Tea at the Zoo

Photo credit: pixabay, Teecetera, CC0

In this post, Dr Nick Colegrave, a Professor in Biology in the School of Biological Sciences, describes how he developed “Tea at the Zoo” as a way for staff to chat with students in an informal setting…

A couple of years ago, I was invited to take part in an initiative involving coffee and cake. As these are two of my favourite things, I did not have to be asked twice. I was asked to meet with three students in a café, eat cake, drink coffee and chat (we were given a number of conversation starters to help us move beyond the usual academic discussions). The experience was inspiring, and reminded me both of the value of having time to chat with students in an informal setting, and how rarely, as busy academics, we get the chance to do so. I immediately decided to find ways to incorporate something similar into the Zoology honours program that I organise. And so “Tea at the Zoo” was born!

Our programme has core teaching for the whole class on a Monday afternoon, with a gap between lectures at 3:00pm. Traditionally, students regarded this as dead time, and requested that the break is minimised so that they can get away earlier. We would all sit in the lecture theatre, twiddling our thumbs with no one really sure what to do, and wondering how soon we can start again!

This year, we tried something different. At 3pm I headed to the Ashworth Labs social area (lovingly known as the Darwin Dance Hall and handily situated directly opposite the lecture theatre), with a box of tea bags, a bag of coffee, and cheap cakes and biscuits. And I invited the class to join me for a 30 minute tea break. I also invited other teaching staff, project supervisors and the course secretary to drop by if they were free (with the hope of encouraging staff engagement without demanding substantial staff commitment). And we drank tea, eat cake and chat.

The aim was to provide an environment where students could talk informally to staff and to each other, and take a break from the pressures of 4th year. I considered various “ice breaking activities”, but, in the end, the conversations flowed very naturally. After a two-week trial, I asked the class whether they would like the sessions to continue, or would prefer to return to a “short break, leave early” format. The vast majority voted for the tea break.

From the perspective of a course organiser, the sessions were great. They gave me a chance to get to know the class better, and check in on those students who might be struggling. On a couple of occasions issues were raised over coffee that allowed me to deal with issues before they became problems. But mostly they were just fun… intelligent undergraduates are great conversationalists! Colleagues that attended (and many did), said similar things.

And from the student perspective…. Here are some of the things they had to say:

Absolutely cherished our Monday cake and tea sessions. Even if I wasn’t able to talk to new lecturers, it was great to have a moment with the whole class to talk about coursework/dissertation as it is rare to have everyone together. Especially as someone who missed all the 3rd year bonding from being abroad, I really loved having the sense of community and the Monday cake definitely helped with fostering that!

 It’s so much easier when you know other people in the class and can help each other through.

Knowing your classmates and lecturers makes piping up in lectures much less intimidating, which means more people talk and the class is much more interactive. All in all – great idea!

I really liked the afternoon tea slot. It provided a time to chat more casually with the staff and also with the other students. There isn’t much time for chat during lectures so having a half an hour slot there allows you to catch up with your course mates. I felt as a year it definitely brought us closer together.

Nick Colegrave

Dr Nick Colegrave is a Professor in Biology. He started at Edinburgh University as the Zoology Honours demonstrator (AKA Zookeeper) in 1999, and was appointed as a Lecturer in 2002. He is currently the Chair in Experimental Evolution and the Zoology Honours Program Organiser. His main teaching focus is getting Biological Science students to engage with quantitative skills, whilst his research interests include understanding the factors that affect how organism evolve in the face of environmental change.

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