Academic community building: What have we learned from the Coronavirus Pandemic and what next?

The event Learning and teaching @York in the Coronavirus Pandemic: A conversation which took place in December 2020 brought together a group of around 80 staff and students to share experiences of teaching and learning under COVID in Autumn term 2020. It focused on the following questions:

  • What have we learned from our experiences of teaching and learning in the Autumn term 2020 online and on-campus?
  • What positives can we take forward and share from these experiences in the immediate future and in the post-COVID University?

This is the first of a planned series of blog postings aiming to explore some of the themes from the event, beginning with academic community building and attention to social/affective aspects of learning.

A community of trust is everything

Throughout the panel presentations and discussions, the importance of community and attention to social/affective aspects of learning was a recurring theme. This was also reflected in many of the participants’ responses to the question of what we have learned during the Pandemic, which we collected as part of the sign-up process. These focused on the importance of maintaining clear communications:

  • Adaptability and the value of communication with colleagues and students
  • Transparent communication (with staff and students)
  • Students value personal contact and discussion of their own learning

…as well as a sense of community in the face of communication challenges:

  • A community of trust is everything, from both the learning and the teaching sides, when everyone is more isolated than they would normally be, and communications are less clear.
  • The importance of students feeling engaged in learning and part of a learning community
  • That although many of the things we used to do in person can be transferred online it is hard to replace ‘the human touch’, the informal chats, the sense of community online
  • Teamwork and collaboration with students and staff.

The comments also highlighted the need to ensure that there is space for discussion of how things are going and some attention to the affective aspects of learning both within sessions (e.g. icebreakers and checkpoints) and between (e.g. clear and supportive communication):

  • Student mental wellbeing is paramount. Sometimes they need to talk about their insecurities and feelings of unsafety and uncertainty rather than power on with the learning content.
  • Making students feel comfortable in the first few minutes of an online lesson by talking and asking them all to say hi in the chat and using polling features during the lesson, improves engagement.
  • Gauging student understanding is hard! Not being able to see them in lectures means that instructors have fewer opportunities to meet students and see how they’re responding to the material.
  • How to encourage students’ independent study and communicate with them during and between lessons

Many of the panel presentations and discussions focused on these aspects and highlighted some effective practices at institutional, Faculty, Department, Programme and module levels.

University and Faculty

At the level of the University and Faculty, the Faculty Associate Deans, Tom Cantrell, Steve King and Jill Webb provided an overview of their work with Departments and through the Academic Contingency and Faculty Learning and Teaching groups. Their insight into the student Pulse surveys highlighted the importance of belonging and community both for learning and well-being, echoing the findings of the recent UK cross-institutional survey of students on their experiences during the Pandemic which highlighted the extent and impact of student loneliness and the importance of social and academic interaction to satisfaction with learning experiences1.

Department

At the department level, Richard Waites outlined how the Department of Biology went about increasing communication and collaboration with students during the Pandemic by building on the regular ‘How are you?’ polling of students across the department that had been implemented prior to the Pandemic (example drawn from the session slides shown below).

Number of student responses to the question - How are you? - as follows: Awesome 13; Good thank you 135; OK thanks 147; I have felt better 170; Not good at the moment 107; Really struggling 41

He outlined how the Department sought regular feedback and suggestions from students which was shared across the student body with information about what was being done in response to the feedback.  This resulted in an improved communication and feedback loop which had a positive impact on community building and helped to establish a sense of shared experience between staff and students. By revealing insights and suggestions into experiences of social interaction and isolation, workloads, stress, and mental health issues, the Department was able to address concerns by strengthening study groups and facilitating the sharing of advice across year groups. This is something that Richard expects to continue as standard practice in future.

Programme

At the programme level, Sally Quinn also emphasised the importance of regular communication with students on the undergraduate programmes in Psychology. She outlined the attempts that have been taken to improve feedback loops and cohort connections through regular Q&A sessions for different year groups, regular cohort-specific email updates, feedback meetings and VLE spaces specific to each year group, and dedicated staff contacts for self-isolating students. Prior to the pandemic, the Department had spent time developing student-produced videos, guidance materials and support sessions focused on transition and skills development and Sally described how these came into their own as a means of supporting students at key points with academic, social and life-skills. She also highlighted how the Department increased the structure and consistency of learning schedules, activities and resources, building in clear opportunities for support and feedback and the interleaving of synchronous sessions with preparation and consolidation activities. Many of these measures are things that the Department expects to continue in the future.

