A failure by any other name: The phenomenon of underpreparedness


  • Jill Bradbury University of the Witwatersrand
  • Ronald Miller University of KwaZulu-Natal


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


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.


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Author Biographies

Jill Bradbury, University of the Witwatersrand

Associate Professor

Department of Psychology

Ronald Miller, University of KwaZulu-Natal

Professor Emeritus

Department of Psychology



How to Cite

Bradbury, J., & Miller, R. (2011). A failure by any other name: The phenomenon of underpreparedness. South African Journal of Science, 107(3/4), 8 pages. Retrieved from https://sajs.co.za/article/view/10062



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