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Stuck in the middle: study investigates how unis can support students beyond the first year

New research from the University of South Australia looks at the level of support universities give to students after they've made the initial transition to higher education by posing the question: 'What happens when early support tapers off in latter years?'

The results, Moving Beyond First Year: An Exploration of Staff and Student Experience, published in the Student Success journal, suggest new approaches universities could take to address drop-out rates for students in their second or later year of study.

“Rather than delaying the difficulties of transition to the middle years of degrees, administrators should recognise that university is seen as a series of transitions and plan accordingly,” said co-author Dr David Birbeck.

“Universities give a lot of attention to first years, and making sure they settle in. Then, at the other end of the journey, they provide the support to ensure that the transition into the workforce is also successful.

“But we wanted to consider those in between: what happens to them? Are they being appropriately supported?”

The research involved creating two separate focus groups made up of course coordinators and program directors, and asking them to discuss what they saw as the key challenges for students after their first year.

An e-survey was also distributed to students to gauge their experience of their second and subsequent years of study.

Most survey respondents were aged between 18 and 35, with 78 per cent in the second or third year of their degree while the remainder were in their fourth year or above.

The responses from the teachers suggested they felt students were well supported, but lacked "the basic skills they expected students to have as they entered second year".

Fatigue and "the reality of discipline-specific courses not fitting with students’ perceptions of their chosen career" were also identified as sources of additional stress for students in their second or later years of study.

The researchers highlight that a student's progress through their degree should be regarded as "a series of transitions", which should be kept in mind when considering how best to support them.

“First year is seen as a more generalist year, with students sharing lessons with people from other disciplines.

“When they hit second year, the study becomes more focused on their specific discipline, and students report that they find this quite a jolt."

Birbeck says that for some the increased workload is the key factor, while for others it's the fact that they realise they may have chosen the wrong path of study.

“Then they get to placements, where their learnings go from mainly theoretical to practical. For students who had trouble balancing their lives beforehand, placement exacerbates that,” he said.

The participating students were asked to outline the challenges in their current year of study that they felt their first year hadn't adequately prepared them for.

“We also explored whether the courses they were currently studying were easier or harder compared to their first-year courses, and what they believed would assist in supporting students to succeed beyond the first year of study,” Birbeck said.

In terms of the types of support offered to them by universities, students said they got most value out of support services delivered as part of their program of study – like help with academic writing or improving their time management skills – rather than support offered separately to their studies which they had to seek out for themselves.

The students also reported the importance of supportive staff and making connections to their peers thanks to targeted activities organised by their teachers.

“Recognising that it is a series of transitions is one that needs to be embedded in how the student experience is dealt with," Birbeck said.

"Similarly, if staff are aware of what is happening across a whole program, they are better able to support students.

"The importance of caring teachers cannot be overstated in ensuring students are successful.”

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