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Article • 12 min read

Dealing With Poor Performance

Lack of ability, or low motivation.

By the Mind Tools Content Team

For every hundred men hacking away at the branches of a diseased tree, only one will stoop to inspect the roots. – Chinese proverb.

If you don't get to the root of a problem, you will never truly solve it. Recognizing that may seem an obvious approach but many people miss it, as the Chinese proverb reminds us.

So, what is the right approach, for example, if individual members of your team are performing less well than you'd hoped? Because employee performance affects organizational performance, we tend to want to look for a quick fix. In this case, would a training course help? Or should you move your under-performing team member into a different role?

You need to understand the root of a performance problem before you can fully address it. These types of solutions, like training, focus largely on the ability of the person performing the job. Performance, though, is a function of both ability and motivation.

Performance = Ability x Motivation

From " Developing Management Skills " (8th Edition) p.27, by David A. Whetten and Kim S. Cameron. © 2011. Reprinted by permission of Pearson Education, Inc. Upper Saddle River, NJ. [1]

  • Ability is the person's aptitude, as well as the training and resources supplied by the organization.
  • Motivation is the product of desire and commitment.

Someone with 100 percent motivation and 75 percent performance ability can often achieve above-average performance. But a worker with only 25 percent ability won't be able to achieve the type of performance you expect, regardless of his or her level of motivation.

In this article and in the video below, we'll explore how you can enhance ability and improve motivation in your team to get the best out of them.

This is why recruitment and job matching are such critical parts of performance management. Be sure to assess ability properly during the selection process. Minor deficiencies can certainly be improved through training – however, most organizations don't have the time or resources needed to remedy significant gaps.

Diagnosing Poor Performance

So, before you can fix poor performance, you have to understand its cause. Does it come from lack of ability or low motivation?

Incorrect diagnoses can lead to lots of problems later on. If you believe an employee is not making enough of an effort, you'll likely put increased pressure on him or her to perform. But if the real issue is ability, then increased pressure may only make the problem worse.

Low ability may be associated with the following:

  • Overly difficult tasks.
  • Low individual aptitude, skill, and knowledge.
  • Evidence of strong effort, despite poor performance.
  • Lack of improvement over time.

People with low ability may have been poorly matched with jobs in the first place. They may have been promoted to a position that's too demanding for them. Or maybe they no longer have the support that previously helped them to perform well.

Enhancing Ability

There are five main ways to overcome performance problems associated with a lack of ability. Consider using them in this sequence, which starts with the least intrusive:

From "Developing Management Skills" (8th Edition) p.27, by David A. Whetten and Kim S. Cameron. © 2011. Reprinted by permission of Pearson Education, Inc. Upper Saddle River, NJ.

Be sure to address each of these interventions in one-on-one performance interviews with employees.

1. Resupply

Focus on the resources provided to do the job. Do employees have what they need to perform well and meet expectations?

  • Ask them about additional resources they think they need.
  • Listen for points of frustration.
  • Note where employees report that support is inadequate.
  • Verify the claims with your own investigation. People will often blame external sources for their poor performance before admitting their own fault.

This is a very effective first step in addressing performance. It signals to members of your team that you're interested in their perspective and are willing to make the required changes.

You'll need to ensure your team have the appropriate resources and means of communication to perform effectively at home if they work remotely, you can read more about this in our article Managing Home-Based Team Members .

Provide additional training to team members. Explore with them whether they have the actual skills required to do what's expected. Given the pace of change of technology, it's easy for people's skills to become outdated.

This option recognizes the need to retain employees and keep their skills current. There are various types of retraining you can provide:

  • Training seminars with in-house or external providers.
  • Computer-based training (CBT).
  • Simulation exercises.
  • Subsidized college or university courses.

Resupplying and retraining will often cure poor performance. People and organizations may get into ruts, and fail to recognize these issues until poor performance finally highlights them.

When these first two measures aren't sufficient, consider refitting the job to the person. Are there parts of the job that can be reassigned?

Analyze the individual components of the work, and try out different combinations of tasks and abilities. This may involve rearranging the jobs of other people as well. Your goal is to retain the employee, meet operational needs, and provide meaningful and rewarding work to everyone involved. (For more detail on this, see our article on Job Enrichment .)

4. Reassign

When revising or refitting the job doesn't turn the situation around, look at reassigning the poor performer. Typical job reassignments may decrease the demands of the role by reducing the need for the following:

  • Responsibility.
  • Technical knowledge.
  • Interpersonal skills.

If you use this option, make sure that the reassigned job is still challenging and stimulating. To ensure that this strategy is successful, never use demotion as a punishment tactic within your organization. Remember, the employee's performance is not intentionally poor – he or she simply lacked the skills for the position.

As a final option for lack of ability, you may need to let the employee go . Sometimes there are no opportunities for reassignment, and refitting isn't appropriate for the organization. In these cases, the best solution for everyone involved is for the employee to find other work. You may need to consider contractual terms and restrictions; however, in the long run, this may be the best decision for your whole team.

Remember, there are potential negative consequences of retaining a poor performer after you've exhausted all the options available:

  • You'll annoy other members of your team, who may have to work harder to "carry" the poor performer.
  • You may promote a belief in others that you're prepared to accept mediocrity – or, worse, underperformance.
  • You may waste precious time and resources that could be better used elsewhere.
  • You may signal that some employees deserve preferential treatment.
  • You may undermine the whole idea of finding the best person for the job.

Improving Motivation

Sometimes poor performance has its roots in low motivation. When this is the case, you need to work closely with the employee to create a motivating environment in which to work. There are three key interventions that may improve people's motivation:

  • Setting of performance goals.
  • Provision of performance assistance.
  • Provision of performance feedback.

1. Performance Goals

Goal setting is a well-recognized aspect of performance improvement. Employees must understand what's expected of them and agree on what they need to do to improve. For a detailed explanation of the goal-setting process, see our articles on Goal Setting , Golden Rules of Goal Setting and Locke's Goal Setting Theory .

2. Performance Assistance

Once you've set appropriate goals, help your team member succeed by doing the following:

  • Regularly assessing the employee's ability, and act if it's deficient.
  • Providing the necessary training.
  • Securing the resources needed.
  • Encouraging cooperation and assistance from coworkers.

Consider using the GROW Model as a way of coaching employees to improve their performance.

3. Performance Feedback

People need feedback on their efforts. They have to know where they stand in terms of current performance and long-term expectations. When providing feedback, keep in mind the importance of the following:

  • Timeliness – Provide feedback as soon as possible. This links the behavior with the evaluation.
  • Openness and Honesty – Make sure that the feedback is accurate. Avoid mixed messages or talking about the person rather than the performance. That said, provide both positive and negative feedback so that employees can begin to truly understand their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Personalized Rewards – A large part of feedback involves rewards and recognition. Make sure that your company has a system that acknowledges the successes of employees.

Ensure that you meet regularly with the employee, so that you can review progress and provide regular feedback.

Creating a Performance Improvement Plan

So how do you do this in practice? This is where you need to develop a performance improvement plan. Armed with the strategies we've looked at, you first need to evaluate the performance issue that you're facing:

  • Have you discussed with the person what they feel the problem is?
  • Have you evaluated your organization's motivation system? Are you doing everything you can to recognize and reward people's contributions?
  • Are you rewarding the things that you actually want done?
  • Do you have regular goal setting and development meetings with members of your team?
  • Do you help your people keep their skills current?

From there, it's important that you and the employee discuss and agree upon a plan for improving performance. Write down what you've agreed, along with dates by which goals should be achieved. Then monitor progress with the team member, and use the techniques we've discussed above for increasing motivation and dealing with ability-related issues.

Recognize that the actions needed to close ability gaps need high motivation on the employee's part to be successful. The two causes of poor performance – lack of ability and low motivation – are inextricably intertwined, and goal setting, feedback, and a supportive work environment are necessary conditions for improving both.

You need to understand the root of a performance problem before you can fully address it. Ability and motivation go together to impact performance, and the most successful performance improvement efforts combine strategies for improving each. This creates a positive environment where people feel supported to reach their performance potential – and feel valued, knowing that the organization wants to find a good fit for their abilities.

At times, your interventions may not be enough to salvage the situation. As long as you've given performance enhancement your best effort, and you've reasonably exhausted all your options, then you can feel confident that you're making the right decision if you do need to let someone go.

Before going down that route, however, try the strategies discussed here and create a great work environment for your employees – one where their abilities are used to their full potential, and where good motivational techniques are used on a regular basis.

[1] Whetten, D. A. and Cameron, K. S. (2011). ' Developing Management Skills ' (8th Edition), Pearson Education, Inc. Upper Saddle River, NJ. p.27.

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Fixing Poor Performers

Get a free sofia demo to learn how we can "fix" your poor performer problems.


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Situation: The hidden and pervasive cost of poor performers

Poor performers are major problem for all managers and organizations; a problem that most managers believe cannot be fixed. However, recent advances in the neuroscience of performance have identified the neural processes of poor performance and have generated methodologies for “fixing” poor performers. What would it mean to an organization to have the poor performers function at the middle of the performance curve or even become top performers? It would, of course, be a great emotional and financial benefit.

Most organizations struggle with managing poor performers. Poor performers consume vast amounts of management’s time and energy with few results. Their errors delay products, lose sales, reduce customer satisfaction, and cause a host of other problems. These require significant management attention. Fortunately, these poor performers typically only make up between 10% and 25% of the workforce.


Improving performance levels at four companies

Unlike other case studies, no single situation fully illustrates how you can “fix” poor performers so in this case study we present four different programs that moved people from poor performance to mid-range and even top performance in a few months. The cases are:

  • Restaurant Managers at a fast-food chain -- 25% of the participants in a program (4 managers) were specifically selected because they were on “performance management” and were close to being fired
  • Customer Business Analysts (CBA) at a high-tech company – This company had a “10% program” where the bottom 10% of a “Ranking and Rating” process (10 CBAs) was to be “moved up or out”
  • Customer Service Representatives (CSR) at a digital advertising company – This company had 40% turnover in its call center, most of which was due to terminating people for poor performance (about 30 CSRs per year)
  • Contract Managers at a health insurance company – 30% of the contract managers were resisting moving from an adversarial to a partnering approach to developing contracts with health care providers and were designated “poor performers” (25 Contract Managers)


Building a Great Best Practices for the Role

The best practices for each of these situations was:

  • For the fast-food chain, the program was: How to create a great service culture in your restaurant
  • For the high-tech company, the program was: How to be a great CBA
  • For the digital advertising company, the program was: How to be a great CSR
  • For the health insurance company, the program was: Building great partnerships with our providers
  • Using the Cerebyte Wisdom Discovery process, it took 3-6 hours with 3-8 experts to create the best practices for these programs

Launching these programs using Cerebyte Sofia

These programs all had formal “launches”.

  • Poor performers were randomly mixed with other performers and were known only to the program’s project manager (i.e. these were “blind” tests)
  • All were multiple onsite launches with from 5-15 participants
  • All were co-led by a Cerebyte Facilitator and a “Coach” (or Coaches) from the client
  • Launches ranged from 1 hour for the Digital Advertising CSRs to 3 hours for the Health Insurance Contract managers

Process followed the Sofia system formats

  • They read the best practice content, discussed key ideas, and wrote anchors of thoughts and ideas
  • Discussions were “very good,” intense and focused discussing critical topics in an organized way
  • Decision was made to share all recorded learnings from Actions
  • Leadership strongly supported process including completing all Actions and recording learnings and will discuss Actions in weekly staff meetings

Guided Application

  • Participants did one practical Action per week (e.g. identifying a business process that needed to change and redesigning that process), requiring about 30 minutes per week, for about 4 months, learning how to better perform their function
  • They met biweekly to discuss both what they learned from the Actions and how they could better drive the transformation. These meeting were very operational and practical

Work Online Video Conference Meeting with Team, Partner, Coworker on Laptop. Coronavirus Pandemic. Business, Financial Crisis. Businesspeople Share Skill, Analyze Digital Data. Information Technology

Quantitative Measures:

Measures were taken of impact for all program with further analysis of the poor performers on these measures. Poor performers in each program showed significant improvement on quantitative measures:

Measure used for the fast-food chain: sales performance:

  • All four of the poor performers increased their sales sufficiently to be in the top 50% including one who was in the 85 Th percentile (None were fired!)

Measure used for the high-tech company: position in the Ranking and Rating:

  • All poor performers ranked in the top 25% in Ranking and Rating (they moved up not out)

Measure used for the digital advertising company: change in unwanted turnover:

  • Overall turnover decreased from 40% to 4%

Measure used for the health insurance company: behavioral alignment with the desired partnering model:

  • 360 o surveys of attitudes and behaviors showed an average of a 99.2% alignment of all participants with the desired model, with the poor performers indistinguishable from the top performers

Qualitative responses:

Many managers commented on the change in their people including:

  • “I didn’t realize that this type of change was possible. She (his employee) really turned around”
  • The difference between spending huge amounts of my time filling 40% of my open headcount versus being able to focus on serving our customers is wonderful
  • I used to look at this one person and think to myself: “What problems is he going to cause today?” That really wasn’t a good situation for either of us. Now he is one of the most positive and productive members of my team. I look forward to seeing him every day.
  • Analysis of the poor performers participation in the program showed two underlying reasons for the original poor performance that were “fixed” in the program
  • Poor performers initial had no “Purpose” or an incorrect purpose, so their work was either random or mis-directed. The neural work on Purpose in the program achieved close to complete alignment on the Purpose by the poor performers eliminating this problem.
  • Poor performers lacked one or more critical attitudes or skills. The Path to Mastery, in-depth definition of mastery, numerous practice actions and consistent group support led to development of the required skills

Can Poor Performers Be Fixed? YES!

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Reasons for Poor Performance at Work: Root Cause Analysis

Talent-Management-Product-Group (1)

Performance Management, Supercharged

This article on employee performance and performance management was updated in October 2020.

“Why aren’t they doing their work?”

At some point in their career, every manager has asked themselves this question. Common as the question might be, it’s a much pricklier problem to actually tackle. Many businesses become so absorbed with productivity and numbers that they don’t attempt to root out the common problems of their workplace and instead compensate with short-term solutions. Or they fire and forget instead of getting employees back on track (check out our performance improvement ideas here for help).

Both of these methods are akin to putting a bandaid on a broken leg… it doesn’t work. Instead of using these stop-gap methods, companies need to take a closer look at the problems in their workplace if they want cheaper long-term solutions to their productivity problems.

Employee Performance Issue #1: Are They Up to the Task?

Assuming you find the person responsible for your productivity problems (and rarely are the issues that simple), there are two big reasons why they could be underperforming; either they’re drowning under the weight of their workload, or they’re simply not motivated. Studies show there’s a good chance it’s the former; 53% of employees feel overworked or burnt out by their jobs.

On the other hand, you could be pushing them too far into areas they know little about, resulting in time and energy-intensive on-the-job training , decreasing productivity. Too much work on each individual employee to save money on hiring could be the cause of poor performance, as the increased stress from being overworked causes 51% of workers to feel less productive .

The good news is that this is the easier of the two problems to fix. If your employees feel like you give them too much work, but you need more work done, then the answer is simple but not easy: hire someone else. And if you see an employee isn’t capable of handling certain assignments, then you may need to provide them with the training they need to eventually complete those tasks. Neither of these solutions is cheap, but you’ll save on hiring more people when you avoid burnt-out employees leaving your company for a less stressful work environment.

Transform your talent management process in a cinch with our Mega Bundle: 


Employee Performance Issue #2: Do They Not Want it Enough?

Like every sports announcer seems to say when a team loses a game, some people just don’t want it badly enough. They can do the work you need them to, but they could be among the 68.5% of employees not engaged with their work. This is a much tougher problem to fix. You can’t hire around it. If an employee’s disengagement is chronic, you might be tempted to let the understimulated employee go, but there are some things you can try first.  

