Student sentiment in 2020: insights and engagement strategies

Students in class with masks

More than ever before, students are looking to leaders and the government to solve the unprecedented challenges they are facing. Thanks to covid-19, their education and exams have been disrupted, their social lives have been all but shut-down at a time when they might have been forming life-long relationships, mental illness is on the rise, and it may be many years before the job market they are about to enter recovers. The picture for young people is pretty bleak, so they urgently need support and clarity about what their futures hold in store.

Student voices are always heard and valued on The Student Room. 75% of UK students use our platform, so we are in a great position to reflect how young people are thinking, feeling, and behaving to the powers that represent them in government and office.

So, how is the covid-19 pandemic affecting the younger generation? In this blog, we’ll cover current onsite behaviour trends and what these tell us about the key concerns for each age group. We’ll also delve into students’ views on the lockdown and on mental health provision.

Students on lockdown

On Saturday 31st October, when lockdown was announced, we asked students: 

New lockdown – Do you agree schools and universities should remain open?

Looking at user comments, it’s clear this is a very divisive topic:

I think schools and universities should be kept open, where safe and possible.”

“I don’t see the point of taking these [lockdown] measures when schools stay open.”

“I do think there is clear evidence that secondary schools are or were driving transmission. But school closures do need proper planning, not just being dropped a few days in advance like last time!”

“I wish they had the capacity to bring in some stricter guidelines and spread people out even more – I don’t feel very safe”

“Universities should be fully open. online learning is so dead, and students’ mental health is suffering”.

“I’m a student nurse and suspending courses such as mine and other allied health courses or medicine courses would have a big impact on healthcare in the UK.”

This month alone, we’ve seen a significant year-on-year increase in posts across forums that are related to current affairs, politics and lockdown decisions:

We’re also seeing spikes in chat forums and forum games, as more students are reaching out for peer-to-peer support and companionship online.

We recommend using online spaces to provide up-to-date official information. For example, Universities Minister Michelle Donelan did a live Q&A with our student audience.

Year 11

Currently, our top article (by pageviews) is What’s happening with GCSE and A-level exams in 2021? It’s clear that UK students don’t believe with any certainty that summer exams will go ahead in 2021.

For Year 11s, we are seeing lots of questions and worry about continuous assessment. Many students are concerned that their mock exams will end up being used as their final grades if exams are cancelled again in 2021. Here are some sample threads in which users are panicking about their mocks:

I have my mocks tomorrow and im having a mental breakdown
Year 11 mocks gcses (aiming for 7-9) 

I know I can do well. I just didn’t study enough. What do I do if my grades are based on these mocks??? This is so stressful.”

In terms of engagement onsite, we’ve noticed an increase in past paper requests and “study together” revision threads. Again, this tells us that students are predicting mock exams will be more important this year, so they are already taking action to ensure they get the best possible grades. 

We recommend building a strong presence where students are asking questions – why not share advice content on popular areas of The Student Room? You can also answer student questions as they happen using an Official Rep

Year 12

Plenty of Year 12s are sitting GCSEs this autumn due to the summer 2020 exams being cancelled. Our Autumn GCSE content for English and Maths in particular has been very popular onsite recently e.g. 

AQA GCSE English Language Exam 8700 Paper 1,2 2nd, 4th Nov 2020 – Exam Discussion
Edexcel GCSE Maths Higher Tier 1MA1H Paper 1,2,3 3/5/9 Nov 2020 – Exam Discussion

Since the pandemic, we’ve noticed that Year 12s’ career interests seem to have shifted. For example, Medicine and health forums have consistently attracted more of their attention than in 2019. Year 12 posting in our Medicine forum is up 1475% (961 posts this month compared with 63 posts for the same period last year). This may be because the profile of NHS workers has been elevated – they are now seen as heroes – or it might be that students, aware they are entering a turbulent job market, are predicting this will be an area of relative growth and security. 

In terms of university applications, most Year 12s are in very early consideration stages. That said, we’ve seen a 171% boost in Year 12 posting in our Applications, Clearing and UCAS forum this month compared with last year, and a 580% increase in posts in our Uni and HE colleges forum. Threads for more competitive courses and universities are especially busy. It’s clear that Year 12s are concerned about increased competition for 2022 entry. Specifically, we’re seeing much more activity around: Oxford, Cambridge, Medicine, Warwick, Durham, LSE, Manchester and Leeds threads.

