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Breaking down barriers to students’ learning: an Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis

6 Key words: education, barriers, IPA, Further Education, Higher Education, learning


Research into the wellbeing of students show that, when students are academically and emotionally supported, we can see improved ‘performance, motivation, optimism, and empathy’ (dos Santos Boni et al., 2018, p.85). It is essential that Further Education (FE) and Higher Education (HE) institutions consider support strategies to engage students in active participation and successful completion of their courses. Students, owing to self-doubt, may also suffer from ‘Imposter Syndrome’ (IS) and educators must recognise that this feeling may be present if they are to help dissolve it. This paper uses Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) to analyse data from interviews with eleven students, in order to outline four potential interventions and strategies to be considered for deployment in HE institutions (Gibson et al. 2019: 1). The authors suggest that although data was gathered from HE students, that the findings and interventions are still applicable to FE students.

Four key barriers for students are reported in this paper:

i) Several other roles to play, alongside being a student, such as parent/carer/worker

ii) Being neurodiverse, and finding difficulty in engaging with subject content

iii) Lack of clear future pathway post-graduation

iv) Student imposter syndrome


This study uses Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) to offer insight into the lived experiences of eleven undergraduate students at a HE setting in London, UK. IPA is a qualitative approach that aims to provide detailed examinations of personal lived experiences. It produces an account of lived experience in its own terms rather than one prescribed by pre-existing theoretical preconceptions and it recognises that this is an interpretative endeavour as humans are sense-making organisms. It is explicitly idiographic in its commitment to examining the detailed experience of each case in turn, prior to the move to more general claims. IPA is a particularly useful methodology for examining topics which are complex, ambiguous and emotionally laden (Smith and Osborn, 2015).

This study conducted semi-structured interviews 1:1 with the eleven students self-reporting their present feelings on their university experience. Extracts from the interviews are woven into this short paper to help illustrate the students’ experiences for the reader.

Many emotions, challenges and questions arose within the narratives, including ‘discipline’, and the quest to ‘show others’ their unrealised potential. Four key themes/barriers can be drawn out:

  • Several other roles to play, alongside being a student, such as parent/carer/worker
  • Being neurodiverse, and finding difficulty in engaging with subject content
  • Lack of clear future pathway post-graduation
  • Student imposter syndrome

In this short paper, the four themes and strategies for intervention are provided for the reader.

Barrier 1: Several other roles to play, alongside being a student, such as parent/carer/worker

‘Welcome to adult life!’ – Ed, First year student

‘It feels like a juggling act… like all the things I’m trying to do are these balls in the air, like my studies, my family, helping with my little brother, my job, keeping fit… but instead of juggling balls, they’re bowling balls!’ – Nusrat, First year student

Many students may be playing several roles and have multiple outputs for their time and energy. In addition to being a student, for example, these individuals may be parents, carers, or be employed. The best way that we can support them is by ensuring that staff, especially any pastoral or Personal Development Tutors, are aware of the students’ situations.

Suggested intervention: Personal 1:1 introduction meetings between students and their personal tutor during induction fortnight to build emotional attachments and allow personal tutors to be more aware of each individual’s situation.

Barrier 2: Struggling with the transition from college/previous study to working at Level 4, and through being neurodivergent

‘Maybe more of a spotlight can be put onto that transition from college: how to study, how to learn’ -Levi, First year student

‘It’s like my mind is fizzing with all the things I need to do, and I know what I need to do, but I just can’t quite seem to get it done. My tutor breaking the assessment task down into smaller steps helped me figure out what I needed to do.’ – Jolene, First year student

Being Neurodiverse; such as Autism and ADHD can be often undiagnosed, it is only when the level and intensity of work found in undergraduate studies that there are signs that point towards it. “[In] neurodevelopmental conditions, there is no bona fide ‘normal’ state of mind to compare to, making treatment more difficult as it is hard to determine when someone is treated”.(Neurodiversity and Other Conditions, 2021). In the first instance, it is best to get the student to speak to their local GP who will be able to chat to the student and their parents on the best course of action, often a charity (such as ADHD aware) who specialises in ASD/ADHD assessments.

These are some signs to look out for in Neurodivergent (and undiagnosed) students:

Struggling with dissemination of texts: Articles, Journals, textbooks.

Lack of focus/concentration on their work.

Poor time management skills: handing in or in the completion of work.

Social skills: working in a group, verbal presentations, communicating effectively with others

For neurodivergent students having a well supported environment that allows for good distractions as this helps maintain focus on the task at hand. This could be letting the student play music via headphones or something to ‘fidget’ with in order for them to concentrate. Additionally, when asking a question to a ND student, give them extra time to process the question and repeat, or give an alternative format to the question as they may not understand what is being asked of them. Always, be clear, concise and direct with questions or with any exercise you set for your student.

Suggested intervention: To promote any study skills materials that the setting can offer to students and to look to build this into personal tutor group sessions with students to aid transition between FE and HE settings as appropriate. Collaborate with any study skills staff members or support tutors; co-teach sessions together to show a united form to students, and ensure students are referred to any other support services, such as the Disability team, to utilise any additional resources, such as software, to help with reading and writing.

Barrier 3: Lack of clear future pathway post-graduation

‘I don’t know what I want to do yet… my parents said I should go to uni, I’m the first one out of my family… but I’m not quite sure what will come next’ – Evie, first year student.

