An interpretative phenomenological analysis of stress andcoping in first year undergraduatesDENOVAN, Andrew and MACASKILL, Ann Available from Sheffield Hallam University Research Archive (SHURA) at: document is the author deposited version. You are advised to consult thepublisher's version if you wish to cite from it.Published versionDENOVAN, Andrew and MACASKILL, Ann (2013). An interpretativephenomenological analysis of stress and coping in first year undergraduates. BritishEducational Research Journal, 39 (6), 1002-1024.Copyright and re-use policySee Hallam University Research Archive

An interpretative phenomenological analysis of stress and coping in first yearundergraduatesAndrew Denovan & Ann MacaskillSheffield Hallam University, United KingdomCorrespondence to: Dr Andrew Denovan, Teeside University, Middlesbrough, TS1 3BA,Tel: 01642738651 Email: [email protected] Ann Macaskill, Unit 8 Science park, Howard Street, Sheffield S1 [email protected]

AbstractIn the UK, changes to the Higher Education system have increased the range of stressorsexperienced by students above those traditionally associated with the transition to university.Despite this, there is little qualitative research examining how students experience and copewith the adjustment to university. The experience of the transition was investigated in depthamongst 10 first year UK undergraduates. Purposive sampling resulted in a group withdemographics similar to national statistics on UK undergraduates. Semi- structuredinterviews were used beginning with a content specific vignette to develop rapport.Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis was utilised to analyse the transcripts (Smith,2003) and quality checks were implemented to increase the validity of the analysis. Five mainthemes were identified: all the change, with subthemes of independent living, homesickness,differences between post-compulsory education and university; expectations of university;academic focus with subthemes of self-discipline, motivation, learning from experience;support network with subthemes of establishing a support network, support for coping withproblems; and difficulties with subthemes of difficulties experienced with housemates,finances and employment, and academic difficulties. Students used a range of copingstrategies. By identifying the role of positive psychological strengths such as optimism, hope,self-efficacy, and self-control in coping with stress and facilitating positive adaptation, thestudy locates positive psychological strengths within a transactional understanding of stressand provides depth and relevance to their role in facilitating adjustment. Such qualitativeresearch is rare in the positive psychology and stress literature. Suggestions for easing thetransition are made.Keywords: stress, coping, undergraduate students, positive psychology2

An interpretative phenomenological analysis of stress and coping in first yearundergraduatesIntroductionThroughout the last thirty years, the United Kingdom higher education system hasexperienced considerable change. New universities replaced polytechnics, and Governmentpolicy encouraged students to attend university, leading to consistent and dramatic increasesin student numbers. In response to escalating numbers and increased expenditure on grants,the cost of tuition was shifted onto students via means-tested student loans, consequentlyincreasing levels of student debt and financial pressures (McCarthy & Humphrey, 1995). Asa result of these changes more students work part-time. In 1996, four out of ten worked tohelp fund themselves, and two thirds felt this negatively affected their studies, with misseddeadlines and poor attendance (National Union of Students, 1996). A more recent surveysuggests this continues, with 39% working part-time, and 3% full-time (UNITE, 2004). Thereare now more students aiming to enter an increasingly competitive job market, whichexacerbates the pressure to achieve a respectable degree (Robotham & Julian, 2006). Inaddition to financial and employment pressures, the transition to university itself is a periodof significant change in a student’s life, with heightened levels of stress (Fisher & Hood,1987; Lu, 1994).StressAccording to the transactional model (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984), stress results from theappraisal that environmental or internal demands exceed or tax the coping resources of theindividual. The individual evaluates events in terms of their significance for well-being.Stressful situations are appraised to involve harm/loss, threat, or challenge (Lazarus, 1993). Ifthe individual determines an event to be significant; the transactional model proposes that anindividual will engage in coping to deal with the perceived threat, loss or challenge.3

Two broad dimensions of coping have been consistently identified; coping responses whichdeal with the problem (problem-focused) and those which manage the associated emotions(emotion-focused) (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Research shows that problem-focused copingis often predictive of positive adaptation (Endler & Parker, 1990), while emotion-focusedcoping is often predictive of negative adaptation (Beiler & Terrell, 1990). Coping is bestconceptualised as a range of actions an individual performs in order to handle a stressfulevent (Bartlett, 1998) and there are several distinct strategies related to problem-focused andemotion-focused coping (Carver et al., 1989).The original transactional model had little to say regarding negative outcomes of coping withstress, except that people would engage in the same appraisal-coping-reappraisal process.Folkman updated the transactional model in 2008 to include a new category of coping –meaning-focused coping. The updated model proposed that following failed coping efforts,people will engage in meaning-focused coping which in turn facilitates positive emotions.Positive emotions refresh coping efforts and provide motivation to continue in using adaptivemethods of coping to deal with a stressor. Types of meaning-focused coping that have beenidentified include benefit finding, benefit reminding, adaptive goal processes, reorderingpriorities, and infusing ordinary events with positive meaning (for a review see Folkman,2008).Transition to universityThe transition and subsequent adjustment typically involve positive aspects including growthopportunities, and meeting new people; however it is also a period of great change which isstressful (Fisher, 1994). Students must leave their established routines and support networks,develop new ones, take on new responsibilities such as independent living, and adapt to newacademic challenges. In addition students must cope with the stressors commonly associatedwith university life; notably financial pressures, examinations, and study-related stressors4