Chances are that if you hired someone to do a high-skill job, they want to keep doing it but have found roadblocks that are causing poor performance… maybe they feel overworked, under-stimulated, or even undervalued. If that’s the case, try implementing a more formal employee recognition program , which 60% of best-in-class organizations cite as “extremely valuable in driving individual performance.” When employees get feedback from their fellow workers, they’re more likely to feel better about the work they do, and this could help increase engagement across the board

NEW: According to a 2019 Gallup study, only 10% of U.S. workers felt engaged after receiving negative feedback on the job. 30% were so put off by a negative review that they actively looked for a new job.

Employee Performance Issue #3: Is it Non-Work Related?

You’ve hired someone else to share the workload. Your employees don’t hate their jobs, as far as you know. Could something else be troubling your employees, causing them to be less productive at work ? When it comes to reasons for poor performance at work, it’s possible they could be struggling with a personal issue that’s limiting their potential to work. To understand how people work in the office, you need to understand how they live outside of it.

RIGHT NOW: As we all continue to adapt to the new normal, many companies are choosing to move forward with the performance review season during the pandemic. In some cases, it may be necessary to reevaluate positions and performance as continually shifting priorities and workloads may have fundamentally changed how we evaluate and empathize with one another. In other cases, there may be a genuine financial need to assess performance and establish standards for the coming fiscal year, given COVID-related changes and effects. Just remember, you shouldn’t be trying to weed out poor performers or base merit raises on this process right now. Instead, look to strengthen your company culture and reinforce its values. Whatever your company’s reason(s) for having performance reviews this season, ClearCompany has the resources you need to create an effective performance review process.

For example, people are increasingly solitary, with 90% of respondents to a recent poll devoting much of their time to tasks like running, cleaning, and reading — all things people do alone. If these workers prefer to do many of their tasks alone, what does that say about their work habits? Perhaps you’re creating work groups made up of people who’d rather work alone.

It’s hard to tackle non-work related issues without feeling like you’re pushing too far into personal territory. You can, however, create a workplace where employees feel free to address their issues, even if it’s not a formal program. To solve your lone worker issue, for example, give employees more options about when, where, and how they work, and you’ll notice an uptick in work productivity .

Before your next Performance Review Cycle:

  • Get to know who your employees are based on their interests, likes, and dislikes. 
  • What does good performance look like to you? Define what your ideal comprehensive list looks like.
  • Record your employee's performance through an automated system to help you keep better track of reports and ensure timely feedback. 
  • Self-assess employee performance to help get a realistic view of where performance needs to be improved. 
  • Focus on building lasting relationships and trust with each employee. Ultimately, you are there to guarantee that they have the essential tools to succeed throughout their role.
  • Assemble a list of developmental opportunities and goals with your employees to help further their performance and to hold them accountable for achieving those goals.

It’s difficult to find the root cause for poor employee performance every time; often, it’s a convergence of problems that a single pull of the knot can’t undo. Regardless of where the problem lies, however, managers should attempt to help employees fix their productivity issues before resorting to stop-gaps, whether the employees are overwhelmed or unengaged. No matter their problems, when employees feel valued, they’ll find new ways to be productive.

Need a better way to track performance? ClearCompany’s suite of tools gives you everything you need to track and manage productivity. Sign up for a demo today, and we’ll show you the power of performance management .

Did you know Talent Success has the power to reshape business, and it all begins with your company mission and goals? The ClearCompany Talent Operating System is the only software that utilizes your organization’s mission, competencies and goals to hire, retain and engage more top talent; creating unparalleled levels of success.

  • 17 Mind-blowing Statistics on Performance Reviews and Employee Engagement
  • The Idiosyncratic Rater Effect & How It’s Ruining Your Performance Reviews
  • 5 Step Process to Increase Workplace Collaboration Immediately

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As ClearCompany's HR Business Partner, Laura focuses on all things HR including managing employee benefits, onboarding and engagement initiatives. With a keen focus on best-practices, she serves as a strategic partner to the leadership team by acting as a trusted resource on a wide variety of human resources topics including policy interpretation, creating and recommending enhancements to the HR process, and career development.

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  • Managing underperformance

This best practice guide is for employers and managers. It explains the advantages of taking a best practice approach to managing underperformance, and how to identify, address and minimise underperformance.

On this page:

Working at best practice, understanding underperformance, using best practice to manage underperformance, best practice checklist, links and resources.

It also has practical tips and case studies to help you move your business towards best practice.

Download the best practice guide:

Best practice employers have regular discussions with employees about performance. They set clear goals and provide feedback and support to help employees perform at their best. If underperformance occurs, they take steps to manage it appropriately, sensitively and promptly.

Every workplace can enjoy the benefits of taking a best practice approach to managing underperformance. These may include:

  • a more harmonious, high performing workplace
  • maximising an employee’s individual performance
  • building a culture of continuous skill development and improvement
  • higher levels of employee engagement
  • avoidance of legal disputes, such as unfair dismissal or bullying claims.

Underperformance or poor performance can include:

  • not performing duties, or not performing them to the required standard
  • displaying negative or disruptive behaviour in the workplace
  • failing to comply with workplace policies, rules or procedures.

Underperformance doesn’t just affect the output of an individual employee – it can also impact co-workers, customers and business productivity.

There are many reasons why an employee might perform poorly. Some common reasons include:

  • the employee doesn’t know what’s expected of them because goals and standards are unclear
  • the employee may not have the knowledge or skills to do the job
  • the employee is unsure if they are meeting requirements
  • low personal motivation or confidence
  • personal issues such as family stress, physical and/or mental health problems, or problems with drugs or alcohol
  • low morale in the workplace and/or a poor work environment
  • interpersonal differences or cultural misunderstandings
  • workplace bullying.

Underperformance isn’t the same as serious misconduct

Serious misconduct includes deliberately unprofessional, dangerous or unlawful behaviour, such as theft, fraud, sexual harassment or assault, which may warrant instant dismissal.

Employers should seek specific legal advice when terminating employment because of serious misconduct.

Best practice doesn’t look the same for all employers. The way to achieve best practice will vary because of things like the number of employees, industry and the business environment.

Below are suggestions and initiatives that can help you move your business towards best practice.

Implement a performance system

A performance system provides employees and managers with a framework for goal setting, constructive feedback, continuous skill development and regular discussions about performance. This helps reduce the chance of underperformance occurring.

A performance system doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming. To implement best practice in your workplace you could consider:

  • expectations - discuss your performance system during induction, training and in staff communications – this will help make performance a regular part of workplace conversations
  • template agreements - create a simple performance agreement template for your workplace
  • discussions - meet with employees to set clear performance expectations, discuss and record their individual performance goals and training needs
  • feedback - monitor employees’ performance and provide regular, specific feedback, in a timely manner, about things they do well and things they can improve on
  • training - support employee’s skills and performance through training, coaching and mentoring
  • review - conduct performance reviews every few months. Track employee performance against the agreed goals and set new goals
  • self-review - ask employees to complete a short self-review ahead of the performance review - this helps employees feel more involved with and committed to the process
  • reward - recognise and reward employees who do a good job. This doesn’t have to be a financial reward. Many employees appreciate a simple acknowledgement of their effort or achievements.

Find out more about implementing performance systems in your workplace with our free Managing performance online course  available at www.fairwork.gov.au/learning

Practical Tip:

Use everyday language to avoid alienating both managers and employees. For example, if terms such as ‘KPIs’ (Key Performance Indicators) aren’t part of everyday language in your workplace, don’t use them in performance agreements or discussions.

Address underperformance

Addressing underperformance can be challenging for both managers and employees. Failure to address underperformance appropriately, sensitively and promptly, can have a significant impact on your workplace culture and productivity. The issue is unlikely to go away on its own, and other employees may lose motivation if they have to carry the burden of poor performing colleagues.

Address underperformance issues straight away. It will make it easier to resolve issues and avoid more serious problems. It will also assist if you decide later to dismiss an employee for underperformance.

Here’s a 5-step best practice approach:

Step 1 — Identify the problem

Write down:

  • examples of the behaviour or action that is causing an issue
  • when it’s occurring
  • why it’s an issue
  • specify how the behaviour or action needs to change or improve.

Get any documents that demonstrate the problem, such as business statistics, examples of the employee’s work or customer feedback. Make copies to give to the employee.

Step 2 — Assess and analyse

If you identify a problem, consider:

  • how serious is the problem
  • how long the problem has existed
  • the gap between what’s expected and what’s being delivered.

Once you have assessed the problem, organise a meeting with your employee to discuss it. Let the employee know the reason for the meeting in advance so they can adequately prepare. If you will be going through specific documents, provide copies to the employee before the meeting.

Explain to the employee they can bring a support person of their choice to this meeting. A support person may be a co-worker, family member, friend, or union representative. Their role is to support the employee during the meeting - not to speak or advocate for them.

Case study – Underperformance

Joelle is a new car salesperson. She has been very successful over the years, but recently her performance has declined.

Joelle’s manager, Mark, finds several mistakes in paperwork Joelle prepared. Mark speaks to Joelle informally about the issue. He checks her paperwork again the following month but finds things have not improved.

Mark decides to meet with Joelle about her performance. To prepare for the meeting Mark checks her sales results and finds they have fallen. He also reviews customer surveys and notes several negative comments about Joelle’s attitude and enthusiasm in the last 3 months.

Mark organises the meeting and tells Joelle what the meeting is about. He gives her copies of her sales results and other documents they will be discussing. He invites her to bring a support person if she wants to.

Step 3 — Meet with the employee

It’s important the meeting takes place in a private, comfortable, non- threatening environment, away from distractions and interruptions. The meeting should not be overheard by others.

During the meeting you should:

  • clearly describe the problem and refer to specific examples
  • explain the impact on the business, the employee’s work or co-workers
  • explain the outcomes you want to achieve from the meeting
  • give the employee an opportunity to respond and give you their view of the situation
  • listen and ask questions to understand their response to the problem and why it has occurred
  • if possible, refer to recent positive things the employee has done, to show them you also recognise and appreciate their strengths
  • use a relaxed and encouraging tone and show confidence in the employee’s ability to improve.

Take notes during any discussions about performance and follow up the discussion with an email or letter confirming what was said and agreed. Give employees a chance to suggest any changes.

Keep these notes, emails and any other documents relating to underperformance on the employee’s employment file. These may be helpful if the problem re-occurs, if there is a disagreement about what was discussed, or if the employee later makes a legal claim (for example, unfair dismissal).

Step 4 — Agree on a solution

After discussing the problem, you and your employee should work together to find a solution.

Employees are more likely to improve their performance if they feel they have contributed to this process.

When developing a solution, you should:

  • make sure the employee understands the change you require
  • explore ideas by asking open questions. For example, ask the employee ‘what can we do to improve this in future?’
  • suggest ways to fix the problem, and invite the employee to make suggestions as well
  • offer appropriate support and assistance, such as training, mentoring, or adjustments to the employee’s duties
  • reinforce the value of the role the employee performs.

Consider recording the agreed actions in a performance improvement plan. This is a document that sets out what the employee needs to do to improve their performance. It should:

  • clearly identify the performance that needs to improve or the behaviour that needs to change
  • outline how this will be done, and list any support that will be provided to help the employee improve
  • explain each party’s responsibilities
  • give the employee a reasonable time to improve their performance
  • set a date for a follow up meeting to review progress and discuss the employee’s performance against the agreed plan
  • in cases of serious or ongoing underperformance, specify clearly and preferably in writing the possible consequences if the employee’s performance does not improve.

Both you and the employee should keep a copy of any performance improvement plan.

We have templates to help you manage underperformance. Find our template performance improvement plan, warning letters and other useful checklists  at www.fairwork.gov.au/templates

Case study – Resolving issues quickly

A technology business has a policy that sets out a process for dealing with underperformance.

The policy requires that the first conversation about a performance issue must focus on finding out why there has been a decline in performance.

At the end of the discussion, the manager and employee need to agree on action points. At least 1 action point must be something the manager will do to support the employee. For example, the manager could arrange for the employee to work with a more senior colleague for 3 shifts.

Under the policy the manager can’t take any further steps (such as a performance improvement plan or giving a written warning) until the agreed actions have been completed.

This approach allows performance issues to be addressed quickly and simply, and helps build trust with the employee.

Step 5 — Monitor and review

Once you have a solution in place, make sure you:

  • follow through with any training or other support you offered the employee
  • regularly check-in with the employee to discuss how they are progressing
  • continue giving feedback and encouragement
  • have a follow up meeting at the agreed time to review their progress.

It often takes more than one conversation to resolve an issue. A follow up meeting is a good chance to acknowledge the employee’s progress and focus on the improvements that are still required. Remember, give the employee a reasonable period to improve. What is reasonable will depend on the employee’s role and the duties they perform.

If you have a performance improvement plan in place, update the plan at the follow-up meeting to specify:

  • whether the current performance is satisfactory or not
  • what has improved
  • what still needs to be improved
  • what support is being provided
  • when the performance will be reviewed again.

Both you and the employee should keep a copy of any updated performance improvement plan.

Once the performance has improved to a satisfactory level, acknowledge that the issue has been resolved and discuss how the improvements will be maintained.

If an employee’s performance doesn’t improve after a reasonable period, you need to consider your options.

In some cases, it may be appropriate to continue performance management or issue a formal written warning. If the employee is still underperforming after a reasonable period, it may be appropriate to dismiss them.

Remember, it’s likely to be more cost effective and efficient to work on improving an employee’s performance than it is to replace them.

Dismissing an employee for underperformance

Ending an employee’s employment is a serious step. You must have a valid reason for the dismissal relating to the employee’s capacity or conduct, and follow a fair performance management and dismissal process.

Employers cannot dismiss their employees in circumstances that are “harsh, unjust or unreasonable”. What is harsh, unjust or unreasonable will depend on the circumstances of each case. However, it is important to be fair to employees particularly when it comes to termination of employment. They should be given reasons for dismissal and an opportunity to respond to those reasons.

It’s important that before dismissing an employee you can show you have:

  • told them the purpose of performance meetings in advance and allowed them to prepare
  • told them they could have a support person present
  • clearly outlined the expected level of performance and the improvement that was required
  • clearly warned them that their performance needed to improve
  • gave them time and support to improve their performance
  • told them that they may be dismissed if their performance didn’t improve.

Before dismissing an employee, provide the employee with written reasons why you are considering dismissal and give the employee a reasonable opportunity to respond to those reasons. You must take into consideration any response the employee provides before you make a decision about dismissing the employee.

A failure to follow these steps before dismissing an employee may result in a successful unfair dismissal claim against you.

Importantly, employers with fewer than 15 employees (based on a simple headcount) will be covered by special dismissal arrangements which are different to those that apply to larger businesses.

Small business employees cannot make a claim for unfair dismissal in the first 12 months following their engagement. If an employee is dismissed after this period and the employer has followed the Code then the dismissal will be deemed to be fair. You can access the Small Business Fair Dismissal Code and checklist  at www.fairwork.gov.au/ending-employment/unfair-dismissal

It’s best practice to fill out the Small Business Fair Dismissal Code Checklist when any employee is dismissed. You should keep the checklist, along with the letter of termination, records of performance meetings, performance improvement plans and any written warnings with your employment records. These records can help you if an employee makes an unfair dismissal claim.

You also need to give the employee written notice of termination and pay the employee any accrued or outstanding entitlements.

For further information on ending employment  visit www.fairwork.gov.au/ending-employment

Train managers and employees

Dealing with underperformance can be challenging for both employees and employers. Managers need clear procedures and organisational support. They also need the courage and willingness to manage the issue.