Heather Buchannan described how the TESOL Café set out to provide space and opportunity for connection and social activities for the MA TESOL cohort built around lower stakes culturally-oriented activities and discussion including guest speakers, quizzes and space for chat. This aimed to provide some structured alternatives to the more serendipitous relationship building activities and interactions that can take place on campus. Given that the cohort is currently made up of international students and travel restrictions during the pandemic meant that the majority were accessing the programme at a distance from their home countries, it also aimed to provide students with some experience of UK HE culture and a sense of the international experience they would have had by studying physically in the UK. Attendance rates and feedback surveys suggested that the sessions were valued by the cohort.

Many Departments have offered social / community building events to try to mitigate for reduced opportunities to meet informally and further examples include social quizzes in Philosophy (UoY Panopto log-in required) and Archaeology (with sections focusing on staff across the Department aiming to reduce barriers and provide ‘welcoming encounters’), as well as gatherings, reading groups and coffee hours in the Department of English and Related Literature.

Cath Brislane, 2nd year Undergraduate student on the English Literature and Linguistics programme and YUSU Rep for the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, offers the following insights into actions that Departments can take to create a culture in which such events can succeed:

It’s the people. The English department staff do the most phenomenal work throughout the year to become more than some faceless administration or collection of higher-ups to the students. There is a real family feel in the department, headed by Helen Smith and the rest of the senior team who host coffee hours and will answer any concerns that a student may have, regardless what it is. Their collaboration with the literature society also makes the staff/student links very strong on top of all of this.

With that in mind, I do have some general advice:

  1. Treat students as members of your departmental community. It might sound obvious, but English has had great successes in events such as coffee hours and Christmas parties because we do not really see staff as intimidating- we are a departmental community who all really love books. If you look at any of our events, really interesting conversations will break out between students and staff about texts and common interests- this friendliness built out of mutual respect is, in my opinion, one of the best things about the department.
  2. Have fun! Academia can be extremely dry and demotivating at times and takes its toll on everyone. Being able to still have fun is so important since students will not want to go to an event which they associate with their day-to-day struggles. Of course, everyone is still having a hard time, but even an hour a week for a fun event/coffee hour run by the department on Zoom could do so much for it if the student engagement is there.
  3. I have alluded to it already but work alongside your academic societies and clubs. English and Litsoc have a fantastic rapport with promoting each other’s events, and it really helps with community engagement. It also helps to make a department less intimidating to students!
  4. Work with your reps. The department reps are doing a fantastic job this year, some with social media accounts, and others in group chats. Communicating with your reps in these channels is, in my opinion, the key to student engagement. By communicating events going on in the department to the reps, students are more likely to hear about it in group chats and actually show up.

Possibilities are also currently being explored for digital spaces to facilitate cohort community building.

Peer-Assisted learning

Since long before March 2020, the Peer-Assisted Learning (PAL) scheme has been providing a vehicle for Departments to provide structured opportunities for peer support and the development of learning communities and a sense of belonging within the Department. Sue Russell (Learning Enhancement), Jessica Hargreaves (Maths), Lucy Crawshaw and Max Howell (PAL leaders) outlined their experiences of the PAL scheme in Maths and of taking this online during the Pandemic. The continued benefits for all involved were clear. You can follow the link to their supporting document to read more about the experiences of those involved in the PAL scheme in Maths.

Module

The examples above highlighted how improved attention to community building, open communication and feedback loops not only improved a sense of community but also allowed for improvements to be made in the consistency and structure of learning resources and patterns of learning activities across programmes. Following this through to the module level, presentations and discussion centred around approaches to teaching and learning with reduced opportunities for in-person contact, including experiences of encouraging engagement with asynchronous online learning blended and with synchronous online and socially-distanced activities. Examples from Politics, the History of Art, the Management School, and Health Sciences focused on how module teams set about encouraging engagement and confidence to take part in asynchronous activities and synchronous sessions, reducing reliance on the teacher and avoiding the formation of cliques through group work, tasks and the allocation of roles to support learning. Our goal will be to highlight further examples highlighting teaching practices at the module level with a focus on engagement in synchronous and asynchronous activities.

