Student experience is key at the University of West London. My team provides academic support, but we work closely with other support services, as academic and personal issues can overlap. With the current situation, our priority has been the student facing work. We have been keeping students informed of what’s coming up every week.
Our activities haven’t stopped, they’ve just adapted. Students are anxious about the changes to learning and alternative approaches to assessment. It’s really positive that a lot of students have been able to come forward to seek academic support, but we are also conscious that there will also be others that haven’t reached out but may benefit from academic guidance at this time. Some of the issues that students might be facing include access to suitable technology and access to space and quiet time for study.
Maintaining and building
As the campus has responded to the situation, my team has been able to continue to provide students with our regular daily academic support. Students can attend remote drop-in sessions and request one-to-one support. They put forward their question and then spend time with someone from the team using a combination of email, Skype and the phone.
We are also running daily workshops via Blackboard Collaborate. As well as standard academic support topics and seasonal topics, such as Dissertations, we have developed new sessions that focus on specific, emerging needs, such as Planning Your Week, for those students who find the lack of structure challenging, or Meeting the Challenges of Studying Remotely. We’ve been promoting the sessions and have had a very high uptake. In the seven-week period following the closure of the campus we delivered 357 one-to-one support sessions and 542 workshop attendances.
Two team members attend each session so we can have a moderator as well as someone to deliver the content. This helps manage incoming questions and resolve technical issues, as well as discouraging the possibility of antisocial behaviour. We have worked with the Head of Wellbeing on specific sessions that could trigger an emotional response from students. Each student is going through a personal experience that is unique: health, finance, accommodation.
The workshops that have been created in response to the current situation also have a social aspect, to allow people to connect with each other. They begin with twenty minutes of structured content followed by break-out discussions managed by facilitators. One group might want to discuss IT issues or lectures. Another might focus on lectures online. This discussion section means that students can hear that others are facing similar challenges. This can normalise their situation and reassure students that they are not alone in their experiences and responses to studying remotely.
Student-to-student support has also been important in other ways. Our mentorship programme normally brings students together face-to-face for the majority of their meetings. Many of the mentor pairings have continued during lockdown using email and Skype. Students have found their mentors reassuring because they are sharing the same experience. It provides an alternative relationship which is less formal to the ones they are likely to share with their lecturers and personal tutors. Some students who feel reluctant to ask for support may be more comfortable talking to their peer mentor.
Our next challenge will be to deliver our summer schools. We run a number of sessions on campus during the summer period, including workshops for new students, returning students, those who are entering through Clearing, and those who are returning from a period of deferral. We host a 3-day Study Skills Summer School for mature learners who are offer holders at the university. We receive really good feedback, and they have a positive impact on student outcomes. Students who attend the sessions are more likely to accept their offer and have been found to have a better continuation rate and academic results. In the past, students have been on campus and been able to be immersed in the physical university environment. They experience a lecture and the seminar format, an escape room in the library, and end with a seminar and group presentation by the attendees.
We are converting these sessions into something we can offer online over the summer. We will rethink and adapt them. Our study skills workshops show that there is demand for sessions that help students learn about learning online. It's daunting enough for those students already absorbed into university life who are having to switch from face-to-face to remote delivery. For someone who hasn’t yet started university, the challenge is likely to be much greater. Younger people I’ve spoken to question starting university in September or October. For them so much of the experience is about Freshers Week and living independently. They have legitimate concerns: ‘What if I commit and there’s another wave of the virus? I’ll be responsible for all the accommodation costs.’
If, in the summer, we can give people a feel and understanding of what it is like to learn remotely, it will help people feel more confident about their decision. Based on the success of the workshops, I’m quite excited. I am aware that there is a risk of losing the social aspect of Summer School, which is so important. It’s the informal chats over the lunch we provide. The coffee breaks. The bonds they form with each other that make university feel possible. We are working to make sure we keep up levels of engagement, with a high level of interactivity, and lots of opportunities to ask questions. Technology gives a level of anonymity which may make some attendees feel freer. We use Poll Everywhere so that students can ask questions in real time. We will reserve the end of each session for unstructured conversation and questions driven by the attendees.
We have to recognise that there are going to be new needs. It's not going to be the same experience, but there may be some positives that come from this in terms of delivery and student experience.
Not everything can be transferred to online learning. For example, I’ve learnt that dyslexia assessments currently need to carried out in person. So, we will need to be aware of that when term starts.
Prior to the campus shutdown, I was about to deliver a series of Shared Experience events. These are opportunities for staff and students to come together around specific issues such as studying with a disability, studying as a BAME student, or studying as a mature learner. Each event was developed by an appropriate group of students and a relevant member of the team. Panels share experiences and answer questions before opening the discussion out to the wider audience. These have previously led to positive changes at the university through engagement by senior management staff.
Since these events encourage the sharing of personal experiences, it is not a format that can work automatically online. Participants can be vulnerable and discussions can be unpredictable. Moving forward, it would be good to find a way to deliver these remotely, but I‘d want to be sure that any event offered a safe space. A Shared Experience event on Inclusive Reading Lists is going to be included in the University of West London Festival of Learning Conference. This will be held online this year and the content is about the new challenges to learning or teaching. It’s an opportunity to find new ways to be interactive. It is important that the student voice isn’t lost.
Three tips for lecturers trying to teach now
Students find contact with their personal tutors so valuable and really appreciate that someone is taking the time to check they are managing ok. An easy way to keep low level contact is to forward on useful information and materials that you receive from your institution – ‘just making sure you saw this’. If students see there are messages coming from their personal tutor, if they feel a link, they may engage more often, ensuring they have a wide network of support.
It’s important to ensure that students are aware of the support that is available to them, and how to access it under remote conditions. Make it your business to know who can help your students, and pass that knowledge on to them.
Tone is also important, particularly under the current circumstances. At the University of West London, we’ve worked on looking at our communication style and tone to support the culture of a positive and supported student experience. This has become particularly important, because if a student has missed a deadline or has not been engaging, there are many factors that could be responsible. When checking in with a student who hasn’t been present, or has missed a deadline, be supportive. Don’t assume the worst of your students. Listen and make it easier for students to let you know what the problem is. Try to consider what it is like for students to study now and empathise with their challenges.
Alison Griffin is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and Head of Engagement at the University of West London. She is responsible for providing academic support to current students and pre-entry support to new students considering entering Higher Education (HE).
The Shared Experience events she has introduced provides a voice for students about their lived experience of HE and a channel for open discussions with staff and students, and her findings have been shared with the wider HE sector through presentations at conferences, and contributions at summits and symposiums, and through a devised drama piece performed at the Office for Students events to over 200 universities.
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