Reflections on Learning and Teaching in the Autumn term 2021

Organised by the Learning and Teaching Forum in collaboration with PDLT, this session was held on 14th December 2021 at the end of a very busy Autumn term. The session followed on from the Learning and Teaching @ York in the Coronavirus Pandemic workshops held during the 2020-21 academic year and aimed to provide participants with an opportunity to listen to, reflect on and discuss experiences of learning and teaching during the term.

40 staff and students from a range of different Departments participated in the session which focused on the following questions:

  • What have experiences of learning and teaching been like this term?
  • How have experiences gained during the remote teaching phases of the Pandemic informed approaches?
  • What has worked well?
  •  What has been challenging?
  • What next?

The webinar was divided into three main sections.  A chair’s report and summary of each section is provided below and you can link direct to these summaries by following the in-page links:

A summary of reflections about the Autumn term from session participants

In the sign-up form for the session, participants were asked to reflect on the guiding questions provided above.  The responses provided an insight into some of the key issues that have shaped experiences of learning and teaching in recent times and which continue to inform practices looking ahead. Summaries are provided below and you can refer to the following document for the complete set of responses from participants.

What have experiences of learning and teaching been like this term?

The following word cloud highlights some of the tensions and contradictions involved in experiences of learning and teaching during a term which was enjoyable and positive but busy and disrupted.

A number of participants referred to how enjoyable it had been to return to face-to-face teaching both for staff and students though it was clearly a busy and pressured term.  Disruptions brought by the effects of the COVID pandemic continued to be felt in, for example, the need for social distancing and mask-wearing along with some experiences of low attendance.  Whilst some participants referred primarily to synchronous teaching and talked of a shift back to face-to-face and away from online approaches, others referred to the ongoing benefits of blended learning in increasing the benefits of in-person sessions through flexible asynchronous engagement online before and after sessions in combination with active face-to-face learning approaches

How have experiences gained during the remote teaching phases of the Pandemic informed approaches?

“The VLE layout on the module I convene reflects learning from the pandemic. It is more appealing, easier to navigate, and places the VLE more centrally in student’s learning. Asynchronous tools such as padlets have continued to be useful, and I’ve used new-to-me tools such as Jamboard this term, having gained a better understanding of what they could offer during the remote teaching phase.”

Numerous participants referred to improvements in how independent student work is supported through practices that emerged during the pandemic and that have continued into this academic year.  These included improvements in the use of the VLE and related tools to provide accessible asynchronous support, learning activities and resources online as well as a shift in how these online elements are used in combination with in-person teaching and learning.  Participants pointed to the increased use of blended learning and combining the advantages of online and in-person activities to best effect through, for example, using flipped approaches to provide activities and resources online to be accessed flexibly in preparation for more active in-person sessions.  Again, however, there were tensions in references to the difficulties and time pressures involved in such approaches. A number of participants referred positively to their continued use of tools and techniques to support learning which were made familiar during the pandemic.

What has worked well?

Most participants pointed to the benefits of combining the flexibility of online resources with the dynamism and community of in-person sessions to achieve the ‘best of both worlds’:

  • Having online resources already available has led to flexibility in delivery.
  • A mixture of face to face and online teaching
  • Having a broader range of pedagogical tools as a result of pandemic learning.

Some focused especially on the accessibility, flexibility and quality of improved online resources coming out of the remote teaching phase of the pandemic:

  •  Recorded videos worked well for students as students can learn at their own pace and convenience
  • Moving lectures online from an accessibility perspective
  • Having the on-demand videos from last year has been brilliant to reuse this year for students not able to make it to lectures for any reason. They are far better resource in terms of quality than the automatic lecture capture.

While others emphasised the positive benefits of the return to in-person session:

  •  Returning to a community environment on campus
  • Getting students back together in small group sessions.
  •  The seminars and practicals have worked well for the most part, with good attendance and engagement. Students have clearly enjoyed being back together in groups and it’s important to acknowledge the positive impact of physical movement, even if it’s just walking to a seminar room.

What has been challenging?

Most of the challenges mentioned by participants related to ongoing effects of the pandemic and the need for both students and staff to re-adjust to the pace and style of in-person teaching and learning whilst dealing with mask wearing and the impact of missed sessions.  As well as the time and resources implications of preparing for effective blended learning, participants pointed to the difficulties of engaging students in workshops and question and answer sessions, and ensuring that they are adequately prepared to contribute actively in the sessions.

What next?

Most responses pointed to a need to continue to develop and share approaches to blended learning and maximising the benefits of in-person workshops:

  • Sharing best practice for teaching sessions that worked well. For example, the format of workshops. Format is currently highly variable and feedback is mixed. By sharing best practice, staff can adopt a style of workshop which encourages group discussion and more interactive learning.
  •  Continue to develop the flipped approach, ensuring students develop the habit early on to maximise this mode of learning.
  • Work on workshops. We need to get these right if these are potentially going to be the main form of face to face contact.
  • Improve workshops by sharing best practice.
  • Combining the good aspects of online and f2f to teach….keep exploring.
  • Whilst it is clear that the majority of staff and students favour face to face teaching, I think the blended learning approach offers too much to be discounted – and so it is here to stay.
  • More reflection and learning about learning, for staff and students, embedded into programmes.

