Higher Education

, Volume 77, Issue 1, pp 173–190 | Cite as

Deciphering the sophomore slump: changes to student perceptions during the undergraduate journey

  • O. J. WebbEmail author
  • D. R. E. Cotton


The second year of university is little-researched, despite being a focal point for declining performance, persistence, and satisfaction. It is important to establish appropriate methods for studying this ‘sophomore slump’ and to pinpoint specific antecedents from broad domains noted in literature (e.g. students’ social integration, perceptions of the curriculum). Using a novel methodology, 166 undergraduates were surveyed in successive years of study to derive a gold standard ‘within-subjects’ data sample. Under a replicated design, a ‘between-subjects’ sample of over 1000 students completed the same e-survey just once, in year one, two, or three. Quantitative comparison of the responses across years showed over 85% agreement between samples. This endorses between-subject approaches (i.e. simultaneously surveying students from different years) to facilitate rapid interventions that benefit students before they graduate. In terms of detailed findings, year two saw positive trends in students’ academic engagement (e.g. self-reported independent study time), social integration (e.g. feeling accepted, involvement in extra-curricular activities), and views on teaching staff (e.g. approachability). Although appraisals remained broadly favourable, there was, in contrast, significant deterioration in global perceptions of the learning atmosphere (e.g. course enjoyment), as well as specific elements of the teaching provision (e.g. contact hours, feedback). Notably, there appeared to be little progression in students’ academic self-perceptions (e.g. confidence to make presentations, enter class debates). Year two also saw increased thoughts of drop-out. These results highlight the unique character of the second year at university and indicate potential target areas for enhancing this phase of the undergraduate journey.


Second year Sophomore Self-efficacy Belonging Curriculum 



We acknowledge Ms. Tricia Nash who helped administer the TLS, and respondents who contributed time to this study. Views expressed in this report, and any errors or omissions, remain the responsibility of the authors.

Compliance with ethical standards

Ethical approval was granted by the host institution, a public university in Southern England.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.


