In this post, Chris Mowat, Senior Personal Tutor and Senior Lecturer at the School of Chemistry, thinks through the challenges of supporting student transitions in the context of hybrid learning and teaching…
At the end of the 2019/20 academic year, those of us involved in teaching and student support had to adapt quickly to new ways of working and engaging with our students. This move online has been a challenging transition for staff and students alike. Now, as Boards of Examiners around the University put the academic procedures of the year to bed, we are working towards defining precisely how we teach and support our students in the coming academic year, adopting a hybrid model for learning and teaching that will provide equally well for students who are able to attend in person, and for those who are not.
Traditions and Transitions
For School of Chemistry students there are some well-defined transition points. The obvious one is the move from secondary education into the University, but others include the transition from pre-Honours into Honours years, and then into full-time research for final year MChem students.
Each of these require different types of support, academic and otherwise, rooted in a keen sense of academic community, and strong staff-student relationships. It is crucial that new students are made to feel welcome and part of their cohort and the wider School, and this is traditionally helped by social events in Welcome Week, followed by regular one-to-one and group activities with key staff throughout the year. In Chemistry there is a long-held tradition that 1st year tutorials are led by students’ Personal Tutors, and these allow regular contact and relationship building during the first phase of their studies and adjustment to their learning environment.
This coming academic year will feel quite different. Our incoming students will have faced disruption to the end of their secondary education, and may feel robbed of rites of passage such as final exams and celebrations, deprived of the opportunity to demonstrate their achievements in preparation for undergraduate study. They will likely have missed out on exciting summer opportunities for fun, leisure, and employment. Now they face beginning their time at university without the traditional social events of Welcome Week, and with their means of engaging with study being quite different from what they were expecting.
Adapting to the ‘New Normal’
The School of Chemistry is part of a wider group in the College of Science and Engineering working to define existing student support activities in the schools. This will reveal potential gaps in our provision to be addressed, but importantly will identify areas of good practice that might be shared across the College (and the wider University). These include induction and transition support, and cohort and community building. There is also a need to adapt existing core student support activity, to identify additional support for students who have faced disruption as a result of COVID-19, and to define how best to communicate and engage with students.
In planning to support our new students we must consider that different groups of students will have been affected to different degrees and may require extra support. These groups might include international students, those from widening participation backgrounds, BAME students, and care experienced students. A further challenge is that this support must be provided in a way that is equitable for students, wherever they may be in September.
Crucially, all students (new and returning) will face a transition to the hybrid teaching model, and will need this normalised in a practical sense.
Early Engagement and Peer Support
One method of smoothing these various transitions is to act effectively and early to remove doubt from students’ minds and reassure them that we have appropriate measures in place. The Making Transitions Personal questionnaire has proved a very effective tool for Chemistry to engage with incoming students, with response rates typically greater than 90%. The secret of this success seems to be in the tone of the communications about MTP. Students that have the rationale behind the questionnaire explained clearly and in a friendly approachable tone, are more likely to feel welcomed and cared-for. In terms of academic support, we have a ‘Catch Up Chemistry’ course, created by Dr. Murray Low, that we use to help second year direct entry students cope with the material that they missed in first year. This year he and our Director of Teaching Prof. Michael Seery are leading the development of a version of this that seeks to help students revise school-level chemistry in the wake of disruption to the end of their secondary schooling. This will be delivered in mid-August to new entrants, and there is scope for sharing this with new students from other schools that take chemistry courses in their first year.
Finally, there is a key part to be played in all of this by other students, both within formal peer support structures such as Academic Families and Chemunity, and through co-creation of support measures and activities. We have begun the process of consulting with our continuing students to help with this.
There is no doubt that we face significant challenges and uncertainty as we approach September, but there is a clear will to get this right, and so we will find the best ways.