Autumn semester is now behind us and it is natural for many of us to want to finish our marking as soon as possible and enjoy a well-deserved break. This year has been particularly hard for both educators and students – the mammoth task of shifting all our teaching and learning online has been a challenge. Most of us were inexperienced with online learning tools and we often did not have the time to plan ahead. It is a testament to the dedication of UTS staff that student satisfaction has been generally positive under such difficult circumstances.

As we plan for a new phase of remote teaching, on-campus classes and ‘dual mode’ teaching, it is important we consider the feedback we have received from students about their experience with remote learning. In the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS), students were asked about what they thought worked well and where we could improve. They were also asked to come up with solutions to improve the student learning experience.

I have synthesised these responses into what I call the ‘7 Springs’, each made up of an improvement opportunity and an actionThese ‘springs’ provide practical and sensible advice directly from our students about how we could improve the student experience and ensure that students transition well in the online learning environment. 

Spring 1: Low motivation > Let students plan ahead

Students agree that it is hard to keep motivated when studying online – they tend to thrive with peer-to-peer interaction and the lack of face-to-face interaction means that energy levels are low.  

An organised schedule helps. Students want to be informed about what the online lesson or tutorial will look like and they want time to organise themselves. They prefer having an outline of their online classes by email at least two days in advance. Knowing and being able to visualise what their learning during the week will look like, helps keep students motivated and engaged with their learning. 

Spring 2: Lack of consistency in learning platforms > Simpler is better

We all like to innovate and we all have our preferred technological tools. But for students it can get frustrating when all their subjects are using a different learning platform. Some students need to manage up to four communication channels (eg. UTS Email, Teams, Facebook, Blackboard, Canvas, Zoom). 

Students would prefer to have all their subjects on the same learning platform. The preferred option is email plus Zoom (which they prefer to Teams which they find more difficult and less user-friendly). However, they wouldn’t mind using Teams if all subjects used it. It is important, then, that subject coordinators speak to each other and choose common learning platforms and tools. This is especially important for first-year subjects as we don’t want to overburden transitioning students with too many tools when there is a simpler, more efficient, option.   

Spring 3: Lack of clear and consistent communication > Keep it short

Surprisingly, students do not feel that they are being sent too many emails by their tutors and subject coordinators. However, they want the requirements and expectations communicated to them clearly and directly. 

Although students think that 1-2 emails per subject, per week, is reasonable, these should be short and concise and laid out with relevant headings instead of one long email with lots of text. They should also be timely, preferably sent at the beginning of the week to allow students sufficient time to organise themselves.  

Spring 4: Lack of connection between lecture content, tutorials and assessments > Make connections

Students enjoy lectures in person, especially when they are scheduled right before tutorials. However, online learning has amplified that in many subjects the links between lecture content and tutorial activities and assessment are not very evident, leading to a lack of engagement. 

In large subjects with large teaching teams, often we forget to highlight relevant connections between lecture content, tutorial activities and assessment tasks. It is important that we do not assume that students can make those connections themselves. Highlighting to students how lecture content and readings could be integrated into assessment tasks improves student engagement and also helps tackle anxiety with how to approach assignments.   

Spring 5: Lack of peer engagement > Utilise the breakout rooms

Ghosting has been a much talked-about phenomenon with online learning during Covid-19 (covered in James Wakefield’s excellent blog post Zoom Ghost Busting). Cameras are switched off by students or tutors; without visual stimulation, students feel less engaged.

Students need to feel that their tutor is present. Tutors and lecturers should have their cameras switched on at all times and be transparent with how they are organising their lesson. To encourage students to keep their cameras on, organise more breakout room activities (where students feel comfortable enough to switch on their cameras). Breakout rooms are also where students talk to each other and it helps them feel more engaged with the content. 

Spring 6: Lack of efficiency in tutorials > Call on students directly

We have all learned from experience that teaching and learning on Zoom is more tiring than face-to-face. But online learning also amplifies when time is not being used efficiently, eg. a lack of engagement with open questions when students are ‘ghosting’.

It might surprise you that students would prefer to be asked questions directly. Often, we avoid singling out students in case it makes them uncomfortable. But the lack of face-to-face interaction means students do not volunteer to participate. If students know that they could be called on at any time to answer a question, it would lead to more engagement with both the online class and the content. If this expectation is set up at the beginning of semester then students would accept it and prepare themselves accordingly.  

Spring 7: Lack of belonging > Keep it social

During the best of times, it is difficult for university students to make friends and feel a sense of cohort. For new and first year students, this is all they know, so in a sense it is their ‘normal’ as they have nothing else to compare it to. In FASS, the Societies are the only place where they feel that they have been able to make any kind of social connections.

Students would appreciate working with the same group of students over the semester to get to know other students better. They would also appreciate breakout rooms for social conversation. For example, perhaps the first 10-15 minutes of a tutorial could simply be students chatting together in breakout rooms to share their experiences. This would also encourage students to leave their cameras on when the classroom activities begin. Encouraging students to join the university societies is another good strategy. 

Bonus Step

Students also provided advice on how to set up the first tutorial in the Spring session. Getting that first tutorial right is key to creating the online classroom culture. They recommend the following structure:

  • Icebreakers (20-30 mins) – It’s important for tutors to make themselves approachable, and talk about themselves and their experiences in a friendly way. Students recommend being asked to share objects in their home etc. 
  • Housekeeping (10-15 mins) – with particular attention paid to assessments
  • Light content, fun activities (30-40 mins) – Important to not overload students with too much content. Overall, UTS students have been very pleased with their experiences and acknowledge that everybody is doing the best they can. But as we move forward towards Spring, take a moment and consider whether your subjects could add some of these springs in their step. It doesn’t take much to adapt a little and enhance the overall student experience. 

Spring into it!

What steps are you taking for Spring? Listen to panel of students as they share the problems they faced and the solutions they can offer to us as teachers on Wednesday 15th July – register here.

To help support you during this time, the Remote Teaching Toolkit has had a makeover – check out the new Spring Reactivation Toolkit for regularly updated resources featuring tips, examples and ideas to make your classes engaging for students.

Image by Holger Link

  • Thanks for this great post and your suggestions Nick. So important to be reminded of such simple steps we can all take. I will include more socialising time in the next session. It surprised me to read that students don’t like MSTeams that much. Are the survey data accessible to staff somewhere?

    • Hi Beate, the data comes from a small focus group with FASS students. But I’d be happy to discuss further with you. Nick

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