Best practice employers give their managers and employees training and information about setting performance goals, giving feedback and managing underperformance. This helps managers to better identify and address issues of underperformance.

Information and resources you could provide to help your managers include:

  • training on handling underperformance. It’s a good idea to include role-play elements in this training to help managers practice their approach
  • policies about performance management
  • templates for performance agreements and performance improvement plans
  • reminders before key dates, for example automatic email messages or calendar entries to prompt managers to conduct performance reviews or follow up meetings.
  • contact details for people in the business who can give guidance on performance management
  • links to external resources, such as our underperformance meeting plan and other checklists available at www.fairwork.gov.au/templates

Use our free online courses . We have short courses on managing performance, managing employees and having difficult conversations in the workplace.

These short courses contain interactive video activities about setting performance goals, giving feedback, reviewing performance, addressing underperformance and negative behaviours, dealing with attendance problems and employee mistakes.

The courses are available at www.fairwork.gov.au/learning

Performance management and bullying

Employers are entitled to expect high standards of performance from employees and can take reasonable management action to address underperformance. Employees sometimes perceive this as ‘bullying’.

If you take reasonable actions in a reasonable manner this isn’t bullying.

Taking a best practice approach to underperformance and dealing with problems appropriately, sensitively and promptly will help you minimise the risks of a bullying claim.

Common performance issues

The following provides a summary of common issues faced by employers and employees when managing performance and identifies key ways to improve performance management systems in the workplace.

A best practice workplace involves more than just understanding and complying with the law. This checklist will help you work at best practice when managing and preventing underperformance within your business:

  • performance system - implement a performance system, it doesn’t have to be a complex one! This will give your workplace a framework for setting expectations, developing skills, giving feedback and regularly reviewing performance.
  • reward - recognise and reward employees when they’re performing well.
  • identify and promptly address - identify and assess underperformance problems when they occur. Address underperformance issues straight away.
  • process - follow any performance management process set out in your award or enterprise agreement, the employee’s contract or relevant workplace policies about performance management.
  • prepare  - prepare for any meetings. Provide relevant documents to the employee, give the employee time to prepare for the meeting and invite or allow them to bring a support person.
  • be specific - explain your specific concerns to the employee. Provide evidence and clearly outline the improvement required. Discuss the consequences of continued poor performance.
  • questions - ask questions, give the employee an opportunity to respond.
  • listen - before considering what actions you might take next.
  • solution - ensure the employee understands what’s expected of them and work together to find a solution to improve performance.
  • document - record the solution in a performance improvement plan with milestones and time frames for further review. Document all discussions, and keep records.
  • follow-up - schedule a follow-up meeting to review the employee’s performance against the agreed plan.
  • monitor and support - monitor the employee’s performance and continue to provide feedback. Provide training and support to help the employee improve. Where an employee’s performance is suffering due to the employee’s personal circumstances, discuss with the employee any external support, such as referral to professional services or counselling.
  • dismissal - if performance doesn’t improve and you are thinking about dismissing the employee, ensure the process is fair and the employee is given an opportunity to respond to the reasons you consider justify dismissal before dismissing the employee. If you are a small business employer with less than 15 employees you should follow the Small Business Fair Dismissal Code.
  • complete our Managing performance online course  and access other free online training for employers and managers at www.fairwork.gov.au/learning
  • visit our Managing performance and warnings – Fair Work Ombudsman  at www.fairwork.gov.au
  • use our templates and checklists for managing underperformance  available at www.fairwork.gov.au/templates
  • Find all our Best practice guides  at www.fairwork.gov.au/bestpracticeguides. These easy-to-follow and practical guides will help you transform your business from compliant to best practice, so you can get the most out of your employees.


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Original research article, perceived causes of students’ poor performance in mathematics: a case study at ba and tavua secondary schools.


  • 1 Ministry of Education, Heritage and Arts, Suva, Fiji
  • 2 School of Information Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Physics, The University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji

Poor achievement in mathematics is an issue of great concern for many countries across the globe. Fiji is one of the countries in the South Pacific experiencing the same trends, pressures, and concerns. This study aims to seek the views of stakeholders (students, teachers, heads of departments, and school heads) with regards to the causes of poor achievement in mathematics at the senior grades of secondary schools in the districts of Ba and Tavua, Fiji. A descriptive design using both quantitative and qualitative approaches were utilized whereby data were collected from 201 upper secondary school respondents comprising 171 students, 16 mathematics teachers, 7 department heads, and 7 school heads from seven randomly selected schools in the districts of Ba and Tavua. The study found that the students had a negative attitude toward mathematics. It was also found that an ineffective mathematics curriculum in secondary schools was the reason behind poor performance in the subject. Moreover, many of the primary school teachers lacked potential and competence to teach mathematics at primary school levels, and this largely contributed toward the lack of interest amongst students, hence translating into poor achievement at both upper and lower secondary levels. On the other hand, however, it was gathered that secondary school teachers were rather positive, good quality, performing, and fully qualified as far as the teaching of mathematics and delivery of the subject matter was concerned. Review and amendments to the year 12 and 13 mathematics curriculum, use of technologies to teach mathematics, improving the quality of primary school mathematics teachers, reducing the emphasis on exams, introducing internal assessments, projects, and field work in the mathematics curriculum were a few of the significant recommendations made from this study.


Globally, mathematics is regarded as one of the most important subjects in the school curriculum [ 1 ]. It is the foundation of scientific and technological knowledge that contributes significantly toward the socioeconomic development of a nation [ 1 – 6 ].

Mathematics plays a vital role in everyday life of so many people [ 7 , 8 ]. According to [ 2 ], mathematics is one subject that affects all aspects of human life at different levels. A study by [ 9 ] claimed that both education and human life do not effectively function without the knowledge of mathematics. In formal education, mathematics forms the basis of many of the sciences such as physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, and IT disciplines as well as the nonscience disciplines such as accounting, economics, geography, and even physical education, music, and art [ 1 , 4 , 6 , 7 , 10 – 15 ]. It is one of the most important subjects in the school curriculum, which acts as a bridge for all knowledge [ 3 ]. Studies by [ 16 , 17 ] stressed that mathematics is the bedrock and a tool for the scientific, technological, and economic advancement of any country. It is a common belief of educationists that no one can make progress in any field without having the basic knowledge of mathematics [ 18 ]. According to [ 1 , 8 ], mathematics is the foundation of science and technology without which a nation will not prosper and achieve economic independence. That is why mathematics is one of the leading core subjects in the secondary schools’ curriculum.

Personnels require mathematical skills in various disciplines, workplace, and sectors. Even things like the hydrogen bomb, missiles, space crafts, and satellites would not have been possible without the knowledge of mathematics [ 19 ]. Mathematics has its application in a wide range of informal settings, including vegetable selling, sewing, fishing, construction work, shopping, purchasing, carpet laying, video games, cabs and buses, farming, entertainment, sports, and everyday family activities [ 20 , 21 ]. Ultimately, the survival of any human being in this competitive world is almost impossible without the knowledge and skill in mathematics.

Despite the highly decorated and recognized importance of mathematics and the fact that it is the prerequisite for most of the subjects, poor achievement and lack of interest in mathematics (and STEM) among students remains as an issue of concern in schools, colleges, and universities in developed and developing countries alike [ 22 – 25 ]. Mathematics continues to be one of the most challenging subjects in schools as perceived by students [ 7 , 26 – 28 ]. There is a general impression that its very nature complicates mathematics. Because of this impression, majority of students have a phobia for this subject [ 9 , 29 – 31 ]. Besides, mathematics students of the 21st century enter mathematics classrooms with a serious lack of fluency and reliability in numerical and algebraic manipulation and simplification, problem-solving, and negative attitude [ 28 , 32 , 33 ].

It is quite evident that students with good mathematical skills can think analytically and have better reasoning abilities. That is why mathematics is used as an essential entry requirement for most of the courses at the higher education institutes, especially for courses relating to science, technology, and engineering disciplines [ 22 ]. Reference [ 34 ] claimed that the number of students enrolling in higher level mathematics courses had declined significantly. Due to this, there was an increase in mathematically underprepared students enrolling in undergraduate courses leading to curtailed enrollments and low pass rates in higher education (HE) institutes. Fiji with three major higher education institutions, namely, The University of the South Pacific, The Fiji National University, and The University of Fiji face the same challenge of decline in the quantity and quality of applicants enrolling for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) courses due to low pass rates in mathematics at years 12 and 13 national examinations [ 22 , 25 , 28 , 35 ]. Many Fijian students fail to meet the basic entry requirements for HE institutions in STEM courses that require either a pass or a higher cutoff mark in mathematics [ 36 ]. The domino effect of this over the years has forced HE institutes to remove the high cutoff marks for specific disciplines in order to avoid losing on students [ 37 ].

The Fijian government and its academic stakeholders have long been investing profoundly in the education sector. The government over the past few years has been providing initiatives such as transport assistance (bus fare and boat fare subsidies), free textbooks, and grants to uplift the standard of education in Fiji [ 11 , 38 ]. Despite such massive investments in education and the important role that mathematics plays in society, there has been a continuous trend of poor achievement in mathematics, especially at the years 12 and 13 grades of secondary schools in Fiji. The national examination results of FY12CE and FY13CE is demonstrated in Table 1 .


TABLE 1 . Performance in years 12 and 13 mathematics national examinations.

Studies by [ 16 , 39 , 40 ] claimed that the continual trend of poor achievement in mathematics is a function of cross-factors related to students, teachers, and schools. It is evident from several studies that student, teacher, and curriculum factors seem to have a significant effect on mathematics achievement [ 1 , 16 , 33 , 41 , 42 ].

While there are anecdotal pieces of evidence on why we are facing low achievement, there has been a dearth of formal and high-quality research in this area. The present study intends to carry out a thorough investigation on the student, teacher, and curriculum factors by cross-examining the views and perceptions of students, teachers, heads of the mathematics department, and the school heads. The article analyses and discusses the views of the respondents on the factors contributing to students’ poor achievement in mathematics, especially at the senior grades of selected secondary schools in the west of Fiji Islands. The findings of this research would provide an empirical insight to the Curriculum Development Unit (CDU), Ministry of Education, Heritage and Arts (MEHA), Higher Education Institutes (HE), and other relevant academic stakeholders to bring about effective reviews and reforms in the education system in order to improve the achievement of students in mathematics at the senior secondary grades. It is anticipated that the recommendations of this study would bring about a positive mental attitude and perception of students toward mathematics. Moreover, the way mathematics is taught in both primary and secondary schools has to be changed.

Secondary School Mathematics Reforms in Fiji

The secondary school mathematics in Fiji has not seen any significant structural changes in the past 3 decades. Whereas almost all areas of the curriculum have changed to fit better with the context of Fiji, it is still an academic system that is driven by examinations [ 43 ]. The examination system in mathematics at the secondary level, which currently has external examinations at years 10, 12, and 13, is an entirely written examination in mathematics with no form of internal assessments.

However, for several years, the Overseas School Certificate and the General School Certificate Examinations from the United Kingdom were adopted in the Fijian education system. Then in the 1960s, came the switch to the New Zealand syllabi and examinations—the School Certificate and the University Entrance Examinations. The former was dropped and the latter replaced by local examinations in 1989 [ 44 ].

There were no significant changes in the mathematics curriculum for the next 2 decades until internal assessments came into effect. In 2011, Fiji Junior Certificate Examination was abolished, and internal assessment was implemented in all the secondary schools in Fiji [ 45 ]. It was anticipated that the reform in the curriculum would allow teachers to adopt a student-centered approach, shifting the focus of instruction from the teacher to the student. The shift from the teacher-centered approach would have allowed a student to be free from the constant pressure and trauma of external examinations. Form six (year 12) and form seven (year 13) examinations remained since they play an important function in the selection of students for further education and employment opportunities.

However, a report presented to the cabinet by the Education Minister in 2015 stated that the raw results for the external examinations showed very low mean marks and percentage pass rates in years 12 and 13 examinations which portrayed a failure in the education system. Mathematics recorded a percentage pass of 7.5%, one of the lowest performing subjects’ among all the other subjects in Fiji Year 13 external examination in 2014 [ 35 ]. The predicament was seen to be due to the removal of external exams up to year 11, and thus, poorly prepared students passed on from one year to the other without their teachers and parents knowing the true status of the students’ level of attainment that year. Removal of scaling was further proposed and passed by the cabinet to reflect a student’s true ability as results in mathematics in the past showed exaggerated percentages and averages that did not correctly portray the true stock of knowledge that the student had acquired [ 46 ].

In 2015, the honorable minister for education, Dr. Mahendra Reddy, further stressed that the Fijian curriculum was below the standard of some of the countries, whose graduates were more competitive at an equivalent level [ 47 , 48 ]. Dr. Reddy claimed that the graduates from HE institutes were fraught with lack of soft skills, lack of competency in English proficiencies, unwilling to think outside the box, and had poor research skills [ 47 ].

In the year 2018, the repercussions of poor achievement in mathematics were felt when the Ministry of Education, Heritage and Arts identified an immediate shortage of mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry, and industrial arts teachers anticipating the shortage to continue in the foreseeable future [ 49 ]. The shortage of teachers in STEM disciplines is attributed to poor achievement in mathematics at senior secondary grades since very few students are able to qualify for such courses. Most of these elite students who qualify and graduate prefer joining the private sector rather than teaching, contemplating better pay scale, and faster promotion chances, the trend shared by other countries in the South Pacific region [ 22 ]. To add on, MEHA has gone to the extent of hiring retired industrial arts teachers who wish to rejoin the service as assistant teachers. In few cases, teachers of nonengineering discipline are even appointed by the school administrators to take up the role of teaching engineering subjects at secondary schools due to the shortage of industrial arts teachers in the country. Also, some graduates who do make it to the teaching programs for STEM courses prefer to migrate to neighboring countries after few years of service, for attractive and better salary packages in comparison of what is paid to teachers locally.

Removal of scaling in national exams; preparation of localized and prescribed textbooks; reintroduction of national exams in year 10; introducing standard exams for years 9, 10, and 11; upgrading the quality; and providing detailed solutions of past year national exam papers were few of the reforms that took place over the past 4 years. Still, the result in mathematics at years 12 and 13 grades, the number of students enrolling at universities for STEM programs, and the number of graduates in mathematics, science, and technology continued to decline significantly.

Literature Review

The continuing trend of poor achievement in mathematics in Fiji secondary schools raises concerns to the Fijian government and the stakeholders on whether or not the Fijian education system can supply graduates who possess the essential skills to enable them to cope with the ever-evolving technological society. Several studies have attributed students’ low achievement in mathematics to student, teacher, and curriculum factors. For this study, students’ attitude and perception toward mathematics, teachers’ attitude, and perception toward mathematics, teaching methodologies of mathematics teachers, quality and performance of mathematics teachers, and the effectiveness and relevance of mathematics curriculum were the five factors identified to be influencing students’ achievement in mathematics at the senior grades of secondary schools in Fiji. The following review summarizes from the literature the above five factors that contributed to the low achievement of students in mathematics.

Attitude and Perception of Students Toward Mathematics

First, attitude determines the effort a student is likely to put in his or her learning of a subject. It refers to someone’s basic liking or disliking of a subject [ 13 , 50 ]. Several studies have been carried out in many countries to find the factors that influence the students’ performance in mathematics. Among these factors, student attitude and perception is one significant factor that has been consistently studied [ 13 , 51 – 55 ]. Studies such as [ 2 , 3 , 43 , 55 ] attributed challenges to teaching mathematics to the negative attitudes and perception of students as they perceive mathematics as a difficult subject to pass. A recent study by [ 1 ] found out that 92.50% of students hated mathematics, whereas 86.25% had unjust fear toward mathematics. The prolonged fear and anxiety of students in mathematics ultimately generates a negative attitude of students that becomes relatively permanent in future [ 56 ].

