email:

4. Faculty Teaching Styles
Universities must prioritize the creation of an inclusive and supportive academic environment that values diverse perspectives and provides the necessary resources to help all students succeed. Effective teaching styles that prioritize active learning and student engagement can help students better understand and retain course material. Active class participation, group work, discussions, and hands-on activities, adequate consultation hours, moderation of, and later review of test/exam papers coupled with use of teaching styles that are compatible with students' learning styles, play a significant role in promoting critical thinking and collaboration, which are critical in helping students achieve their academic goals and succeed at the university level.

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