  1. Bandura, A. (1982). Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American Psychologist, 37(2), 122–147.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bates, E. A., & Kaye, L. K. (2014). ‘I’d be expecting caviar in lectures’: the impact of the new fee regime on undergraduate students’ expectations of higher education. Higher Education, 67(5), 655–673.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Borghi, S., Mainardes, E., & Silva, É. (2016). Expectations of higher education students: a comparison between the perception of student and teachers. Tertiary Education and Management, 22(2), 171–188.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Caprara, G. V., Vecchione, M., Alessandri, G., Gerbino, M., & Barbaranelli, C. (2011). The contribution of personality traits and self-efficacy beliefs to academic achievement: a longitudinal study. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 81(1), 78–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Darwent, S., & Stewart, M. (2014). Are student characteristics implicated in the ‘sophomore slump’? Liverpool John Moores University. 6 Sept 2017.
  6. Denz-Penhey, H., & Murdoch, J. C. (2009). A comparison between findings from the DREEM questionnaire and that from qualitative interviews. Medical Teacher, 31(10), 449–453.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Freedman, M. B. (1956). The passage through college. Journal of Social Issues, 12, 13–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410–8415.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Goodenow, C. (1993). Classroom belonging among early adolescent students: relationships to motivation and achievement. Journal of Early Adolescence, 13(1), 21–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Gore Jr., P. (2006). Academic self-efficacy as a predictor of college outcomes: two incremental validity studies. Journal of Career Assessment, 14(1), 92–111.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Grant, H., & Dweck, C. S. (2003). Clarifying achievement goals and their impact. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(3), 541–553.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. HESA (2017). Non-continuation rates summary: UK performance indicators 2015/16. Higher Education Statistics Agency. Accessed 9 Oct 2017
  13. Hunter, M. S., Tobolowsky, B. F., Gardner, J. N., Evenback, S. E., Patengale, J. A., Schaller, M. A., Schreiner, L. A., et al. (2010). Helping sophomores succeed: understanding and improving the second-year experience. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc.Google Scholar
  14. Ishitani, T. T. (2016). Time-varying effects of academic and social integration on student persistence for first and second years in college: national data approach. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory and Practice, 18(3), 263–286.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Jacklin, A., & Le Riche, P. (2009). Reconceptualising student support: from ‘support’ to ‘supportive’. Studies in Higher Education, 34(7), 735–749.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Jones, L., Allen, B., Dunn, P., & Brooker, L. (2017). Demystifying the rubric: a five-step pedagogy to improve student understanding and utilisation of marking criteria. Higher Education Research and Development, 36(1), 129–142.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Kelly, A. V. (2009). The curriculum: theory and practice. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  18. Killam, W. K., & Degges-White, S. (Eds.). (2017). College student development: applying theory to practice on the diverse campus. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  19. Lieberman, D. A., & Remedios, R. (2007). Do undergraduates’ motives for studying change as they progress through their degrees? British Journal of Educational Psychology, 77(2), 379–395.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Lowe, H., & Cook, A. (2003). Mind the gap: are students prepared for higher education? Journal of Further and Higher Education, 27(1), 53–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Mabel, Z., & Britton, T. A. (2018). Leaving late: understanding the extent and predictors of college late departure. Social Science Research, 69, 34–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Masika, R., & Jones, J. (2016). Building student belonging and engagement: insights into higher education students’ experiences of participating and learning together. Teaching in Higher Education, 21(2), 138–150.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Midgley, C., Kaplan, A., & Middleton, M. (2001). Performance-approach goals: good for what, for whom, under what circumstances, and at what cost? Journal of Educational Psychology, 93(1), 77–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Milsom, C., & Yorke, M. (2015). Defining the second year. In C. Milsom, M. Stewart, M. Yorke, & E. Zaitseva (Eds.), Stepping up to the second year at university: academic, psychological and social dimensions (pp. 14–23). Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  25. Milsom, C., Stewart, M., Yorke, M., & Zaitseva, E. (2015). Stepping up to the second year at university: academic, psychological and social dimensions. Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  26. Money, J., Nixon, S., Tracy, F., Hennessy, C., Ball, E., & Dinning, T. (2017). Undergraduate student expectations of university in the United Kingdom: what really matters to them? Cogent Education.
  27. Neves, J., & Hillman, N. (2016). The 2016 Student Academic Experience Survey. York: Higher Education Academy.Google Scholar
  28. Nulty, D. D. (2008). The adequacy of response rates to online and paper surveys: what can be done? Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 33(3), 301–314.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Quinn, J. (2013). Drop-out and completion in higher education in Europe among students from under-represented groups. Brussels: European Commission.Google Scholar
  30. Rose-Adams, J. (2012). Leaving university early: a research report from the Back on Course project. Milton Keynes: The Open University.Google Scholar
  31. Rust, C., Price, M., & O'Donovan, B. (2003). Improving students’ learning by developing their understanding of assessment criteria and processes. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 28(2), 147–164.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Scott, J., & A. Cashmore. (2012). Fragmented transitions: moving to the 2nd year. Proceedings STEM Annual Conference. Accessed 7 Sept 2017
  33. Senko, C., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2002). Performance goals: the moderating roles of context and achievement orientation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38(6), 603–610.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Soemantri, D., Herrera, C., & Riquelme, A. (2010). Measuring the educational environment in health professions studies: a systematic review. Medical Teacher, 32(12), 947–952.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Stewart, M., & Darwent, S. (2015). Psychological orientations to learning in the second year. In C. Milsom, M. Stewart, M. Yorke, & E. Zaitseva (Eds.), Stepping up to the second year at university: academic, psychological and social dimensions (pp. 39–53). Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  36. Thomas, L. (2002). Student retention in higher education: the role of institutional habitus. Journal of Education Policy, 17, 423–442.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Thomas, L. (2012). Building student engagement and belonging in higher education at a time of change: final report from the What Works? Student Retention & Success Programme. London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation.Google Scholar
  38. Tinto, V. (2015). Through the eyes of students. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory and Practice.
  39. Watson, R. (2011). A rationale for the development of an extracurricular employability award at a British university. Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 16(3), 371–384.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Webb, O. J., & Cotton, D. R. E. (2018). Early withdrawal from higher education: a focus on academic experiences. Teaching in Higher Education.
  41. Webb, O. J., Wyness, L., & Cotton, D. R. E. (2017). Enhancing access, retention, attainment and progression in higher education: a review of the literature showing demonstrable impact. York: Higher Education Academy.Google Scholar
  42. Whittle, S. R. (2016). The second-year slump—now you see it, now you don’t: using DREEM-S to monitor changes in student perception of their educational environment. Journal of Further and Higher Education.
  43. Willcoxson, L., Cotter, J., & Joy, S. (2011). Beyond the first-year experience: the impact on attrition of student experiences throughout undergraduate degree studies in six diverse universities. Studies in Higher Education, 36(3), 331–352.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Yorke, M. (2015). Why study the second year? In C. Milsom, M. Stewart, M. Yorke, & E. Zaitseva (Eds.), Stepping up to the second year at university: academic, psychological and social dimensions (pp. 1–13). Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  45. Yorke, M., & Zaitseva, E. (2013). Do cross-sectional student assessment data make a reasonable proxy for longitudinal data? Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 38(8), 957–967.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Yorke, M., Hoekstra, P., & Turnbull, W. (2015). Maximising the use of institutional data. In C. Milsom, M. Stewart, M. Yorke, & E. Zaitseva (Eds.), Stepping up to the second year at university: academic, psychological and social dimensions (pp. 84–103). Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  47. Zaitseva, E., Milsom, C., & Stewart, M. (2013). Connecting the dots: using concept maps for interpreting student satisfaction. Quality in Higher Education, 19(2), 225–247.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Zaitseva, E., Darwent, S., & Thompson, S. (2015). Implications for student support. In C. Milsom, M. Stewart, M. Yorke, & E. Zaitseva (Eds.), Stepping up to the second year at university: academic, psychological and social dimensions (pp. 68–83). Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Pedagogic Research Institute and Observatory (PedRIO)University of PlymouthPlymouthUK

Personalised recommendations