On the contrary, a study by [ 2 ] on the three colleges of Ghana found that students had a positive attitude toward mathematics with a willingness to learn. However, they are uncomfortable due to the conditions around them. These conditions do not necessarily mean that a student is always liable for his or her poor achievement. However, to date, while there have been local studies assessing school teachers’ preparedness for mathematics [ 57 ] and secondary students’ attitude in science [ 25 ] and ICT [ 58 , 59 ], there has been no research carried out locally to assess students’ attitude and perception toward mathematics. This requires views from students, teachers, heads of departments, and school heads to gain deeper insights into students’ lack of interest and low achievement in mathematics at the senior grades of secondary schools in Fiji.

Attitude and Perception of Teachers Teaching Mathematics

Second, the question that arises here is can the students be blamed for the poor attitude toward mathematics? According to [ 60 ], teachers’ negative beliefs about mathematics have a strong influence on students’ attitude and achievement in mathematics. Studies such as [ 6 , 53 , 54 , 61 , 62 ] have stressed on teachers’ attitude in mathematics being the significant determinant of negative attitude among students. The way students perceive teachers’ characteristics will affect their attitude toward mathematics [ 5 , 57 ]. Teachers’ personal and professional characteristics play a significant role in students’ liking or disliking of mathematics. Studies by [ 53 , 62 ] show that boring teachers, teachers’ lack of commitment, teachers’ personality, students’ failure to understand the topic, and the poor performance of students in exams relate to teachers’ negative attitude. While there is a dearth of relevant studies in Fiji, an international study by [ 6 ] has found out that the majority of the mathematics teachers in secondary schools display a positive attitude toward teaching mathematics. However, there are no recorded observations of this issue in Fiji. Therefore, an in-depth and comprehensive formal research needs to be conducted to find the general trend of local teachers’ attitude toward teaching mathematics and if this attitude affects their students’ attitude toward performance in mathematics.

Teaching Methods Used by Mathematics Teachers

Third, several studies have attributed poor academic achievement of students to the deficiency in teaching method(s) used by mathematics teachers [ 1 – 3 , 63 – 65 ]. According to [ 65 ], teachers employ wrong teaching methods of learning, which results in general hatred for the subject by the students. The author further concluded that if mathematics is to be appreciated by students, teachers must use new pedagogies and technologies that can stimulate students to gain interest in mathematics classes. A recent study by [ 1 ] found that 85.63% of students claimed that poor teaching methods of some mathematics teachers scare students from the subject. According to [ 66 , 67 ], in the current era of education, students are encouraged to discover and build their knowledge through active participation. Teachers should incorporate methods that involve active participation of students, considering students’ interest. A local study by [ 68 ] justified that due to the exam-oriented system, teachers are too much concerned with finishing the syllabus and drilling the students with the exam questions and answers. He further stressed that teachers are reluctant and sometimes hesitant to use other approaches to the teaching and learning of mathematics as it would take up too much time and are deemed irrelevant to passing exams.

Quality, Performance, and Qualification of Mathematics Teachers

Moreover, great teachers are quality and better performing teachers who tend to inspire people around regardless of any challenges or barriers. Quality, performance, and qualification of mathematics teachers are other important factors that significantly influence the attitude and achievement of mathematics students. It is evident through research that the achievement of students is strongly linked to high-quality and qualified teachers [ 68 ]. A recent study by [ 1 ] revealed that the majority of the students indicated that their teachers did not have enough potential to teach mathematics. Most of the mathematics teachers do not make the teaching of mathematics practical and exciting due to inadequate training at HE institutions or lack of training for preservice teachers on the 21st-century pedagogies in mathematics, which ultimately leads to negative attitude and poor achievement in mathematics among students. It is, therefore, important that both preservice and in-service training are essential for the quality professional development of the teacher [ 2 ]. Studies by [ 28 , 69 ] have emphasized that technology is essential in teaching and learning mathematics. Some secondary schools in Fiji, such as Nadi Sangam Kuppuswamy Memorial College, Swami Viveka Nanda College, Tilak High School, and Vunimono High School, have already blended ICT entirely in years 12 and 13 of the school curriculum. A recent local study by [ 70 ] emphasized that ICT in this modern era allows various innovative and creating assessments to be incorporated in lessons, which were not possible using traditional assessment methods. He further added that the workload of teachers is significantly reduced by the use of ICT, allowing teachers to utilize more time to focus on the key role, that is, to enhance learning among students. Many primary and secondary schools have plans underway to integrate ICT in every classroom [ 10 , 13 , 72 ]; however, investing in such initiatives still proves to be an expensive affair for many schools in Fiji. Another local study conducted by [ 10 ] shows that together with the implementation of ICT in the teaching and learning curriculum, students need to have relevant skills such as computer competencies and computer self-efficacies in order to successfully and effectively utilize these tools for their learning processes. Additionally, students also need to have relevant digital literacy skills in order to survive and thrive in this digital world [ 71 , 72 ]; hence, the teachers as mentors of the students need to have relevant digital literacy skills themselves.

Also, teachers play a very crucial role in integrating ICT in the school curriculum, and without proper training, knowledge, and competency of teachers, ICT may fail to deliver its expected outcome in education. Use of ICT, mobiles, laptops, podcasts, videos, Internets, and other assistive technologies improve the way mathematics is taught and enhance students’ understanding of the basic concepts more rapidly and effectively. However, a study by [ 73 ] found that mathematics teachers are not fully utilizing these facilities in their classroom teaching. According to [ 9 ], most of the mathematics teachers do not even make the teaching of mathematics practical and exciting. They are not competent enough to teach mathematics dynamically, which leads to negative attitude among pupils implying improper guidance by the teachers as well. A study by [ 74 ] concluded that the lack of competent mathematics teachers leads to the failure of students in mathematics in Nigerian secondary schools. Teacher’s language and background knowledge of the content contributes significantly toward academic achievements [ 75 ]. A study by [ 72 , 76 ] shows that linguistic and conceptual comprehension is a matter of concern. Mathematics teachers need to give a clear explanation to students about mathematical concepts where both language and a basic understanding of the concept is required to ensure each student understands rather than left confused. A study by [ 77 ] proved that teachers’ clarity, communication skills, content knowledge, and assessment procedures significantly impact students’ achievement in mathematics. To add on, studies such as [ 1 , 74 , 78 , 79 ] have attributed students’ low achievement in mathematics to lack of qualified mathematics teachers teaching at secondary schools. To address such issues in the South Pacific, a new cohort-taught pedagogical model known as the Science Teachers Accelerated Program (STAP) was introduced by The University of the South Pacific (USP) for those in-service science teachers outside the vicinity of USP campuses have to upskill and upgrade their qualifications through cohort teaching [ 22 ]. The program has mixed delivery modes and leverages heavily on ICT tools and technologies, including tablets and virtual classrooms [ 23 ], which have proven to be statistically significantly effective and productive in terms of quality and qualification of science teachers teaching at secondary schools in the South Pacific.

Effectiveness and Relevance of Mathematics Curriculum

Finally, a study by [ 80 ] described the curriculum in developing countries as too compact and exam-oriented. For teachers and stakeholders, the exam results of the schools are of great concern to them. Thus, due to the exam-oriented system, teachers are too much concerned with finishing the syllabus and drilling students with the exam questions and answers [ 68 ]. In the same view, [ 81 ] claimed that curriculum and assessment in Fijian schools do not serve the actual purpose effectively and efficiently. Examinations are not able to assess the attitude of students, leaving an important facet of life underdeveloped and probably the reason for not attaining quality. He further claimed that the gap in the curriculum content and the forms of assessment to achieve the outcomes has labeled the Fijian education system hapless. The Education Commission Report 2000 even reflected that the exam-oriented curriculum does not allow for outcome-based teaching and learning to progress. In many developing countries, several studies and researches have been carried out on curriculum and examinations influencing students’ interest and achievements in mathematics [ 7 , 81 – 84 ]. Local studies by [ 85 , 86 ] recommended that the Ministry of Education should review the curriculum to make it relevant and flexible to the diverse needs of different regions and background of the students. Reference [ 5 ] emphasized that the curriculum that currently exists focuses primarily on impoverished ideas about student learning or are based on no model of learning at all. It is quite evident that the mathematics content and assessments at years 11, 12, and 13 are dominated by arithmetic and is broad, non-contextualized, and irrelevant to real life when compared to years 9 and 10.

The majority of the local research works from the literature were conducted in primary schools, which focused on limited factors affecting performance in mathematics. At the same time, there are several factors responsible for students’ poor achievement in mathematics. Therefore, the study intends to contribute to the existing literature investigating the above five factors contributing to poor achievement in mathematics at the senior grades of secondary schools in the Western Division of Viti Levu, Fiji.

Research Objectives

The aim of this study was to examine and assess the factors that contribute to students’ poor achievement in mathematics at the senior grade (years 12 and 13) of secondary schools.

The study sought to:

a) assess students’ attitude and perception toward mathematics at senior grades of Tavua and Ba secondary schools

b) assess student perception on teachers’ attitude toward teaching mathematics at Tavua and Ba secondary schools

c) evaluate the qualification of mathematics teachers of Tavua and Ba secondary schools

d) identify teaching methods used by mathematics teachers of Tavua and Ba secondary schools

e) student and teacher perception on the effectiveness of the current mathematics curriculum at the senior secondary grades.

Research Questions

Specifically, this study aims to answer the following research questions:

a) What is the students’ attitude and perception toward mathematics at senior secondary grades?

b) What is the student perception on teachers’ attitude toward teaching mathematics at senior secondary grades?

c) What are the teaching methods used by mathematics teachers at senior secondary grades?

d) What are the qualifications of mathematics teachers in Tavua and Ba schools?

e) What is the student and teacher perception on the current mathematics curriculum at the senior secondary grades effective?


This study is a descriptive study in which a cross-sectional survey research design was adopted. The data for the research were collected by the use of questionnaires, interviews, and student focus group discussion. The target population was 201 respondents which comprised 171 students, 16 mathematics teachers, 7 department heads, and 7 school heads from seven randomly selected secondary schools in the districts of Tavua and Ba. Random Sampling technique was used to select the seven secondary schools from a population of 14 secondary schools within the districts of Ba and Tavua. The sample, therefore, represented 50% of the population of Ba and Tavua secondary schools. The mathematics teachers, heads of departments, and the school heads were a part of the sample, who answered the questionnaires and also took part in the individual interviews as per the schedule. The stratified random sampling technique was then used for the selection of students from years 12 and 13 by obtaining a list containing recent overall academic results of each student in order to group them with varied abilities. This was done to ensure that the views of all the students with different abilities are equally represented. Furthermore, the purposive sampling method was used to select the students for the focus group discussion. Students within the Ba community were identified by the principal researcher, who were very inquisitive about the study’s objective and were outspoken to give personal and true opinions for the study. All the respondents were assured of confidentiality and their identity anonymity to protect the privacy of each respondent and to get the required information, which are the true opinions of each respondent. The appointments with the school heads were made and the consent of each respondent was also taken prior to the field research.

Research Tool Development and Pilot Study

There were four sets of questionnaires designed for each group of respondents (students, teachers, heads of departments, and school heads). The questionnaires were almost the same except for the content being rephrased to suit the opinion of the different groups of respondents. The questionnaire utilized the Likert scale to collect quantitative data for the research along with a section for suggestions and recommendations to curb the issue of poor achievement in mathematics. Three sets of interview questions were then designed. This was only for the mathematics teachers, heads of departments, and school heads. The students were not considered to be interviewed due to time constraints and a busy schedule for students after the reopening of schools post–COVID-19 lockdown in the country. Students were rather selected for the focus group discussion that was held at one of the libraries in the Ba town. The interviews and the focus group discussion only collected the qualitative data for the research. Pilot testing of these tools was also done in the two secondary schools in the district of Ba and Lautoka, which were not part of the sample. This was done to establish the clarity, meaning, and comprehensibility of each item in the tools. After the pilot study, the research tools along with the responses were discussed among the co-researchers for further review and amendment for its reliability and validity. A Cronbach alpha test using Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) was carried out. The alpha value of 0.86 indicated that the questionnaire was valid and reliable for the study.

Demographic Characteristics of the Respondents

From the target population of 201 respondents, 181 respondents comprising of 151 years 12 and 13 students, 16 mathematics teachers, 7 heads of mathematics department, and 7 school heads answered the questionnaire. The same 16 mathematics teachers, 7 heads of the mathematics department, and 6 school heads from the 181 respondents group were the respondents who were also interviewed. The remaining 20 respondents from the target population were the years 12 and 13 students from the four secondary schools in the Ba district. They volunteered to be part of the student focus group discussion. From the 13 secondary schools in the districts of Tavua and Ba, 7 schools were randomly chosen to be the sample of this study. Data on Table 2 indicate the gender distribution of the participants in the study.


TABLE 2 . Gender of respondents.

Results and Discussion

a) Research question 1: What is the attitude and perception of students toward mathematics at senior secondary grades?

Students, teachers, heads of the mathematics department, and the school heads selected for the study were asked to give opinions on years 12 and 13 students’ attitude and perception toward mathematics. Each of the students selected expressed views on their own attitude and perception toward mathematics while the teachers, heads of mathematics department, and the school heads expressed their opinion on students’ attitude and perception toward the subject. The responses obtained are presented in Table 3 and Table 4 , as shown below.


TABLE 3 . Students’ attitude and perception toward mathematics—student perception.


TABLE 4 . Students’ attitude and perception toward mathematics—educators perception.

Table 3 shows that majority of the students perceived mathematics as a difficult subject. Students’ responses for each item showed that more than 50% of the students had a fear of mathematics as a subject and preferred learning other subjects, with the majority not wishing to continue with mathematics at the university level.

Table 4 shows responses from the 30 educators. More than 50% of the educators also perceived that students found mathematics a difficult subject and mostly failed because they had mathematics phobia. Looking at the educators’ responses, more than 50% believed that students lacked mathematics basics and hardly participated in any classroom activity. The responses from both the students and teachers were similar and derived from the “SA” and “A” columns. The following were a few of the responses from the interviews and student focus group discussions on how students perceive mathematics.

“I enjoyed and liked mathematics in my first three years of primary school only. Now I hate this subject. I do not see any reason why should we study mathematics? Where is it used in real life?” Student FG 13.

“I was really doing well in mathematics till year 4. Then I was taught by a teacher who always confused me. The explanations were not clear and understandable. The same teacher taught me in year 5 and from then I have lost interest in the subject.” Student FG 2.

“Students have a preconceived idea that mathematics is difficult. Till we change their attitude, we will never be able to achieve a better result in mathematics. Mathematics has to be made compulsory along with English in order to make them realise that they have to study and pass the subject if they want to achieve something in life”. Principal 2.

“Mathematics is a scoring subject. My teacher teaches us so well. She always motivates us to learn, but I do not know the basics. When now I am eager to study, I still find mathematics going over my head. I can answer few simple questions but when it comes to complex exercises, I just lose hope again.” Student FG 19.

“Students have a negative attitude and perception from primary school. Due to the ministry’s policy on compulsory education till year 12, they are just getting promoted. A child not knowing the previous year work is rarely able to grasp the concepts in the current year. It becomes very difficult for teachers in a classroom of over 30 students to go over basics and then teach them the concept.” Teacher 5.

“Mathematics is just numbers. It is so boring. Why are there no projects in mathematics like other technical subjects? I love to do technical drawing and computer studies as it has projects. In technical drawing we do practicals and projects which makes me enjoy the subject.” Student FG 12.

