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Sunderland Repository records the research produced by the University of Sunderland including practice-based research and theses.

Apprehension, anxiety and awkwardness: transitioning to Higher Education and the implications for student retention

Williams, Helen and Roberts, Nicola (2021) Apprehension, anxiety and awkwardness: transitioning to Higher Education and the implications for student retention. In: Third Annual FES Staff Research Conference: Professions-Facing, 14 June 2021, University of Sunderland. (Unpublished)

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)


New first-year students are vulnerable to dropping out of university. The transition to higher education (HE) is an important predictor of continued engagement (Ang et al., 2019), and social and academic integration is crucial in supporting students to persist with their studies (Tinto, 1993).

The Criminology Longitudinal Retention Project tracked 3 consecutive first-year cohorts from 2014 to 2020, using a multi-method approach. The focus of this paper is the critical discourse analysis of 6 focus groups/interview with 17 students during their first year of study to understand how students settle at university. The data also includes exit interviews with 13 students, and qualitative data from periodic questionnaires completed by the wider cohort of students (n=165) during their first year.

Many of the students appeared to have poor social bonds with other students and little connection to the University or the city. Often the transition to a new identity of ‘university student’ was hampered by feelings of awkwardness or anxiety, which prevented students from fully integrating into student life. The discourse of awkwardness was represented by physical/geographical, social and academic discomfort and was used by students to explain poor attendance or engagement, disappointing academic performance, inability to make friends, dissatisfaction with accommodation and lack of social integration – all red flags for attrition.

However, the subject of Criminology was a ‘protective’ factor because interest in the topic and wanting a degree for betterment, including for future career plans, buffered students against dropping out. This suggests that a Criminology curriculum which: i) ‘checks’ and reminds students of their motivations for studying the subject, ii) that implements extra-curricula criminology activities, and that is iii) explicitly professions-facing with increased employer visibility, all throughout their programme, may support students to forge and embed their student identity more quickly and successfully. This could potentially ameliorate the awkwardness of identity transition and support student retention. The implications of this paper are pertinent in the current climate given the move to online teaching during the pandemic as students are limited in their ability to socialise, access university amenities, and get to know the city/campus.

Ang, C., Lee, K., Dipolog-Ubanan, G. F. (2019) Determinants of first-year student identity and satisfaction in higher education: A quantitative case study. Sage Open, 9 (2).
Tinto, V. (1993) Leaving College: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Depositing User: Nicola Roberts


Item ID: 13672

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ORCID for Helen Williams: ORCID iD
ORCID for Nicola Roberts: ORCID iD

Catalogue record

Date Deposited: 13 Jul 2021 16:12
Last Modified: 13 Jul 2021 16:12


Author: Helen Williams ORCID iD
Author: Nicola Roberts ORCID iD

University Divisions

Faculty of Education and Society > School of Social Sciences

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