Positioned between two years with strong academic identities, the second year at university often seems to be overshadowed. First year is for settling in, final year is packed with preparation for exams and employment. Second year is the middle child in a three year undergrad curriculum.
Research shows that students often struggle during this period – and that universities should think carefully about the support on offer. The issue is widely recognised by academics in the US, who refer to “the sophomore slump” and have studied related underperformance and disengagement extensively. When we researched the issue at Liverpool John Moores University, we found around a third of undergraduates experienced a slow down in their academic progress during second year.
How second year students feel about their studies
Studies indicate that there is a shift in student perspectives as they move from first to second year: students become generally less satisfied with their university experience and their priorities change. Survey comment analysis shows that while first year students are more focused on academic and social integration, second years are more achievement driven.
This change is generally supported by student development literature which suggests that students concentrate more on performance and establishing their academic identity when they enter their second year.
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The second year slump is a complex phenomenon, and it’s hard to identify which students are most vulnerable. When we researched student progression we followed a range of undergraduates. These included those who had found the first year largely straightforward, possibly having studied the discipline to an advanced level at school, and those who were new to the subject. We found there is no single or cluster of characteristics that can determine whether or not a student is likely to struggle.
Of those students who did experience a slump, most reported feeling lost, perplexed and disappointed with their academic performance in the second year. Staff commented on the challenge of teaching second year students and how they often struggle to meet the academic demands of the programme of the study.
What causes the second year slump?
A range of factors contribute to disengagement. Students say they feel unprepared for the overall workload of the second year, in particular the volume of assessment.
A study by Scott and Cashmore found that students find the significant step up in workload both unexpected and a cause of angst. Interviews with academic staff indicated that curriculum structure may exacerbate this. One academic characterised first year in terms of “cute, fluffy, first year subjects” which may contribute to the misplaced sense of academic security students feel when entering the second year.
For many 'the second year blues' have begun before they return to university
In most standard undergraduate degree programmes there will be a break of at least four months between the end of the first year’s teaching in late spring and the start of the second year in early autumn. While the summer break is equally long for final year students, in many cases they will be working on dissertations or engaging in some preparatory work which effectively bridges the years. In interviews, students described feelings of apprehension towards the end of the summer and for many “the second year blues” have begun before they return to university.
Most students felt that, when they did start term, induction was a low priority and described arrangements as “non-existent” or “rudimentary”. There was a sense that induction involved being told “you should know this by now”. In focus groups with final years, when asked to reflect retrospectively on their second year, many said that they would have welcomed more support and guidance, particularly with respect to more technical modules and subjects.
Despite this need for support, there was a lack of willingness to take up support from university student services, particularly among male students. This may be because some students feel asking for help is a sign of weakness.
Encouragement from family and friends can have a significant impact on academic reintegration, commitment to the institution and decisions to persist with the course.
It is important that universities pay attention to the second year to help students make the most of their university experience and prepare the ground for their final year. With students paying higher tuition fees, every day, semester and year count.
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Three ways universities can help students succeed in second year
1. Develop a second year induction programme: welcome the students back to the departments, discuss expectations and encourage students to maximise the second year.
2. Keep the subject alive: consider how you market the second year in order to enthuse students towards upcoming content and send positive signal in order to support achievement.
3. Ensure consistent academic support in terms of personal tutoring throughout the second year.
Clare Milsom is director of the teaching and learning academy at Liverpool John Moores University and a national teaching fellow
Additional authors include: Martyn Stewart is senior lecturer in research methods at Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine; professor Mantz Yorke is visiting professor in the department of educational research, Lancaster University. Elena Zaitseva is academic research and development officer, teaching and learning academy at Liverpool John Moores University.
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