“My mathematics teachers work really hard. Some even take extra classes such as afternoon classes, Saturday classes and evening classes. Teachers go to the extent of going to students home and teach. Despite these efforts, some students do not bother. They do not even show interest and take advantage of extra efforts by our department teachers. Fact is that it is not their fault totally. They do not have a good foundation. By the time they reach year 12 and 13, mathematics is perceived to be a foreign language to them. They know that no matter how hard they try, nothing would change as they would still fail.”

b) Research question 2: What is the teachers’ attitude toward teaching mathematics at senior secondary grades?

The students were asked to give opinions on teachers’ attitude toward teaching mathematics at senior secondary grades.

Table 5 shows the student perception of the teachers' attitude in Tavua and Ba secondary schools. From the results, close to 85% of the students perceived that the teachers had a positive attitude toward teaching mathematics and always motivated them to learn. This is derived from the percentage of responses given under the “SA” and “A” columns. Similarly, teachers had been positively conditioning students at the senior grades; however, students’ prolonged negative mindset about mathematics from primary school failed to gain positive predilection for the subject. The teachers provided the students with summary notes for easier understanding and provided recaps before beginning new lessons. About 50% of the students indicated that their teachers' incorporated games, fun, and technology while teaching mathematics. Overall, the teachers’ attitude was positive in the delivery of mathematics lessons to the students.

c) Research question 3: What are the teaching methods used by mathematics teachers at senior secondary grades?


TABLE 5 . Student perception of teachers’ attitude toward teaching mathematics.

For this question, Table 6 was used as a guideline for the type of teaching methods used by the educators. In total, 23 educators answered this question and the results are presented below.


TABLE 6 . Teaching methods.

Data obtained from analyses show that 46.4% of the mathematics teachers used interactive lecture method, 24.3% use learner-centered method, 16.6% used teacher-centered method and 12.7% use collaborative learning method in their mathematics lessons. There were mixed reactions to the type of methods employed by the mathematics teachers of Tavua and Ba secondary schools. From the results it was evident that few of the teachers still preferred teacher-centered method (lecture method) of teaching their mathematics lessons. Many researchers have argued that the lecture method is a passive, ineffective, and antiquated teaching method used by teachers that would soon become obsolete [ 87 ]. However, few teachers find lecture method to be useful in covering a substantial amount of content, especially with large class sizes [88].

d) Research question 3: What are the qualifications attained by the mathematics teachers?

The survey also captured the mathematics and teacher training qualifications. The results are shown in Figures 1 and 2 .


FIGURE 1 . Highest level of mathematics teachers’ qualification.


FIGURE 2 . Teacher training qualification of mathematics teachers.

Figure 1 shows that majority of the teachers at secondary schools have degree qualifications with 24% having post graduate qualifications. The teachers with Diploma are upgrading their qualifications to degree. Figure 2 shows the teacher training qualifications and 100% of the teachers’ have teacher training qualification ranging from secondary teacher training certificate to post graduate diploma in education.

e) Research 5: Is the mathematics curriculum in senior secondary grades effective and relevant?

A 14-item Likert scale was developed to assist in detecting the nature and effectiveness of the mathematics curriculum at years 12 and 13 grades as opined by the respondents of Tavua and Ba secondary schools. The responses obtained are presented in Table 7 , as shown below.


TABLE 7 . Effectiveness and relevance of mathematics curriculum.

Out of 181 respondents, 145 (79.6%) have indicated that mathematics textbooks are very much dominated by arithmetic. It mostly deals with numbers, calculations, and complex computations. Also, 124 (68.5%) respondents agreed that the current mathematics curriculum at the senior secondary grades focuses only on examinations. In comparison, 101 (55.8%) respondents have shown that the mathematics curriculum in the senior secondary grades focuses mainly on the product (performance in exams) instead of the process (learning and understanding). This strongly agrees with the study by [ 43 ] who also identified the exam-oriented curriculum as one of the challenges in the senior grades of secondary schools in Fiji. Furthermore, the data obtained showed that 100 (55.2%) respondents have indicated that the mathematics curriculum at senior secondary grades is broad and lengthy compared to the other subjects. It was quite evident that majority of the teachers, heads of mathematics department, and school heads in the interviews have expressed disappointments regarding the current mathematics curriculum at the senior grades of secondary schools in Fiji.

“Curriculum is broad and lengthy and does not address the needs of students who wish to pursue further studies outside mathematics, science, and technical subjects.” (HOD Interview 5).

“Content of Year 13 has very less relevance to the real life.” (Teacher 13).

“People are not interested in certain topics because they do not find it relevant to real life.” (Student FG 5).

“Years 12 and 13 mathematics curriculum needs to be reviewed and the numbers of strands need to be reduced to incorporate more time for project work/class-based assessments.” (HOD Interview 5).

“Experienced teachers or department heads are the best stakeholders in terms of consultation and amendment of mathematics curriculum. Furthermore, there has to be consistency in external exam papers from year to year” (HOD Interview 5).

“The mathematics curriculum needs to be realigned to suit the Fijian context and the need of students.” (HOD Interview 2).

“Some students totally lose interest in mathematics upon reaching years 12 and 13 and therefore focus on subjects with projects to get a good aggregate. They ignore mathematics as they know that there is no chance of passing mathematics purely through exams.” (HOD Interview 6).

“External exams need not to be abolished but the weighting should be inclusive of projects and class internal assessments.” (HOD Interview 5).

There had been very poor results over the years in year 12 and 13 external exams. This means both the examination and the curriculum do not serve its purpose.” (HOD Interview 7).

• The overall mean response of the students, teachers, heads of the mathematics department, and school heads indicates that the mathematics curriculum at the senior grades of secondary schools is ineffective and irrelevant and therefore needs to be reviewed.

The data below show the rating of respondents’ perception of factors that contribute to poor achievement in mathematics. Out of 181 respondents, only 93 entries were analyzed since the remaining 88 entries were invalid. The responses obtained are analyzed in Figure 3 below.


FIGURE 3 . Factors that contribute to poor achievement in mathematics (A) . Students’ attitude and perception toward mathematics (B) . Teachers’ attitude toward teaching mathematics (C) . Teaching methods used by mathematics teachers (D) . Quality, performance, and qualification of mathematics teachers ( E) . Poorly developed curriculum and examinations.

Figure 3 revealed that students’ attitude and perception toward mathematics (58.1%) and poorly developed curriculum and examinations (34.3%) were the factors perceived to be significantly contributing to students’ poor achievement in mathematics at the senior grades of secondary schools. The respondents perceived that teacher attitude (2.2%); teaching methodologies (2.2%); and teacher quality, performance, and qualification (4.3%) had the least impact on students’ poor achievement in mathematics.

Limitations and Strengths

There was a dearth of local literature on poor achievement of students in mathematics and as such international literature was mostly referred to as a guide. Furthermore, time constraint was a factor since the principal researcher holds a full-time academic position during the time of this project. Hence, the sample schools chosen were around the vicinity of the principal researchers’ district origin. Despite these limitations, the study utilized an expansive approach to study different dynamics contributing to students’ poor achievement in mathematics from the views of students, teachers, heads of departments, and the school heads. The findings of the study also depict the notion of the problem faced in the teaching and learning of mathematics.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The study was carried out to examine and assess the factors contributing to the poor achievement of students at the senior grades of Tavua and Ba secondary schools in Western Fiji. Students’ attitude and perception toward mathematics, student perception on teachers’ attitude toward mathematics, teacher methodologies, teacher qualification, and student and teacher perception on the current curriculum in mathematics were the factors studied for this research. The study found that students had a negative attitude and perception toward mathematics. Furthermore, students perceived that mathematics teachers had a positive attitude toward teaching mathematics and are fully qualified to teach mathematics at secondary school levels as far as the teaching of mathematics and delivery of the subject matter was concerned. The method of teaching by the mathematics teachers was also appropriate and was fairly justified; however, limited use of technologies by the mathematics teachers in teaching mathematics was a matter of concern among most of the students. Furthermore, the study revealed the students and educators perceive that the current mathematics curriculum for years 12 and 13 are ineffective. This implied that students’ negative attitude and perception toward mathematics and the ineffective mathematics curriculum are the significant factors perceived to be significantly contributing to poor achievement of students in mathematics at the senior secondary grades. Moreover, many of the primary school teachers lacked potential and competence to teach mathematics at primary school levels, and this largely contributed toward the lack of interest among students, hence translating into poor achievement at both upper and lower secondary levels were found to be the reasons for students’ negative attitude and poor performance at secondary schools. The following recommendations are made based on the findings of the study: The mathematics curriculum at both years 12 and 13 need to be reviewed and amended in order to allow outcome-based teaching and learning to take place. The relevance and application of mathematics in real life should also be reflected in the curriculum.

The teachers, heads of departments, and the school heads have strongly emphasized ( via interviews) the need for MEHA and CDU to involve all the academic stakeholders including even the students and mathematics teachers in regards to any consultation, reviews, and amendments to the school curriculum. Exams should not be the only method of assessing students’ performance in mathematics. Internal assessments/field work/projects need to be a part of mathematics curriculum to understand mathematics better and at the same time develop interest among students with diverse needs. Students tend to learn better with technologies. There is a need for teachers to incorporate 21st century teaching tools, gadgets, and technology in teaching mathematics. Technology provides additional opportunities for students to see and interact with mathematics concepts and develop a positive attitude and perception toward the subject. Teacher quality should not be compromised at any cost, especially teachers who are responsible to teach the foundation of mathematics in primary schools. Content-focused teacher training to be implemented for primary school teachers in Fiji to teach specialized subjects in schools in order to build a good foundation among students and maintain positive attitude and perception of students toward mathematics across all levels.

Data Availability Statement

The raw data supporting the conclusion of this article will be made available by the authors, without undue reservation.

Author Contributions

Study conception and design: SC and KC; data collection: SC; analysis and interpretation of results: SC, AP, and VC; draft manuscript preparation: SC and KC. All authors reviewed the results and approved the final version of the manuscript.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

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Keywords: low academic achievement, teacher quality, curriculum, mathematics in schools, teacher attitude

Citation: Chand S, Chaudhary K, Prasad A and Chand V (2021) Perceived Causes of Students’ Poor Performance in Mathematics: A Case Study at Ba and Tavua Secondary Schools. Front. Appl. Math. Stat. 7:614408. doi: 10.3389/fams.2021.614408

Received: 06 October 2020; Accepted: 04 February 2021; Published: 23 April 2021.

Reviewed by:

Copyright © 2021 Chand, Chaudhary, Prasad and Chand. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Samlesh Chand, [email protected]

This article is part of the Research Topic

Analytics and Mathematics in Adaptive and Smart Learning

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Dealing with poor performance: case study 2

We provide a second case study that looks at how employers should address employees' poor performance. 

  • Topic of the week: Dealing with poor performance case study 2 Employers need to act reasonably if an employee goes off sick during a performance management process but will, usually, still be able to address the poor performance. 

The XpertHR policies and documents section includes a number of model documents to help employers manage employees' poor performance. For example, there are documents to help employers carry out performance appraisals and an Improved performance review procedure . There are also a number of documents relating to disciplinary procedures , including a Letter confirming what has been agreed following an informal discussion of minor unsatisfactory performance . 

We also provide guidance on How to handle an underperforming employee as well as a Good practice guide on performance management . 

Where an employee's poor performance is due to his or her misconduct, disciplinary action is usually the appropriate response. The Disciplinary rules and procedures section of the XpertHR employment law manual explains the law relating to disciplinary action, while the misconduct flowchart in XpertHR's Liveflo module ensures that employers follow the correct procedure in line with the "Acas code of practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures". 

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Report summary: Tackling Poor Performance

Poor performance is an issue that worries managers and employees alike. It is of concern to senior managers because it is a measure of how effectively the organisation is led. But people in organisations do not always feel their organisation tackles poor performance appropriately – a hard nut to crack. Dealing with poor performance is an emotive issue. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that many organisations fail to address it. In our research, seven large employers shared their perspectives on the issue.

Why tackle poor performance?

Research evidence shows that:

  • tackling poor performance is still fairly low on the agenda for employers
  • poor performance reduces productivity
  • managers find it uncomfortable and would rather ignore it
  • it has a negative impact on other staff motivation and retention.

What do we mean by poor performance?

Among the seven employers participating in our study, interpretation seemed to be influenced by what was going on in their business at the time and this was what had prompted a review of their approach. But managers were quick in thinking of individuals, coming up with colourful labels stemming from behaviours such as attitude and lateness. So organisations may have a vague idea of what they mean by poor performance, but people can quickly acquire a poor performer label. A ‘worker with attitude’ may be trendy in certain circles, but if it is the wrong attitude, seen in lack of co-operation with colleagues, it may lead to the employee being removed.

What is true poor performance?

What is true poor performance?

Source: IES

When is poor performance real anyway? Our diagram shows the aspects that can be associated with performance. What could be construed as true poor performance may be small indeed, when we take account of other ways poor performance might be defined. However, the picture is quite confused when we consider that poor performance can result from role overload or unclear objectives or unrealistic targets. Changes to the work environment would probably raise the level of performance.

On the other hand, absence (which can again be seen as a sign of poor performance) or a personal or a domestic problem, may be better handled by Occupational Health. Perhaps the clearest boundary in the picture is the overlap between behaviour and attitude, with misconduct. If the employee is dishonest and unethical, there are strong reasons for invoking the disciplinary process and ultimately exit. Poor performance is legally defined as ‘when an employee’s behaviour or performance might fall below the required standard’. Dealing with poor performance is, however, a legal minefield. This might explain why some employers tend to confuse poor performance with negligence, incapacity or misconduct.

What is acceptable performance?

Employees need to know what constitutes an acceptable level of performance, below which their organisation will consider their performance wanting. This is not so easy when we look at the variety of messages that they may receive from their employers about performance requirements. Given that these often conflict, it may be difficult for an individual to have a clear view of what is meant by acceptable. The onus is, therefore, on line managers to instil some much-needed clarity, and on both parties to agree a standard of performance as well as the targets to be delivered.

Much emphasis was given by our employers to address performance issues informally and as soon as they arose – and most likely outside the performance appraisal process. This was often referred to by the managers we interviewed as ‘micromanaging’ (eg setting clear expectations and monitoring progress). Since the outputs achieved are key, failure to achieve them would obviously be a signal for investigating the level of performance further.

To this end, most of the HR managers interviewed said they ‘would turn to the list of objectives set as the cornerstone for measuring poor performance’. It is therefore debatable as to whether this does not form part of an effective performance review process in the first place. To confuse us further, there are also many ways that employers in the study measured employees’ level of performance to assess whether it is good or bad. All our employers were using both hard and soft measures and differed in the ways they sought these measures, how they combined them to obtain a rating, and in what kind of benchmark they used. Competency frameworks can be useful to spell out unequivocally the actions that are not helpful to the business.

But is the employee poor or simply not the best? Employers judged this with the controversial concept of forced ranking – whether the performance is relative (eg compared to best performers) or absolute (eg against a standard). The process of standard monitoring or calibration, that most adopted to ensure the consistency, and fairness of the overall rating, may serve to assuage employees somewhat, given the universal dislike of forced ranking and organisational league tables. Crossing the line below acceptable performance may involve employees lacking capability or displaying inappropriate behaviour. Crossing the line presents a rather complex picture – the grey areas:

  • What makes a good day’s work?
  • Are culturally-defined behaviours involved?
  • Is the employee in control and willing?

Tackling poor performance

All employers participating would review their selection process to avoid recruiting poor performers in the first place. But organisations need to put in place an overall approach and procedure to deal with poor performance. Approaches we encountered take on two important, but diametrically opposed, dimensions:

  • whether the organisation's ultimate aim was to improve performance or remove the employee
  • the degree of formality of the procedure used to achieve this aim.