‘I might be a teacher, but maybe I want to do something with speech and language therapy. But I have also been thinking about maybe opening my own nursery’ – Jolene, First year student

‘I know I’ve signed up for a teaching degree, but I’ve actually thought I might go into social work after this’ – Mia, First year student

Part of the problem with students staying engaged with their studies is when they lose sight of the bigger picture, and the intrinsic motivation to study. Some students may enrol on HE degrees without being sure what they want to do after they graduate.

Suggested intervention: To run ambition/inspiration coaching sessions during induction fortnight at HE where students can consider pathways and goals from the very start of the degree, to drive engagement and help keep students focused. Liaise with the careers teams and allow opportunities for students to reflect and reassess on their career goals and aspirations.

Barrier 4: Student imposter syndrome: not feeling ‘worthy’ of their place on a programme/amongst peers

‘Uni is like alphabet soup…hot water…things are in the mix…we all share similar stories and experiences.

Maybe I don’t fit just yet… but I’m still part of that.’ – Rachel, First year student

‘Am I good enough? If they can do it, I can do it!’ – Callum, First year student

Students who experience imposter syndrome are often unaware of the support available to help guide them through this. Students are more likely to experience this in the first year/term of study and a session on ‘imposter syndrome’ and where to get help would be beneficial. Maftei et al. (2021) suggests that “anxiety also appears as a primary symptom due to the concerns about maintaining and improving one’s social image. A constant and uncontrollable worry, irritability and fatigue are a few aspects of the syndrome’s symptomatic picture”.

It is therefore in the best interests as providers to facilitate interventions if necessary for students and provide a clear pathway in terms of the programme but where and when to get help when having experiences like ‘imposter syndrome’.

Suggested intervention: Consideration of more formative feedback opportunities, from both tutors and peers, to build confidence and self-efficacy, as well as peer bonds. Also create study groups for students, either face to face or on online platforms, where students can share feelings and experiences as well as offer support and be supported with their studies by peers as opposed to tutors.

Conclusion and next steps

Regarding the next steps, as themes are drawn from the data, plans are already being finalised for a bi-phase to this project, which will plan to instigate the suggested interventions that have been drawn up in response to barriers to success originating from the students’ narratives. There is also hope from collaboration between the authors of this paper to research and comparatively analyse FE versus HE experiences, with focus on how to ease the transition through these phases.

The conclusion to be drawn from this IPA analysis is that the biggest internal and external factors influencing engagement comes from the intrinsic motivation of students themselves, which is stronger when a clear goal or pathway, such as training to be a teacher, is realised, and- externally- the emotional investment from tutors and staff to help support students with the transition from college, previous study, or employment, which is developed through being emotionally available and approachable.

Reference list

dos Santos Boni, R.A., Paiva, C.E., De Oliveira, M.A., Lucchetti, G., Fregnani, J.H.T.G. and Paiva, B.S.R. (2018). Burnout among medical students during the first years of undergraduate school: Prevalence and associated factors. PloS one, 13(3), p.e0191746.

Farokhi, M. and Hashemi, M. (2011). The Analysis of Children’s Drawings: Social, Emotional, Physical, and Psychological aspects. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences. 30. 2219-2224. 10.1016/j.sbspro.2011.10.433.

Gibson, P., Perera, S., Morgan, R., & Kerr, B. (2019). Creating conditions for student success on a two-year accelerated degree. Compass: Journal of Learning and Teaching, 12(1). doi:

Maftei, A., Dumitriu, A., & Holman, A. (2021). ”They will discover I’m a fraud!” The Impostor Syndrome Among Psychology Students. Studia Psychologica, 63(4), 337–351.

Neurodiversity and other conditions. (2021). ADHD Aware. Available at

Smith, J. A., and Osborn, M. (2015). Interpretative phenomenological analysis as a useful methodology for research on the lived experience of pain. British journal of pain, 9(1), 41–42. doi:10.1177/2049463714541642

Co-author: Mike Scott

Mike currently works as a consultant for HE at Nelson and Colne College Group and is an ASD HE Study skills Tutor and Mentor. Mike is currently working towards a Doctorate of Education; Creative and Media at Bournemouth University.  Mike has qualifications in MA Film Production (Merit), BSc Media Production (1st) and PGCE. Mike previously worked in FE teaching Creative Media to BTEC level 3 students whilst studying for their PGCE.  Afterwards, they moved in HE where they taught Professional Practice to HNC students. Mike is currently developing a new FdA Creative Digital programme at Nelson and Colne college. Mike studied as a mature student and has never looked back since, having over the last seven years done back-to-back qualifications, they have enjoyed the experiences and the learning curves each have given them. Mike’s research interests are professional identities in digital spaces and neurodiversity.



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Poppy currently leads the innovate Blended Accelerated BA Hons in Primary Education Studies at ARU (Anglia Ruskin University), Essex. Poppy is a senior lecturer in education, and recently graduated with merit on the Masters in Mental Health Science (MSc). Poppy is also a qualified Inside-Out Prison Educator. Poppy previously worked for 4 years as a Senior Lecturer in Primary Education, and Course Lead of the 2-year accelerated Primary Education degree, at the University of Greenwich, moving into Higher Education after over a decade working in London primary schools. Poppy’s primary research interests revolve around mental health and wellbeing, but Poppy also has a passion for edtech in helping students achieve.

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