Taking the plunge, juggling acts, and friendly fire

Metaphors that distance learning students use to describe their experiences of online learning


  • Catriona Adano
  • Geoff Bunn




online learning, distance learning, phenomenological analysis, metaphor, student journey


Students embarking on higher education confront many challenges. Particularly since the Covid-19 pandemic, universities have become increasingly concerned to address these challenges and to develop comprehensive strategies to nurture student wellbeing. Distance learning courses create additional pressures, however, and not only because online students tend to be older than typical undergraduate student cohorts and therefore present with an array of social and caring responsibilities at the point of enrolment. The present study’s objectives were to explore how distance learning students describe their experiences of online learning, with a particular focus on their engagement with their course, their lifestyle and wellbeing challenges, and their interactions with staff and fellow students. Developing Shinebourne and Smith’s (2010) innovative phenomenology coupled with experiential metaphor methodology, we employed a two-stage data collection methodology based on participant diaries and follow-up interviews. In Stage 1, diaries captured student experiences in real time. Diary entry data subsequently informed the schedules of the semi-structured interviews that followed in Stage 2. Metaphorical analysis provided insight into online students’ lifeworlds, in terms of the practical challenges of balancing roles with time pressures, the existential struggle of forging a new identity, and the search for meaningful interpersonal connections. Six inter-related metaphors were unearthed: ‘Plunging into the Deep’; ‘Impostor Syndrome’; ‘A Precariously Balanced Juggling Act’; ‘The Gift of Time’; ‘Hostile Territories and Friendly Fire’; and ‘House of Cards’. Confirming and extending previous work, our findings demonstrate that online distance learning is a journey of self-doubt and discovery interrupted by both traumatic and transformative moments as students strive to succeed against multiple existential threats. We recommend that universities devote resources to facilitating an understanding of online students’ unique circumstances to provide them with informed and effective wellbeing support at the start of and throughout their journeys.


Adlaf, E.M., Gliksman, L., Demers, A., & Newton-Taylor, B. (2001). The prevalence of elevated psychological distress among Canadian undergraduates: findings from the 1998 Canadian Campus Survey. Journal of American College Health, 50(2), 67-72. https://doi.org/10.1080/07448480109596009

Aird, R. (2017). From impostership to mastersness: experiences of a postgraduate student’s transition to higher education reflected through poetry. Journal of Research in Nursing, 22(6-7), 522 –532. https://doi.org/10.1177/1744987117731480

Allen, R. E. S., & Wiles, J. L. (2016). A rose by any other name: participants choosing research pseudonyms. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 13(2), 149 –165. https://doi.org/10.1080/14780887.2015.1133746

Almeida, D. M. (2005). Resilience and vulnerability to daily stressors assessed via diary methods. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14(2), 64-68. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0963-7214.2005.00336.x

Angus, L. E., & Rennie, D. L. (1988). Therapist participation in metaphor generation: collaborative and noncollaborative styles. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 25(4), 552–560. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0085381

Baik, C., Larcombe, W., & Brooker, A. (2019). How universities can enhance student mental wellbeing: the student perspective. Higher Education Research & Development, 38(4), 674-687. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2019.1576596

Bartlett, R. & Milligan, C. (2015). The development of diary techniques for research. In R. Bartlett & C. Milligan (Eds.), What is diary method? (1st ed., pp. 1-12). Bloomsbury Academic https://doi.org/10.5040/9781472572578

Browne, J., (2010). Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education: An Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance. Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. London: HMSO. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-browne-report-higher-education-funding-and-student-finance

Cage, E., Jones, E., Ryan, G., Hughes, G., & Spanner, L. (2021). Student mental health transitions into, through and out of university: student and staff perspectives. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 45(8), 1076-1089. https://doi.org/10.1080/0309877X.2021.1875203

Eatough, V., & Smith J. A. (2008). Interpretative phenomenological analysis. In C. Willig & W Stainton Rogers (Eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Psychology. London: Sage. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781848607927.n11

