FYN Coffee Morning – Supporting Students

Around 12 Network members from a range of institutions attended the second of the ‘coffee mornings’  in the Foundation Year Network series on Thursday 14th May. This was the first one to actually be held in the morning!

The session was chaired by Alison Messenger from Solent University, who did a sterling job of leading the discussion which focussed on “Student Support”. We discussed the different approaches we’ve been using to tackle the incredibly uneven playing field the students end up in once they leave the university environs where they had: people to talk to, free access to computers with relevant software, stable WiFi, unlimited books, organised childcare, a quiet space to work and time set aside to study reasonably shielded from 24 hour caring duties.

Key themes that emerged were:

University level support

  • Finance is key to many foundation students’ ability to continue to study and financial support varied across the institutions. A number of universities are helping students financially through IT support (some students are receiving loans of laptops or finance to buy them), food or money for food supplies and accommodation subsidies/refunds.
  • The universities all have some sort of ‘no detriment’ policy/safety net which is good, but we found that they are usually pretty complex to explain to worried students as they struggle to understand them.
  • Extenuating/mitigating circumstances will be very high this year across the board. We highlighted the fact that some students with true extenuating circumstances don’t recognise that they should submit claims, so we need to encourage them to submit claims and recognise or look out for reticence in some students.

Coursework and exam changes

  • Coursework deadlines were discussed, we reported greater flexibility across all institutions. Some programmes had very generous automatic extensions of 14 days with additional rolling extensions and others were allowing extensions on request without having to provide great detail as to why it’s required.
  • For those institutions that were setting summative tests/exams the majority have gone for a long time window (typically 24 or 48 hours) for download and reupload of their scripts, though maths exams are tending to be shorter timed tests/exams.
  • Resits and the timing of them was discussed. For some institutions, coursework extensions mean the usual exam boards are pushed back; we discussed the impact that will have on the resit timeline. The majority of resits are now falling too late for students to transfer to other institutions following resit. It was also noted a number of institutions do not yet have clear plans for resits, which is a concern for both staff and students.
  • Progression criteria vary greatly across the universities with some foundation programmes allowing students to progress automatically into their first year programmes, some adapting the criteria slightly and others remaining unchanged. The group acknowledged the removal of exams alleviates a number of the worries and stresses of students, but were concerned how the students would cope on programme. To minimise this extra voluntary work has been produced for the students, but the uptake of this is unknown.
  • We all reported the worries of our students and their concerns in changing their assessment methods and doing online tests/exams. The use of really simple dummy tests and practice using the technology should give the students the confidence to sit the tests and allay their worries regarding the process.

Student interactions

  • A number of students have disappeared off the radar and we’re struggling to contact them. This is an ongoing concern and something that was touched on in the first coffee morning. We discussed how to prioritise our activities due to limited resources. Students that were fully engaged prior to the lockdown and are no longer responding would be more of a focus than ones that rarely engaged previously.
  • Contacting the students has on the whole proved tricky for most of us and traditional methods (those favoured/suggested by our institutions) don’t work terribly well. One technique that proved very successful was buying a ‘pay as you go’ sim card in order to text students; this required a very small (£10) outlay, but has enabled colleagues to keep in touch with students off-campus. One suggestion was also surveying students to find out what they would struggle with when working from home, e.g. noting which might have internet issues, childcare, work, etc. Attendees also reported success using Google Hangouts, WhatsApp and Zoom. Traditional phone calls are appreciated by students, but many don’t pick up, and concerns were raised with using personal phones.

Again, a number of issues were raised and not solved entirely, but the attendees got reassurance from each other as they discussed their own student support issues. The main take home message from the meeting would be to try to be more creative and flexible in communication methods (to get a greater response from students we need to use what the students use), to provide dummy tests and sample papers to ease student exam stresses.

One of the topics we drifted onto was student engagement with online resources and Elizabeth Palmer from the University of Northampton kindly shared a report she wrote a few years ago detailing the likes and dislikes of Northampton students re online learning (from a blended learning point of view) https://www.northampton.ac.uk/ilt/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2017/10/Student-Engagement-with-ABL-Interim-Report-v3-October-2017.pdf

Please join us at our upcoming coffee mornings which will be on “Teaching Science Online” (Wednesday 27th May 12noon-1pm) and “Transition to Level 1” (Tuesday 16th June, 11am-12noon). We’d love to hear suggestions for future discussions and topics you’d be interested in. We have had some suggestions and will add a coffee morning on “International students”, and one on “Virtual Induction” focusing on the challenges we face in welcoming students for the 2020-21 academic year. Get in touch with Rachel (r.l.dunn@durham.ac.uk) about our coffee mornings.

Sian Williams & Rachel Dunn

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