The importance of the tutor role

Whether focused on the institutional, department, programme or module level, a key element that the contributors had in common was a focus on the need to explicitly ‘make space’ for social components within stretched curricula and timetables and to ensure that time and resources are allocated to supporting students to get to know each other, develop rapport with peers and staff, and build relationships conducive to learning and acknowledging of diversity. They also focused on the need for ongoing communication and response to students not only with the subject matter and on the level of cognitive engagement, but with emotional aspects such as motivation and confidence.

Feedback from students both before and during the Pandemic (e.g. the pulse survey results reported by Jill Webb and the outcomes of the student engagement project which David Gent fed into the event) highlighted the importance of interaction with academic teaching staff as crucial. In looking to strengthen the community building aspects of the tutoring role, there is perhaps much to be gained from drawing upon guidance and frameworks for online and distance learning. As they were often developed in the context of text-only asynchronous interaction, they tend to place strong emphasis on the importance of structured and tutor supported attention to the development of conducive relationships, prioritising rapport and trust to support students to collaborate and challenge each other effectively. Influential theories such as Garrison and Anderson’s Community of Inquiry framework2 and Gilly Salmon’s e-moderation framework3 stress the importance of the tutor role in supporting student relationships for successful collaborative learning and of taking a structured approach starting with ice-breakers and community development activities. For those looking for ideas, the One HE / Equity Unbound website provides resources and ‘lesson planning’ tools for such activities.

For those wishing to explore further what can be learned from online/distance learning approaches, PDLT has made the resource ‘Tutoring online’ available to all staff. This focuses on supporting student activity/engagement with online materials (tutoring). The focus is on approaches to supporting student activity/engagement with online materials, rather than designing the materials themselves. It provides guidance informed by established approaches to online pedagogy supplemented by ideas from experienced online tutors at the University. There are tips and strategies for tutoring online focused on the early stages on a module when ‘welcoming encounters; and social connection is likely to be more important and as a module progresses to focus on maximising progress towards learning outcomes through strategies such as:

  • Summarising and weaving
  • Coaching and allocating tutor roles to students
  • Encouraging reflection
  • Making explicit connections between activities and the module assessment.

Please see the following page if you would like to find out more and request access to the tutoring online resource.

Conclusions and next steps

Many of the examples presented in the session drew upon and extended work that had already begun before March 2020 and this serves as a reminder that, whilst the reduced opportunities for in-person contact have made the need for action particularly pressing, there is nothing new about the importance of social/affective factors and that a sense of belonging can be a key component of wellbeing as well as academic success. Indeed, these were key findings of the pre-pandemic University Student Engagement Project which also found that the quality of student relationships and interactions with staff and their peers was essential to promoting or hindering engagement.4 Many of the examples of practices that have worked well during the Pandemic were identified by participants as things that they intend to continue to apply and develop post-pandemic.

In an attempt to provide support for community building across all levels, the Student Life and Opportunities Contingency Group has developed a paper which is currently being disseminated and discussed in Faculty Learning and Teaching groups. This paper Building academic and departmental community outlines what is being done at University level to promote community building (especially the student connect process and the recruitment of intern support for Departments to support plans and draw together further exemplars) and it also provides practical suggestions and exemplars (including some of the examples presented above) for what programme leaders and module leaders and tutors can do to promote connections and aims to draw further upon more of the existing good practice from across the University whilst offering support for teams looking to strengthen their provision.


1. Jim Dickinson, “Anti-social learning – the costs of Covid restrictions on students,” WONKHE, Nov 4 2020, accessed Jan 26, 2021 https://wonkhe.com/blogs/anti-social-learning-the-costs-of-covid-restrictions-on-students/)

2. Donn Randy Garrison and Terry Anderson, E-learning in the 21st Century – A community of inquiry framework for research and practice. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017).
[University of York Permalink]

3. Gilly Salmon, E-moderating. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011)
[University of York Library Permalink]

4. Annis Stenson et al., “The Importance of Community for Engagement in Learning: Findings from the Student Engagement Project”, accessed Jan 26, 2021.
[Google doc]

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