Amy Barlow, National Teaching Fellow and Head of Academic Development reflects on how in TB2 ‘Connection and Belonging’ should be the priority curriculum activities
Universities first went online in lockdown, March 2020; webcams were fired up, adrenaline was high and we were all navigating teaching from a place of unfamiliarity and novelty while the sun shone outside. Our pets and children became part of the daily Zoom on-screen family as tails hovered across the screen and toys were passed to Mum or Dad during calls. ‘You’re on Mute’ became the unspoken mantra of the working day. Restricted trousers and heels were replaced by comfortable joggers and leggings – it was academia Jim but not as we knew it.
Fast forward to February 2021 and the prolonged need to teach online, during another lockdown (in Winter this time) has resulted in a sense of fatigue for many staff and students. It’s been months since some of our students have been physically on campus and seen their peers and tutors. The ebb and flow of each semester starting and beginning haven’t been felt. They have not experienced the celebratory feel on campus when their assignments are finally all handed in and they have not revelled in the social buzz of navigating their new timetable as teaching resumes and new exciting subjects take centre stage. Lockdown learning fatigue has settled heavily on the shoulders of many and there is a growing concern for their progress when attendance is minimal and much of the well designed self-directed learning is missed, or engaged with, out of sequence. The blend of online tools and the skillset of colleagues, to deliver distance learning is at an all-time high – but how can we bridge the disconnect that seems so apparent for some lecturers staring at empty discussion boards and sitting patiently in silent Zoom rooms?
Studying has become a lonely activity and the multiple ways students orientated their studies previously have stopped. Although on the plus side lockdown has taken away many distractions and time pressures, it has also brought with it a learning environment that has many new barriers especially in terms of mental health and wellbeing. Staying on track week to week and navigating multiple module pages in the VLE is a new method of time management required from students. In terms of community, the face-to-face interaction and ‘get to know you’ activity which scaffolds peer groups and support structures for students have been diminished. For example, the chats walking out of lectures, the informal opportunity to meet over coffee and a safe space to ask their friends questions are no longer a learning resource available to them. It’s this period of orientation to new modules which is so crucial to the curriculum gaining momentum and to students staying on track.
Over time, withdrawal from study may escalate into missing a week, or weeks of teaching and then feeling that re-engaging, or attending the Zoom taught session is too much to face. A student, for example, may feel overwhelmed. Some may just feel uncomfortable studying in bedrooms and attending online classes in this private space. Ironically, they are disengaged from the one shared learning experience and readily available support structure which may help them. If they get out of sync with their peers and the module content, it is understandable that they may not want to join in, feeling embarrassed for not completing the prep work they may have been set. Logging into Moodle may seem daunting when done sporadically – all of sudden there are new posts, everyone is chatting and answering questions and it’s a confusing picture. This Learning Well resource is useful to help students understand why they may find it hard to concentrate when they are feeling anxious and overwhelmed. It’s on our course and department pages but is a good tool to bridge the subject with them. Many courses saw at the end of TB1 that all of these factors had resulted in a last-minute assignment panic for many. This was seen when views of recorded sessions spiked in the days prior to deadlines and demand for one-to-one catch up sessions increased.
Meeting the needs of this students group is new territory for teachers everywhere, who are also battling with their own lockdown fatigue and the challenges of home working.
So, how can we re-engage students during a time of lockdown learning fatigue?
View our top tips to Re-Engage here.
There is no quick fix. There are, however, some simple steps that can be taken to bring students back into the online learning space. To re-engage and help them all to feel on track – but most importantly relaxed about their studies so they can learn. They need to understand that everyone (including their lecturers) are sharing the same struggles and anxieties as they are. It’s safe to speak up and share that they feel a bit lost – no one will judge them, they can catch up – it’s all there on Moodle if they feel able to work through the scaffolded learning activities that are set in small chunks. Importantly, they work together as a team to help each other succeed in a difficult time.
A key recommendation is focusing on the first, three weeks of the module being fun, accessible and social-based around fascinating disciplinary content. This time is make or break in terms of engagement. Then bring in further social, low-pressure activities as the module progresses. Students may not want to keep their videos on during zoom sessions, that’s fine – perhaps a quick wave at the start and a commitment from everyone to communicate with the chat function would help the group to get to know each other. Informal drop-in sessions have been successful in our Faculty of Business and Law to create a social online space to ask the questions that may otherwise seem stupid. For example, setting clear expectations about participation is key, but don’t just tell the students what you expect, ask them to discuss what they think is fair:
Would they like to use their videos during calls?
Would they expect to contribute to the VLE activities every week or every few days? Are they happy to be part of a group chat (e.g. Whatsapp) just for this group?
Should all sessions be recorded and available for those who didn’t attend?
What should they agree to do if they feel they are falling behind?
How will they hold each other to account?
What will the group do if they are confused or have missed content?
Icebreaking and ‘Get to Know You’ activities could feature at the start of each week not just at the start of the module. Many small steps early on can make a big difference –
Read more at our Re-Engage resources
Are you struggling with engagement on your module and could use some fresh eyes or advice? Contact your Academic Development Liaison for support :
Faculty of Science – email@example.com
Faculty of Technology – firstname.lastname@example.org
Faculty of Business and Law – email@example.com
Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries – firstname.lastname@example.org
Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences – email@example.com