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To go or not to go? Being a student during the covid-19 pandemic

Whether to start, or continue, life as a university student is a major decision at the best of times, with many factors affecting an individual’s eventual choice. None of us, however, could have anticipated that a global pandemic would need to be factored into the decision-making process!

By Dr Sigrid Lipka - 4 August 2020

Dr Sigrid Lipka, Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Derby, discusses the challenges of being a university student during the ‘new normal’, highlights support students can rely on and offers tips on how students can get themselves motivated and engaged with student life, be it as a returning or a new student.

Support through the changes

Gaining a place at university is a great achievement. Life as a student is exhilarating, rewarding, challenging, worrying and exhausting at times. It is a time of change and intense development. Human beings have a great capacity for change but adjusting to new circumstances and adopting new behaviours does not always come easy. It requires support at an individual, group and societal level.

Students will find a lot of guidance to smooth the transition to university, but the challenges faced by them at the start of this new academic year in September are clearly exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Surveys reveal students’ increased concerns about their studies and finances, isolation, anxieties etc – see The Behavioural Insights Team for some sobering evidence in the Coronavirus and students survey. The Sutton Trust, in its Social Mobility Impact brief, reports evidence suggesting that working-class students may be particularly affected by Covid-19.

Since March 2020, universities have put in a lot of work to make design alterations and adaptations to their campuses and health protocols. They made big changes to the way courses are taught, social learning is facilitated and students are assessed, including finding alternative ways to celebrate their graduates this summer. It should be reassuring for students to realise that all universities are guided by higher education regulatory requirements and advice by the Office for Students and, last but not least, by consultation with students and staff.

How to stay motivated in the ‘new normal’

From a psychological perspective, how can students get themselves motivated and engage with their changed, but now ‘normal’ student life? Being happy and successful at university can be facilitated by remembering these strategies and insights:

Having realistic expectations helps in all walks of life, so students should carefully read the communications they receive from their university (or UCAS etc). The onus on universities is to communicate with students in a clear, open and regular manner. Students might not realise that publishers have been offering more generous access for students and staff to a range of online journals and resources during Covid-19 and that university libraries typically have a broad selection of freely accessible e-journals and e-books.

Be social: Make new friends and stay in touch with old friends and family. Psychological research has shown that loneliness and a sense of isolation are barriers to learning, let alone happiness.

Be kind, empathetic and show compassion to yourself and to others: Exciting new research suggests that adopting a compassionate approach in Higher Education can promote wellbeing of both students and staff. Empathy means understanding that people differ in their appraisal of stressful events, and response to stressful events. For some individuals, lockdown is a welcome chance to wind down and have a pause, for others it will feel like a real challenge. We may need to embrace the potential boredom resulting from being cut off from our usual busy lives. Many individuals are likely to be especially strongly affected by requirements such as wearing face coverings, and we need to be empathic to their needs. For example, remember that human communication strongly relies on facial expressions and lip-reading, hence face coverings will be more challenging for individuals who have visual or hearing deficits, for students for whom English is not their first language, or indeed for everyone when talking with others in a noisy or dark environment.

Develop your own routine: Having regular patterns helps us to establish positive habits and should in fact be easy for students to accomplish as they are used to having timetables. One of the unexpected positive effects of Covid-19 is that students (and everyone) have possibly more freedom to decide how to spend their time or when to do certain tasks (for example, engaging with learning materials remotely); this element of choice can instil a welcome sense of independence and control.

Keeping up your motivation: People differ in what motivates them. There is a healthy debate among scientists about the many types of motivation and which ones might lead to better outcomes in educational contexts. A useful tip from a student about mental health is that you need to be your own cheerleader in the time of coronavirus.

Looking after yourself: Try and focus on the positives. The current times ARE challenging but we all have some control over how to cope with the ensuing stress. Develop habits of positive coping behaviour, such as listing three good things that have happened in a day, and avoid maladaptive behaviours like overusing your mobile phone until late at night, which has a known link with poor sleeping patterns. Look after your physical and mental health and wellbeing, eat healthily, do regular physical activity and take frequent breaks, especially when sitting at your computer for long hours during remote studying. Even deceptively simple things like laughter and humour enhance wellbeing.

The website of the charity Student Minds gives some useful information about how to look after your mental wellbeing during the coronavirus outbreak and also see NHS guidance.

So, to go or not to go to university in the time of Covid-19? It is a challenge, but it remains an amazing opportunity to develop intellectually, emotionally and socially. Universities teach students the importance of rigorous methods, evidence and rational argument. University education can give our students the essential confidence and knowledge required to contribute to constructive debate in contemporary society.

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About the author

Sigrid Lipka against a nature background

Dr Sigrid Lipka
Associate Professor in Psychology

Sigrid's research focuses on reading and wellbeing, behaviour change and doctoral pedagogy. She teaches at all levels, supervises research students and contributes to the university's doctoral supervisor training. As Deputy Chair of the HPSC College Research Committee, she supports our research community and contributes to strategic developments enhancing sustainable research and innovation

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