A three-year study carried out into the way students experience their time in higher education has shown that the post-Christmas blues hit first year undergraduates the hardest when they return to university for the start of their second term.
The study saw forty undergraduates at Leicester University were asked to talk to their video cameras about anything to do with their university life that was important to them.”We gave first years a video camera, but then no other instruction except that we wanted at least five minutes of footage a week,” explained the director of the university’s Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning in Genetics, Professor Annette Cashmore, whose team then analysed the two years worth of video diaries. The subjects of research were completely undirected, which the professor said was a critical point to the usefulness of the data collected.
Despite expecting students to be anxious about the transition from home to university in their first term, Professor Cashmore and her team were surprised by the increase in anxiety levels caused by going home for Christmas and then returning for the first weeks of the spring term. “One student talked about leaving her boyfriend at home, and when it got to Christmas she was nervous because of going back to a life she’d moved on from.” This point was reiterated by many students around the campus at Royal Holloway, with many explaining that they had argued or even split up with their boyfriends or girlfriends since moving to university. Some students found returning to old friendship groups difficult, particularly when many their school friends have chosen to take gap years and continue to socialise together regularly.
At Leicester, second-year student Ann Akeredolu said that she couldn’t really enjoy that first Christmas break with her family due to worrying about exams. “I knew there were six as soon as I got back in January, but I also wanted to go home and have fun,” she remembers. Many first years here also experienced similar problems, finding that enjoying time with family and old friends and doing university work at home was a difficult balance to strike.
Miss Akeredolu also pointed out that first years have to deal with living without their familiar support structures at a time of stress, as new friendships can’t yet be relied upon in the same way. “For the first few weeks of that second term back, I don’t think I was really settled into uni. You’ve only just made your friends, and they’re not deep friendships yet,” she said.
Other worries that affect Royal Holloway students included house hunting and finance problems. “With all the problems I had sorting finance out last September, I’m really reluctant to start the process all over again for next year,” said a first-year politics student. “House hunting also caused some awkwardness when we had to split our friendship group at uni into two groups to find houses for next year. We all had different budgets, and some people liked houses we saw together while others didn’t. We felt a bit rushed into signing contracts when we heard that other people had already sorted out their houses before Christmas.”
While unsympathetic view might be that students will face more difficult challenges in the ‘real world’ after university and should stop complaining, Professor Cashmore explained that a central point of the study is to ‘find out what prompts students to drop out of university and how best to support them so they don’t.’Dropping out is an expensive and demoralising experience for students, and also damages a university’s reputation. Bearing in mind that 35,000 students a year in England don’t complete their degree course, it’s understandable that Higher Education managers want to find ways of to help undergraduates bear the pressures that arise during university life. “For many, university is a wonderful experience, but for some there can be times of loneliness, isolation and doubts about the choices they have made,” explains Dr Christina Lloyd, head of teaching and learner support at the Open University, which recently published a national survey of students who had dropped out or were considering leaving. A third of students who withdrew said they didn’t enjoy university life, while only 8% claimed debt was an issue.
While it may be assumed that anyone who has managed their first year successfully will cope in their second and third, Professor Cashmore pointed out that as the video diary study has progressed, it has become apparent that students have to constantly adjust and readjust to changing social and academic demands throughout their university career. Repeated topics in the diaries included worries over settling into new accommodation, coping with new personal relationships and getting used to new styles of teaching and learning.
At Royal Holloway, a number of options are available to students suffering under stress. Led by Elizabeth West, Meditation Day takes place on Saturday, 6 February, 10.30am – 3.30pm in IN244. Open to staff and students of all faiths and abilities, anyone interested should contact the Revd Sally Rogers on 01784 443070 or email firstname.lastname@example.org (lunch is not provided a donation of £5 for students and £10 for the staff is requested to cover costs.)
Religious and spiritual support is also offered through the university’s chaplain and faith council services (information is available on the university website, http://www.rhul.ac.uk.) This website also lists the wide range of support available to students under it’s ‘student support’ icon on the university’s homepage. Names and contact details for everyone from finance advisors to residential support officers are provided. Help is at hand for the students looking for relief from stress.