Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Stress and coping in first year undergraduates - Denovan and Macaskill

This paper is of interest because of the participants, as well as the methodology. I’ve also tried to look at their excerpts, to try to get a feel for analysing data. It’s hard but sometimes I managed to pick up something which wasn’t in the text (though was probably highlighted in their full analysis of the transcription). IPA is going to be a challenge – and I’m interviewing in three days’ time!

Denovan, A. Macaskill, A. (2013). An interpretative phenomenological analysis of stress and coping in first year undergraduates. British Educational Research Journal, 39(6), 1002-1024. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/berj.3019


Against the background of increasing student numbers there also appears to be increasing levels of stress.


There is a discussion of models relating to stress, including the transactional model of Lazarus and Folkman (1984) and the updated model (Folkman, 2008).

Transition to university

Transition to HE is stressful for a number of reasons – academic, financial and social. Stress can be reduced by coping mechanisms associated with focussing on problem solving rather than emotions.

Positive psychology

Quantitative studies indicate that optimistic students cope better with the stress of transition. Meijer (2007) suggests that stress felt by students is affected by the “perceived level of guidance from lecturers”. Pekrun et al. (2007) find that students who demonstrate high levels of self-efficacy are more likely to have higher levels of achievement motivation. This, in turn, increases their likelihood of feeling in control of academic tasks.

Qualitative research

Greenbank (2007) found that the transition to more independent study was perceived as stressful. There is some qualitative evidence that positive coping techniques aided transition. The authors identify the role of phenomenology in the in depth exploration of individuals experiencing stress. They go on to link IPA to the area to be explored.



Purposive sampling with the use of a homogeneous sample. The authors discuss the sample size as linked to Smith’s work. They provide a demographic breakdown of the students, to indicate how they relate to national statistics on UK undergraduates.

Interview schedule

Semi-structured and open-ended, non-directive questions to provide deep responses. Use of a ‘vignette’ to develop rapport and put the participant at ease. This is something to consider. The authors identify what the questions focus on. The authors perform a verbatim transcription.


The authors considered the place, ethics, recording and length of the interview process.

Data analysis

The authors gained familiarity with the transcripts through the transcription process, reading and re-reading –immersing themselves in the text. On the left hand margin were written the thoughts, reflections and preliminary codes, with the preliminary themes being recorded on the right hand side. The authors discuss the iterative process the analysis went through. The themes were then grouped, and these were then validated by checking against the text, and these themes were supported with quotes. Each transcript was subjected to the same process, leading to the development of master themes. The themes were verified by the use of a colleague. The researchers do not mention the ‘bracketing’ of findings from prior interviews before starting on a new analysis, which might be considered a failing. There is also no mention of drawing attention to areas of divergence as well as those of convergence. Perhaps, therefore, some of the individuality of the interviews has been lost.


The authors mention several sets of criteria for evaluating the quality of qualitative research. They use Elliott et al.’s (1999) criteria as these are “…rooted within a phenomenological hermeneutic tradition”. I need to have a look at this and explore how it relates to Yardley’s criteria as they seem pretty similar. The criteria include ensuring that the researcher’s perspective is made clear, in depth discussion of the procedures, use of rich data as illustration of themes, the use of a colleague to assess the interpretation of themes, and use of a reflexive journal.


Reflexivity aids transparency and demonstrates how the researcher’s work has been framed by prior experiences and by assumptions and preconceptions.

Results and discussion

Five main themes were drawn out by the authors. These are: all the change; expectations of university; academic focus; support network; difficulties.

Theme 1: All the change

This discusses transitions to independent living. Coping was better in those who planned and prepared for the transition to living away from home. The authors discuss their findings and then draw out the theory associated with the findings.

Homesickness is also discussed within this theme. There is a gradual adjustment and acceptance of the change in their life. Social support aided their adjustment.

I started to look at the excerpts used within this paper, and became interested in one excerpt, where the change in language is apparent. David starts off with the more impersonal ‘you’, talking about living with others, then moves to the personal ‘I’, admitting his struggles. The authors don’t mention this within the discussion, but I’m sure they must have picked up on it in the analysis.

