Over the last 6 months, we have seen many successes with hybrid teaching and learning see for example Brady et al’s work on teaching emergency medicine, Darmon and McQueen’s work on teaching molecular genetics, and Swanton’s work on teaching geography field courses. Some students have suggested they prefer learning digitally for a range of reasons, including: the flexibility of time and place to study; reduced pressure to understand difficult concepts first time; the opportunity to replay and reuse digital content; introvert students feeling less pressured to speak out or ‘perform’ in front of peers and teachers.
However, alongside these successes, in the most recent University pulse student survey, some students have reported finding it difficult to structure their days and maintain their motivation with hybrid learning in a context of uncertainty. Colleagues have also highlighted concerns that excessive amounts of time spent online is contributing to significant student stress and exacerbating mental health problems. Here are some suggestions for simple approaches which may help address (whilst not claiming to completely overcome) these complex issues.
Sometimes students feel overwhelmed because they don’t know where to start with all the work they have been given.
- Ensure you give clear signposting about what is essential and what is nice to complete if there is time. In other words try to help students prioritise what they should spend time on if they can’t complete everything. Try also to be clear about timelines and make sure all tasks are not due on the same day. Could you inform students about the top 3 things to do this week? Ask yourself, would it be detrimental if students only did 2 out of these 3 tasks? Which 2 would you prioritise? You may also want to explicitly state to students what you consider to be a level of minimum engagement on your course.
Try to keep in mind that the course you are teaching may have multiple tasks and assignments but that students will be undertaking multiple courses.
- Meet with colleagues to map out the busiest parts of the programme and consider ways to make this workload more manageable for students by e.g. making small adjustments to assessment submission dates can make all the difference for students.
We are all spending many more hours online in the current context. This is adding to stress and a sense of being overwhelmed for some students.
- Encourage students to spend time offline, and to take regular breaks. It can be helpful to suggest making a plan for a pattern of workingg. a regular start time, regular breaks, and a regular finish time. Also encourage students to take regular exercise and use their time offline to do things they enjoy doing within the current restrictions.
Remember that each student has a different home situation with variation in: quality of internet; quality of laptop or other device(s) used for learning; caring responsibilities; space for studying; paid work commitments; number of interruptions from others at home.
- Try to vary how much asynchronous and synchronous activity you plan to ensure all students can engage as much as possible with different elements of the teaching. But ensure you continue to offer synchronous activity as part of your course. Many students have reported finding synchronous opportunities really important in keeping them motivated to study, providing structure in the day, but also offering social contact with teachers and peers. As part of this synchronous activity, try to include the use of breakout groups or equivalent spaces where students can meet peers often without the teacher present. Not only do breakout groups help support more active learning, but many students have reported finding breakout groups particularly helpful for connecting with others in the current context.
Social contact with teachers and peers is important for students, and not just contact about academic matters.
- Try to collaborate with colleagues across a course, programme or School to offer some spaces for more social interaction. This could include offering to stay behind at the end of a synchronous session for conversation and to check in how people are doing, or it could be an online quiz night. A variety of opportunities for people to come together in different spaces for different purposes can be helpful. e.g. could you get together to have a ‘show and tell’ session about creative projects people have been doing in their own time?
Many of the solutions that we have created over the last 9 months, to deal with the current pandemic, are online solutions. Many of these approaches are innovative and are likely to be things we may continue after the Covid-19 crisis is past. But try to be mindful of whether you are suggesting to a student who is feeling overwhelmed online, solutions which also require more time online. For further relevant discussion and suggestions about this, see the recent Teaching Matters Podcasts on Student Mental Health and Online Engagement.
If students are struggling to motivate themselves due to a lack of structure in their days, you might want to point them to a recent blog by Vel McCune and to some of the excellent resources on the StudyHub website.
It is of course still really important to encourage students to contact you if they are struggling. However, I hope some of the suggestions, particularly the idea of offering signposting and being clearer about prioritisation, might prevent some students reaching that stage of feeling overwhelmed.
Dr Catherine Bovill, Institute for Academic Development