The Key Findings from Life Interrupted 2022
by ALICE MACKENZIE | Published on October 7th, 2022
A-level students this year were dubbed “the unluckiest of them all”1 – why? Because this cohort had no prior experience of sitting public exams before taking their A-levels this summer (on top of major disruption to their education since March 2020), yet they were not given the same allowances as the cohorts of the last two years. They mark the first ‘transition year’2 as the government attempts to bring grades back down to pre-pandemic levels.
Transition is the key word here. It highlights the fact that things are not quite back to normal yet. This might be a strange concept for those of us who feel the pandemic is a distant memory, but imagine you are entering university after years of disruption to your education, and only just having experienced exams for the first time (this cohort were not able to sit their GCSEs). For those still in education and going on to higher education – the repercussions of the pandemic are still being felt.
Which is why our latest Life Interrupted study is as important as it was when we first launched it in March 2020. Two years on and we can still say that A-level students have had it hard, and the research highlights just how much they have been impacted by the pandemic to date. This has implications for all those in the education sector, as we think about how to support them in the right way.
Research for this edition of Life Interrupted was conducted in two parts from March to May 2022. The first part was a quantitative study where we surveyed 594 A-level students across England between 28th March and 8th April 2022. The second part was a qualitative online community with circa 40 students between 25th April and 4th May 2022.
The results from the survey and the online community were collated into our final findings, which you can find in a copy of the full report here.
But if you only have time to read this blog post today – here are some of the key headlines from the report, and what it means for those in the HE sector now and in future.
Impact on academic confidence
We asked students how they were coping with life and learning post-pandemic. As mentioned earlier, this batch of A-level students were the first-year group to miss their GCSEs, and the first to sit A-level exams since the start of the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, this left them feeling uncertain and insecure. This was not just down to the fact they did not practice sitting real exams, but also due to the impact on their motivation and engagement throughout their disrupted learning, and for many, a sense of imposter syndrome after teacher assessed grades. This all resulted in a massive 77% of students saying they feel less confident in their academic and learning abilities post-pandemic.
High rates of anxiety
So, moving on from confidence in their learning abilities, what else did the research tell us about this cohort of A-level students? An Office for National Statistics survey3 from Feb 2022 showed 16-29s feel considerably more anxious than the general population. Our study found this anxiety to be felt even more acutely by the A-level student population. They also showed the lowest rates of life satisfaction and likelihood to feel that life is worthwhile.
Impact on personal confidence
As well as the increase in anxiety, we found that some A-level students had also suffered a loss of social confidence as a result of lack of contact with peers, classroom interaction and increased screen time at home. Even with being back in the classroom for this academic year, many described the long-term impact the pandemic had on their confidence socialising, going out of their comfort zone and being able to speak up in group settings.
University decision making
Coupled with these changes to their social and academic confidence, as well as the strain on their mental health – we also found in the study some interesting changes when it comes to their views of university. When asking the cohort of students (30%) who said they were unsure of going to university why they felt this way – there were increases in ‘being tired of studying’ (up 14%), ‘wanting to go straight into employment’ (up 14%), ’wanting to avoid university debts’ (up 8%) and ‘interest in pursuing other qualifications’ (up 12%).
We also ask A-level students what their decision factors are when choosing a university, particularly if anything had got more or less important to them due to the pandemic. Some of the factors which are of increasing importance include: mental health support, academic support, affordability advice/support and remote learning opportunities, especially for the more introverted learners who enjoyed studying at home during the pandemic.
Life and learning post-pandemic: as we saw many in this cohort are still recovering their social confidence and confidence in their learning and academic abilities, Universities could think about increasing efforts that encourage peer-to-peer connections, for example providing different opportunities for collaborative learning or encouraging mentorship programmes/peer tutoring options. They need to take extra measures to boost academic confidence amongst this cohort and look for ways to support students who feel less well prepared than previous student groups, for example by improving inductions, planning transition support and taking extra care to make sure students understand the academic content
University decision making: Reasons for being uncertain about university are changing, e.g. a desire to go straight into employment or worries about debt. Although application numbers remain strong overall, it is important for universities to take note of some of the potential barriers to applying, so that these can be addressed head on when marketing to students who are still in the decision stage. When choosing a university, decision factors that have grown more important to students since the pandemic include the academic and mental health support available. It is vital that universities have the support system in place for these students.
Mental wellbeing: Lastly, when it comes to their state of mind and emotional state, A-level students show considerably higher levels of anxiety versus the general population. It’s important universities are aware of this audience’s emotions and state of mind and when planning how to market to them with sensitivity and empathy. University, a major milestone, presents to students lots of new stressors such as leaving home, academic pressures, gaining independence, and managing finances – all this is exacerbated amongst a student population that has lived through the uncertainty and disruption of a pandemic – and the long-term effects on young people’s mental health shouldn’t be underestimated. It is more important than ever that universities lead in developing effective systems to promote mental health and wellbeing for students throughout their time at university.
As you start planning for next year, we hope that this report will provide valuable insight into the student perspective, and help you consider how best to support and communicate with them over the coming months.
If you would like to discuss the research and its implications in more detail, please get in touch with our Education Client Services Director Natasha Kyndt: firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 The Guardian (Aug 2022) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/aug/19/first-edition-a-level-results-coronavirus