Eberle, J., & Hobrecht, J. (2021). The lonely struggle with autonomy: a case study of first-year university students’ experiences during emergency online teaching. Computers in Human Behaviour, 121. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2021.106804

Goldspink, S., & Engward, H. (2019). Booming clangs and whispering ghosts: attending to the reflexive echoes in IPA research. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 16(2), 291-304. https://doi.org/10.1080/14780887.2018.1543111

Holdsworth, S., Turner, M., & Scott-Young, C. M. (2018). Not drowning, waving. Resilience and university: a student perspective. Studies in Higher Education, 43(11), 1837-1853. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2017.1284193

Hughes, G., & Spanner, L. (2019). The University Mental Health Charter. Leeds: Student Minds. https://www.studentminds.org.uk/uploads/3/7/8/4/3784584/180129_student_mental_health__the_role_and_experience_of_academics__student_minds_pdf.pdf

Janssens, K. A. M., Bos, E. H., Rosmalen, J. G. M., Wichers, M. C., & Riese, H. (2018). A qualitative approach to guide choices for designing a diary study. BMC Medical Research Methodology, 18(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12874-018-0579-6

Jones, E., Samra, R., & Lucassen, M. (2021). Key challenges and opportunities around wellbeing for distance learning students: the online law experience. Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning, 38(2), 117-135 https://doi.org/10.1080/02680513.2021.1906639

Kandiko Howson, C., & Matos, F. (2021). Student surveys: measuring the relationship between satisfaction and engagement. Education Sciences, 11(6). https://doi.org/10.3390/educsci11060297

Kirmayer, L. J. (1992). The body’s Insistence on meaning: metaphor as presentation and representation in illness experience. Medical Anthropology Quarterly: International Journal for the Analysis of Health, 6(4), 323-346 https://doi.org/10.1525/maq.1992.6.4.02a00020

Korstjens, I., & Moser, A. (2017). Series: practical guidance to qualitative research. Part 2: context, research questions and designs. European Journal of General Practice, 23(1), 274-279. https://doi.org/10.1080/13814788.2017.1375090

Levitt, H., Korman, Y., & Angus L. (2000). A metaphor analysis in treatments of depression: metaphor as a marker of change. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 13(1), 23-35. https://doi.org/10.1080/09515070050011042

Lister, K., Seale, J., & Douce, C. (2021). Mental health in distance learning: a taxonomy of barriers and enablers to student mental wellbeing. Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning, 38(2), 102-116. https://doi.org/10.1080/02680513.2021.1899907

Lyddon, W. J., Clay, A. L., & Sparks, C. L. (2001). Metaphor and change in counseling. Journal of Counseling & Development, 79(3), 269–274. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.1556-6676.2001.tb01971.x

Manchester Metropolitan University (2020) Guidelines on Good Research Practice. https://www.mmu.ac.uk/sites/default/files/2020-11/Guidelines-on-Good-Research-Practice.pdf

Montero, S. & Suhonen, J. (2014). Emotion analysis meets learning analytics: online learner profiling beyond numerical data. ACM International Conference Proceeding Series, 165-169. https://doi.org/10.1145/2674683.2674699

Morrell-Scott, N. (2018). Using diaries to collect data in phenomenological research. Nurse Researcher, 25(4), 26-29. https://doi.org/10.7748/nr.2018.e1527

Nizza, I.E., Farr, J., & Smith, J.A. (2021). Achieving excellence in interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA): four markers of high quality. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 18(3), 369 -386. https://doi.org/10.1080/14780887.2020.1854404

Office for National Statistics. (2018). Estimating suicide among higher education students: experimental statistics. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/articles/estimatingsuicideamonghighereducationstudentsenglandandwalesexperimentalstatistics/2018-06-25

Office for National Statistics. (2020). Coronavirus and the impact on students in higher education in England: September to December 2020. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/educationandchildcare/articles/coronavirusandtheimpactonstudentsinhighereducationinenglandseptembertodecember2020/2020-12

