Preparing for the new teaching term

As universities begin the autumn term either online, face-to-face, or a mixture of both, Ella Rhodes looked at what psychology and psychologists can tell us about new ways of learning…

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic questions have been raised over the efficacy, and value for money, of remote teaching and learning in higher education. We spoke to two psychologists about the challenges and opportunities online and remote learning present  and looked at the results from a new BPS survey into the ways Covid impacted students and lecturers.  

University of Glasgow senior psychology lecturers Dr Emily Nordmann and Dr Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel, also a member of the BPS Division of Academics, Researchers, and Teachers in Psychology committee, took a unique approach to teaching during the pandemic. In the summer of 2020, they had discussions about the best way to both deliver a positive learning experience in their lectures and give students a sense of community and belonging. 

Kuepper-Tetzel said they developed a ‘watch party’ approach to lectures which students loved. ‘Lecturers pre-recorded short videos of their lecture content and during synchronous live sessions on Zoom, these pre-recordings were livestreamed. Students asked questions and added comments in the chat box and the lecturer addressed these and provided additional resources.’ She and Nordmann are set to publish a paper on this approach in the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education (a peer reviewed preprint is here).

Nordmann said that a highlight of this approach was the diversity of student voices in the chat. ‘Often in on-campus lectures it can be difficult to get a response when you ask a question, and there tends to be a limited number of students who are willing to speak, particularly in large first year lectures. Not only did the watch party chat have more students willing to respond, there was a greater diversity of responses, for example, neurodiverse and/or queer students sharing their experiences.’

Even before the pandemic, Nordmann was involved in researching lecture capture – the recording of live lectures – and said students had been pushing for more use of recordings to increase accessibility, inclusivity and flexibility. She, Kuepper-Tetzel and colleagues produced guidance on its use which has been widely adopted to help promote self-regulated strategies for the use of lecture capture for students and instructors. 

‘I hope that the impact of Covid on higher education will be that both staff and students reflect more deeply on their learning and teaching choices – for example, some students have realised that a fully online programme would better suit their needs, others that the structure and social interaction of an on-campus experience is vital for their learning and wellbeing. On the other hand, lecturers have been forced to reckon with the core purpose of their lectures. Personally, I have become hyper-aware just how much of my teaching is reacting and how hard it is when I can’t read a room. One thing is for certain though: educators who claimed that teaching couldn’t be recorded, or learning made more accessible, are going to need to find new arguments moving forward.’

I asked Kuepper-Tetzel and Nordmann about the effectiveness of online learning – do students miss out with a remote approach? Kuepper-Tetzel said that effective teaching approaches that work face-to-face can also be used in online teaching, and vice versa. ‘For example, frequent, low-stake quizzes boost knowledge retention and we implemented them in a variety of ways this year – through in-class activities using online polling systems and short multiple-choice homework assignments.’ 

She also pointed to the benefits of having a chat box during their watch party lectures which increased interactions and promoted peer learning. ‘On several occasions I observed how one student would answer another student’s questions. I also felt that more students were comfortable using the chat box… When returning to face-to-face lectures, I will definitely integrate a chat box element to live lectures as a way for students to interact more effectively with me and with each other.’

In her role as first-year lead and as a lecturer on the university’s postgraduate research methods courses, Nordmann said moving to online lectures highlighted the amount of incidental learning and peer support was taking place in classrooms. ‘Students were watching the behaviour of other students in lectures or leaning over to their classmate to ask where to find something on the VLE, these spontaneous interactions help students so much but were difficult to encourage in an online environment. As a strong proponent for lecture capture pre-Covid, online learning has the benefit of increasing inclusivity and flexibility and I hope we (as a sector) don’t lose sight of that.’

Building community and belonging, Kuepper-Tetzel said, is the biggest issue with online learning. She said that the lack of direct social contact was a burden for both students and staff. However, the experience had made her and her colleagues reflect on their teaching practice. ‘We worked on clear signposting and increased consistency in our teaching delivery, which in turn helped students adapt to the increasing level of self-directed learning expected of them as our programme progresses. We also prioritsied generic study skills, for example, by having timetabled sessions for students to organise and plan their time and providing clear checklists of their expected weekly work. We made changes to in-class activities and provided opportunities of asynchronous engagement with the material. As a result, the teaching quality improved in some ways and we can use this now for the upcoming face-to-face delivery which will allow us to combine high-quality teaching with the essential social components of community and belonging.’

The University of Glasgow, where Nordmann and Kuepper-Tetzel work, is planning a blended approach in the autumn term, with lectures being delivered online and teaching to groups of up to 50 students taking place face-to-face. Nordmann said: ‘Having not taught an in-person class since March 2020, if I make it through my first lab without tears of joy it will be a miracle – but at least my mask will soak them up.’

While Nordmann and Kuepper-Tetzel emphasise the importance of self-directed learning in their work, this is something which is often neglected in discussions about changing ways of learning. In an article for Times Higher Education Dr Linda Kaye (Edge Hill University) argued for a greater focus on self-directed learning in these debates, particularly as it makes up the largest proportion of a student’s learning while at university. 

Kaye argued that while much debate has centred on whether a tutor is available in real-time delivering lectures (synchronous learning), or uploading recorded lectures and materials (asynchronous learning), the amount of self-directed learning students engage in has been largely ignored. ‘It appears clear to me that we need to move beyond our focus on the delivery of teaching and instead look at the holistic learning process from a student’s perspective. Unfortunately, it seems likely that the onus on tutor delivery will remain central to sector concerns, especially when governmental agendas place so much focus on the importance of contact hours and how tutors and universities are “providers” of a quality higher education experience.’

Kaye suggested five ways that tutors can incorporate the tenets of self-directed learning into their own teaching. These include helping students to establish their own learning goals, ensuring students can access and locate necessary resources, and encouraging students to develop a timetable of self-directed learning activities such as reading time.  

Meanwhile the BPS is set to publish results from a survey of more than 1,100 psychology students and academic staff about their experiences of teaching and research during the early part of the Covid-19 pandemic. Students from BAME groups and economically disadvantaged backgrounds were negatively affected by the pandemic due to more limited access to technology. 

Changes to the ways lectures were delivered had a significant impact on disabled students, international students and those with caring responsibilities. All academic staff reported an increase in workload with female staff having much less time to write up and submit their work while staff with caring responsibilities also struggled to find enough time to engage in all research activities. The survey also found that a large majority of staff and students had lower wellbeing since the start of the pandemic, and those with disabilities and caring responsibilities experienced the most significant decline in wellbeing.

- See also:
A look to the future of psychology pedagogy… Madeleine Pownall and Hannah Slack report from the European Society of Psychology Learning and Teaching (ESPLAT) 2021 Conference.

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