Supporting first-year students at the programme level: A case from the School of Informatics

Original illustration by Georgia Smith, Edinburgh College of Art student

In this post, Fiona McNeill walks us through the non-credit bearing course “Informatics Connect” that she and colleagues designed to help first-year students develop a sense of collegiality while studying online. This post is part of the ‘Hot topic’ theme ‘Lessons from the Learning and Teaching Conference 2021′.


What we did

Like all academics, we were concerned about how a new intake of first years would adapt to a learning environment that would be mostly or entirely online.  We knew that this would require a different set of learning skills, and that online or hybrid learning was something many of them would only have encountered during the chaotic end to their schooling. We also knew how challenging starting university can be socially even under normal circumstances, and how important these social relationships are to student wellbeing and academic development – the difficulties around developing peer networks would inevitably be severe for students who had very limited opportunities to meet their peers face-to-face.

We designed a non-credit bearing course, Informatics Connect with four aims in mind:

  • To help build peer networks and a sense of belonging
  • To support development of soft skills for online learning
  • To be a forum for engaging with students on how blended learning is working
  • To address issues in CS more widely than is possible in normal courses

In the first semester, we had weekly plenary sessions on Monday morning, where we would introduce the theme of the week, do polling and sometimes have guest speakers.  Later in the week, the students were divided into smaller groups where they would have breakout discussion sessions based on the theme of the week.  In the second semester, we just had the weekly session.

Although we had various issues we wanted to cover, we kept the schedule highly flexible and altered it week-to-week based on student feedback and surveys about what they wanted to discuss.

The schedule of the two semesters is shown below.

How the students responded

We got a lot of positive feedback on the course. Of a cohort of around 250 students, we had weekly attendances of around 30-100, depending on the topic. The weeks where we got older students to come to talk about various aspects of life in the department were the most popular. Topics focussing on ethics and research aspects of Informatics were less well attended but highly valued by those who did attend, and there was a lot of engagement in them. One aspect of the course the students valued most was the frequent polling, where we asked them questions ranging from how hard they were finding their courses and how they were engaging with their peers to what they had been doing at the weekend. These polls really helped to build a sense of community in students who rarely or never interacted with one another face to face, and therefore had little opportunity to gauge how their peers were experiencing the course. We had a lot of discussions about different aspects of their courses which were fed back to course leaders, and this helped students to feel that their voices were listened to.

The evaluation we have done with the students indicates that whilst Inf Connect was helpful with creating a sense of cohort and belonging to the school, it didn’t do as much as we’d hoped to nurture peer relationships. This was partly because the changing attendance meant we couldn’t work in fixed breakout groups, and the class was a bit too large for them to get to know each other well.  A minority of students made good friends with their peers through the social media networks set up outside the course. But again and again in the evaluation, the students expressed the belief that it is very difficult to form strong peer relationships online, and some mentioned that the face to face interaction they had had, even though in most cases this had been very brief, had been more important in building relationships than the months of online interaction.

 How we’re going to build on this next year

Even though learning is likely to be much closer to normal next year, both the school and the first-year students we surveyed are very keen for Inf Connect to continue. We’re keen to bring in more Equality Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) content. Some content, such as trouble-shooting the systems the students need to come to terms with, will be moved into welcome week. We’re planning to run some outdoor sessions, with informal discussions in small groups in places around Edinburgh. But by and large, we will stick to a similar format to last year, with student input guiding which topics we cover.

The challenges we faced last year, whilst in some ways more severe than usual due to the strange circumstances, broadly reflected ongoing challenges: some students struggle socially, and this can impact on their learning; some students feel isolated and not part of anything bigger; students often worry that they are struggling whilst everyone else is finding things easy; it’s hard to fit in a lot of non-examinable content in the academic year, but this can be really valuable to students; students can feel that their voices are not heard. Inf Connect was an effective vehicle for addressing these issues, and we intend to continue it for the foreseeable future.


Fiona McNeill

Fiona is a Reader of Computing Education in the School of Informatics.  She has a particular interest in broadening access to computing and STEM education and in women in STEM.  She chairs the British Computer Society (BCS) Scottish Computing Education Group and represents the BCS in the RSE’s Learned Society Group on STEM education in Scotland.  In her teaching practice, she is particularly interested in building community and in amplifying the student voice.  She is also active in outreach – for example, setting up the Informatics Tutoring Network, focussing on supporting exam-level students in schools in deprived areas.

Twitter: @fionamcneill1


Georgia Smith

Georgia is an illustrator from Newcastle, who is currently studying BA illustration at ECA. Her inspiration mainly comes from her peers and her own life experiences as well as her own interests. Her work is often bright and colourful featuring lots of characters, often with a humorous aspect.

instagram : georgilina_
website: georgilina.co.uk

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