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One year on: Keeping in touch and developing community

Posted on 29 March 2021

Professor Richard Waites, Director for Students, in the Department of Biology has used interactive surveys, polls and feedback forms to keep in contact with students throughout the pandemic.

A graph showing different responses to the question: How are you feeling?

He said: “We had over 360 new first years arriving in September 2020 and this has been invaluable in keeping in touch with them, building trust and developing community. Our student expectations survey was very successful.”

During the first lockdown, he asked graduates for advice to pass on to current students. He said: “The response was amazing and we could identify the skills our graduates found most useful from their degree and most useful in their career so far.”

Other initiatives include: 

  • Regular live Q and A sessions to answer questions, develop a community and share information across cohorts. 
  • Surveys covering topics from workloads, assessments and mental health to finding out where we can help and provide more support. Popular questions are on study habits, how to work more effectively and ‘What will make this less stressful?’
  • A weekly quiz and chat on Friday afternoons

Richard has not shied away from asking difficult questions about loneliness and isolation. This has helped students come forward to ask for help.

"The department has been exceptional this term with their constant communication, I certainly haven't been left feeling alone while studying at home." 

What changed in response to the surveys? 

The department set up study groups and found ways for students to keep in touch with each other.

They used survey results to inform teaching practice across programmes and beyond, particularly to encourage students to connect by using breakout rooms. 

Richard collaborated with students to generate top tips and advice for studying in lockdown.

He also looked at the wider student experience, finding out more about how mental health and wellbeing, finances and accommodation interact with learning and assessment.

This complemented the work of Professional Support Services (PSS) staff in Biology Student and Academic Services.

Richard said: "They have been amazing throughout the pandemic and the support they provide students has been exceptional. The students really appreciate their efforts. This shows how academics and PSS colleagues can work together."

"It feels like the staff care about us and it's reassuring to know we're all in the same boat. I also really appreciate the weekly feedback forms and all the Q and As, it makes me feel like my voice is heard as a student." Student feedback

Regular University-wide pulse surveys with students have now been embedded in our approach, as well as evolving our strong partnerships with Students’ Unions to keep student feedback and insight at the heart of decision making.

Connecting with subject experts and peers

In the Department of Education, Paula Mountford responded to requests by international MA Education students for connection with UK teachers and educators. 

In one project, Teachers Talking, she interviewed newly qualified teachers, head teachers and leaders about life in the classroom during the Covid-19 pandemic. In another, she invited educators to lead drop-in sessions and answer students’ questions. 

Both projects used Zoom and the VLE to share the resulting resources and create connections between students and educators.

Students said it helped them develop their knowledge and understanding and they enjoyed the exposure and interaction.  

Also in Education, to help new students get to know the University, increase contact with their peers and encourage adaptation to independent and interactive learning, Heather Buchanan started a TESOL café. 

Over 80 per cent of the students on the Masters course attend the virtual café each week for quizzes, talks and discussions. All are international students and 90 per cent of them are not in York. The TESOL rep at the staff-student forum said: “Students feel cared for,” and in a poll at the end of the Autumn Term, 86 per cent of attendees said it was extremely useful or useful. 

We are celebrating all that colleagues from across the University have done to keep our students safe and supported over the last 12 months with a series of stories on these pages.