Patton, M. Q. (2002). Qualitative research and evaluation methods (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Razavi, L. (2020, May 27). ‘Students like the flexibility’: why online universities are here to stay. The Guardian Education. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/may/27/students-like-the-flexibility-why-online-universities-are-here-to-stay

Ribeiro, C., Quintas, H., Monteiro, R., & Fragoso, A. (2013). Access is not enough: perspectives of mature students and professors of the universities of Aveiro and Algarve. https://doi.org/10.13140/2.1.4718.7208

Ribeiro, I.J.S., Pereira, R., Freire, I.V., De Oliveira, B.G., Casotti, C.A., & Boery, E.N. (2018). Stress and quality of life among university students: a systematic literature review. Health Professions Education, 4(2), 70-77. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hpe.2017.03.002

Ricoeur, P. (1970) Freud and Philosophy. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Saeidzadeh, S., Gilbertson-White, S., Kwekkeboom, K.L., Babaieasl, F., & Seaman, A.T. (2021). Using online self-management diaries for qualitative research. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 20. https://doi.org/10.1177/16094069211038853

Samra, R., Waterhouse, P., & Lucassen, M. (2021). Combining and managing work-family-study roles and perceptions of institutional support. Distance Education, 42(1), 88- 105. https://doi.org/10.1080/01587919.2020.1869530

Shinebourne, P., & Smith, J.A. (2010). The communicative power of metaphors: An analysis and interpretation of metaphors in accounts of the experience of addiction. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 83(1), 59- 73. https://doi.org/10.1348/147608309X468077

Smith, J. A., & Osborn, M. (2008). Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. In J. A. Smith (Ed.), Qualitative psychology: a practical guide to research methods (pp. 53-80). Sage: London.

Southwick, S.M., Bonanno, G.A., Masten, A.S., Panter-Brick, C., & Yehuda, R. (2014). Resilience definitions, theory, and challenges: interdisciplinary perspectives. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 5(1). https://doi.org/10.3402/ejpt.v5.25338

Stoten, D. (2015). Managing the transition: a case study of self-regulation in the learning strategies of first term business and management undergraduate students at an English university. Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 4, 445-459. https://doi.org/10.1080/13596748.2015.1081753

Swain, J., & Hammond, C. (2011). The motivations and outcomes of studying for part-time mature students in higher education. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 30(5), 591-612. https://doi.org/10.1080/02601370.2011.579736

Symeonides, R. & Childs, C. (2015). The personal experience of online learning: an interpretative phenomenological analysis. Computers in Human Behaviour, 51, 539-545. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2015.05.015

Thorley, C. (2017). Not by Degrees: Improving student mental health in the UK’s universities. Institute for Public Policy Research. https://www.ippr.org/publications/not-by-degrees

Wagstaff, C., Jeong, H., Nolan, M., Wilson, T., Tweedie, J., Philips, E., & Senu, H. (2014). The accordion and the deep bowl of spaghetti: eight researchers’ experiences of using IPA as a methodology. The Qualitative Report, 19(24), 1-15. https://doi.org/10.46743/2160-3715/2014.1216

Waterhouse, P., Samra, R., & Lucassen, M. (2020). Mental distress and its relationship to distance education students’ work and family roles. Distance Education, 41(4), 540-558. https://doi.org/10.1080/01587919.2020.1821606

Wayne, J.H., Grzywacz, J.G., Carlson, D.S., and Kacmar, K.M. (2007). Work-family facilitation: A theoretical explanation and model of primary antecedents and consequences. Human Resource Management Review, 17(1), 63-76. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hrmr.2007.01.002

Xu, X., Tupy, S., Robertson, S., Miller, A. L., Correll, D., Tivis, R., & Nigg. C.R. (2018). Successful adherence and retention to daily monitoring of physical activity: lessons learned. PLoS One, 13(9). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0199838

Zannini L., Ghitti M.G., Martin S., Palese A., & Saiani L. (2015). Narratives, memorable cases and metaphors of night nursing: findings from an interpretative phenomenological study. Nursing Inquiry. 22(3), 261-72. https://doi.org/10.1111/nin.12091





Original Research