Engaging students in their learning

Close up of a student's hand, writing in book with calculator in the other handMany students are reporting that they are finding it hard to engage with their learning at present. As educators, it is more important than ever to find ways to support students in this. We have brought together here feedback from students about what is working well with examples from across the University of what staff are doing to support students during this difficult time.

The connections between engagement in learning, well-being and a sense of belonging or community are well established. Research has shown that these all lead to better outcomes for students both at an academic and personal level. The examples here provide some suggestions for ways to develop a learning environment in the current circumstances where students can thrive.

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What are students finding difficult?

A recent Students' Union survey (October 2020) and reports from student reps and staff from across the University highlight the following issues. These are consistent with the recent national Don’t Drop Out WONKHE survey which Sheffield students participated in:

  • Time management - Students say that they are finding it difficult to know how much time to spend on different learning activities. In many cases this is resulting in students spending more time than might be anticipated working through asynchronous activities. Students need more help with managing their time and understanding what is expected of them.
  • Work overload - Students on some programmes are reporting that the pace is too fast and that there are an excessive number of formative assessment points. These are impacting on student well-being. Students are also reporting that they feel overwhelmed with the amount of digital communication they receive from the University i.e. emails.
  • Lack of personal contact with peers and staff / lack of sense of community - This is really impacting on students’ well-being and motivation. Students report feeling overlooked/forgotten and that learning has become more linear. There is a perceived loss of interaction in class that is both desired and feared.
  • Internet reliability continues to be an issue - This can cause stress for students when they are unable to access live online teaching sessions as well as other course materials hosted online.
  • Managing boundaries - students are reporting that they are struggling with discipline and structure and finding that with a lack of physical boundaries i.e. spending the majority of their time in one space, it's hard to strike a healthy work/life balance which is negatively impacting their motivation and engagement.
  • Performance anxiety - feeling exposed and overwhelmed in online seminars, unsure how to navigate this environment and as a result some students are avoiding classes.
  • IT phobia - students feel that there is an expectation from academic staff that they are IT savvy and will know how to use/navigate online platforms. They report that there is a lack of understanding/no training in place for those that need to build their IT knowledge and as a result they feel isolated and disadvantaged - particularly prevalent with mature students.

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What do students say work well for them?

The key message from student reps is the importance of staff maintaining an ongoing dialogue with students in their department about their learning experience and how specific issues can be resolved.

Working with students reps during Covid 19

Maintaining a positive outlook and giving lots of positive messages to students is vital: give praise, recognize the challenges and where students have worked really hard.

Watch an Advance HE video of students talking about their experience this year.

Providing key content in accessible ways
  • Good practice in online and blended learning recommends recorded lectures / short chunks of lecture content which enable students to go through them at their own pace. Note that students find these easier to work through if the content is not too dense. Consider taking a slightly slower pace and including appropriate pauses when recording videos.
  • Example of a chunked up lecture from Richard Bruce (Management).
  • Staff have also played recorded lectures in live sessions, allowing them to respond to questions as the lecture is played and paused from time to time.
  • Neil Sims (Mechanical Engineering) provides “feedback buttons” in Blackboard which enable students to let him know which video content they understand and which they are still unclear about. He can then cover any difficult areas in live teaching sessions. The buttons are posted on Blackboard and link to a google form where students can note questions etc.
  • Some students say they prefer live timetabled lectures as it helps them to keep up with their studies and remain motivated. You could also consider scheduling a slot in the timetable for students to work through some recorded content.
A clear well-organised module / programme layout in Blackboard

Snapshot of a School of Education module (you need to login to blackboard and click ‘submit’ to self-enrol on the course to view this)

A clear outline of what students are being asked to do each week.
  • Weekly announcements and detailed week by week plans are all appreciated. Template for week by week course breakdown and example of a weekly learning plan from the School of Health Sciences.
  • Here’s an example of an email Mike Prentice (East Asian Studies) sent his students clarifying what is expected of them in terms of independent study. Students really value explicit guidance on what to focus their energy on in independent study as this seems to be an area that students are finding challenging in the current circumstances.
  • Ysabel Gerrard (Sociological Studies) produced this video introduction to her module, outlining what she expects from her students.
  • Clarify to students what the procedures are if they miss deadlines or think they are at risk of doing so.
Staff familiarity with the basic functions of Blackboard Collaborate so that time isn’t wasted in live sessions.

If you are new to Blackboard Collaborate spend a bit of time familiarizing yourself with the key tools (uploading slides and other content, pointing tools, breakout rooms, how you will manage questions)
Blackboard Collaborate guidance and webinar recording.

The personal touch and interactivity in teaching

What can you do to engage with your students as individuals? What can you do to facilitate students getting to know each other? Students reps have said students particularly appreciate:

  • Fast responses from staff to their questions
  • The effort staff put into engaging students in creative ways through polls, quizzes, padlet boards
  • Small group teaching where students have opportunities to get to know each other. Breakout groups in large lecture size groups are often found to be awkward and ineffective.
  • Community building within the department

See below for more examples.

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More examples of good practice

Person holding a tablet in their hands of a teacherLouise Robson (Biomedical Science) and Emily Bailes (Molecular Biology and Biotechnology) share their approaches to engaging students in online classes. In student feedback for both cases students have expressed their appreciation for the diversity and interactive nature of their classes and how this has motivated them in their learning.

Both make really good use of asynchronous learning to support live interactive classes which incorporate a range of activities.

3 students discussing their work in a libraryDave Forrest (School of English) and Sarah Son (East Asian Studies) have used discussion forums effectively to engage students in their learning and start to build community among students.

Students talking and looking over stairwell in University buildingGareth Walker (English) has developed a peer support network for his module. Students are put in groups of 5 or 6 and have a discussion board for their group to discuss module related issues. They also work in these groups in some of the live sessions and have opportunities within these sessions to share with each other how they are getting on with their learning.

Group of students studying together in libraryThe Health Sciences School has set up study groups for incoming students. Students arrange their own times to meet. Carolyn Staton (Oncology and Metabolism) encourages her students to set up google meets to discuss course related issues and provide support to one another. 301 has guidance for students to set up their own study groups.

Network of faces next to a photo of a woman's faceThe School of Law has set up online forums for students using Google Currents. These are used for individual modules and module related discussion. There is also a forum for more general discussion.

Drawing of a laptop screen with a video conferenceBioengineering have set up informal coffee mornings / afternoons. These are set up on a Blackboard page with a number of rooms. Students can move between the rooms and chat with peers. Chemistry has set up community meetings for individual programmes, providing an opportunity for students to get to know others in different year groups. This is of particular benefit to Level 1 students.

Drawing of a speaker next to a screen and a microphoneAerospace have a series of guest speaker talks. These fulfil a dual function of providing students an opportunity to find out more about topics of interest related to Aerospace as well as a social function for students and staff to meet informally..

Group of 4 people sat on an online chat forumFor staff, in the English Language Teaching Centre teaching staff have a google chat group to share issues and good ideas relating to their teaching.

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Further information

Elevate Guidance
301 support for students