What do the Second-Year Slump and the Covid Slump Have in Common? 

In November 2020, we argued that the ‘second year slump’ in Higher Education (HE) was the consequence of a poorly conceptualised approach to transition pedagogy. We evidenced that at the root of poor performance and lack of motivation in some second-year undergraduate students were differences in HE pedagogy between the first and second year, masking authentic teaching and assessment practices to the detriment of students. Since then, much of the research into student transition through HE has (rightly) focused on the crisis management of campus-based curricula delivered almost exclusively online during the global pandemic. My own work on transition pedagogies continued with a similar question: ‘What are student experiences of online teaching and assessment during the Covid-19 era?’

Currently, literature reports similar findings, highlighting common themes of isolation, attention problems, difficulty achieving learning outcomes and reduced retention rates. Public health ‘stay – at – home’ mandates had serious implications for everyone and worryingly highlight that a high proportion of the UG student cohort are likely to have experienced clinically significant levels of depression and/or anxiety.

However, because of the rapid need to upskill and deliver teaching and assessment remotely, academics are now able to significantly enhance support for students. E The 2021-22 academic year saw many academic staff in campus-based UK universities embrace a blended approach to teaching and assessment, but faculty were hesitant about committing wholeheartedly to remote, open book exams given the potential to participate in actions that potentially gained unfair advantages. Nonetheless, we could see the potential for campus based UG curricula to harness the advantages flexible delivery offers and embraced this unprecedented opportunity to change our pedagogical practice.

But the grey literature has begun to whisper about poor attendance, late and missed deadlines and high failure rates amongst the cohort of students experiencing blended models of teaching. There is unease that the academic performance in the first in-person written exams since COVID are at an unforeseen low. Publicly, newspaper opinion pieces and their comments variously see this because of a lack of motivation and commitment to study, despite increased support. Exasperated staff outline how they have reduced academic standards with lenient grading and flexible deadlines, yet despite this, students still perform poorly in on-campus written exams. Discussion circles around whether this ‘Covid Slump’ is a consequence of calculated grades at A-level and revised admission criteria, or an effect of the stress and turmoil of the Covid-19 era. ‘, The academic community appears to be divided between those colleagues who argue that failure rates reflect half-hearted efforts from a disengaged cohort who should not progress. Opposing this are staff who sympathetically champion students’ experiences of a two year long hastily devised, emergency-directed, atheoretical approach to teaching and assessment during a global crisis. So, what do the Second-Year Slump and the Covid Slump Have in Common? Both challenge the dominant discourse of the ‘approaches to learning framework’ and assumptions that learning is a property of the individual, separate and independent from the environment and assessment as a neutral entity. Instead, rather than pathologising student behaviour and performance, current online pedagogies to support teaching and assessment created early in the Covid era should be re-considered in the current context. If we have not yet committed to an evidence based pedagogical framework to underpin transitions into, through and out of HE what exactly are we basing our blended learning frameworks on?


Aisling Keane is a Reader and Associate Director in the Centre for Biomedical Sciences (Education), Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) and comes from a background in human anatomy and physiology (BSc in Physiology from National University of Ireland, Galway 1998; Ph.D Anatomy 2005),

Her independent research portfolio began as Advisor of Studies in 2007, researching the social and academic factors contributing to low pass marks and high attrition rates in first year students. Over several years, Aisling incorporated a ‘Transition Pedagogy’ into first year programmes in QUB. Outcomes of the Transition Pedagogy have been disseminated in peer-reviewed journals and nationally at conferences. Aisling completed her Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education Teaching in 2007 and was successfully awarded Senior Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy in 2021.

Stemming from a passion to explore the nature of student learning and assessment in Higher Education, Aisling completed a Doctorate in Education (2019). Her current educational research focuses on the social construction of assessment and feedback in student transitions. In 2019, she was awarded the international Kathleen Tattersall New Assessment Researcher Award by the Association for Education Assessment (AEA) – Europe

2 thoughts on “What do the Second-Year Slump and the Covid Slump Have in Common? 

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