For those of us in the southern hemisphere, it’s been quite a year in academia. Our students, who start their academic year in late February, had two or three weeks on campus and then everything went online. This was a massive challenge for students and academics alike. All of us had to rapidly adapt to the online teaching and learning environment. As academics, we had to create a huge volume of online learning materials in an extraordinarily short time-frame. At the same time, our students had to independently develop the skills to manage their own learning in a new environment. Somehow, we survived the first semester, and the second is well-underway, with the light at the end of this year’s tunnel now becoming brighter.
The good news is that in most of our first semester courses, students’ academic performance has not been markedly impacted – with outcomes very similar to previous years. Delving deeper, we may find perhaps that students aren’t quite as good at applying their knowledge, having missed opportunities like practical classes and tutorials in which to hone those skills. But it does suggest that the hard work that we have put into to create engaging learning materials, and the hard work our students put in to engage with them, did pay off.
However, we found that there are areas of difficulty in which students really needed our support. The first we would as academics consider well within our remit. That is, to provide the structure to help students keep up with the workload. When the structure of regular attendance is not there or, particularly for first year students, was never established, students find it very challenging to know what to do when, and may easily fall behind.
The strategies we used to address this included creating regular weekly updates, letting students know what they should be doing and where they should be at. These were valued by students, and even more so when they were short, personal videos from teaching staff that students could easily relate to (and were simple for us to create). We also pivoted our ‘meta-learning’ assessment tasks (1), which are short reflective tasks that prompt students to consider their learning processes, to help students’ become more aware of how they were adapting to the new learning environment, and to think of strategies they could use to enhance this.
Inevitably, despite these supports, students will fall behind at times. So, we also needed to provide pathways to get them back on track. Here, regular sign-posting is critical, as the sooner students recognise that they are getting behind, the sooner they can rectify it. We found that providing learning materials in small blocks at regular intervals (such as a weekly set of lecture material) was appreciated by students – not too large a chunk that it was overwhelming, but enough so that they could work through the material at their own time and pace.
The other major area students experienced difficulty is something that academics may not normally consider as their role – that is, the social aspects of student life. When students are not regularly attending campus, they are not seeing one another as much either, and so struggle to create and maintain a peer network. To compound this, a large reduction in group work occurred when practical classes and tutorials moved online or became physically distant. This was particularly critical for first year students, who have may never have got a chance to meet their peers or develop the friendships and peer support which would sustain them though university.
Instead, the person who students interacted with most was their course coordinator – even though this was largely through seeing us in videos or on zoom! This lack of peer interaction and support has the potential to have the most negative impact on students, which could be felt well after university life returns to ‘normal’.
For us, it was also an aspect that we did not initially even consider, as it didn’t become apparent until the year progressed, and it’s still an ongoing challenge. So far, we’ve been considering how to use the occasions when students are on-campus together to provide opportunities for social interaction, with events like a barbeque or game held after a practical class. We’ve also recognised that we need help, so are enlisting student societies to arrange social events and asking senior students to encourage first year students to interact through social media groups. This is definitely still a work in progress!
To conclude, it’s been a tough year for students and staff alike. But we’ve all been willing to work hard to support one another through this, and now are starting to see the rewards from our collective efforts.
Kay Colthorpe, Senior Fellow, email@example.com
School of Biomedical Sciences,The University of Queensland, Australia
- Colthorpe et al (2018) Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 43(2); 272-285.
Find out more about Advance HE’s Creating Socially Distanced Campuses and Education project including the final Capstone Report.
Advance HE has also just published ‘An exceptional transition to higher education: induction of new and returning students during the ‘new normal’ year.’