Self-Determination Skills and Student Persistence

Getzel, E.E., & Thoma, C.A. (2008). Experiences of College Students With Disabilities and the Importance of Self-Determination in Higher Education Settings. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 31(2), 77-84.


The authors in the article “Experiences of College Students With Disabilities and the Importance of Self-Determination in Higher Education Settings” (Getzel & Thoma, 2008), explore the impact that self-determination skills have on students with disabilities in higher education. In the article, self-determination is defined as “being able to advocate for what you need, understanding your disability and how it impacts your learning, having self-confidence, being independent, and adjusting your schedule to make sure things get done” (p. 79).


Participants were chosen to be part a focus group, based on whether they were currently receiving disability support services, and were identified by the disability support services (DSS) office, as having self-determination skills. Researchers were intentional in selecting participants who had already demonstrated these skills, as they wanted to ensure their skills were somewhat similar to one another.

In the sample, there were 34 students total. Their ages ranged from 18 to 48 years. There were 18 females and 16 males. Participants came from various, although limited cultural backgrounds, with 21 Caucasian, 12 African American and 1 Asian. The disability groups represented in the sample, included 2 visually impaired, 8 orthopedic disability, 13 other health impaired, and 2 emotional disturbances.

Focus groups were organized at six different locations across Virginia. Three were community colleges and three were colleges or universities (2- and 4-Year).


Researchers used a semi-structured interview process, and focus group assignments. Focus groups were chosen due to the small group size, which allowed for a more personal, social and intimate experience. In addition, focus groups allow the researchers more flexibility to address issues as they arise. Demographic information was also collected and a summary was developed.

As part of the testing process, participants were asked two primary questions. They were,

  1. “What do you think an effective advocate does to ensure he or she stays in school and gets the support needed” (p.80)?
  2. “What advocacy or self-determination skills do you think are absolutely essential to staying in college and getting the supports you need” (p.81)?


Data analyses were performed on the notes provided by the scribes. Results of the study indicate that participants feel self-determination skills were critical to their success in transitioning into a higher education setting.

The results of question number 1 above indicated that “focus group participants clearly identified self-determination as important to their success in postsecondary education” (p. 80). Reasons given for their decisions were primarily based on participants not self-identifying their disability, or advocating for themselves, failing, and then requesting the support services that they need.

The areas identified as most critical with regards to question number 1 were as follows:

Problem solving – Defined as the ability to think about and solve a problem, prioritizing ones time, and focusing on and achieving success.

Self-awareness – Defined as learning about oneself, developing core competency skills, increasing self-understanding, and self-determination. It’s important to note that learning of one’s disability was particularly important.

Goal setting – Participants reported the importance of setting realistic short- and long-term goals as a critical part of their success.

Self-Management – Defined as one’s ability to organize and plan ahead. In the context of disability services, self-management was particularly important for scheduling classes, allowing time for studying and completing assignments, and planning ahead on assignments that may take longer to complete.

The results of questions number 2 above indicate that participants felt strongly that it was important for “(a) seeking services from the DSS office and college services available to all students; (b) forming relationships with professors and instructors; (c) developing support systems on campus with friends, support groups, and the DSS office; and (d) gaining a self-awareness and understanding of themselves to persevere” (p. 81).

The areas identified as most critical with regards to question number 2 were as follows:

Seeking services on campus – Participants emphasized the importance of academic support services and resources on campus. Of particular note was the DSS office, writing center, math lab, and participation in study sessions.

Developing support systems on campus – Developing friendship and peer networks, seeking out other support staff, and participating in student groups, support groups, and other social networks.

Forming Relationships with Professors and Instructors – Defined as developing critical relationships with professors, meeting with professors on a regular basis, and actively seeking help from professors.

Self-awareness – In the context of question number 2, participants discussed the importance of developing critical skills and behaviors, being aware of their strengths, as well as their limitations, and focusing on their success.

Limitations / Recommendations:

There were a number of limitations with this study, including, limited sample size, limited ethnic diversity, and limited disability diversity. Additionally, participants were identified by DSS staff who believed participants already possessed self-determination skills, so selection was, in part, subjective to the biases of DSS staff. As with any focus group interview process, the authors also note that bias may also be inherent in that participants may report what they feel the interviewer wants to hear, and not necessarily what they truly feel.

Application to my own Action Research / Discussion:

Over the past few weeks, I have struggled with the idea of mentoring in higher education. Mentoring is not new to higher education, which makes the application, as part of original research, more challenging. However, the idea of looking at self-determination as a skill, and students applying self-determination as a learning outcome, has helped narrow the construct of what the mentoring program might look like.

Access, excellence and impact are critical ideals to student success. As a guide, they help frame the work that we do, as well as the high expectations of the academic standard we hold students accountable to. In looking ahead to applying my action research in my community of practice, I want to be mindful of the impact that self-determination skills can have on all students, but particularly students with disabilities.


Getzel, E.E., & Thoma, C.A. (2008). Experiences of College Students With Disabilities and the Importance of Self-Determination in Higher Education Settings. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 31(2), 77-84.