Some organisations adopted a developmental approach, believing that employees’ performance could be improved. Their intervention therefore included a sharper focus on training and development. In this case, a varying degree of formality of the process used was also in evidence. Towards the more formal end of the procedure, but still with an improvement emphasis, we found the approach that a manufacturing organisation had developed, ending in a performance improvement plan. At the other end of the spectrum lies the approach adopted by an electronics company that believed in informally matching people to roles according to their strengths.

We found no evidence of employers using the ‘getting rid of bottom 10 per cent’ approach. But pressure to move towards such an approach could be sensed. A central government agency, for example, used an assessment centre to review the capability of its senior managers. Either explicit (or implicit) the list of poor performers seemed ubiquitous. But poor performance needs to be destigmatised and regularly talked about in a sensitive way. The capability procedure is also the means to document performance issues, which is the key to being able to act. However, evidence also needs to be collected earlier on as part of the appraisal process. Most organisations should clearly spell out the link or the difference between their capability and disciplinary procedures, as the boundary is often blurred.

The most common message emerging from the study is the need for managers to deal with issues early rather than let them get worse. We would like to offer them the following mnemonic as an illustration of good practice. In most cases, dealing with poor performance is a bit like turning on the taps:

The strategic choices

Employers need to decide what they are really trying to do with poor performance.

  • Weeding out small numbers has a big impact on the rest of the workforce, giving the message that the organisation is serious about tackling poor performance.
  • Losing the worst, keeping the best is clearly in vogue in the United States. This is about ratcheting up organisational performance by getting rid of the lowest performers (often average rather than poor). It can be legally difficult to defend and is disliked by employees.
  • Improving performance may be better conceived as re-energising people and improving their skills and communication. This approach works if organisations adopt a collaborative approach, where senior managers work with colleagues to support the line to maximise contribution.

Tackling Poor Performance , Strebler M, Report 406, Institute for Employment Studies, 2004

Hard copy: £19.95. PDF Download: £free

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case study on poor performance

Building a Business Case for Performance Management

It’s hard to make a business case for performance management when the CEO only thinks about old-school review processes. Some traditional performance review processes are so bad that they make performance worse one-third of the time . 

CEOs and CFOs think about how ineffective reviews can be . It’s understandable that they would hesitate to start a new performance management process. 

Modern performance management makes a difference. The right strategy with the right software can boost employee performance, but you’ll have to make a business case for it. CEOs and other leaders may not understand how important and impactful the right performance strategy can be.

This article can be your guide to making a business case for performance management. Use the facts and case studies below to build a convincing business case for performance management.

First, let’s talk about what good performance management looks like in a business.

Need to show your CEO why performance management is worth it? Learn More

What Does Performance Management Look Like in a Business?

Bad performance management techniques are like a one-sided interview. The employee feels like they are being judged. These reviews are so bad that 22 percent of Millenials have admitted to calling in sick rather than face a review. Another 59% say that their manager wasn’t prepared to give meaningful feedback.

A performance review should feel collaborative. Feedback should be clear, the next steps should be laid out, and employees should have plenty of time to offer feedback of their own.

But, how does that work?

There are many types of performance appraisals you can try:

  • Check-ins create a more consistent time and space for discussions about long-term performance
  • 360 Feedback incorporates input from coworkers, as well as managers
  • Project-based reviews focus on employee contributions to specific projects

The key is selling your management team on the fact that your performance management process needs an overhaul . 

Here’s everything you need to know about building a business case for performance management.

Building a business case for performance management is all about presenting accessible statistics. These facts will show how the right strategies and software can impact your organization in positive ways.

A few benefits of overhauling your performance management strategy include:

Reduced administrative cost

Reduced turnover, reduced liability, improved organizational alignment, reduced succession gaps, improved workforce optimization.

Poor management leads to lost productivity. It has been estimated that U.S. employees who aren’t engaged cost businesses and organizations a whopping $960 billion to $1.2 trillion per year .

A good performance management strategy saves money. This is true even if you pay for performance management software.

The right performance management software can reduce administrative costs. It does this by automating review distribution, collection, and recording. The software saves time, which saves money. Strong performance management systems motivate your employees to perform their best.

performyard performance management

Use PerformYard to save time and money with new performance management. Learn More

Employee turnover is a serious problem. When an employee leaves their position, it costs over 20% of their annual salary on average to replace them. 

It pays to get to the bottom of employee discontent. An effective performance management strategy reveals problems before they arise. It also encourages employees to stay.

In 2012, Adobe had a revolutionary idea that led to a revolutionary approach to performance management. This approach influenced big-name companies from Microsoft to GE along the way. The companies chose not to continue slogging along with traditional performance appraisals.

Instead, they implemented regular performance check-ins. These check-ins provide employees with ongoing, real-time feedback . There are no forms to fill out and no deadlines. The companies can now respond to organizational or market adjustments more quickly. 

This Adobe performance management case study shows how Adobe achieved a 30% decrease in employee turnover. 

Crunch the numbers for your particular organization. You’ll be amazed at how much you will save when you choose a performance management strategy that works for your business.

Decentralized performance reviews can lead to false statements appearing in employee reviews. That can spell real trouble for your organization. Managers may report false or confidential information to third parties without employee consent.

These mistakes can lead to costly litigation. The mistakes also reflect a lack of respect that can lead to decreased productivity among employees.

A formal approach to performance reviews fixes this. It features measurable objectives, self-assessments, and reliable data storage. These features reduce the chances of your organization experiencing a lawsuit. 

Do your employees understand what their performance reviews are trying to achieve? Chances are, they don’t. A measly 14% of employees understand the organization’s strategy .

This disconnect happens when organizations fail to use cascading goals .

Cascading goals strategy requires that you first identify organizational goals. Next, break them down so each member of the team can contribute to the same common goal. With cascading goals, everyone in the organization knows what to do, how to do it, and why they’re doing it. 

Everyone’s actions align with the goals of the organization.

Software for cascading goals does cost time and money. Employees who spend time on misaligned activities cost time and money too. You’ll save in the long run if you ensure the actions of every employee align with your organization’s big goals.

business case for performance reviews

Do your top performers know who they are? Do they know that you have plans to promote them in the future?

Without a clear system for performance reviews, you aren’t communicating your appreciation. That comes with expensive consequences. Nearly 80% of employees who quit their jobs say that a lack of appreciation is one of the major reasons they left.

Top performers who don’t stick around can leave a huge hole in your business. For example, executives can cost over 200% of their annual salary to replace. 

Telling your top performers that you have plans to advance their career path helps prepare them for leadership positions. Employees are more likely to stay in organizations when they see a clear path to leadership positions. This will reduce the costs associated with searching for and interviewing new candidates.

Some business leaders and managers fall into the trap of thinking that performance management is a waste of time. They think that time would be better spent on letting employees do their jobs. In fact, the right performance management strategies optimize the time your employees spend on work.

The key is choosing performance reviews that improve workforce optimization.

They are reinventing performance management at Deloitte. Their case study demonstrates that performance management doesn’t have to be a lengthy, complicated process. Instead, they ask four questions — questions managers can answer. Deloitte now spends less time than ever on reviews. The company does conduct more often though and has more accurate data as a result.

What Are the Stages of Performance Management?

Once you’ve built your case for performance management, it’s time to show the leadership team exactly how a new strategy is implemented.

Check out the three-step process below. It will help you choose performance management tools that get leaders excited about changes..

Choosing a performance management process

Nine out of ten managers are dissatisfied with how their companies conduct annual performance reviews. When deciding on a new performance appraisal strategy, ask for manager input. Discuss the five modern alternatives to annual performance reviews . Determine which one your team thinks will best support individual, team, and organizational goals.

No matter what process you choose, make a plan to check in on how it’s serving your business. If the performance management plan isn’t supporting your employees, try something different.

Implementing a performance management software

No performance management process is complete without the right software. The software allows you to manage goals and check-in with employees according to the process you have chosen. Performance management platforms also create reports. These reports allow you to compare employee performance over time. The reports also provide data to track the effectiveness of the performance reviews themselves.

business performance management reports

PerformYard is a favorite among leadership teams, managers, and employees. Its flexible, streamlined system makes it easy for everyone to use the performance review process. The platform can be slimmed down for simple annual reviews or built up for more complex strategies. 

PerformYard’s visual reporting makes it easy for every member of the team to see how the results of each review impact your organization.

Show your C-Suite why PerformYard is worth it. Learn More

Getting buy-in from managers and employees

There are two ways to get manager buy-in when choosing a new performance management process. You can start by gathering manager input when selecting a new process. Next, be sure to show them the process with a demo.

The best way to get managers and employees on board with the new process is to let them experience it for themselves. 

Managers will be glad to give up the old way of doing reviews once they see the benefits of modern performance management. These benefits include clearer expectations, more aligned goals, and an open dialog about progress. 

You should also reward employees after the reviews are complete. Clear data will help you identify top performers and reward them for their efforts. The reward will make them look forward to performance reviews instead of dreading them.

A revamped performance management process may be what your organization needs. Show your leadership team the statistics and case studies from this article. It will help you build an irresistible business case for performance management. 

case study on poor performance

The tools to streamline your performance management process.

case study on poor performance

The Malaysian Lawyer

Latest updates on malaysian law, employee poor performance: some recent cases.

case study on poor performance

The proper management of under-performing employees is always a tricky proposition. While the law recognises poor performance as one of the reasons that would constitute “just cause” for dismissing an employee, many employers make mistakes which result in dismissed employees winning unfair dismissal claims. There have also been instances where employees have been able to walk out and claim that they have been constructively dismissed due to the employer putting them on a performance improvement plan (“PIP”) .

There are many variables that will determine whether a poor performance termination was carried out fairly. It’s always useful for employers and decision-makers to review how other employers have managed under-performing employees. In this article, I briefly summarise the following recent cases related to PIPs and poor performance dismissals:

  • Azura Norden v. Small Medium Enterprise Development Bank Malaysia Berhad (Award No. 94 of 2021) .
  • Charles Selvam Andrew Francis v. Kebabangan Petroleum Operating Company Sdn Bhd (Award No. 256 of 2021).
  • Thomas Kuruvilla v. Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation Sdn Bhd (Award No. 151 of 2021) .

These summaries will provide valuable insights on the issues the Industrial Court considers when assessing performance-related terminations.

1. Azura Norden v. SME Development Bank

In the Azura Norden case, the Claimant was unhappy at being given an annual performance rating of 1 out of 5, and subsequently being placed on a 3-month PIP. This led the Claimant to resign and treat herself as constructively dismissed. The Claimant contended that there was a sequence of actions by the Bank as part of a reorganisation exercise that were malicious, unfair, unlawful, and served to victimise her, and the poor performance review and PIP was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The Court stated that it would be assessing whether the Claimant’s grievances satisfied the “contract test” in Bayer (M) Sdn Bhd v. Anwar Bin Abd Rahim [1996] 2 CLJ 49 — a High Court decision which was subsequently upheld by the Court of Appeal and Federal Court. In essence, this means that in a constructive dismissal claim, an employee cannot deem himself constructively dismissed because his employer has acted “unreasonably”. In order to succeed in a constructive dismissal claim, the employee must prove that “the employer is guilty of a breach which goes to the root of the contract or the employer has evinced an intention no longer to be bound by it.” It is settled law that four conditions must be satisfied, which is that — (i) there must a breach of contract by the employer; (ii) the breach must be sufficiently important to justify resignation; (iii) the employee must leave due to the breach and not for any other reason; and (iv) the employee must leave immediately .

The Court listed the following four events to be assessed in deciding whether there was a breach of contract by the Bank entitling the Claimant to claim constructive dismissal:

  • The Claimant’s redesignation as part of the reorganisation.
  • The Claimant’s relocation to a general work station.
  • The Bank’s decision to rate the Claimant’s performance as “1 out of 5” which is equivalent to “unsatisfactory”.
  • The Bank’s decision to place the Claimant on the PIP.

Based on the evidence presented, the Court decided that the Bank’s transformation program and restructuring were genuine and not with any ulterior motive. There was no “demotion” as the redesignation did not involve any changes to the Claimant’s rank, job grade, remuneration, or contractual privileges. The Claimant’s contract also did not entitle her to a private office room.

The Court referred to the High Court decision in Tokio Marine Insurans (Malaysia) Berhad v. Tan Kooi Luang & Anor [2014] 1 LNS 1839 , where it was held that, where an employee claims to have been victimised, the burden is on the employee to provide evidence to prove it on a balance of probabilities. In this case, the Claimant admitted that there was a company-wide transformation program and that there were multiple restructurings that took place that year. There was no evidence that the changes made involving the Claimant was done with any ulterior motive, and the Court found that the redesignation was “a normal process which was done well within the managerial prerogative of the Bank”.

Regarding the performance assessment, the Court said that “the employer is the best person and is well within its prerogative to assess the performance of the Claimant” and that this assessment cannot be said to have been a breach of contract. The Court also reiterated that it “is not in the business of interfering in an employer’s assessment of an employee”. The Court found that it was reasonable for the Bank to ask the Claimant to participate in the PIP , and that the Claimant was not the only employee placed on a PIP. To support this position, the Court cited the case of Wasudevan Shridathan v. The New Straits Times Press (Malaysia) Berhad (Award No. 1872 of 2018) , which held that being placed on a PIP is not grounds to claim constructive dismissal .

The Court concluded that the Claimant failed to establish that she was constructively dismissed, and had left the Bank on her own volition, and therefore dismissed her claim.

2. Charles Selvam Andrew Francis v. Kebabangan Petroleum

The Claimant in the Charles Selvam case had a positive track record with the Company, including receiving a special recognition award praising his “capabilities, dedication and excellent contribution”. He was given a satisfactory performance rating, which was later changed to “unsatisfactory” without his knowledge. The Claimant was then placed on a 3-month PIP, which had vague targets and objectives, and was not properly monitored. Although the PIP stated that the Claimant’s progress would be monitored bi-weekly, there were only 2 review meetings in 3 months. The Claimant objected to being placed on the PIP, and further objected when his PIP was extended for a further 3 months. The Company did not respond to these objections. The Claimant was subsequently dismissed on the grounds of redundancy.

Having assessed the evidence, the Court found that the Claimant’s position was not redundant, as his services had not become surplus to the Company’s needs. Although the Company contended that the Claimant had been struggling to perform his duties, this was unsupported by evidence. The Court found that the downgrading of the Claimant’s performance rating was done without any genuine basis, and was unfair.

The Court found that the PIP was “unfairly imposed on [the Claimant] and improperly managed” as the Company could not explain the lack of progress meetings with the Claimant during the PIP. The Court said that the way the PIP was managed showed “it had been nothing but a showpiece for collateral purposes”. The Court further concluded that the unilateral extension of the PIP was done in bad faith, and that the Company had been “stringing the Claimant along with an ulterior motive”.

In its award, the Court said that it “cannot over emphasise the importance of acting fairly in managing a case of genuine poor performer” and cited the case of IE Project Sdn Bhd v. Tan Lee Seng [1987] 1 ILR 165 (Award No. 56 of 1987) : “An employer should be very slow to dismiss upon the ground that the employee is found to be unsatisfactory in his performance or incapable of performing the work which he is employed to do without first telling the employee of the respects in which he is failing to do his job adequately, warning him of the possibility or likelihood of dismissal on this ground and giving him an opportunity of improving his performance. It is for the employer to find out from the employee why he is performing unsatisfactorily and to warn him that if he persists in doing so he may have to go.”

The evidence showed that the Claimant’s selection for termination was on the basis of his competency and his placement in the low-performer category, rather than redundancy. The Court found that the Claimant’s “alleged shortcomings had been mere afterthoughts to justify his non-selection for retention”.

