M. Keown, T. Speake

The University of Manchester (UNITED KINGDOM)
The Faculty of Life Sciences at The University of Manchester encourages students to seek opportunities in the workplace to develop both their knowledge and generic skills to enhance their employability. An important opportunity is the yearlong placement scheme between years 2 and 3 as part of the ‘with industrial experience/modern language’ programmes offered by many Faculties in the university. Returning to university and academic study after completing a placement is not without its challenges for these students, e.g. difficulty making new friendship groups when most of their peers have graduated the previous summer. This in itself can impact upon any group work activities if students feel isolated from other group members and their student cohort generally. These concerns can also be of significance to students returning from a period of interruption for health or financial reasons. For students returning from interruption the re-adjustment to good study practices can be an even greater trial where the period of absence was unstructured. Of key concern to staff is that these obstacles could potentially prevent some returning students from reaching their full academic potential and ultimately impact upon their degree attainment.

This study aims to provide a thorough understanding of the challenges individual students face upon returning to university following a period of absence, either through a planned absence as part of a placement programme or through interruption.

Placement students were invited to complete a tailored online questionnaire exploring some of the practical difficulties and anxieties they experienced during their time away from the university and upon their return. Students currently on interruption were also asked to complete a similar online questionnaire. Those students who had returned from interruption were invited to attend an interview with the researchers to explore these areas in more depth.

Over 80% of students currently on placement expressed apprehension about their return to university. The key concerns included resumption of study skills developed prior to placement, loss of peers and friendship groups who have already graduated and recommencement of academic schedule, including returning to lectures and tutorials. Returned placement students expressed similar concerns about their experiences of returning to university and found adapting to the change of schedule and returning to lectures and tutorials the most significant challenges. The main trepidations amongst students currently on interruption and those who had returned also included loss of contact with previously established peer groups, return to lectures and tutorials after a period of absence and that study skills may be inadequate to manage the return to study.

It is clear that similar issues affect both placement and interrupting students. Having fully explored individual students’ experiences, the researchers are now in a position to generate recommendations and a support package for both students and staff to assist students in re-orientation to the demands of academic study. This could include study skills workshops for returning students and provision of small group activities to encourage and support the establishment of new peer networks.