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Learning to teach in wartime

13 Jun 2022 | Olga Yashenkova Olga Yashenkova, Associate Professor in the Department of English Philology and Intercultural Communication at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, shares reflections of her experiences of teaching during the war in Ukraine, and the impact of Russia's attacks: on her, her friends, family, and students.

This is the second of two articles about teaching during the invasion of Ukraine. The first, from Dr Anastasia Yakovenko, can be found here

First shock 

For me, the notion that my colleagues and I would be delivering courses in wartime seemed improbable. But here we are. We woke on 24 February to find our country at war.  

Kyiv was under bombardment the next morning with missile strikes and a rocket crashing into a residential building, just in front of my house. I had an online lesson with my BA students that day but only one student could join me on Zoom. It turned out later that some students were forced to hide in basements and bomb shelters. Others fled Kyiv to stay with their families in the western parts of Ukraine or neighbouring countries. The matters of safety took priority over education.   

As Russian forces advanced, the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine recommended pausing the education process. My university like all other educational institutions declared a forced vacation for students. We had to learn to live under war conditions.  

Life must go on  

We understood the importance of letting students complete their courses, supporting and distracting them from bad news. After a four-week break, my university made a decision to resume the education process online. Although we acquired a great deal of online teaching experience during the Covid-19 pandemic, some questions arose in my mind: How to conduct classes during air raid sirens? Is it necessary to revisit the existing syllabi and switch to fully asynchronous learning? What teaching and assessment strategies to use? How to provide quality education in wartime? I was confused and asked my students if they were ready to get back to studying and in which format.  

Looking for the best option  

Luckily, my students responded they were relatively safe, had the necessary equipment for online learning, and were able to resume their studies, but in different formats. I had to teach two courses in spring 2022 semester: English academic writing for PhD students and business communication for second-year BA students. 

My PhD students wanted to have regular classes on Zoom. They were seeking opportunities to interact with each other, were willing to discuss their research projects, and share their ideas and experiences. They did their best to complete all the tasks on time despite challenging circumstances. One PhD student confessed, “Many different complex issues impeded my study from the beginning of the semester. I was thinking about academic leave because I could not do my homework on time. But it was not an option for me, so I decided to do my best.” 

However, the majority of my BA students seemed to have lost their interest in studies. They rarely responded to my messages and did not join my Zoom meetings. One student wrote to me, “Give me the reason why we have to do homework, while people in Ukraine are suffering. How can we stay calm and just learn?” So, I could work only with three BA students on a regular basis.  

Making each student learn  

How to motivate all my BA students to learn and let them earn some credits? I was thinking about new learning tasks that could work. I was about to make some changes in the syllabus when suddenly I received an email from the group’s student rep asking for extra assignments to not to fail the course. The ice was broken.  

As most BA students preferred asynchronous learning, I asked them to do two online courses on the FutureLearn platform that were relevant to our business communication syllabus. To my big surprise, all the students managed to complete the FutureLearn courses by the deadline and even received Certificates of Achievement. According to their feedback, they especially liked the course “Digital Skills: Artificial Intelligence” developed by Accenture. 

Also, I decided to take a risk and asked the students to do a business project that I designed specifically for them: “Company’s Online Reputation”. Each student was supposed to choose and explore one Ukrainian company, prepare a report and a video presentation. The project aimed not only to develop students’ knowledge and skills, but also to show that many Ukrainian businesses were able to operate under very difficult conditions, trying to adapt to the war situation. To motivate the students, I decided to raise the stakes and included the video-presentation of the project in the exam.   

All the students completed the project and submitted their reports on time. They found the project useful and enjoyable, and wrote the comments, such as “I liked to study different areas of business, for example, it was interesting to analyse the audience of the bank according to different statistics, see all the innovations that the bank makes, search and view all social networks, etc.”, or “I like this type of tasks, when you can share useful information and use your creative potential”, or “I like that we have prepared the project in the form of presentations and video report. For a beautiful and informative presentation and especially for a good video we need to have good digital skills, so it was pretty cool and useful!” The students seemed to have forgotten about the war for a while and have overcome their challenges. Only one girl had difficulties with uploading a video presentation because of a bad Internet connection and asked me to extend the deadline.  

Exams during the war  

It goes without saying that traditional exams do not work in emergency situations, which means that we have to look for alternative approaches to assessing learning outcomes. Where it was possible I used a take-home exam task (an individual project, involving a peer and/or self-assessment) in combination with a 20-minute online written test, using a Google form, and/or a 7–10-minute oral discussion on Zoom.  

However, we could not use take-home exam tasks during the so-called State or Exit exams that started in May. What we could do was to reduce the number of exam questions and avoid time-consuming exam tasks. Also, it was extremely important to create a supportive atmosphere to make such exams less stressful, as over half of the examinees mentioned they were less confident and more anxious than during their exams in peacetime.    

Food for thought  

As we are still facing challenging times, we have to know what makes an effective teacher in wartime. Based on my sad teaching experience, I can give some recommendations: 

  • Listen to student voices 

  • Be empathetic and tolerant  

  • Be flexible and ready for change and quick decisions 

  • Give students a choice  

  • Communicate more and provide options (different channels/media, any time) 

  • Be online 24/7  

  • Provide more resources  

  • Give more time to complete learning tasks and extend deadlines 

  • Use more alternative assessment (e.g. take-home, projects)   

  • Do not be afraid to take risks and never give up! 


Olga Yashenkova, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Department of English Philology and Intercultural Communication at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, Ukraine, where she teaches communication theory, business communication, and English academic writing. Her current research projects focus on emergency remote teaching and teaching excellence in higher education. 

Teaching and Learning Conference 2022

The focus on enhancing all aspects of teaching and learning remains a critical issue for those seeking to provide an outstanding student experience at all levels of taught provision. Advance HE’s Teaching and Learning Conference 2022 will continue to position the spotlight firmly on teaching in a global context. In particular, this year, the conference will explore how we are enhancing student success through all aspects of the student experience including transitions, curriculum design and development, enterprise and employability, assessment, engagement and inclusion, sustainability and much more.

Included in the Conference will be a panel on the situation in Ukraine. Find out more here


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