Second year blues: transitioning beyond the second year


With the increasing focus on retention and student success being placed on universities, the process of transition into higher education and the first year experience have been subject to extensive research. Based on that research, most institutions have developed a range of activities and interventions to support the process of transition through activities such as pre-arrival orientations, induction activities, peer mentoring schemes etc (Gardner et al, 2001; Schnell et al, 2003; Harvey et al, 2006; Hultberg et al, 2008).  Here at UCA, we have conducted research into the transition of students into university life and the factors impacting student success.  In-house research has included studies of interruption and withdrawal, the first year experience and induction tutoring.   Interventions we have put in place include Personal Development Tutoring and specific improvements in student induction to mitigate against student interruption and withdrawal.

Much less consideration, however, has been given to the move from the first year of study into the second. As Richardson (2004) observed, many students embark on the second year with a false sense of security and found the transition to second year study significantly harder than they had anticipated.  This has been coined as ‘The Second Year Blues’ by one of our Senior Lecturers at UCA, Catharine Slade-Brooking.  Indeed, Catharine used the difficulty of student’s shifting from year one to year two on her own course, as part of a Peer Supported Review for her HEA Fellowship portfolio this year.  She writes:

 In Section 01 of my Reflective Portfolio, (p9) I describe some of the issues experienced widely in Higher Education by Second Year students, I have termed ‘The Second Year Blues.’ Seen as the middle child of a three year degree,        students often seem to struggle, with many under performing and some disengaging with their studies. Research undertaken at Liverpool’s John Moores University (C. Milsom 2018), found that a third of undergraduates experienced a slow down in their academic progress during their second year.

As the Second Year Lead tutor on Graphic Communication/Design, I am acutely aware of the issues that face both students and lecturers during the ‘middle year’, with my personal aim to understand and tackle the complex problems that cause this phenomenon. I have used a variety of approaches to try to diagnose the different areas of dissatisfaction and disgruntlement. I gather and analyse information and feedback from a range of sources including UCA’s Internal Student Satisfaction Survey (ISS), the National Student Survey (NSS),  feedback from Year Group Representatives at Course Board, discussions with Year Group Representatives in Rep’ Meetings and informal feedback from individual students. From this data I am able to define global second year  issues as well as individual problems that might be currently effecting an individual cohort.  The Internal Student Survey has been particularly useful in uncovering particular issues that some students would fi it hard to reveal personally.

Using our monthly Student Representative meeting as a means to explore the student experience, it became clear that many were struggling to meet the academic demands of their programme of the study, in particular the theory and essay writing in CTS (Cultural and Theoretical Studies). The Reps explained that they were finding difficulties in seeing the relationship between their practice in the studio and the theory taught in CTS.  As a result of these extremely helpful discussion it was clear that I had to develop a much stronger relationship between their learning through graphic design practice and how the theoretical element of their course underpins that practice.

As a result of the PSR activity, Catharine identified the following student issues to explore with her reviewer

  1.  Why they need to write essays; lack of understanding that the role of theory plays in their practice
  2. The disconnection between what they do in the studio and what is taught and delivered in CTS lectures; seminars and tutorials
  3. The use of different vocabulary and research is not about reading books from cover to cover
  4. Emotional blocks, feeling out of their comfort zone and fear of this approach to study.

Resulting interventions that Catharine is going to introduce next year as part of a  Linked Strategy as follows:

• All Yr02 Briefs will include a short CTS description of how the theory Unit links to the  practical Unit

• The brief format and layout will be used for CTS and studio briefs created in InDesign

• The course team will ensure that students understand that they can combine theory and practice by choosing one research subject that can be applied to both assessed outcomes

• The course team will combine our studio and CTS student trips, ensuring that students see the relevance of the trip in underpinning the relationship between their theory and practical learning.

• The course team will run a joint workshop for Yr02 Research Methods Term 01 October. Tackling student assumptions of the role of research and how and why it is undertaken. Exploring how your Learning Style also has an impact on the research methods you find easier and why you find some more difficult and how to resolve this.

Going back to the external literature, Tinto describes the process of transition to university as a rite of passage with three identifiable stages: separation, transition and incorporation (Tinto, 1988), the final stage of incorporation involving the students becoming integrated within the structures of the institution, becoming members of the community. We might then view the process of transition to university as being a linear process.   However, it is clear from our own in-house studies that transitions are more iterative and occur throughout the student journey.  We have defined this recently in our Induction Principles at UCA, stating that ‘Student induction is not just a one off activity but should be ongoing and iterative, consisting of 4 stages : pre-arrival, arrival, welcome/enrolment and on-course orientation’.As well as being a perceived transition in the pace and demands of academic study from year one to year two, there may also be a very clear impact of social factors and wellbeing, for example becoming accustomed to living in shared housing, or returning to study after a period of retake or withdrawal. It is also clear that the move to the 2nd year and the process of adaptation is complex with changes in workload, style of working and a range of social issues associated with living in shared housing along with the responsibilities that come with it, all interacting to make this another very significant transition within the student experience.


Fitzwater, L & Allder, K (2018) ‘How can induction tutoring help with retention?’  Creative Education research post

Gardner, J.N., M.J. Siegel, and M. Cutright (2001).’Focusing on the first-year student’. Priorities 17: 1–17

Green, P., A. Cashmore, J. Scott, and G. Narayanan. (2009) ‘Making sense of first-year life: Transitions as ethnographic approach’. In Focus on first-year success: Perspectives emerging from South Africa and Beyond, eds B. Leibowitz, A. Van Der Merwe, and S. van Schalkwyk. Stellenbosch: Sun Media.

Harvey, L., Drew, S and Smith, M. (2006) ‘The first-year experience: A review of literature for the Higher Education Academy’. York: Higher Education Academy.

Hultberg, J., Plos, K., Hendry, G.D. and Kjellgren, K.I. (2008) ‘Scaffolding students’ transition to higher education: Parallel introductory courses for students and teachers’ Journal of Further and Higher Education 32: 47–57

Lou-Barratt, L (2018) ‘Undergraduate retention and engagement at UCA: the First Year Experience’ Creative Education research post:

McKie, A. (2019) ‘Mitigating against student interruption and withdrawal’ Creative Education Network blog post :

Richardson, D. (2004) The transition to degree level study. Higher Education Academy

Schnell, C.A., Louis, K.S. and Doetkott, C . (2003).‘The first-year seminar as a means of improving college graduation rates’. Journal of the First Year and Students in Transition 15: 53– 76.

Slade-Brooking, C. (2019) A5 Reflective Account for HEA Fellowship portfolio.

Tinto, V. (1998) ‘Stages of student departure: Reflections on the longitudinal character of student leaving’. Journal of Higher Education 59: 438-455.


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