Second year a ‘hidden point of attrition’

Australian study probes the difficulties facing latter-year students – and the ‘balancing act’ required of their lecturers

March 13, 2022
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University study is often seen as a baptism of fire, with success awaiting students who survive the first difficult months in an alien learning landscape. But Australian research suggests that it should be reconceptualised as a continuum of pressure points where fresh challenges constantly threaten to derail students’ higher education journeys.  

A University of South Australia study has cast the period between first and final years as the somewhat neglected “middle child” of the student experience, with support structures focused primarily on new arrivals and those on the verge of leaving the nest. Yet there is evidence that the “sophomore slump” – a wholesale withdrawal by second-year students, first identified in the US almost 70 years ago – is a live issue in Australia.

Students who initially doubted their suitability for university can ask themselves the same questions all over again, as generalist courses become specialist and theoretical classes move to the practical. But their needs can be “kicked down the road”, leaving students floundering.

“The support structures are there, but they’re not as readily available,” said lead researcher David Birbeck of the university’s teaching innovation unit. “You’re a bit more on your own to seek them out.

“There’s the assumption that you know what you’re doing. We’ve supported you all the way through first year so now you’ve got confidence. But is that confidence actually embedded in your real abilities? How much of it has been about the support you’ve been getting?”

The study, published in the journal Student Success, involved focus groups with course coordinators and a survey of students in their second and subsequent years. It found that university administrators needed to view courses as “a series of transitions”, with second year a particular point of attrition.

“There’s a lot going on,” Dr Birbeck said. “[You are] having to produce work at a much higher level, much more regularly [with] lots more reading.”

He stressed that he was not advocating a redirection of support from first-year students. But more focused latter-year support was also needed, with the evolution from generalist to specialist courses “especially” difficult for students reconsidering their professional aspirations.

Programme directors consciously kept courses general for the first year, knowing that students might revise their career plans. “But in second year you really have to make those decisions. That’s really confronting, because you don’t have that safety net behind you. A few students talked about that being a real life-changing event.”

He said obtaining data on second-year attrition was extremely difficult because there was no agreed definition of second year. With some studying part-time, some claiming credit for past studies, some changing courses and some returning from breaks, universities struggled with categories more specific than “commencing” and “continuing” students.

Dr Birbeck said there was no empirical proof of a “huge retention issue” in second year, and questioned whether retention was the best metric anyway. “Lecturers are invested in students’ development,” he said. “It’s not as if a lecturer is just going to let a student fall over and leave.”

But academics faced a “tight balance” akin to parenting, he said. “Students grow when they’re faced with new challenges that they’ve never seen before. With that growth, there comes a risk that they don’t get through. You can’t mitigate that risk so much that you don’t get the growth, because then you’re not getting the learning that you need.”

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