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Becoming a distance student

Identifying and managing the challenges of first year distance study

Any transition to university study is difficult, but learning how to become an effective distance study carries its own particular challenges. Sadly, the rate of failure or withdrawal in the first year is considerably higher for distance students than for campus based students.  This is partly because distance study requires a greater degree of self motivation. But it is also because, rather than coming straight from school into full time university study, distance students have often had a gap in their education and are combining study with family commitments and paid or voluntary work.

These resources were developed from Ella Kahu’s doctoral research into the experiences of new students over the age of 25, starting distance study at a New Zealand university. The project had two stages. The first was a survey of over a thousand students that compared students by age and by mode of study and found important differences in how these groups interact with their study. In the second stage, Ella interviewed 19 new students with their families both before they started university and at the end of their first semester. The students also recorded weekly video diaries throughout the semester talking about their experiences.  Findings from the project focus on different aspects of the students’ experiences. This resource aims to distil some of those findings into key messages for new students to help them succeed.

Produced in collaboration with the Critical Heath and Social Psychology Research Cluster at Massey University, these resources are available to be freely used and distributed by educators, students and other interested parties. The materials are covered by a Creative Commons license for free use provided no alterations are made.

Me as a student tile

Becoming a distance student

Identifying and managing the challenges of first year distance study: This resource for new students briefly summarises some of the key findings from Ella’s research.

Me as a student booklet (1,783 KB)

Distance student stories

One of the chapters of Ella’s PhD thesis on this project summarised the stories of each of the 19 students in the second part of the research. These stories are available here.
Distance student stories (1,890 KB)


Kahu, E. R. (2013). From “loving it” to “freaking out” and back again: The engagement of a mature distance student in their first semester at university. Refereed proceedings of the Manawatu Doctoral Research Symposium, 2, 59-66. Retrieved from http://mro.massey.ac.nz/10179/2645

Kahu, E. R. (2014). Increasing the emotional engagement of first year mature-aged distance students: Interest and belonging. The International Journal of the First Year in Higher Education, 5(2), 45-55.

Kahu, E. R. (2016). The intersections of family and study for mature-aged distance students starting university. In M. Davis & A. Goody (Eds.), Research and development in higher education: The shape of higher education (Vol. 39, pp. 146-155). Fremantle, Australia: HERDSA.

Kahu, E. R., Stephens, C. V., Leach, L., & Zepke, N. (2013). The engagement of mature distance students. Higher Education Research and Development, 32(5), 791-804. doi: 10.1080/07294360.2013.777036

Kahu, E. R., Stephens, C. V., Leach, L., & Zepke, N. (2015). Linking academic emotions and student engagement: Mature-aged distance students’ transition to university. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 39(4), 481-497. doi: 10.1080/0309877X.2014.895305

Kahu, E. R., Stephens, C. V., Zepke, N., & Leach, L. (2014). Space and time to engage: Mature-aged distance students learn to fit study into their lives. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 33(4), 523-540. doi: 10.1080/02601370.2014.884177