Stepping up to honours in the hybrid world

Photo Credit: University of Edinburgh Collections Catalogue No. 0028572

In this post, Senior Lecturer in Scottish History Esther Mijers describes the importance of effectively managing fourth year transitions and the unique challenges that hybrid teaching poses to the learning landscape.

Two years ago, HCA ran the workshop ‘Stepping up to Honours’ for the first time. We specifically wanted to help History students returning from their Year Abroad. We were aware of the problems they experienced arriving straight into their fourth year, with the expectation that as finalists, they knew the ropes. Many experienced this as a very difficult transition; not only had they spent their third year abroad, in a different university system and sometimes taking their courses in a different language, but they had also missed out on the third year History core courses aimed at familiarising students with historiography and primary sources, which is deemed essential knowledge for fourth year. The very different structure of the final year in History, with its year-long courses and the capstone project of the dissertation, felt far removed from their pre-honours experience. In addition, students on a voluntary year abroad are classified only on their fourth year. The anxiety and concerns of these students was therefore understandable. The IAD’s ‘Stepping up to Honours’ workshop was of great benefit to these students and the evaluation afterwards was extremely positive.

In 2019, we decided to broaden the scope of this workshop and opened it up to all HCA students, who were new to Honours. We did not anticipate how popular this would be; students filled the room twice over. In light of that, we had already decided to run the workshop on a programme-level next time, rather than at School-level, to reduce the size of the group and to better engage with their specific disciplinary concerns. However, now that we are all faced with the move towards hybrid teaching, we also need also to consider how best to deal with this further challenge: how do we deliver a meaningful workshop for those starting Honours, (a) at programme-level, which (b) all students entering Honours can engage with, but which also addresses (c) the pivot to on-line learning.

Having delved into the research on hybrid, blended and on-line learning, a number of issues rise to the fore every time:

  1. Not all students will have access to the technology necessary to attend classes and take part, and the required fulfil tasks and assessments,
  2. Learning in this manner requires a great deal from both the students and their tutors; it is more tiring, demands more concentration, and often relies on a different set of skills, depending on the format used,
  3. As hybrid, blended and on-line learning of necessity contains both synchronous and a-synchronous elements, more is expected of students in terms of self-discipline and focus: there are more distractions working from home; set tasks may be more challenging to take on independently without the immediately help from peers or the tutor; and there is less structure to the day, to name but a few of the new demands which students now face.

In some ways, the new hybrid landscape magnifies the challenges of university learning, but without the benefit of the academic and environmental framework offered by the rhythm of the normal way of studying, with its classroom settings, access to the library, academic and moral support from friends, peers, societies etc. As we prepare for the new semester, we must take these challenges into account and ensure that we do not overburden our students with courses that are both of a higher level – in History both Honours years’ courses are Level 10 – but also demand more than is feasible. At the same time we need keep an eye on the cohesion and community which makes classroom teaching more than the sum of its parts. We will need to adapt ‘Stepping up to (Hybrid) Honours, to engage with all these aspects and build on what they have learnt before. While the technological and personal aspects will need University-wide tackling, the old skills, acquired at pre-Honours, we require our students to employ and the new ones we need them to develop, are questions for our own learning design. A meaningful place to start may be to look at the lessons we can learn from non-classroom based teaching, such as internships and placements, mentoring programmes, as well as SLICCs and the Edinburgh Award scheme. Even more important will be to talk and listen to our students, before during and after the semester starts, to make ‘Stepping up to (hybrid honours’ a co-created workshop, from which students and their tutors can reap equal benefit.

Some helpful articles for further reading:

Esther Mijers

Dr Esther Mijers is senior lecturer in Scottish History. She has been the Director of Undergraduate Studies in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology for almost 3 years, and before that was Teaching Director for History (Pre-Honours).

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