We recommend providing specific advice for Year 12s about routes into competitive courses and universities. Here are some example topic areas you could consider:

  • Medicine/Law/Veterinary – how prospective students from low-income backgrounds can get funding for longer-term degrees
  • Barriers to applying (e.g. too difficult, not intelligent enough, family background) – challenge perceptions about who can attend prestigious universities 
  • Advice on how to access competitive or highly skilled careers

Year 13

Like the Year 11s, Year 13 students are uncertain about whether 2021 summer exams will go ahead or whether they’ll be assessed by their mock exam results. Some students are also saying that it isn’t fair that English students will have to compete for university places against Scotish and Welsh students for whom exams were cancelled:

A levels should be cancelled

Since Wales and Scotland have cancelled their exams I don’t think it’s fair for us to do ours because we are gonna be competing against people who haven’t sat the exams for the same unis and courses, there is no level playing field.”

“Maybe they’ll collect mock performances from each sixth form/college just to get an idea and then base new grade boundaries from there?”

University applications are also at the forefront of Year 13’s minds. One big worry for this year group is that lockdown has prevented many of them from getting work experience or taking part in extra curricular activities, so they don’t know what they can write in their personal statements. Our personal statement builder resource has already received over 5,000 pageviews this month.

We’ve also seen that Year 13s are more actively engaged in discussions about wider issues and careers than the 2019 cohort. This month alone, Year 13 have posted 5674 times on non-education related forums (which covers topics like news, politics, health, relationships and society) this is well over double the number of posts in 2019 (2382). Posts about careers are also up 32%.

We recommend early career engagement activities and promoting work experience opportunities. For advice on this check out our recruitment webinar. 

University students

Current students’ posts show that they are feeling a wide range of challenging emotions –  resigned, frustrated, anxious and sad. Unfortunately, we are seeing a spike in conversations about students feeling isolated, not enjoying the university experience, and finding the work difficult:

Not enjoying university, what do I do

Social anxiety in online lectures and seminars is a real issue for some students, as it is preventing them from taking part in live lectures. In this thread, students discuss the worth of degrees and some of the issues arising from covid:
Uni life during COVID-19 and social anxiety

We polled students to find out more about their experience of attending university in 2020:

Poll: How are you finding university so far? More than one in five students said “I’m finding it very hard and I’m struggling to cope” and fewer than 6% said “It’s how I thought it would be, and I’m enjoying it”.

We also did a poll about the risk of university dropouts, but it looks like the majority are intending to stay. Read this blog for more analysis on this issue. 

We recommend significantly increasing your communications with university students – they urgently need information, advice and support. Contact us about the best way to share your message. We can also do bespoke student research on request if you want to canvas student opinions.

Students and mental health

“The system was broken before Covid and is even worse now.” – User, The Student Room

Over the past thirty days, our student sentiment score has dipped 7% compared with 2019. In the week before World Mental Health Day (10 October 2020), the most common questions in our Mental Health forum were students talking to other users about anxiety and depression. Sadly, comments about stress, mental illness and not being able to get support span all ages groups:

“If I think I have anxiety, can I get help without my parents knowing?”

“I’m in Year 11 and I’m so nervous about exams coming up this year. I find that I can’t sleep well at all due to anxiety and I’m finding it hard to eat as I’m always feeling anxious.” 

“I just don’t feel like i fit in anywhere anymore and I always feel so gloomy and tired. I’m also worried that this is gonna have an impact on school especially as I have GCSEs next year. I feel as if I’m slowly sinking down in a hole and I have almost no motivation now for anything and everything bores me.” 

“I can’t stop crying, I just feel so low… I’ve been struggling to make friends at uni – everyone’s already in clicks and there are no societies because of covid. I have no appetite because I’m so upset and when I eat I feel sick and I’m scared i’ll lose weight.” 

Over 77% of respondents to our recent mental health poll said they were not confident they could find the support they need:

Are you confident you could find support for your mental health if you needed it in COVID-19?

“Pre-pandemic the NHS mental health services were abysmal already…You have about a 6 month wait to get seen by anyone.” 

“Nobody actually cares anymore unless it’s covid”. 

“I think the system is extremely broken – like the social housing system – unless you have an “extreme or bad case” you’ll be either told to buzz off or referred to your college or uni to be a burden to them instead.” 

A common theme in these comments is that students feel the core mental health services are unable to cope with demand. Therefore students are looking elsewhere for the help they need. At The Student Room, we use our platform to provide thousands of students with mental health-related content. Sharing resources online is a great way that organisations can offer additional support and connect with vulnerable young people. We also align with organisations like Papyrus (youth suicide prevention charity) to increase our capacity to help, and to make sure the support we offer is appropriate.

We recommend proactively signposting all students to a range of mental health services and (if applicable) funding support. Many students are telling us that the current system requires them to seek help themselves at a time when they are feeling vulnerable, overwhelmed or confused. Our research also indicates an urgent need for greater capacity. 

If you would like more student insights, or you have a message you would like to share with students, we would be very happy to talk to you. Please get in touch: 0800 999 3222 or email hello@thestudentroom.com

Data:

The Student Room Live Report, PowerBI onsite analysis, 25 October – 11 November 2020 vs same period in 2019

Author: Katie Hale