Differences between post-compulsory education and university

Participants initially struggled with independent learning. Once they adjusted to the new methods, they became more confident. Lack of initial feedback was a concern. Greenbank (2007) found that there were increased levels of stress due to the emphasis on independent learning in HE. There is a difference in the level of independent learning required between FE and HE. With increasing student numbers, increased class sizes lead to a more difficult transition. This links to Meijer’s (2007) model where stress is linked to reduced tutor guidance. Research by Greenbank (2007) suggests that there should be greater focus on the development of independent learning skills in FE. Furthermore Urquhart and Pooley (2007) suggest key areas for support. The authors acknowledge that some support in provided in most HEIs.

Theme 2: Expectations

Realistic expectations of university life led to better adjustment to the new environment. More passive approaches or negative thoughts led to issues with transition. A key influence on transition is the information received beforehand, whether from official or unofficial sources. Positive expectations represent optimistic thinking, which aids transition.

Theme 3: Academic focus

The importance of self-discipline is discussed by the respondents, as well as the development of strategies to improve time management led to positive feelings. Goal focus improved motivation. Learning from experience was a theme within the major theme of academic focus: stress was caused by deadlines, especially missed ones caused, for example, by poor time management. Students appeared to learn from their mistakes and acknowledge this. There is a discussion of the role of self-control and self-efficacy.

Theme 4: Support network

Establishing a support network: the participants expressed anxiety over making new friends, and acknowledged isolation in those not making new friends as quickly or as easily as they expected. The findings of other research (Kantanis, 2000) indicated that nearly 50% of first year undergrads hadn’t established a friendship group by the end of the first semester.

Support for coping with the transition came from three sources: family, acting as reassurance; friends, especially those experiencing similar problems; university staff. However, the authors, despite saying that provision of rich data is important in supporting the quality of the themes, do not provide any evidence for this final support group.

Theme 5: Difficulties

Housemates were a major source of difficulties, causing high levels of stress which was ongoing and hard to avoid. A range of coping mechanisms were used. Financial stress was also of concern, with more students working at the same time as studying, and the work/study/life balance being difficult. Within the sub-theme of academic difficulties, the authors (and so, presumably, the students) focus primarily on presentations as stressors. Stress was also incited by exams, though this tends to be short-term.


Transition to HE involves change. This can cause stress. A range of coping mechanisms were used by the participants. Adaptive coping was more effective, leading to positive adjustment. The authors acknowledge limitations such as sample size (though this is appropriate for IPA), and using a single university.

They suggest several potential interventions, which are: interventions to promote autonomy; support networks; preparation classes; support from colleges and schools.


Possible references to explore:

Barter & Reynold (1999) The use of vignettes in qualitative research

Brown, Moerkamp, & Voncken (1999) Facilitating progression to higher education from vocational paths

Elliott, Fischer & Rennie (1999) Evolving guidelines for publication of qualitative research studies in psychology and related fields.

Golsworthy & Coyle (2001) Practitioners’ accounts of religious and spiritual dimensions in bereavement therapy – this looks at reflexivity and how the researcher’s perspective affects interpretation

Greenbank (2007) From foundation to honours degree: the student experience.

Henwood & Pidgeon (1992) Qualitative research and psychological theorizing. This is quality in QMs

Lyons & Coyle (2007) Analysing qualitative data in psychology – about IPA & sense making

Meijer (2007) Correlates of stress in secondary education.

Robotham & Julian (2006). Stress and the higher education student: a critical review of the literature.

Seguin & Ambrosio. (2002). Multicultural vignettes for teacher preparation.

Smith (2003) Qualitative psychology: A practical guide to research methods

Smith & Eatough (2006). IPA in Breakwell et al.’s Research methods in psychology.

Tinto. (1993). Leaving college: rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition.

Urquhart & Pooley (2007). The transition experience of Australian students to university: the importance of social support.


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