Leicester University has published the results of a three-year longitudinal study looking at the way students experience their time in higher education. The study has highlighted high levels of January blues after students return from their Christmas holidays.

The results come from an analysis of two years of video diaries compiled by 40 undergraduates at Leicester University. The students were asked to film at least 5 minutes a week talking about things in their university life which mattered to them. This was the only direction given, a factor which Professor Annette Cashmore, director of the university’s Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning in Genetics, claimed was criti­cal in ensuring the importance of the data collected.

“There are a lot of video diary projects being done, but I’m not sure they tell you much more than what you’re guiding the subjects to talk about,” she said. “We gave first years a video camera, but then no other instruction except that we wanted at least five minutes of footage a week about anything that was important to them.”

Cashmore argues that, while you would expect high anxiety levels in students moving away to university in their first term, the research team was surprised by a spike of anxiety levels amongst students returning from home after Christmas.

“There were some really heartfelt videos that discussed things we hadn’t really appreciated the impact of,” she explains.

“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.

“Once home, it was hard getting back into the relationship with her boyfriend. And then when she arrived back at uni­versity, it was difficult, she said, to get back into friendships there because they hadn’t been made for very long.”

Other students discussed concerns about exams which they were to sit in early January and which they did not feel ready for after the Christmas break.

A second-year Sussex student agreed; “It’s so hard to revise over the holidays and a month off is too long. It takes so long to get back up to speed, you’ve missed half the term before you’re ready to start it.”

A second Sussex MA student also agreed; “I hated coming back after the holidays to a cold house and without my family. There was this mass of work which I hadn’t done and what seemed like no time to do it in.”

While some may see these as transito­ry concerns (an individual will certainly have to deal with more in their life than a cold house and a long holiday), Cashmore considers the study can have important practical applications. The central point of the study, she argues, is to discover what prompts students to drop out of university and how best to support them so they don’t.

35,000 students in England every year drop out of their degree courses. Not only is it expensive and demoral­ising for students, it also reflects badly on the Universities they studied at. In 2007-8 the University of Sussex’s drop out figures were 2.9%, one of the lowest in the country and well below the national average. Nonetheless, it is unsurprising that HE managers are keen to find ways of helping undergraduates successfully weather the pressures of studying at University level. A study looking at the reasons students dropped out showed a third said they didn’t enjoy university life, while only 8% cited debt as an issue.

One Sussex student said; “It will be interesting to see if our low drop out rates increase now university management want to scrap all our student support.”

Recurring themes in Cashmore’s video diaries include worries over set­tling into new accommodation, coping with new personal relationships and adapting to new styles of teaching and learning, and these do not end with the end of first year.

As a result of these findings, Leicester has committed to putting in place support for students at strategic times in their courses. These include Podcasts with advice for Freshers on how to negotiate their first University experience, how to deal with post-Christmas exam stress and what to expect with the increasing pressures of second and third years.

The university is also considering moving its first set of first-year exams so that students aren’t hit with tests while barely yet recovered from their new year hang¬over.

“When students first come to uni, there are lots of things put on to support them, such as mentoring and meeting with personal tutors, but it’s not just in October that it’s needed, it’s needed in January, too,” says Cashmore. “It’s not about mollycoddling the students – it’s about recognising the stressful elements that do occur in doing a degree.”

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