(Online) Exploring adjustment and wellbeing in first-year university students during COVID-19.


Emerging adulthood - the transitional period between adolescence and adulthood during ages 17 to 25 – is period associated with significant psychological, social, and neurological development (Arnett, 2000; Arnett, 2007). This developmental stage provides critical opportunities for the exploration and consolidation of autonomy and identity, but like other periods of developmental transition, such opportunities pose significant threat to mental health and wellbeing (Newcomb-Anjo, Barker, & Howard, 2017). For many within this developmental stage, this significant period of flux coincides with the transition to university. In a study examining the longitudinal course of psychosocial adjustment to university in a sample of emerging adults, the transition was shown to be characterised by increases in psychological distress and steep declines in wellbeing (Conley, Kirsch, Dickson, & Bryant, 2014). Such targetable factors that may minimise potential adverse outcomes associated with this transition include motivational orientations and academic and social adaptation to university, which have both been found to play a significant role in predicting such outcomes indicative of student flourishing as subjective wellbeing, anxiety and depressive symptoms, and academic achievement (Bailey & Phillips, 2016; Baker, 2004; Cerasoli, Nicklin, & Ford, 2014; Petersen, Louw, & Dumont, 2009).    It seems pertinent, however, to consider the applicability of this research to students navigating these transitions within the context of COVID-19 given demonstrable increases in negative psychological consequences associated with pandemic exposure (Jose, Holman, & Silver, 2017; Mihashi et al., 2009; Wang et al., 2020). It seems likely that motivations to learn, adjustment to university, and measures of student flourishing during the COVID-19 pandemic may be significantly impaired, however there is currently minimal evidence quantifying the extent of this impairment. While a recent study did demonstrate that 24.9% of Chinese university students reported significant levels of anxiety while studying during the COVID-19 pandemic (Cao et al., 2020), the lack of longitudinal or cohort data limits the utility of this research. Without comparison to a suitable baseline, the degree to which such adverse mental health outcomes deviate from psychosocial issues associated with the emerging adulthood stage is not clear, and therefore presents difficulty in teasing out the impact of COVID-19 on student wellbeing and adjustment.    Beyond determining an overall cohort effect, it also seems interesting to consider the potential sources of individual differences that influence psychological distress as a result of studying during a global pandemic. There is emerging research to suggest mental health outcomes depend on variability in the perceived psychological impact of the pandemic (Wang et al., 2020; Zhang & Ma, 2020). When placed into the context of first-year students, it seems feasible that the relationship between adjustment to university during a global pandemic and measures of student flourishing may be mediated by the perceived impact of COVID-19. Further, given intolerance of uncertainty has been shown to moderate the relationship between appraisals of negative life events and adverse psychological outcomes (Chen & Hong, 2010), such perceptions of the psychological impact of the pandemic may be contingent on one’s capacity to tolerate ambiguity. Indeed, in a study conducted during the H1N1 pandemic, it was demonstrated that variability in pandemic appraisals were explained by individual differences in intolerance of uncertainty (Taha, Matheson, Cronin, & Anisman, 2014), with preliminary evidence of this in response to COVID-19 (Bakio─člu, Korkmaz, & Ercan, 2020; Satici, Saricali, Satici, & Griffiths, 2020). Lastly, there additionally may be variability in the degree to which the psychological impact of COVID-19 exerts influence on wellbeing given differences in coping with stress during a pandemic have shown to play a role in the relationship between pandemic exposure and mental health (Main, Zhou, Ma, Luecken, & Liu, 2011; Taha et al., 2014). While relatively experimental, there is some theoretical evidence in support of a model outlining potential cascading roles of individual difference within the relationship between adjustment and measures of student flourishing – particularly subjective wellbeing and mental health - for first-year emerging adult students completing their first-year during the COVID-19 pandemic

Research Questions / Hypotheses

There are two key lines of inquiry to this study. The first is to explore the impact of pandemic exposure on adjustment, motivation to learn, and indicators of student flourishing (wellbeing & academic achievement) in first-year university students within the emerging adulthood developmental stage (17-25) based on self-reported data. Targeted aims within this include i) ascertain the extent of the impact of pandemic exposure on variables associated with adjustment to first-year university, and ii) determine whether relationships between adjustment and motivation (independent variables) and student flourishing measures (dependent variables) can be replicated in a pandemic exposed cohort. The second overarching aim is to investigate the impact of individuals differences of such psychological mechanisms that may impact response to COVID-19 as perceived impact of COVID-19, intolerance to uncertainty, and stress coping mechanisms(mediator/moderator variables) within the relationship between adjustment to university (independent variable) and student wellbeing (dependent variables).    Based on the existing body of research, the following research questions were developed:    1. To what extent does exposure to the COVID-19 pandemic for students aged 17-25 completing first-year university impact relationships between a) adjustment and measures of student flourishing (subjective wellbeing; anxiety and depressive symptoms; academic achievement) and b) motivations to learn and measures of student flourishing comparative to a non-exposed cohort?    2. Within a pandemic-exposed cohort, is there variability in the perceived impact of COVID-19, and does this mediate the relationship between adjustment to university and measures of student flourishing?    3. Is variability of the perceived impact of COVID-19 explained by individual differences in intolerance to uncertainty?    4. Is the predictive relationship of the perceived impact of COVID-19 on measures of student flourishing contingent on differing coping mechanisms for stress?


