Covid, Education, Teaching and learning

The Psychologist Guide to… [new] university life

In 2017 we published The Psychologist Guide to… University Life, 10 evidence-based tips to support new students in settling into university, studying well and looking after their health and finances. But now so much has changed…

01 July 2020

As it becomes increasingly clear that many first-year students will have a vastly different experience, with many lectures being held online, we contacted the authors of tips from our original 'Guide to University Life', plus some new voices, and asked them what their advice would be for these new times… 

Drinking and thinking together
Emma Davies and her students on distance learning, distance drinking, and the increasing distance between young people who attend university and those who do not. 

No-one has a clear idea what the impact of moving more of our teaching online in September 2020 will be. Even those of us with many years’ experience of distance learning recognise that this is a completely different proposition. Not only are there numerous demographic differences between students who have opted for a distance learning degree and those who have opted for face-to-face, there are also vastly different expectations when it comes to the experience of student life. 

Some of the core aspects of student life at a ‘brick’ institution are social, including joining clubs, societies, and sports teams. Many involve excessive drinking (Davoren et al., 2016).  Although there is a wealth of research on student drinking (some of which I am responsible for) thankfully, most students graduate relatively unscathed despite the perennial moral panic. However, students do report numerous short-term effects of excessive drinking, such as blackouts, hangovers, suffering embarrassment and of course, missing lectures (Davies et al., 2017).

The advantages of online lectures in terms of accessibility to students with disabilities are clear. But what impact will distance learning have on the social aspects of university and will this lead to fewer missed lectures due to hangovers? I asked some of my current students for their views…

Georgia Dorrell (second year) highlighted that students may be more likely to commute to university, which would have a big impact on social contact. She also believes that if pubs and clubs reopen, people will be more cautious about talking to people they don’t know and visiting crowded places, which will mean alcohol consumption reduces. 

Olivia O’Neill (third year) echoed Georgia’s views that more students may decide to live at home and wondered if feelings of detachment could lead some to drink more. Fellow third year student Abi Waters also raised concerns about missed social interactions, particularly for those in their first year, where lifelong friendships are forged. Abi wondered if some would rely on online drinking sessions, facilitated by Zoom. Olivia pointed out that there could be less peer pressure to drink online than in face-to-face settings.

Ross Mcintyre (third year) thinks that fewer opportunities to meet up will have a negative impact on students’ overall enjoyment of university. Not only could this impact relationships with peers, but also those with teaching staff. However, Ross said that without the commitment to get up and attend a physical lecture together, students would seek to meet up more frequently and drink together. 

There are calls to tackle alcohol consumption as a priority as we emerge from lockdown (Finlay & Gilmore, 2020). While we consider the impacts on young people who attend university, we must also consider the impact on those young people who do not, who are likely to be more severely impacted by the pandemic and will not have access to the pastoral services we offer our students. Data from the Global Drug Survey special issue on Covid-19 suggests that while some people have increased their drinking during the pandemic, around 37 per cent of young people are actually drinking on fewer occasions and 34 per cent are drinking less when they do drink than they did before (Winstock et al., 2020). Further examination of this and other data will develop our understanding of the differential impacts of the pandemic and allow us to take appropriate steps to provide tailored help and support. One aspect of new university life should be that we play a bigger role in improving the lives of all young people in our communities, not just those who enrol as students.  

-       Dr Emma Davies completed her MSc Psychology with the Open University and has taught with them as an Associate Lecturer for 12 years. With thanks to Georgia Dorrell, Olivia O’Neill, Abi Waters and Ross Mcintyre for their input. 


Davies, E. L., Law, C., Hennelly, S. E., & Winstock, A. R. (2017). Acceptability of targeting social embarrassment in a digital intervention to reduce student alcohol consumption: A qualitative think aloud study. Digital Health, 3, 2055207617733405. doi: 10.1177/2055207617733405

Davoren, M. P., Demant, J., Shiely, F., & Perry, I. J. (2016). Alcohol consumption among university students in Ireland and the United Kingdom from 2002 to 2014: a systematic review. Bmc Public Health, 16(1), 1-13. doi: 10.1186/s12889-016-2843-1

Finlay, I., & Gilmore, I. (2020). Covid-19 and alcohol—a dangerous cocktail. BMJ, 369, m1987. doi: 10.1136/bmj.m1987

Winstock, A. R., Davies, E. L., Gilchrist, G., Zhuparris, A., Ferris, J. A., Maier, L. J., & Barratt, M. J. (2020). Global Drug Survey Special Edition on Covid-19 Interim Report 02/06/20. London: Global Drug Survey.

Mark out your study space 
In our original 2017 guide Dr Paul Hutchings (University of Wales, Trinity Saint David) advised that reading deeply and critically was something that needed to be motivated, focused and carried out without distraction. ‘That advice remains the same but, of course, people’s situations may have changed due to Covid restrictions. It may be harder to find spaces to be alone and focused, you may have additional worries or drains on your time and resources.’