The Court concluded that the Company had failed to prove that the Claimant’s termination had been with just cause, and therefore the dismissal was without just cause or excuse. The Claimant was awarded RM474,166.67 (24 months’ backwages, less 10% for post-dismissal earnings, less termination benefits already paid, and plus two month’s salary as compensation in lieu of reinstatement for two years of service).

3. Thomas Kuruvilla v. MDEC

In the Thomas Kuruvilla case, the Claimant had been with MDEC for 10 years, and had no prior performance issues. After a new CEO was appointed, a reorganisation exercise took place, and the Claimant was transferred to various new divisions and departments, placed on PIPs, and then dismissed on the grounds of being a poor performer. The Claimant’s complaint was on the basis that he was not a poor performer, should not have been placed on the PIPs, had been transferred to new job functions without proper support, given unrelated KPIs and insufficient guidance, and was victimised by MDEC.

The Court held that, while an employer is the best person to judge the performance of an employee, this was provided that “the conduct of the employer is not actuated and/ or tainted with malice or bad intention” . The Court found that, prior to the appointment of the new CEO, the Claimant “had been a glowing employee” with “a clean record of service” and “no issues relating to his performance”.

However, after the new CEO’s appointment, the Claimant was transferred to various new divisions and departments for reasons which were unclear, and “given conflicting, backdated, transfer orders which had also called into question the real motive and/or genuineness of the transfers”. The Court also found that there had been “delays in setting the KPIs, thereby reducing the period for its achievement” and “the extent of his duties had not been properly defined and demarcated” . Further, the assessment of the Claimant’s performance was done inconsistently and “without adequate justification” and “no satisfactory answer had been given by the Company as to why his ratings had needed to be recalibrated to make him a non-performer”.

In its award, the Court also stated: “The Company’s actions of placing him on a second PIP in a different work setting, with various changes in job functions and where the assigned KPIs had not been a part of his job description, had shown that it had not truly been living up to its expectations in assisting or encouraging a poor performer (if any) to improve but rather had been putting various obstacles in his way with the view to frustrating and demoralising him .” The conclusion from the evidence was that the Claimant “had been extended very little or no support or guidance” . In relation to the second PIP, the Court found that it “had been for a shorter time than that agreed and it had lacked clarity “, the Claimant was assigned tasks outside his scope during the PIP process, and that “the second PIP had not given him adequate time to accomplish the tasks assigned to him” .

The Court offered further guidance for performance managers, stating: “Performance managers have a duty to ensure that an employee coming under their supervision is given adequate support and supervision in order for the employee to achieve the deliverables and KPIs.” The Court also said that “placing a well performing employee […] in a new setting within the company, without adequate support and assistance and thereafter suggesting that he had not been performing well and had needed improvement, had not reflected that the company had treated him well and fairly” and that the constant changes “ could not be regarded as fair labour practice if the resultant effect would be to continuously put him in a state of confusion and difficulty that would invariably cause deterioration to his performance and efficiency.” It was further observed that the Claimant “ had not been properly informed of his alleged shortcomings in his KPIs and performance ratings (if any) wherein there ought to have been a proper assessment, appraisal and notification of his area(s) of improvement” and that “the evidence had shown that before he could appreciate and absorb his weaknesses and strengths (if any) upon being given his final rating on his individual KPI, he had been transferred to another division, twice.”

Having considered the evidence, the Court concluded that MDEC’s handling of the PIPs was flawed . The Court found that the Claimant was not accorded sufficient opportunity to improve, or given adequate guidance and assistance and that placing the Claimant on the PIPs “had been an act of victimisation” and that MDEC “had clearly driven him to an extent that his performance had deteriorated”.

The Court concluded that the Claimant was dismissed without just cause or excuse. The Court ordered MDEC to pay the Claimant RM810,628.00 (24 months’ backwages, plus 10 months’ salary as compensation in lieu of reinstatement for 10 years of service).

Recommended reading:

  • “What Malaysian employers need to know about employment law”
  • “Ensuring proper employee management from a legal perspective”
  • “Handing employee dismissals properly under Malaysian law”

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  • Open access
  • Published: 13 May 2024

Analysis of the current situation and factors influencing bullying in junior high schools in backward areas of Western, China & A case study of Qingyang City in Gasu

  • Hongjing Li 1   na1 ,
  • Chunyuan Liu 2   na1 ,
  • Xiping Shen 3 ,
  • Yingdong Nan 1 &
  • Liya Feng 1  

BMC Public Health volume  24 , Article number:  1295 ( 2024 ) Cite this article

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Qingyang is located in the northwest of China. By analyzing the current situation and risk factors of bullying in junior high schools in Qingyang City, and identify relevant data for formulating prevention and control measures of bullying in western backward areas.

Qingyang City is divided into four regions based on economic level and population quality. One junior high school is randomly selected from each region, a total of 1200 students from 4 junior high schools of different levels in Qingyang City were randomly selected, and the “Questionnaire on Middle School Students’ School bullying” was administered between December 2021 and February 2022.

The reporting rate of bullying in junior high schools in Qingyang was 47.35%. The incidence of campus bullying among urban-rural integration junior high schools, senior students, and male students is higher than that of municipal -level junior high schools, junior students, and female students ( P < 0.05). The results of binary logistic regression showed that the second grade of junior high school (OR = 1.39,95% CI: 1.022–1.894), poor student performance (OR = 1.744,95% CI: 1.09–2.743), external dissatisfaction (OR = 2.09,95% CI: 1.177–3.427), mother working in an enterprise (OR = 1.623,95% CI: 1.074–2.453), and urban-rural integration middle school (OR = 3.631,95% CI: 2.547–5.177) were factors affecting bullying in junior high school campus.

The reporting rate of bullying in junior high schools in Qingyang City was relatively high, mostly occurring in places lacking supervision and after-school hours.

Trial registration

Not applicable.

Peer Review reports

Bullying on school campuses has been a prominent issue of concern in China [ 1 ]. Since the issuance of the “Notice on Implementing the Annual Action for Preventing and Combating Bullying among Primary and Middle School Students” by the Office of the State Council’s Education Supervision Committee in 2018, China [ 2 ], various provinces and cities have also introduced governance plans and targeted measures [ 3 ]. As a result, school bullying has been curbed and transformed to some extent. In recent years, with the development of new media (i.e., products and services that provide information or entertainment), the exposure to school bullying incidents has gradually increased [ 4 ], drawing widespread attention from various sectors of society due to the diversity of bullying forms, the covert nature of behaviors, and the severe consequences. As is well known, ongoing peer victimization may lead to a variety of adverse psychosocial outcomes, such as anxiety, avoidance, depression, isolation, poor confidence, lack of control, impaired concentration, and poor academic achievement, all of which may have further negative implications and repercussions in the professional and social life of the targeted individuals [ 5 ]. Middle school students, being the primary demographic affected by school bullying [ 6 ], have been the focus of extensive research in this field within the country. Although the scope of research is broad, there has been relatively limited in-depth investigation in less developed northwestern regions [ 7 ]. Furthermore, most previous studies are theoretical studies, while there is an obvious lack of empirical analyses [ 8 ].

According to one nationwide study based in China, 13.61% were victims of bullying [ 7 ]. This number was substantially higher in Xi’an Province, where a staggering 38.70% of adolescents experienced bullying at school [ 9 ]. As this inconsistency in the prevalence of bullying may be due to differences in the population’s composition, it is of utmost importance to collect regional-specific epidemiological data to completely understand the regional differences in the prevalence of bullying.

Qingyang is a prefecture-level city in the far east of Gansu Province located in a channel on the middle stretches of the Yellow River on the Loess Plateau in the northwest region of China. This city lags in economic development and has lower education and cultural development levels than the more developed eastern cities. It is a residence to a substantial number of migrant workers and left-behind children. In this study, we assessed the occurrence and risk factors of bullying in junior high schools in Qingyang City and identified relevant data for formulating prevention and control measures of bullying in western backward areas. Public awareness of campus bullying incidents mainly comes from the internet, as there is scarce scholarly research on the causes, consequences, and prevention measures of bullying [ 10 ]. We conducted a comprehensive survey on the current status of school bullying and its risk factors, hoping to identify effective measures for preventing and addressing school bullying and to provide relevant references for optimizing ideological and political education for students in the new era and improving school management systems.

Study setting

Qingyang City encompasses seven county towns and one urban district, with junior high schools located in the primary urban areas of each county serving as the research subjects. As of the survey date, a total of 16 junior high schools were included. This study employed a phased sampling approach. In the first stage, based on geographical location and surrounding population, the research subjects were categorized into four levels (municipal -level, district-level, urban-rural fringe, and county-level junior high schools) ( Fig. 1 ) , comprising three municipal -level junior high schools, three district-level junior high schools, three urban-rural fringe junior high schools, and seven county-level junior high schools.Municipal-level schools are directly administered by the city’s education department and typically receive more investment and support in terms of faculty, educational facilities, and resources. District-level schools are under the direct jurisdiction of administrative education departments within their respective districts, with student populations distributed across various administrative regions. Resource allocation in these schools tends to emphasize local educational characteristics and positioning. Urban-rural combination schools are primarily located at the junction of urban and rural areas and often face challenges such as insufficient faculty, limited educational resources, and difficult teaching conditions. Left-behind children usually attend them. County-level schools are located in various counties and districts, with student populations usually coming from the county-level administrative area. While these schools may have relatively weaker subject offerings, teaching resources, and faculty strength, they prioritize establishing good social relationships and campus culture.

figure 1

Map of study location. The blue color represents Gansu Province, and the green color represents Qingyang

In the second stage, one school was randomly selected from each category of junior high schools. Using a proportional sampling method, 100 students from each grade were randomly selected, forming a sample. Such an approach ensured that the composition of students led by different grade-level teachers was the same, thus controlling for the influence of homeroom teachers on the survey results. Participants with significant mental illnesses requiring long-term treatment or those who have recently experienced physical or psychological trauma and did not consent to participate in this survey were excluded. The on-site questionnaire survey was conducted from December 2021 to April 2022.

Questionnaire survey

For the purposes of the present study, we designed “Middle School Student School Bullying Survey Questionnaire” based on the relevant domestic research [ 5 ]. Initially, a preliminary survey was conducted with 50 seventh graders from a specific school using the draft questionnaire to understand their comprehension of instructions and items. Items that were difficult to understand or were ambiguous were modified or removed to create the final survey tool. The questionnaire covered four aspects: basic information, social support, bullying behaviors, and school measures, totaling 66 items ( Supplementary material ). The present study defined social support as the sum of prosocial behaviors from friends, family, teachers, and schools. Bullying was defined as a variety of situations where an individual was subjected to prolonged and repeated bullying or harassment by one or more individuals or was targeted as the victim of bullying. Campus bullying was defined as bullying perpetuated by students that typically occurred both inside and outside the school environment and included verbal bullying, physical bullying, relational bullying, and cyberbullying. Behaviors such as insults, ridicule, mockery, teasing, name-calling, and threats were defined as verbal bullying. Actions such as hitting, kicking, scratching, shoving, extortion, theft, and property damage were defined as physical bullying. Relational bullying typically encompassed aspects of verbal bullying, such as the spread of rumors affecting the victim being excluded or ostracized from a group. The deliberate hostile behavior toward peers using electronic media to harass, humiliate, or cause harm to others was defined as cyberbullying [ 11 ]. Social support, bullying behaviors, and school measures were evaluated on a Likert five-point scale, with higher scores indicating greater severity. Bullying behaviors encompassed verbal bullying, physical bullying, relational bullying, and cyberbullying, with a total of 12 questions. The scores ranged from 1 to 5 based on the frequency of bullying, with a total score range of 12 to 60. A score > 12 indicated that at least one type of school bullying had occurred, defining the respondent as a victim of school bullying. To ensure the reliability of the survey results, investigators were selected from grade-level class teachers with the support of the schools and informed consent from the participants. They received uniform training and were supervised by project researchers. An audit team conducted on-site reviews of the questionnaires, promptly addressing any issues.

The overall reliability of the questionnaire was 0.818, with Cronbach’s α coefficients for the social support, bullying behavior, and school measure dimensions of 0.819, 0.887, and 0.929, respectively, indicating good internal consistency.

The results of the Kaiser-Meyer-Olkin (KMO) test and Bartlett’s test of sphericity showed that KMO = 0.947 > 0.6, and the significance level of the sphericity test was P < 0.05. Therefore, the exploratory factor analysis was the suitable approach. The exploratory factor analysis divided the questionnaire items into three dimensions, with a cumulative variance contribution rate of 61.066%.

Parameters definition

School Type: defined based on the school’s geographical location and its student body’s composition.

Academic performance: students ranked in the top 10% of the class were considered excellent, those ranked between 10% and 30% were considered good, those ranked between 30% and 70% were considered average, and those in the bottom 30% were considered poor.

Physical fitness: those with very good physical condition, rarely sick, actively participated in various sports activities and achieved good results were considered excellent; those with strong physiques, actively engaging in sports, rarely sick were considered good; those who were physically average for their age group, participated only in school-arranged physical exercises, and occasionally fell sick, which did not significantly affect their normal learning were considered average; those with weak physical condition, frequently sick, often on sick leave which affected their normal learning were considered poor.

Appearance satisfaction: was defined as subjective judgment, reflecting an individual’s confidence to a certain extent.

Single-parent status: was defined as living with only one parent due to divorce, death of one parent, separation, or other reasons.

Economic status: was categorized as follows: both parents having an income, monthly income exceeding 10,000 yuan, and no major illness sufferers in the family was considered as having relatively good economic status; both parents having an income, monthly income around 8,000 yuan, and no major illness sufferers in the family was considered as average economic status; one parent having income, monthly income below 5,000 yuan, and no major illness sufferers in the family was considered as barely sufficient for normal living; one parent having an income, monthly income below 5,000 yuan, and there are major illness sufferers in the family are considered economically challenging.

Understanding of bullying: regularly pays attention to relevant reports, lectures, videos, etc., on campus bullying, and having a certain understanding of how to avoid bullying were considered as a good understanding of bullying; curiously follows reports and videos on campus bullying, knows behaviors that constitute bullying but lacks awareness of how to prevent it were considered as having a general understanding of bullying; knows nothing about bullying was considered as having no understanding of bullying.

Statistical methods

Following the EPV (events per variable) principle [ 12 ] and assuming a bullying occurrence rate of 40% [ 9 ], in this study, all independent variables were categorical variables, including dummy variables, totaling 36 independent variables included in the regression equation. When EPV = 10, the number of bullying incidents in the school was calculated as 36*10 = 360 cases, with a total sample size of 360 ÷ 40%=900 cases. Considering a 20% dropout rate in the sample, the minimum sample size to be included was calculated as 9001.2 = 1080 cases.

A double-entry database was established with EpiData 3.1 software (EpiData Association, Odense, Denmark) and IBM SPSS Statistics, Version 26.0 (IBM, Armonk, NY). Continuous data following normal distribution were expressed as mean ± standard deviation ( 𝑥 ̅ ± 𝑠 ), and multiple group comparisons were conducted using one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA). Categorical data were expressed as percentages (%), and intergroup comparisons were performed using the χ² test. Binary logistic stepwise regression analysis was conducted to identify the independent risk factors associated with bullying behavior in middle school students (Table S1 ). Multiple linear regression analyses were utilized to identify the association between social support and school bullying scores among middle school students. The entry and removal criteria were set at 0.05 and 0.10, respectively.

We hypothesized that social support would be associated with the bullying scores. R software(version 4.1.3) was used for the data analysis, the assessment of regression model was made by“performance” package. Our results indicated that verbal, physical, and emotional bullying and cyberbullying all passed the tests for influential points and VIF (Variance Inflation Factor) and generally passed the linearity test. However, they showed some limitations in the homoscedasticity of residuals and normality, possibly due to the presence of independent variables in the residuals that the model did not consider. Overall, these findings largely met the assumptions of multiple linear regression (Figures S1 - S4 ).

