Student Experiences

These pages and Student Experience 2 describe what Exam Aid research has suggested about student life. This article is based on the one published in the magazine ‘Education and Health’; this project also featured in the article ‘Trouble ar a Bad Time’ published in the Times Educational Supplement.

A Profile of Year 13

This Exam Aid research survey provided a profile of Year 13 which suggested that A level students typically work long hours in part-time jobs, have vague career plans and are very likely to have experienced some non-academic problem since their courses started. The study is based on 423 questionnaire returns from in nine institutions, including school sixth forms, sixth form colleges and F.E. colleges. Probable sources of student stress were highlighted by looking at how the rest of their lives mixed with the academic demands and at their own opinions and motives. The evidence collected can be grouped into four main areas.

1. How do students spend their time? The traditional student image of inebriated indolence is decidedly obsolete on the basis of these results. Students were asked how they divided their non-academic time. The results suggested that the average student has at least another two substantial non-academic demands on time apart from social life and might well have three,demands on time apart from social life and might well have three, including commitments to part-time jobs, sporting and non-sporting clubs and societies and family duties such as baby-sitting and taking charge of younger children. 86% of the students had part-time jobs, and the majority of them were working double figure hours.

There was a certain detachment from their institutions, with a lot more involvement in out-of-school/college clubs and societies than those within the institutions. Some of the gender differences were along traditionalist lines, with girls being more committed to family duties and boys more likely to take part in sport, though the results also suggested that girls’ social lives tended to be more outside of their institutions that boys’ and the part-time working motive of paying for a vehicle applied equally as much to girls as it did to boys.

Taken as a whole, the spread of activities suggested that sophisticated time management skills are necessary to mix these demands with those of three A levels and those students who hadn’t acquired these skills might will be under heavy pressure. The students themselves seemed to confirm this finding in the section where they were asked to approve or otherwise of various methods of providing help, with over 80% backing the provision of time management training.

2. WHAT HAPPENS IN STUDENTS’ LIVES DURING EXAM COURSES?

The examination playing field is more level for some than it is for others. One in five students had
experienced a death somewhere in their family since the beginning of Year 12, and this is no freak result – the percentage was similar from all schools and colleges. We can’t say from this research why the figure is so high, though the tendency to marry and/or have children later in life may have something to do with it. The total of students who’ve moved house, seen their parents split up, experienced on of their parents being made redundant of left home equals 29%. 22% have lost time because of illness. There are clearly substantial numbers of students facing at least one non-academic crisis during their A level years.
Anticipating these events is sometimes regarded as pessimistic or ghoulish but these figures suggest that at least making students aware of possible sources of help might help those who could otherwise fail or pay a very heavy price for their success.

3. WHY DO STUDENTS DO A LEVELS AND WHAT DO THEY EXPEXT FROM THEM?

Some of the surprises amongst these figures are negatives. 71% predictably named ‘getting the qualifications to go to university’, but 29% – nearly a third – didn’t. Only 57% named ‘getting the qualifications for well-paid jobs’ and even smaller total of 31% had a career in mind when choosing A levels. Just under a third – again – identified the negative motives of ‘pressure from parents’ (17%) or ‘lack of job opportunities at 16’ (15%). In both of the ‘one third’ cases quoted, the group was disproportionately male.
31% found A level courses ‘as interesting as expected’ and 28% found them ‘more interesting than expected’ – generally encouraging totals. Induction procedures seem to be less successful, with those who found the A levels harder than expected outnumbering those who found them easier by 43% to 2%.

4. HOW DO STUDENTS THEMSELVES THINK THEY SHOULD BE HELPED?

Here, the questionnaire format has its limitations; students can only comment on the alternatives put to them. But the suggestions were based on previous research and were generally approved by huge majorities. Students were asked ‘how important is it for each provision to be available for A level students?’, with the choice of answers being ‘very important’, ‘important’ or ‘unimportant’. In-school counsellors were highly supported; 68% for them being members of the teaching staff and 71% for them being entirely counsellors. The highest single rate was 82% for time management training, in line with the results on time demands. Almost as many approved the availability of helplines advice concerning drugs and health education (79%), part-time work (81%) and relationships problems (81%).

Helplines advice-approved by huge majorities
The whole picture is one of a highly pressurised and demanding experience which seems to be about trying to live up to everyone else’s expectations at the same time as being unsure about your own. The evidence may serve as a reminder to those educationalists for whom exam results are the only yardstick that many students are paying a heavy price for success and some fail for entirely non-academic reasons.

Factfile

Part-time work :

  • 55% working more than 11 hours a week in Year 13.
  • 27% working more than 15 hours a week in Year 13 Life in the Sixth Form – complications
  • 42% describe attribute of employers to exam work as ‘variable’ or ‘unsympathetic’
  • 28% working to be able to afford university

Life Events:

  • Since beginning of Year 12:
  • 19% have experienced the death of a parent or other relative
  • 22% have lost time through illness
  • 11% have moved house; 7% have been through the divorce or separation of their parents; 8% have experienced the redundancy of one of their parents; 3% have left home.

A levels:

  • 31% have specific career in mind; 54% want good general qualifications
  • 43% say A levels ‘harder than expected’; 2% say A levels ‘easier than expected’ Help during Year 13
  • 82% want training in time management
  • 79% want drugs and health education advice
  • 81% want advice about part-time work, e.g. employment rights, wages etc.
  • 81% want advice about agencies dealing

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