Before we expect students to engage in meaningful learning, we first need to consider a few logistical and emotional concerns.

“…positive emotions broaden the scopes of attention and cognition, and, by consequence, initiate upward spirals toward increasing emotional well-being” (Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002: 172).

Woman using smartphone

And the opposite is also true. We have all embarked on a new and unexpected learning journey, and understandably, the emotions of students and staff may be mixed and intense – not only in the midst of the current disruption, but perhaps longer-term, as we adapt to new ways of learning, teaching and working. For students in particular, the rules, values and expectations of this new situation are still somewhat unknown. Some may be experiencing negative emotions such as anger, frustration, or a sense of loss (‘this is not the kind of experience I signed up for’) or even fear and anxiety (‘I feel uncomfortable with this, what does it mean for me, my usual go-to processes won't work here, will my results suffer?’). These emotions need to be met with acknowledgement, empathy, transparency, honesty and reassurance. If possible, talk with students about their concerns. This may be an opportunity to help students enhance their skills in critical analysis as they evaluate a cascade of news and information sources, but don’t be too quick to dismiss their legitimate concerns. Bear in mind that students often see teachers as models of how to respond to, and cope with, challenging circumstances.

Technical and logistical support

Turning our attention toward technical and logistical issues, we should ask ourselves some fundamental questions:

  • Which country are they in and what might this mean for their access to or use of the internet?
  • Do they have a quiet/private space at home where they feel comfortable going online and joining a remote session?
  • What is their state of 'readiness' (physical/mental health, emotional wellbeing, motivation, interest, preparation etc)? 

Answers to these questions may reveal potential barriers to access, motivation and learning, so we should provide clearly-signposted channels through which individual students can communicate their concerns and get support. Explore College’s useful online resources, such as the Accessing ICT resources remotely and Remote exams support service webpages, which can also be accessed from the Student guidance on COVID-19 (coronavirus) page. It is useful to signpost students towards these. 

Having a shared communication platform or hub for yourself and students is important, a permanent online space where questions and issues can be discussed and addressed. There are a range of platforms supported by the College that could fulfil this function, including Microsoft Teams, Yammer, Blackboard, SharePoint, and many other sharing and collaboration tools. Make sure your students know how to use the key communication features of your chosen platforms (e.g. microphone and video controls, chat feature, file storage, screen sharing, etc.), and establish some communication etiquette and ground rules (e.g. keeping microphones on mute when participants are not speaking, asking only one person to speak at a time). There are excellent courses available on LinkedIn Learning about how to use some of the main platforms.

Social, emotional and pedagogical support

Remote learning and online teaching present new challenges, and they demand new ways of working for everyone in our learning community. In the early stages of engagement, some students may simply feel relieved to hear their teacher's voice, to see their peers online, and to be able to engage with a familiar community and sense of purpose in the midst of a disorienting experience. But even if there is initial enthusiasm or novelty value, it will quickly become important to lay the foundation for strong, sustained motivation for the longer term. In these early stages of adapting to unfamiliar circumstances, we can begin with reassurance (‘this is new for all of its, it's ok, we'll figure it out together’) and assurance (‘we are going to work together to create an exciting learning experience’).

 As we start to consider wider social, cultural and pedagogical issues, the tips below may help you to connect with your students and maintain a strong sense of learning community. Some of the suggestions below are adapted from an Inside Higher Ed article titled ‘Hope Matters’:

Access and motivation blocks 1

Email your students to remind them that you are still there for them. You might find it useful to establish regular online office hours via MS Teams or other platforms, in which your students can ask questions or raise any concerns. Dedicated online office hours would encourage students to get in touch and might also help you to manage the email traffic flow. Given students might be in different time zones, it is useful to diversify the timeslots offered and ensure there are alternative opportunities for asynchronous discussion.

Remember that students have left behind more than just lecture theatres, labs and classrooms. On both residential and commuter campuses there are important spaces where students meet and talk about their non-academic lives such as sports, clubs and societies, nightlife and relationships – a rich social and cultural fabric that is difficult to replace. Consider establishing a community discussion board/channel for them to share what is happening in their lives, especially given the stress, fear and strains in these uncertain times. Students can also be encouraged to create student-led chat spaces to support each other. Check out this blog from Pearson for tips about helping students to stay engaged – with you and with their peers.

Let your students know that you and other colleagues are also trying hard to adapt to this new situation. This is a new experience for all of us, so it is important staff and students work together and communicate frequently during this period of uncertainty. As mental health and emotional wellbeing are foundational to academic success, make sure students aware of the hep offered by the Student Support Zone and Student Counselling and Mental Health Advice Service, and signpost them to these sources of support if they need help.

Access and motivation blocks 2

If they are new to studying remotely, students might worry about how much time they are supposed to spend online and what they need do to achieve the intended learning outcomes of their modules. It is important to provide students with a clear structure and guidance about what is expected of them, what they can expect from you, and how learning and teaching will be experienced (e.g. provide some form of ‘induction’ to online learning). Having a solid framework with clear expectations can greatly reduce feelings of anxiety and sustain learner motivation. No one is likely to feel motivated simply because it’s time to “logon and discuss”. Motivation is more likely to arise when students see (and feel) the value of learning, and of engaging in a well-scaffolding learning activity with clear learning outcomes and expectations.

The Education Office has published a very useful guide to support students’ transition to remote learning: Guidance on studying remotely. The guide consists of 10 top tips, advice on how to set up physical space to work well and approach their online learning effectively, ways to communicate and collaborate virtually, time management and most importantly, information about wellbeing and student support. Consider sending a link to this resource to all of your students.

As teachers, we often need to strike a delicate balance between supporting and challenging our learners. Although we don’t want to dilute the appropriate levels of challenge in our educational programmes, the current circumstances may demand a greater emphasis on support, and this should be our primary concern. When a robust foundation of access and motivation has been established, it will be time to think about when and how learning challenges can be increased, and how we can best support learners through that process. This will be explored more fully in phases two and three.