There were also responses that suggest the need for further work on planning and consistency of approaches, whilst acknowledging the need to understand changing teaching roles, develop skills, and to apply them within a content of semesterisation and 20 credit modules.  As one participant commented “a very long to-do list”!

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Short 3-4 minute talks chaired by Julia Sarju, Department of Chemistry

During this part of the meeting, we heard from five speakers, including both staff and student voices. Collectively they shared their recent experiences of learning and teaching and looked to the future to suggest ways to incorporate these reflections into future teaching development and delivery. 

First, we heard from Jessica Hargreaves (Staff) and Molly Barker (Student) about the realities of offering an “online provision” alongside face to face learning, focusing on Peer-Assisted Learning (PAL) sessions and computer practical sessions in the first year Probability and Statistics module in the Department of Maths.  Molly, a Peer-Assisted-Learning (PAL) Leader, explained PAL and how it is facilitated in the Maths department. Jessica prompted discussion around the flexibility of online synchronous sessions, attendance and engagement, and students experiences of studying online during a pandemic. Jessica has provided a longer video exploring these reflections in more detail.

Next, we heard from Irene García, an undergraduate student in Maths, who shared her experiences of studying online and remotely. Irene explained that the availability of online learning resources allowed her to continue with her studies remotely rather than requiring her to take a break from her studies. Irene talked about how acts of kindness by individual lecturers had impacted her. She also explained some of the challenges with learning using online resources especially when you are one of a minority of students studying remotely.

The penultimate speaker was Geraldine Bengsch (staff), of Language and Linguistic Science who reflected on technology as offering opportunities. Geraldine shared her experiences of delivering an online collaborative story writing project with German learners in York’s “Languages for All” programmes before, during and after the pandemic. Online delivery allowed for new opportunities to include digital resources and to develop students’ critical use of digital language resources.

Richard Walker (staff), Head of the Programme Design and Learning Technology Team, Library, Archives and Learning Services, completed the session by sharing a thought provoking summary of research from the Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association (UCISA) on the experiences of HE institutions during the pandemic, their innovations in teaching and student support, and how they are taking these practices forward into the current academic year and beyond. The summary of key changes centred on usage of TEL tools, team and organisational structures supporting TEL, culture and institutional drivers for TEL, and teaching models. Further details of each are provided in the following blog post:

UCISA panel discussions on the impact of COVID-19: TEL developments across the UK HE sector

University staff can view the recordings and supporting resources from all four of these talks from the following page:

Reflections on Learning and Teaching in the Autumn term 2021 recordings and resources

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Breakout room discussions chaired by Louise Rudd, International Pathway College

Breakout room participants discussed some of the issues raised in the light of their own experiences of the term and the discussion was wide and varied with participants valuing the opportunity to hear the experiences of others. The main themes that were explored are summarised below:

Student engagement: For some, this has been incredibly difficult to track and monitor as there are not adequate systems in place. Departments have developed ways to track this, but they are not 100% reliable either because students outsmart the systems, or because they rely completely on manual human monitoring. Some felt that second year undergraduate students have been more disengaged than any other cohort. 

Online delivery: It was discussed that the effectiveness of online delivery was really down to the type of content, and examples were given of language teaching not being as effective in an online environment. A lot of the materials that were adapted early on are no longer the best way to deliver the input, resulting in more work as delivery and the response to the pandemic changes. Discussion also explored whether it is right or wrong to expect students to turn on their cameras, with some highlighting the importance of creating psychological safety in this setting. On a more positive note, it was felt that the parity of experience for students across the University in how teaching was conducted has been beneficial. Students seem to have different expectations of studying now as a result of studying online for so long. Finding a way forward to manage this and set expectations early on will be crucial to continuing to give a high quality learning experience. 

Interaction: Participants felt that interaction patterns had changed given how much happens remotely now through online calls and asynchronous working and studying. Some speculated about how this would change if we ever return to a similar way of working pre-pandemic. 

Views of the pandemic on learning and teaching: People’s takes on the pandemic and the “right” and “wrong” ways to act are hugely varied, in that what might feel comfortable for one person won’t be for another. In-person delivery has many more points to consider than prior to the pandemic, for example: should face masks be worn, can you ask students to move around the room, what cleaning factors do I need to consider, etc. 

Moving forward: The discussion really highlighted the need for decisions to be made that apply to a wider range of areas, rather than individual modules or programmes, to help set and manage expectations from both students and staff. It was highlighted that not all input is infinitely flexible to be delivered in any manner, and there is a need to stabilise the delivery in order to ensure that the input is still relevant at this point in time. Whether the “traditional” learning experience is still the best way forward was also explored by participants; some feeling that experimentation needs to happen to determine this, before a clear direction is set out. In some ways the pandemic has pushed Higher Education to be more forward thinking than it often has been. It is important that the University of York doesn’t neglect this, and continues to utilise it to advance.

What is clear from all of these discussions is that it is important that we, as members of the teaching and learning community, continue to push boundaries, explore what the best ways to deliver input are, and the need to continue to share this expertise with others to move forward together. There is already a great deal of knowledge and expertise out there in the University, and being able to build on this together will contribute to the future of education at York.

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