Exploring the Experiences of Success among First-year Students Enrolled in a Public Physical Therapist Education Program: Pilot Study


The advancement of the physical therapy profession has resulted in changes to the physical therapist (PT) education degree program. The many changes in admissions requirements, curriculum, length, and degrees have created issues in student success and progression. To address the factors that may impact student success, programs have primarily focused on cognitive factors such as admissions criteria of qualified applicants, academic performance in didactic and clinical coursework, and program outcomes. Evidence has suggested the impact of cognitive factors on success, however these studies do not fully explain success and progression in PT education. Furthermore, little is known about students' experiences of success during the critical first year of a program. The purpose of this pilot qualitative study was to explore the experiences of success among first-year students enrolled in a public physical therapist education program.


A phenomenological case study approach was utilized to better understand how first–year students perceive the phenomenon of success. A typical purposeful sampling was utilized with 10 first-year students (ages 22-29) enrolled in a public PT education program located in the southeastern region of the U.S. Data was obtained from 3 semi-structured interviews (3 students), 1 focus group interview (7 students), observations in the classroom settings, and documents. Interview recordings were transcribed and analyzed. Final themes were reached from clusters of meaning and grouping significant statements.


The results yielded four themes that provided insight on how students experience success during the first year: evolving expectations, oscillating identities, peer social and academic supports, and flexible strategies. The transition from undergraduate to graduate coursework and environment created new and challenging academic, social, and personal demands. Supportive environments in and outside the classroom fostered self-efficacy in academic and professional standards.

Discussion:The participants shared a variety of past and current experiences from their personal and school lives that contributed to success experiences. The meaning of success from the participants’ view included evolving expectations, fostering multiple identities, seeking peer social and academic supports, developing collaborative learning experiences, and modifying strategies to overcome challenges/barriers. The findings from this study suggested the experiences of success during the first year is shaped by a complex integration of academic, social, and personal factors and experiences.

Conclusions/Relevance to the conference theme: The Pursuit of Excellence in Physical Therapy Education

While many students enter PT education programs with strong academic abilities and experiences, early recognition of the dynamic influences of academic, social, and personal factors on success will help physical therapist education programs develop appropriate support structures, optimize learning environments, and promote successful progression.


1. Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. 2014-2015 Fact Sheet: Physical Therapist Education Programs. http://www.capteonline.org/uploadedFiles/CAPTEorg Accessed September 25, 2015.
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3. Utzman RR, Riddle DL, Jewell DV. Use of demographic and quantitative admissions data to predict performance on the national physical therapy examination. Phys Ther. 2007;87:1181-1193.
4. Riddle DL, Utzman RR, Jewel DV, Pearson S, Kong X. Academic difficulty and program-level variables predict performance on the national physical therapy examination for licensure: A population-based cohort study. Phys Ther. 2009;89;11: 1182-91.
5. Tinto V. Completing college: Rethinking institutional action. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press; 2012.

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  • Control #: 2526252
  • Type: Platforms
  • Event/Year: ELC2016
  • Authors: Thuha Hoang
  • Keywords:

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