(Robotham & Julian, 2006). The impact of these stressors can be exacerbated due to lack ofexperience, knowledge, or competence. There is an increased sensitivity and vulnerabilityamongst students in transition (Fisher, 1994). Tinto (1993) reported that 75% of nonprogressing students attributed the reasons for leaving university to problems encountered intheir first year. Matheny et al. (2002) found that students who had more coping resources hadlower levels of stress. For adjusting to university, problem-focused coping and support havebeen shown to be beneficial for well-being and positive adaptation (e.g. Leong et al., 1997),whereas emotion-focused coping and avoidance have been associated with greater distress(e.g. Stewart et al., 1997).Positive psychologyPositive psychology focuses on individual strengths, valued subjective experiences, andpositive institutions (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) and emphasises understanding theprocesses and factors which contribute to the health, success, and flourishing of individuals.Psychological strengths represent key foundations of human behaviour, and strengthcongruent conduct facilitates psychological well-being, such as success, longevity, andhappiness (Steen et al., 2003). Aspinwall and Taylor (1992) showed that the psychologicalstrength of optimism was positively associated with lower stress for Americanundergraduates. Higher optimism predicted greater use of social support and active coping,which predicted better psychological adjustment. Chemers et al., (2001) found that selfefficacy and optimism were strong predictors of adjusting to university amongst first yearAmerican undergraduates. Confident and optimistic students were more likely to perceive thetransition as a challenge rather than a threat, and reported better adjustment, and less stress.Tangney et al., (2004) discovered that undergraduates with high self-control reported betterpsychological adjustment. These were all quantitative studies using standardised measures ofstress.5

A model which focuses specifically on student stress is that of Meijer (2007). The modelemphasises the role of cognitive capacity and affective variables such as self-efficacy. Meijerproposes that student stress is determined by experienced workload and the perceived level ofguidance from teachers. Coping capacity is important for managing demands, and isdetermined both by the cognitive ability of students and affective variables, such as how selfconfident students feel in their ability to meet demands. Similarly to Aspinwall et al. (1992),Meijer (2001) found that self-belief in ability is significant for coping with stress amongstundergraduates.Related to the recent emphasis on incorporating positive emotions in the stress process,Pekrun, Frenzel, Goetz, and Perry (2007) developed the control-value model whichdemonstrated how emotional experience is significant for undergraduates in terms ofachievement and learning. The theory assumes that achievement emotions occur in responseto whether a student feels in control of, or out of control of, achievement tasks and importantacademic goals. Arousal of achievement emotion is central to the theory. Emotions aresuggested to also be influenced by non-cognitive factors such as genetics and temperament.The model proposes a reciprocal relationship between achievement emotions, students’motivation, performance, and regulation of learning over time.Qualitative researchIn contrast to quantitative research, there is a limited amount of qualitative researchexamining the transition and the associated stress and coping behaviour amongst newstudents (Urquhart & Pooley, 2007). In a diary study, Benjamin (1991) found that thetransition involved great dislocation in students’ daily lives; students were constantlyattempting to create a balance between social, academic, and personal domains. Greenbank(2007) reported that the greater emphasis on independent study and less staff support wereexperienced as stressful.6

Social support, transitional issues, time management, expectations, and emotions were shownto be central to the experience of Australian undergraduate students (Urquhart & Pooley,2007). Social support was the most prominent factor in aiding adjustment to university,fostering optimism and positive coping. In a phenomenological study undergraduatesreporting feeling excited, hopeful, and confident in their abilities prior to university were lesslikely to withdraw (Minnick, 2008). Students who dropped out of university felt isolated,unmotivated, and disappointed. These two studies provide some qualitative evidence forpositive psychological beliefs facilitating adjustment to university and this will be examinedfurther in this UK study.Qualitative studies are also rare in stress and coping research (Lazarus, 2006). This isproblematic as the quantitative cross-sectional designs commonly applied impose anobjective structured reality on the stress concept via the questionnaires used to define what isstressful. Coyne (1994) and Somerfield (1996) argue stress research needs to focus more onqualitative methods, such as phenomenology, to provide in-depth understanding of the stressprocess. Phenomenology views subjective lived experience as central to understanding andthis focus on subjectivity in relation to stress is important. Cognitive appraisal, a centralcomponent of the transactional approach, is the individual’s subjective interpretation of atransaction. It represents the individual’s perceptions of an event which are influenced bybeliefs, expectations, and the meaning and significance of the event for the individual’s wellbeing (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). The phenomenological approach assigns importance tothese subjective, experiential, and process-oriented aspects of human functioning (Bartlett,1998). By focusing on the lived experience and personal world of the individual viaphenomenological methods, this study will deepen understanding of stress and copingamongst undergraduates. Identifying the role of positive psychology strengths in coping willalso enrich the positive psychology literature where such qualitative research is rare.7

Data will be analysed using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA). IPA isconcerned with subjective experience and perceptions of the world (Smith, 2003). Of centralconcern to IPA is in-depth exploration of an individual’s lived experience of a phenomenon,its meanings for the individual and how the individual understands and makes sense of theirpersonal and social environment (Lyons & Coyle, 2007). IPA has not been applied to thistopic previously, and it will allow an in-depth understanding of students' subjectiveexperience to emerge.MethodsParticipantsThe emphasis within IPA research is on using a purposive homogenous sample rather thanrandom or representative sampling to ensure the topic is relevant for the sample and can beexplored in depth. Various sample sizes have been used for IPA, typ