A total of 1,200 subjects were included in the survey, with 1,134 valid questionnaires collected, resulting in an effective response rate of 94.50%. A total of 593 male students (52.29%) and 541 female students (47.71%) were assessed (see Table 1 ); 243 subjects were from municipal-level schools (21.43%), 313 from district-level schools (27.60%), 300 from urban-rural combined schools (26.46%), and 278 from county-level schools (24.51%); 365 students were from grade 7 (41.01%), 376 in grade 8 (28.74%), and 393 in grade 9 (30.25%). Other different demographic characteristics are shown in Table 1 .

Comparison of School Bullying Total Scores among different Population groups

The total scores for school bullying behaviors demonstrated statistically significant differences among different populations, including gender, grade level, academic performance, physical fitness, self-perceived appearance satisfaction, father’s educational background, mother’s occupation, residence status (boarding status or residence status), and school type ( P < 0.05, Table 1 ). Among these factors, male students, ninth-grade students, those with lower academic performance and physical fitness, those dissatisfied with their appearance, students with fathers of unknown educational background, students whose mothers worked in enterprises, boarding students, and students from district-level schools scored the highest. The total bullying score, to some extent, reflected the likelihood and severity of school bullying, suggesting that students with these characteristics were more likely to experience school bullying (Table 1 ).

Distribution of school bullying incidence

The distribution of school bullying varied significantly among different schools and grade levels ( P < 0.05). The results of the descriptive analysis indicated that urban-rural combined and district-level schools had a higher incidence of school bullying, i.e., 65.3% and 62.3%, respectively (Table 2 ). As grade levels increased, the incidence of school bullying followed, with the highest rate of 57.1% observed in Grade 9 (Table 2 ). There was no significant difference in school bullying incidence between genders ( P > 0.05). However, the overall majority of middle school students have not experienced bullying, accounting for 52.64% of the population.

The expression of bullying methods differed significantly among different schools, grade levels, and genders ( P < 0.05). District-level schools and Grade 9 had higher scores for physical bullying, verbal bullying, relational bullying, and cyber bullying compared to other school types and grade levels (Table S2 ). Male students also more frequently experienced physical bullying and cyberbullying compared to female students, and these differences were statistically significant ( P < 0.05) (Table S2 ).

Multiple linear regression analysis of the impact of social support on school bullying behaviors

Multiple linear regression analyses were conducted using the scores for physical bullying, verbal bullying, relational bullying, and cyberbullying as dependent variables and scores for different types of support as independent variables (Table 3 ). The results revealed a negative correlation between social support and bullying behaviors. Specifically, family support and teacher support emerged as significant influencing factors for verbal bullying and physical bullying (all 0.05). For each additional point of family support, verbal bullying and physical bullying decreased on average by 0.087 and 0.049 points, respectively. For each additional point of teacher support, verbal bullying and physical bullying decreased on average by 0.141 and 0.109 points, respectively. Friend and teacher support significantly affected relational bullying ( P < 0.05). For each additional point of friend and teacher support, relational bullying decreased on average by 0.062 and 0.089, respectively. Teacher support and school measures were identified as major influencing factors for cyberbullying ( P < 0.05). For each additional point of teacher support and school measures, cyberbullying decreased on average by 0.091 and 0.042 points, respectively. The standardized regression coefficients indicated that teacher support had a greater impact on all four types of bullying behaviors. Based on these findings, it can be inferred that teachers, families, and friends have crucial roles in preventing and addressing school bullying in middle school settings (Table 4 ).

Spatial distribution and coping mechanisms for school bullying

The locations where bullying victims experienced or witnessed school bullying were primarily concentrated in the restroom (accounting for 61.91%), school corners (accounting for 50.49%), and the vicinity of the school (accounting for 49.41%). In contrast, bullying in the school corridors was the lowest, at 15.43% (Table 4 ) . The temporal distribution of bullying incidents indicated that the majority of school bullying occurs after school hours (comprising 66.40% of cases), followed by during breaks between classes (accounting for 47.74%). Notably, 6.78% of school bullying incidents occured during classroom hours, which warrants attention.

After experiencing bullying, the majority of students choose to confide in their parents (comprising 61.12%) and teachers (accounting for 53.29%). A smaller percentage of students silently endured the situation (19.72%) or retaliated in response (16.25%). Among those who have experienced bullying, a significant proportion either report no psychological changes (26.81%) or experience feelings of inferiority (23.81%) (Table 5 ). Notably, 11.39% of students developed pessimistic and nihilistic emotions, and it is worth highlighting that 18.08% of students harbored resentment, which could represent a critical trigger for campus safety concerns.

Binary logistic stepwise regression analysis of risk factors for bullying behavior in middle school students

In this study, a binary logistic stepwise regression analysis was conducted to identify the independent risk factors associated with bullying behavior in middle school students (Table 6 ) . The occurrence of bullying behavior was used as the dependent variable, while sociodemographic characteristics that exhibited statistical significance in single-factor analysis were utilized as independent variables. The reference category was assigned to the lowest value for each independent variable. The results revealed that grade level, academic performance, self-perceived appearance satisfaction, mother’s occupation, and school type were the major risk factors contributing to the occurrence of bullying behavior among middle school students. The risk of experiencing bullying behavior in the second year of middle school (Grade 8) was 1.391 times higher than that in the first year (Grade 7) ( P = 0.036). Students with good, average, and poor academic performance had respective risks of experiencing bullying behavior at 2.245, 2.108, and 1.744 times higher than those with excellent academic performance ( P = 0.006, 0.002, 0.016). Individuals reporting moderate or low self-perceived appearance satisfaction had risks of experiencing bullying at 3.005, 2.103, and 2.009 times higher than those who were highly satisfied with their appearance ( P = 0.001, 0.009, 0.011), respectively. The children of mothers employed in the corporate sector had a risk of experiencing bullying behavior 1.623 times higher than the children of mothers working in administrative positions ( P = 0.022) (Table 6 ). Furthermore, the risk of bullying was 2.942 times higher in district-level combined urban-rural middle schools and 3.631 times higher in city-level middle schools compared to county-level middle schools ( P = 0.000). These findings suggest that higher grade levels, lower academic performance, lower self-perceived appearance satisfaction, and attendance at district-level combined urban-rural middle schools are associated with an increased likelihood of experiencing bullying behavior. Conversely, students with mothers working in administrative positions are less likely to experience bullying.

In this study, we assessed the occurrence and risk factors of bullying in junior high schools in Qingyang City and identified relevant data for formulating prevention and control measures of bullying in western backward areas. A total of 1200 students from 4 junior high schools of different levels in Qingyang City were randomly assessed using a questionnaire [ 5 ]. The reported prevalence of school bullying was 47.35%, which is lower than the findings from PISA 2015 but higher than that reported by Wang et al. [ 13 ] and Liu et al. [ 14 ] in Dalian, Shandong, China. Yet, our data are similar to reports by Shen et al. [ 15 ], who assessed rural areas of southern Henan.

Adolescent bullying may take many forms, such as verbal, relational, social or physical [ 16 ]. Verbal bullying (e.g., teasing in a hurtful way) and physical bullying (e.g., kicking, hitting, pushing, etc.) are usually considered to be direct forms. Relational bullying refers to indirect bullying, such as spreading rumors and social exclusion. Cyberbullying is the use of technology to harass, threaten, embarrass, or target another person. In terms of the manifestations of school bullying, in this study, the frequency of occurrence, from highest to lowest, was verbal bullying (40.7%), relational bullying (28.7%), physical bullying (28.4%), and cyberbullying (17.2%). These results are generally consistent with the findings reported by Ru et al. [ 17 ] in Jiangxi Province; however, the prevalence of various forms of bullying was much higher than in the study conducted by Yang et al. [ 18 ] in a certain region of central China. This indicates that, relative to eastern urban areas, the prevalence of school bullying in Qingyang City is closer to that of northern rural areas. Given that the research area is located in the northwest of the country, it is possible that the prevalence of school bullying in this region is influenced by parenting styles and factors such as economic conditions and educational attitudes, which have already been recognized as influential factors [ 19 ]. In economically disadvantaged areas, parents often have lower levels of education, and they tend to focus solely on their children’s academic achievements while neglecting their psychological well-being [ 20 ]. They may not know how to properly guide their children through sensitive psychological phases. Children who do not feel safe and secure within their families may be more inclined to seek warmth and care from their peers, making them more susceptible to joining groups involved in school bullying [ 21 ]. The higher prevalence of school bullying in urban-rural combined and district-level middle schools compared to city-level middle schools in this survey supports this perspective. Regarding the forms of school bullying, verbal bullying, relational bullying, and physical bullying remained prevalent. However, the relatively higher prevalence of cyberbullying compared to other cities suggests that students in less developed areas may be more influenced by harmful online information.

Differing from many domestic studies, the prevalence of school bullying did not show a significant difference between male and female students in this survey ( P < 0.05), which may be related to the sample selection process and could also indicate that the dominant role of females in school bullying is gradually emerging. Interestingly, several school bullying cases reported in the surveyed area on the internet revealed that both bullies and victims were females, which is a noteworthy observation [ 22 , 23 ]. However, in this study, male students scored significantly higher in terms of physical bullying and cyberbullying compared to female students ( P > 0.05), which could be associated with the nature of male students, characterized by a higher level of physical activity, curiosity, and a preference for the virtual world, as has been confirmed by several previous studies [ 24 ]. Both the prevalence of school bullying and different bullying types increased from Grade 7 to Grade 9. This phenomenon can be largely attributed to the current educational philosophy in China.

The prevailing cultural emphasis in schools, as well as among parents and society, is placed on academic achievement as the primary indicator of a student’s worth [ 25 ]. Consequently, striving for academic success has become the mainstream culture within school environments. In such a climate, as students progress in grades and face increasingly challenging curricula, some students who struggle with their studies, achieve lower grades, or exhibit more introverted personalities may find it challenging to establish a sense of belonging and achievement within the mainstream school culture. They may be drawn to subcultures within the school that revolve around violence, bullying, or other deviant behaviors. Some scholars refer to this phenomenon as the influence of a school subculture [ 26 ]. In this study, regression analysis on the impact of social support on school bullying behavior revealed that family support has a significant role in verbal and physical bullying. Friend support was a independent influencing factor in relational bullying and cyberbullying. School measures were the independent influencing factor in cyberbullying, and teacher support had an impact on various forms of bullying. This highlights the need for relevant authorities to recognize the vital role of teachers in preventing and intervening in school bullying and to fully leverage teachers’ agency to effectively curb the occurrence of school bullying.

After controlling for the influences of gender, physical fitness, father’s education level, and residential status, the main risk factors for school bullying among middle school students were grade level, academic performance, self-perceived appearance satisfaction, mother’s occupation, and school type. Specifically, Grade 8 students (second-year middle school), those with poor academic performance, low self-perceived appearance satisfaction, students attending sub-city-level middle schools, and students whose mothers worked in the corporate sector constituted high-risk groups for school bullying. The reasons for this may be related to the critical importance of Grade 8, as it is a pivotal year for improving academic performance, especially for some struggling students. Failing to achieve satisfactory grades this year may result in an unfavorable outcome in the high school entrance examination (zhongkao). The expectations of their families and personal concerns about their future can impose significant psychological stress. If students lack self-confidence, they may seek validation through participation in school bullying, which is one of the reasons why some victims eventually become bullies [ 27 ]. Our results also suggested that good educational resources, student quality, and the mother’s occupational background positively impacted keeping students away from school bullying. Children whose mothers work in administrative departments are less likely to experience school bullying compared to those in the corporate sector. This may be because families in administrative departments often possess a certain social status and stable financial resources, prioritize family education and the transmission of values, and set stricter standards for child education and behavior, thereby reducing the likelihood of being bullied. Additionally, such families pay more attention to their children’s academic pursuits and well-being, ensuring that children are more likely to receive support and assistance from their family when facing challenges, which lessens the sense of isolation during times of bullying [ 28 ].

In this survey, the primary locations for school bullying were areas with limited supervision, such as restrooms, school corners, and the vicinity of the school. Bullying incidents were mainly reported during the time after school, which is consistent with the results of many previous studies [ 15 , 17 ]. Encouragingly, most students who experienced bullying chose to confide in their parents and teachers, while a minority silently endured the situation or engaged in retaliation. The investigation into the psychological changes experienced by those who have been bullied reveals that a significant proportion either report no psychological changes or feel a sense of inferiority. This suggests that some students may adopt an indifferent attitude toward school bullying. Research indicates that considering bullying behavior as normal is a risk factor for perpetrating harm to others [ 29 ]. Therefore, it is recommended that parents and schools pay close attention to the psychological changes in children who do not exhibit emotional fluctuations after experiencing bullying and provide proper guidance.

The present study has certain limitations: (1) Lack of Unified Measurement Standards: the survey questionnaire designed for this study lacks unified measurement standards for reference. Developing a standardized assessment system specifically for school bullying is an urgent issue that needs to be addressed in the future. (2) Sample Selection: the selection of survey participants was based solely on school levels, without considering the actual educational quality and student quality, which may not be directly related to the school’s level. This factor contributes to the inconsistency of some survey results with most domestic reports. (3) Cross-Sectional Nature: this study is a cross-sectional survey, which means it cannot reveal the underlying causes of school bullying. (4) Results derived from different questionnaires cannot be directly compared. (5) Finally, we failed to offer more detailed information about bullying behaviors, such as the exact timeframe related to bullying behavior. (6) In this study, binary logistic stepwise regression analysis was conducted to identify the independent risk factors associated with bullying behavior in middle school students. Yet, stepwise regression analysis alone is not fully appropriate for causal inference. Future large-sample, multi-center prospective studies are warranted as they could enable a more rigorous analysis of the issue.

To sum up, the reported rates of school bullying in Qingyang City were higher than those in the developed eastern cities and were similar to those in the western rural areas. Verbal bullying and physical bullying continued to be the main forms of local school bullying, while the incidence of cyberbullying was higher than that of other areas in China, and the incidence of school bullying seemed to be gradually rising with the increase in grades. Grade, achievement, appearance satisfaction, father’s occupation, and school type were the main factors affecting school bullying.

While verifying the important role of school, family, and society in school bullying in middle schools, this survey reflects the new trend of school bullying in the information age to a certain extent and has a positive role in enriching research data and conclusions on school bullying in backward areas in western China. Our findings can provide a theoretical basis for seeking a feasible policy of education and correction between “protection” and “punishment” of minors in the face of bullying.

Data availability

All data generated or analysed during this study are included in this published article.


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This study was supported by the Gansu Province youth development research special project key project (GSQNZX-202102006).

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Hongjing Li and Chunyuan Liu contributed equally to this work.

Authors and Affiliations

Department of Basic Medical Sciences, College of Medicine, Longdong University, Qingyang, 745000, Gansu, China

Hongjing Li, Yingdong Nan & Liya Feng

Young Pioneers Brigade, Dongjie Primary School in Zhenyuan County, Qingyang, 745000, Gansu, China

Chunyuan Liu

Epidemic and Statistics Teaching and Research Office, School of Public Health, Lanzhou University, Lanzhou, 730000, China

Xiping Shen

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HJL and LYF carried out the studies, participated in collecting data, and drafted the manuscript. CYL and YDN performed the statistical analysis and participated in its design. HJL and XPS participated in the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data and drafted the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Li, H., Liu, C., Shen, X. et al. Analysis of the current situation and factors influencing bullying in junior high schools in backward areas of Western, China & A case study of Qingyang City in Gasu. BMC Public Health 24 , 1295 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-024-18775-5

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