Hutchings said there were still things you can do to help you to stay focused on your reading. ‘Identify a ‘study place’, even if it is simply just a different seat to your usual one in the same room; say to yourself ‘this is where I study’ and avoid social media, TV etc. whilst in it. If you have others around you, talk to them and make them aware that there are times you need to study; they want you to succeed, they will understand. It can be useful to have a subtle signal that you don’t want to be disturbed, such as putting earphones on (with nothing distracting playing on them!) or putting an item on display near you to signal that you need to concentrate.’ 

Don’t suffer in silence
Dr Alana James (University of Reading), whose research looks into peer support and mentoring, said that while independent learning at university is important, this does not mean support isn’t available for students. ‘In the current circumstances it is more important than ever that students access support. If you get stuck with something try to find out the answer for yourself, try different resources, and try asking your student peers, but if you can’t figure it out then do ask a member of staff. Post questions in online discussion boards, make use of virtual or face to face drop-in hours, or email staff to arrange a time to speak. If you experience difficult circumstances, university support services such as welfare and counselling are also likely to be available both in person and remotely.’ It’s also important to make sure long-term support is in place if you need it. 

James added: ‘If you have a long-term condition or are neurodiverse make sure you register with your university’s disability service – this means that we can put into place reasonable adjustments for your studies as well as other forms of support. For example, my collaborator and I have found that specialist mentoring can help students with mental health conditions or autism to navigate university life’. 

Embrace the freedom, but create your structure
Dr Linda K. Kaye, Senior Lecturer in Psychology (Edge Hill University) said that during this period of increased online learning it would be ever-more important to become comfortable with autonomous ways of learning and setting up a personal timetable of activities to support yourself on your course. ‘Learning at university is probably very different from your previous educational experiences. Much of your learning will come from your self-directed study, which won't always be explicit in lecture content you are provided. Part of the joy of learning at university level is the autonomy you have to learn in ways which you can structure yourself and from the resources you choose to use. Your tutors are not there to tell you what or how to learn, but instead are there to recommend, advise and support you on your own learning journey.’ 

Start with the boring… and teach 
Senior Lecturer Dr Rebecca Sharp (Bangor University) said a good way to build your own work schedule was using ‘Premack’s Principle’. ‘This is the idea that more fun tasks should follow less fun tasks to help you complete them. For example, tackle that difficult chapter of the textbook before you read that easier paper.’ 

A great way to cement learning is to teach other people what you know. ‘Get your friends and families involved. Set aside a time each week that you teach someone what you have learned for the week. The best way to determine whether you have mastered a concept is to try to teach it to someone unfamiliar with it. If you can clearly explain it and can answer their questions, you've got it! This is a good one to build into your virtual catch-ups with people.’

Explore why, when and how you use tech
Cyberpsychology Lecturer Dr Sarah Hodge (Bournemouth University) highlighted that even before Covid-19 so much of our entertainment and learning occurred through technology and emphasised a need for digital resilience among university students. She said digital resilience can be supported by reflecting on and finding strategies to cope with challenges faced with technology use – whether that be FoMo (Fear of Missing Out), Cyberbullying, spending more time and/or money on entertainment than learning, or encountering harmful information or disinformation. ‘Everybody's use of technology is different and varied, we have so many options such as all the different forms of gaming and social media. Therefore a one-size-fits-all rule is never really going to work.’ 
Hodge said it was important, given students' independence in learning while at university and particularly when campuses aren’t open for teaching, for students to learn to manage their technology use. ‘I think it's important for students to be aware of how and when they are using technology as well as how much they’re using it. Especially, learning to manage time effectively on different platforms with balancing entertainment and learning.’ 

Read more from Sarah Hodge, with Layla Johnson, in 'the digitally resilient student'. 

Be social… remotely
Dr Julie Hulme (Keele University) said she thought that students might be feeling daunted by the thought of starting university this year, and not be sure what to expect. She suggests throwing yourself into university life as soon as possible, and building new relationships, through both online and on-campus activities where these are available. ‘Induction will be particularly important to help you to know what to expect from uni life. Join in with student societies and get to know others who share similar interests. Studies have shown that joining a student society can really help to improve your sense of belonging at university, and your psychological wellbeing. If you like sport, even better, as the physical activity will help to boost your mood and keep you fit, while helping to build a social network. Take the time to get to know your personal or academic tutor, and don't be shy about asking for a meeting just to say hello – you don't have to wait until you have a problem.’

Try not to loaf
Professor of Cyberpsychology Jacqui Taylor-Jackson (Western Sydney University) said the move to mainly online teaching created a great opportunity for students to learn new skills and to understand more about how technology affects the behaviour, thoughts and feelings of people (incidentally, a key aim of Cyberpsychology). Taylor-Jackson said in online seminars it may be a good idea to switch on your camera to increase engagement. ‘We know a lot about traditional group processes and it’s important to consider these when we move to online seminars. For example, social loafing needs to be avoided to encourage student engagement. Psychological research shows that the best way to do this is to heighten identifiability – online, this equates to ensuring that everyone sends a comment to an online discussion, or for students to turn their cameras on so they can’t loaf.’ 

However, Taylor-Jackson said being on camera wasn’t for everyone: more shy people may wish to post comments anonymously during seminars or ask tutors to allow discussion in smaller groups.

- As we move through this changing landscape for student learning and living, what have we missed? Email the editor on [email protected] or engage with us on Twitter @psychmag.