The study will examine two separate cohorts of ~180 students – the first sampled prior to the COVID-19 pandemic (Bailey & Phillips, 2015) and the second recruited during Semester 2, 2020. 180 REP participants completed the study in 2020. Participants will be current enrolled first year undergraduate students completing a first year psychology subject drawn from the University of Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences Research Experience Program. Participation will be restricted to those aged between 17-25 years and to those who have completed their first semester of university. Participants who have previously completed a university degree and participants not in their first year of study will be excluded from this study as adjustment to university is a key variable of interest.


The 2014 cohort completed the following measures using pen and paper. Participants in the 2020 cohort will be asked to complete an online questionnaire with the same following measures:    * Academic Motivation Scale (Vallerand et al., 1992), a measure motivation in education, adapted for use in Australian contexts (Bailey & Phillips, 2015);    * Student Adaptation to College Questionnaire (Baker & Siryk, 1989), an assessment of academic, personal-emotional and social adjustment, adapted for use in Australian contexts (Bailey & Phillips, 2015);    * General Health Questionnaire (Goldberg & Williams, 1988), a commonly used measure of somatic symptoms, anxiety and insomnia, social dysfunction and severe depression in non-clinical settings, used in this study to quantify mental health.    The following four measures have been shown to measure subjective wellbeing given this is a multi-component latent variable (Diener, 2009; Linley et al., 2009):    * Meaning in Life Questionnaire (Steger, Frazier, Oishi, & Kaler, 2006) a measure of the presence of, and search for, meaning in life;    * Orientations to Happiness Scale (Peterson, Park, & Seligman, 2005), a measure of life satisfaction and happiness;    * Satisfaction With Life Scale (Diener, Emmons, Larsen, & Griffin, 1985), a measure of global life satisfaction;    * Positive And Negative Affect Schedule (Watson, Clark, & Tellegen, 1988).    Academic achievement will be measured by self-reports of first-semester marks given high correlations demonstrated between subjective and objective measures of academic achievement (Salmela-Aro & Tynkkynen, 2010).    Further, participants in the pandemic-exposed cohort will be asked to complete the following measures:    * Impact of Events Scale – Revised (Weiss & Marmar, 1997), a measure that assesses subjective distress caused by external events which has been used in previous research to measure psychological impact of the COVID-19 pandemic (Tan et al., 2020; Tan, Hao, et al., 2020; Wang et al., 2020; Wang, Pan, Wan, Tan, McIntyre, et al., 2020; Zhang & Ma, 2020);    * Intolerance of Uncertainty Scale (Buhr & Dugas, 2002), a measure of reactions to ambiguous situations, uncertainty, and future events;    * Coping Inventory for Stressful Situations (Endler & Parker, 1999), a measure of task-oriented, emotional, and avoidant coping styles in response to stress.


Individual regression models for each cohort will be utilised to analyse the predictive relationships between adjustment and measures of student flourishing, as well as motivation and student flourishing. To facilitate a comparative cohort analyses, regression slopes for each model will be compared in order to determine whether slopes significantly differ between cohorts. A conditional process analysis will be used to quantify the hypothesised mediation model between adjustment and wellbeing, where the perceived impact of COVID-19 is conditional on intolerance of uncertainty, and the relationship between the perceived impact and wellbeing is contingent on stress coping styles.


Outcomes from this research could contribute towards the development of programs aimed at recovery from or even prevention of poor mental health outcomes. Such outcomes have great potential benefits on an individual level (higher life satisfaction, more engagement with daily activities) and community level (potentially lower costs associated with the treatment of poor mental health and well-being). Improved understanding of contributors to student adjustment and well-being may also influence educational or counselling strategies aimed at maximising positive mental health. Further, this research provides a unique opportunity to determine the degree to which motivation, wellbeing, and adjustment to first year university are impacted by a common significant external stressor.    The findings from the research will be written up as a MPsych(Clinical) thesis by Adelaide    McKenzie. The results may also be written up as journal article(s) and presented at other    research forums (such as conferences).