5 ways to get the new academic year off to a flying start 

Dr Louise Robson of the University of Sheffield looks at how to give students the best teaching experience possible during 2020/21

When the new academic year kicks off, it is highly likely that much of university life will be almost unrecognisable from what has come before. 

With Covid-19 continuing to disrupt on-campus teaching, here are five things that universities need to think about to help ensure students get the most from the experience of going to university in 2020/21. 

  • Keep students informed and work with them

Universities are busy planning for the new academic year to give their students the best possible experience in the current climate. Students need as much information as possible about how learning will be delivered, and what shape it will take, so they can make informed decisions about next steps.  

You can help with this by sharing information on how socially distanced learning will work or creating an online FAQ for new and existing students. Think about whether there is any information students need to know about the impact of the new normal on your specific subject area. If work placements or face-to-face research projects are a big part of a faculty’s attraction for students, how will they work next year? 

Ask students for their thoughts too. The student voice can play a valuable role in shaping what we do, and it helps to ensure your students go with you if and when changes need to be made.

Your social media channels can provide a great way for you to connect with your students and get the message across that your institution has planned for every eventuality and is very much open for business.  

Dr Louise Robson, University of Sheffield
  • Plan additional support for first years

Much of the activity that is key to helping first year students to settle in will be on hold right now. This means that students will not have the same opportunities to mix with their new classmates or develop the effective learning strategies they need to make good progress. 

To address this, consider what additional measures you can put in place to help those students who will be entering higher education for the first time next year. You could arrange some live online sessions over the summer months to introduce new students to their course tutors and peers. 

This would enable you to provide information on any additional services being put in place to support students accessing classes remotely and provide guidance on the steps they can take to maximise their progress if they are learning both on-site and online. 

  • Engage students from day one

It’s unlikely that the university lecture will return to the pre-Covid experience any time soon. So, you need to think about how you can keep your students engaged in what they are learning from the outset.

You might choose to deliver the session to those students who are physically present, while livestreaming it to those attending remotely. Interactive sessions delivered online, in real time, are another option. I’ve done this effectively myself and by incorporating online quizzing or polling tools, students can answer questions anonymously allowing me to flag areas of confusion and provide valuable feedback.

Incorporating quiz questions and polls into face-to-face and online teaching is a great way to encourage students to play an active role in the learning process. You can also use this as an opportunity to assess their understanding and adjust your teaching as the class progresses.

  • Factor in students’ changing circumstances 

If lessons are being accessed online, students may have very different experiences of remote learning so plan in any additional support they might need. 

Some students will be working in an environment that may not be conducive to learning. Others may be sharing household internet capacity with multiple people, such as a home worker or children who are shielding and home schooling. 

Where possible, provide ways for students to catch up on lectures when it suits them to refresh or revise their knowledge when they can, or if they were unable to attend a scheduled online class. This will help to keep them on track. 

  • Consider additional support for students and staff

The current situation will bring new challenges for both students and staff so some extra support might be needed to get the new academic year off to a flying start.

You may want to consider how message boards and social media could help you to answer any questions students might have about their course and strengthen the learning community. They can be a great way for students to find additional support should they need it. 

Staff will need help too. Some tutors will have taken to online teaching like a duck to water, but it could be a steep learning curve for others. Offer some additional training, or give tutors the chance to sit in on another lecturer’s virtual class to pick up some hints and tips. 

Planning for the start of the new academic year is taking a very different shape in the current climate. But the higher education sector has always been able to adapt in response to the changing needs of students – and 2020/21 will be no exception.     

Dr Louise Robson is a departmental director of learning and teaching at The University of Sheffield and she uses the lecture capture and student engagement technology from Echo360.  

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