Blog 38: Exploring the extent to which first-year Education students at two institutions developed university identities in light of changes to teaching and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Dr Kieran Hodgkin and Dr Samantha Shields

Setting the context

For students, the transition into Higher Education (HE) has long been an area of concern. Early transitional work explored academic and social integration as the two main challenges during this phase of Education. However, more recent research has indicated that there are three main aspects of the transition to HE that ‘matter’ to students. Firstly, the academic side of transition. Students are required to recognise, translate, and acquire skills, practices and knowledge that may be distinctly different from their previous educational experience. Secondly, developing student identity. Students are required to develop a sense of ‘being, belonging and becoming’ within their first year in HE. And finally, is forming effective working relationships with academic staff.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these challenges for many, if not all post-16 learners, as formal examinations were cancelled over two summer series and learning opportunities and experiences including projects, practical work and fieldwork were curtailed or abandoned. These learners have experienced particular ‘pressures and uncertainty, and their confidence has been affected’, with disruptions to learning and social interactions also affecting some learners’ physical and mental health and well-being. What is known about student preparedness for university will have to be re-evaluated considering the significant changes to teaching and learning experienced since March 2020.


Research Design: a narrative approach

This study explored, in detail, the development of student identity, namely their sense of ‘being, belonging and becoming’ during the global COVID-19 pandemic. The study investigated the journeys of four first year students from two UK HE institutions and compared their expectations of the transition to HE to their experiences during their first six months of study. This project adopted a narrative approach to explore student identity in relation to ‘being, belonging and becoming.’ Narrative research focuses on the stories we tell. Narrative research enables us to understand participants’ experiences over time and is pertinent to understanding transitional life events. Participants are likely to select different stories depending on the audience and circumstances. Consequently, narrative researchers focus on how participants make sense of their experiences, rather than a strict interpretation of ‘truthfulness’. Cousin notes narrative research enables a ‘comparison of critical episodes in stories with “like events” (p.96).

The study utilised paired interviews to explore students’ sense of ‘being, belonging and becoming’. The paired interview has received little attention in the research literature. However, for this study it provided notable advantages, for example the benefits of the flexibility of semi-structured interviews, with the advantage of ‘sparking reflections’ that are typical of a focus group were combined. The paired interview allowed two students to cross reference their experiences with each other, with a natural inclination towards a democratic turn-taking approach. The paired interview approach therefore avoided the focus group concern of ‘dominant speakers’, whilst also attempting to mitigate against power imbalances with two students having a discussion with one academic.  This interview approach allowed the interviewer to play a more facilitative role resulting in a more discursive, conversational interview. The paired interview requires further consideration as a research method within research into the first-year experience and transitions to university learning.


Emerging Findings

Three key themes emerged from the paired interviews: ‘academic belonging’, ‘informal learning conversations’ and ‘intrinsic motivation to study’. The first was ‘academic belonging’. All four participants identified as university students through their commitment to studying and successful educational outcomes. However, for two students, whilst they had developed an identity as a university student, they did not feel an attachment to their own university. This was characterised by the lack of face-to-face teaching which meant most participants had not been onto campus or socialised with peers on their course. One participant said:


I’m not sure I feel like a university student at my university if you get what I mean. Like I haven’t been on the campus, I haven’t been in a lecture theatre or the buildings. I feel like I   identify as a university student, I just don’t identify with my university.


Furthermore, whilst ‘academic belonging’ was integral to the development of a university student identity, the participants felt that the online environment had been detrimental to ‘informal learning conversations’. ‘Informal learning conversations’ were seen to be intrinsic to opportunities for discussions with course mates and were characterised as organic, naturally occurring events that would have ideally taken place in spaces outside of the formal strictures of an online seminar. ‘Intrinsic motivation to study’ was hampered by limited opportunities to engage with course mates and tutors. In addition, the flexible approach to learning that had been provided by the institutions, such as students listening to lecture recordings in their own time was often perceived as challenging with the participants having a stronger preference for a specific timetabled time to listen to lectures synchronously. It appeared that the greater the amount of ‘independent’ learning was required, the more difficult it was to maintain a suitable amount of willpower to work independently (which in this case was typically in isolation in their own bedrooms).

The findings raise some interesting considerations for those engaged in teaching university students, first and foremost the academic aspects of studying are central to the sense of self for undergraduates, which returns us to the need for careful consideration of early opportunities for this sense of academic belonging to be ‘confirmed’. Furthermore, students recognise and appreciate opportunities for informal learning alongside the formal taught aspects of their programme and universities keen to retain some aspects of online learning should consider what ‘spaces’ enable this type of learning to take place. Finally, the well-intentioned flexible asynchronous approach to online learning draws heavily on willpower and motivation to learn for this demographic group and suggests further consideration of asynchronous delivery.



In conclusion, this small-scale, qualitative study has identified that first-year students can develop a sense of ‘academic belonging’ via an online learning environment. Nevertheless, participants did report experiences of low motivation and isolation, which appeared to hinder their development of a university student identity. Consequently, we argue that future designs of online learning environments specifically for first-year undergraduates should draw upon the research literature on ‘transition’ and ‘belonging’. A greater focus on the ‘first-year experience’ could ensure pedagogical provision for authentic incidental learning opportunities with peers within the online learning context. In addition, a balance of two considerations is required for first-year students: the benefits of flexibility offered by asynchronous delivery versus an increased sense of structure and community through greater synchronous learning opportunities.


Dr Kieran Hodgkin is a Senior Lecturer in Education within the School of Education and Social Policy at Cardiff Metropolitan University. Kieran has published widely in the field of transition. Through the lens of young people, Kieran has explored the expectations and experiences of young people making the transition between primary and secondary school and further to higher education. His other research interests include ethnography and research ethics. Kieran is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (SFHEA). 

Dr Samantha Shields is a Lecturer in Education at Newcastle University, UK. Her research interests focus on students’ experiences, particularly in relation to assessment and feedback, as well as classed and gendered inequities.


Image copyright: Divya Jindal-Snape

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