Exploring the experiences of students with Mental Health Conditions, Specific Learning Difficulties and Autism Spectrum Disorders

Exploring the experiences of students with Mental Health Conditions, Specific Learning Difficulties and Autism Spectrum Disorders

Bryony Banham, Charis Winter, Michelle James

Over the past six weeks we have completed three linked UROP projects. These projects explored the experiences of students with Mental Health Conditions (MHC), Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLD). These were three separate projects however, as there was lots of overlap between the three projects, we worked closely together on the research process. This project took place during the Coronavirus pandemic so it was conducted virtually using platforms such as Microsoft Teams.

To begin our projects, we each conducted individual literature reviews into our topic areas. These highlighted key issues in current support within Higher Education Institutions (HEI). The numbers of students enrolling at university with these diagnoses/symptoms is on the increase, increasing the need for more research to improve the support available.

To gain insight into the University’s support systems we spoke to relevant staff members at the University. This increased our awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of current university support. We received really valuable information from these meetings as those we spoke to saw the importance of our projects and were interested in our findings. This also gave us good practice in conducting virtual interviews which was useful when we began interviewing students.

Once we had received ethical approval we began designing the survey and interview schedule using our knowledge of the literature and meetings with university staff. We found it challenging to work out how everything would fit together in the survey. To overcome this we planned the order of our questions on Word and mapped out the different routes using MindManager software. Presenting this in a visual way helped us to design the survey and ensure that it worked correctly.

Once we began recruitment, we were surprised by how often we had to advertise our projects to keep up the response rate. Virtual recruitment methods made this more challenging as the places we could advertise were restricted. To reach as many students as possible we used various social media platforms and email channels to promote the projects, which were kindly spread widely within the University by different departments. We feel that this support was critical in gaining the number of survey responses and interview offers we received.

As we used a mixed methods design we had to use different forms of analysis. The analysis process took much longer than we were expecting, particularly with the qualitative data. One of the most time consuming aspects was transcribing each of the interviews which were up to an hour in duration. We found that it took approximately an hour to transcribe 10 minutes of recording; therefore in hindsight we should have researched auto-transcribing software, as this would have given us more time for more interviews and the analysis process. Despite this, working as a group meant that we could distribute the workload and keep each other on track.

We have enjoyed working jointly as we have been in daily contact so have been able to support one another through the process. We could not have imagined working alone on this project, especially as it was conducted remotely. Working as a team has allowed us to use each other’s strengths to overcome challenges we have faced in the project. We have also been able to peer review each other’s work to increase reliability and allocate different parts of the project to each other.

We were expecting to have completed our projects in the six weeks; however this is not the case as there are still ongoing tasks. As we have collected useful data, we plan to present our findings to various departments at the University and potentially publish our work. Nonetheless, we are excited for the opportunities which may arise going forwards as we feel strongly passionate about improving student experiences, after hearing from students directly. As students ourselves, we connected with how difficult some of these experiences must have been and hope that our findings make some positive changes.

Reflections on undertaking a UROP project:

Completing a UROP project has given us valuable psychological research experience, which is often hard to come by. We feel that this will be beneficial for postgraduate study applications as well as future job opportunities. This project has allowed us to lead a research project from start to finish and to be involved in all aspects of the process.

Key skills we have learnt during this process include: 

  • Completing an ethics proposal; having an awareness of ethical considerations within research.
  • Surveys and interviews; designing and formatting an online survey, designing an interview schedule (including probes and prompts), effective recruitment methods, conducting virtual interviews.
  • Analysis; conducting statistical, content and thematic analysis.

This project has required us to do a lot of work within a small space of time, however we chose our topic areas based on our interests which motivated us to progress through the project and overcome challenges. Looking back, we have accomplished so much over the past six weeks and seeing the findings at the end of our projects made the process really worthwhile. Furthermore, we have enjoyed working alongside our supervisors and getting to know them better. We look forward to continuing this working relationship as we move forwards and refine our findings.

Overall we have thoroughly enjoyed our experiences over the past six weeks and would highly recommend completing a UROP project!