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Student video diaries reveal true depths of the post-Christmas blues

02 February 2010 Leicester, University of

The return to university after Christmas is a low point for many students as they come back to face exams following a festive break that is often less restful than expected, a unique study has found.

Researchers at the University of Leicester who asked students to keep a regular video diary have discovered that post-Christmas blues are very real for many who find the need to earn and revise during the holiday season leaves them drained at the start of the New Year.

The findings come from analysis of two years of video diaries kept by students at Leicester who were asked to talk to the camera about anything going on in their university life that mattered to them.

The project, now in its third year, will contribute to several investigations into the student experience --  particularly work that aims to identify what make students likely to drop out and what are the best ways of supporting them, which has been part-funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Leicester’s drop-out rate is below average – 6.1 per cent – but Professor Annette Cashmore, Director of the University’s Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning in Genetics (GENIE) which is carrying out the study, says the University wants to identify what more it can do to support its students “not to mollycoddle them but to make their experience as good as it can be”.

One surprising finding from the study is the extent to which students continually find themselves having to adjust and readjust throughout the academic year, Professor Cashmore says.

The results of recordings from the first two years show that students continue to encounter problems of transition throughout their course -- although the most common stress point is at the start of the spring term in January.

The recordings are being used alongside focus groups looking further into the issues raised and to target support where it is most useful, for example by including first year students in activities welcoming overseas students.  Another initiative has been the making of podcasts by second year students to help first years through their course, particularly the post-Christmas dip.

“The period after Christmas comes as an anti-climax to most people but for students it can be worse because they have just spent a period being looked after at home, often with their mothers cooking for them,” says Clare Taylor, the university’s head of student welfare.

“Then they come back here and are often facing their first academic hurdle because many courses have exams, added to which the mornings and evenings are dark and the days short,” she said.

A constant theme was homesickness and a feeling of dislocation after the first return to their families at Christmas.  Ann Akeredolu, a genetics student, for example, said it felt “really weird” to return to student life and she found it hard to get back into the swing of things.

Other common issues raised include worries over settling into accommodation, coping with new personal relationships, stress over exams, new styles of teaching and learning and the less recognized difficulty of transition between both the first and second year and second and third year.

Professor Cashmore said: “The student video diaries project has given us an enormous unique resource that can inform any work on the student experience.”

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