Students with Disabilities — Factors Impacting First-to-Second-Year Persistence

Mamiseishvili, K., & Koch, L.C. (2010). First-to-Second-Year Persistence of Students With Disabilities in Postsecondary Institutions in the United States. Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin, 54(2), 93-105.


In the article “First-to-Second-Year Persistence of Students With Disabilities in Postsecondary Institutions in the United States”, authors Mamiseishvili and Koch (2010), explore factors that influence persistency for students from first-to-second-year in college, as well as risk factors that lead to attrition, in students with disabilities. While enrollment of students with disabilities has remained steady, by enacting greater protection to students with disabilities, through the passing of disability legislation, including the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008, it is anticipated that postsecondary institutions will see an increase in the number of students with disabilities that enroll in the years ahead.

For their study, the authors used data from the “Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study” survey (p. 95). The data set was varied and included transfer students, persisters, stopouts and dropouts, as well as vocational completers. Participants were interviewed to determine who fit the criteria for the survey.

The sample size of the study for students with disabilities was 1910 students. Appropriate weighting measures were used to account for oversampling from the original BPS sample data set. The average age of the sample participants was 24 years.

The researchers did a good job considering different variables and characteristics, including – students who transferred to other institutions of higher education, background characteristics such as gender, age, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, type of disability, first-generation student status, as well as high school GPA. Additionally, characteristics of being a college student were also take into consideration, which included first-year GPA, intensity of the academic program, remediation, housing status, degree aspirations, academic integration, social integration, price of attendance, and first institution level.


There were several tests that were used to measure whether significant associations existed. The authors used Pearson’s chi-square tests to determine if there was a significant association with those that received disability-related services and those that persisted. Testing showed that there was a significant association, in that students with disabilities who received academic support services were more likely to persist from first-year-to-second-year. The highest association was for students who received a course substitution or waiver, note taking services, testing readers and / or scribes. Chi-square testing also showed a significant association with those who participated in academic and social activities. Specific activities included, meeting informally with the instructor, attending study groups, and discussing academic matters with the instructor and advisor outside of the classroom. Testing showed that students with disabilities who actively participated in academic and social activities were more likely to persist from first-year-to-second-year.

In addition to the chi-square testing, a logistic regression analysis was also conducted, looking at factors which influenced first-to-second-year persistence. Significant predictors for persisting from first-to-second-year were discovered. The variables that stood out the most in being associated with the likelihood of persisting were – being female and black, female (compared to males), African American (compared to white) – all increased likelihood of persisting from first to second year.

The authors considered a number of risk factors directly related, in addition to several theories pertaining to retention, and tested for variables to ensure that they were looking at relevant factors. The sample for their research consisted of students with various disabilities, including “(a) any sensory impairment, such as blindness, deafness, or a severe vision or hearing impairment, (b) any mobility impairment substantially restricting students’ basic physical activities, or (c) any other mental, emotional, or learning condition limiting students’ ability to learn, remember, and concentrate.” (p. 95).


The findings indicate that students with disabilities persist from first-to-second-year at a rate of 76.4%. There were discrepancies that existed between various disability groups, with students who have learning disabilities / dyslexia persisting at a rate of 85.7% (as the highest), and students with other conditions not specified persisting at a rate of 64.3% (as the lowest). Additionally, they found that specific accommodations and services were also correlated to a higher rate of persistence. Namely, students who received course substitutions, course waivers, readers, note takers, scribes, and students who participated in academic and social activities, as accommodations, saw a higher rate of persistency.

Limitations / Recommendations:

  • No consideration for physical accessibility of the campus
  • No consideration as to whether students utilized counseling services
  • Study examined persistence across ALL higher education, rather than a specific institution.
  • Limited variables (3) for examining social integration.
  • Explore similarities or differences between students with disabilities compared to students without disabilities.
  • Explore similarities or differences between 4-year, and 2-year institutions.
  • Explore factors that might impede or facilitate persistence to graduation.

Application to my own Action Research:

There were several acknowledged limitations in this study, and as such, an opportunity, to explore these limitations / factors, that may exist, moving forward in my own action research. At Arizona State University, we have a great relationship and partnership with our counseling services office. We partner extensively in support of student success. I wish to explore that relationship and the impact that it may have on persistence.

There is a great opportunity to explore the relationship that the Disability Resource Center has with each of the academic colleges. How might that relationship translate into creating factors which increase persistence, and to what extent already existing support services (i.e., Student Success Center, tutoring services, the Writing Center, utilization of assistive technology located in the Information Commons, etc.) impact the rate of persistence in students with disabilities.

Finally, I wish to explore the similarities and differences that may exist between students with disabilities, and those that do not have a disability.

I see great application in not only looking at other factors that may exist in my own research, exploring ways of increasing the likelihood that students with disabilities will persist at ASU, but also in improving the services that either already exist, or should be established in support of student success. Overall, I felt the article was well written, and has great relevance in higher education today.


Mamiseishvili, K., & Koch, L.C. (2010). First-to-Second-Year Persistence of Students With Disabilities in Postsecondary Institutions in the United States. Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin, 54(2), 93-105.