By Neasa Gorrell
Moving from the secondary-level structured education system to a third level university is difficult in most years for the vast majority of students. Regularly, it is a change from a system that saw us up, dressed and out to the school bus or car before 9am for our day of structured classes – to, all of a sudden, – a form of self-determined, self-structured, and self-motivated education.
Yet, for this academic year’s lot of first-year students, the transition proved to be extra-challenging, as they had to navigate the world of university studying all on their own.
With the pandemic slowly taking hold of the general Irish population towards the end of the autumnal season and a lack of planning for a second lockdown situation, the Government and Universities chose to close their doors to all of the student population across Ireland. Thus, leaving every third level University student, including the first-years, in a bit of a pickle, to put it lightly.
Now, having started the second semester of this year of online University study, a handful of first-year NUI Galway students have weighed in on the learning experience they have endured so far.
Unfortunately, many students admitted that they have found this year to be a struggle, whereas some have adapted quite well. But, overall, there are problems which need to be addressed.
One of the most significant and worrying responses from first-year students was that many had felt a severe lack of motivation to direct their self-guided study. Being at home for the most part, with learning conducted online, saw students struggle to focus and commit to the university learning curriculum. Some first-year students spoke to SIN about about their struggles this year has brought.
“College has been hard for everyone this year as there is little to no social aspect and learning online is difficult motivation wise.”
“I found online learning quite difficult to adapt to and struggle a lot with finding the motivation to get up and get things done but connecting with others on my course gave me a needed boost!”
While another first-year student added,
“A lot of self-discipline is needed to stay on top of everything. I’ve reached out to lecturers and tutors for help before, but I don’t think I’ll ever fully adjust to not having a set timetable.”
A resounding amount of students that had responded told how they often found themselves distracted by their phones or surroundings, bearing in mind that not every student has the same level of access to adequate study space in their home environments. One first-year student told of their struggles in this regard,
“It is very boring and isolating doing everything at home… I find it hard to get the motivation to keep up with all the work that is assigned, and it is especially difficult to stay concentrated during lectures because it is so easy to just go on your phone instead.”
Other students commented on the struggle to adapt to new learning styles and technologies.
“It has taken a lot of organization to learn to use new technology and keep on top of everything. It is also a massive change with regards to the style of learning. The focus is much more on understanding and applying everything you’ve learned to your studies, rather than learning a set curriculum.”
“One of the hardest things to get used to this year was the independent learning. In school, we were mostly spoon-fed information, whereas, in college, we are given more of an outline and have to do additional studies on the topics ourselves to grasp the topic fully. I found that very hard to adapt to, especially from home.”
Unfortunately, many first-year students mentioned that the circumstances of online learning had caused struggles with their mental health.
“Dealing with mental health issues has also been a huge challenge this year, and when there is barely any divided between work and leisure, it is very hard to take a break and look after myself fully.”
“I feel as though my mental health has really suffered and that this has impacted on my ability to learn. I often find myself suffering from burnout, especially with having to look at screens. After a day of online classes, I find myself not willing to go on any social media apps or reach out to friends. I just can’t keep living through a screen.”
On the upside, there have been many supports made available to students that have brought positivity into this year of change.
With the introduction of online learning and socialising with peers in person entirely off the cards, NUI Galway and the Students’ Union have made various online learning supports and online events available to help students adjust to University life from home.
Many of the first-year students we spoke to told us how these supports had helped them so far in this academic year,
“Obviously, socialising with anyone has been difficult, and I still don’t know the majority of people in my course, which is crazy! Thankfully, through a few on-campus labs last semester and online events and workshops provided by the Students’ Union, I have made a few online friends. In fairness, NUIG Confessions has also provided quality entertainment over the past few months, making me feel as though I am actually in college with other people and not sat alone at my desk.”
“Group work has been a good form of assessment as I actually prefer using Zoom and Teams for this type of work, but think I need in-person lectures to get most out of the college learning experience.”
“I like the way that live lectures are now recorded and that we are also offered pre-recorded lectures in advance of class, as it allows you to do your work in your own time. It also means that the module material is also easily accessible for revision.”
“There were a few stressful times, but for me, it has been great. The CÉIM leaders were an excellent resource and helped with questions or worries. I found the lecturers respectful and kind, and this has helped a lot with learning. One negative aspect was the lack of time in tutorials for learning how to write academic standard assignments, essays or reports.”
With this regard, many students who opted to live on campus said that they had felt more like they were a member of the college community than had they stayed at home. They also said that they felt lucky to have bonded with their housemates during a difficult time and feel as though they had made friends for life.
Other students who remained at home gave credit to the Hump Day Hoolie hosted by the Students’ Union here at NUI Galway for enabling them to feel connected to their peers and reducing the effects of isolation. Many first-year students also credited the Students’ Union for keeping them engaged with events and information.
Overall, this year proved to have been a mixed bag of cans for many students, first-years included, with varying accounts of the ups and downs experienced across the board. Hopefully, with technologies and learning strategies improving, NUI Galway will implement better Universal Designs for Learning to improve accessibility and inclusivity for all students.
In the meantime, keep your head up, keep trying and keep positive. Together, we will get through this, and one day, when we are all vaccinated, and the coronavirus is a distant memory, we’ll be back on campus sitting in the sun by the Big Yellow Thing or wondering where the Smokey’s Pigeon is lurking.