Study Intensity at the Open University

Image Wes Hicks/Unsplash

Most Open University students are studying on a part time basis, registering for one module per academic year. This means that (without any study breaks) a degree can be completed in five or six years. However, we’ve recently seen a substantial increase in the number of students opting to complete their degrees more quickly, with around a third of our students now studying at a higher intensity – the equivalent of a full-time degree.  

The OU is an open access institution, and it is our mission to support all students as they strive to reach their academic goals. The ability to flex study intensity can be hugely beneficial, allowing individuals to increase or decrease study intensity according to their personal ambitions and/or changing personal circumstances. However, our modules aren’t typically designed for concurrent study. So individual module teams don’t generally coordinate study calendars or assignment deadlines. (Note: OU modules typically have between four and six marked assignments.)   

To investigate the trend toward higher study intensity in the school of Arts and Humanities, four colleagues drawn from the Classical Studies and History departments conducted a project funded by our faculty scholarship centre (FASSTEST). As well as interrogating quantitative data, we conducted a survey of Associate Lecturers, and we held three focus group discussions with different groups of students, as well as a focus group discussion with advisors from our Student Support team. Underpinning our investigation was the question of whether the increase in higher intensity study is impacting on the practices of our Associate Lecturers and Student Advisors, and whether our higher intensity students would benefit from some additional support. In short, is this increase in higher study intensity a ‘problem’ that the OU needs to solve? 

In relation to academic performance, quantitative data revealed that students registered for concurrent study of multiple modules are statistically more likely to flex their study intensity at Level 1, mainly opting to decrease from concurrent to staggered study, when there are two presentations of Level 1 modules within the academic year. However, there’s no significant statistical difference in module withdrawals for higher intensity students at Levels 2 and 3. This suggests that after Level 1, higher intensity students continue on this path until graduation. Also, quantitative data relating to Classical Studies and History students revealed that the study intensity had no significant statistical difference in the number of fail grades at Levels 2 and 3 of the degree. 

We found that our higher study intensity cohort are primarily motivated by career advancement. Also, this group are statistically more likely to be drawn from areas of higher social deprivation, and more likely to have declared a Black or Minority Ethnic identity. Further, they have a younger average age (i.e., in the mid-thirties, compared to the mid-forties average of their part time classmates). 

The focus group discussions with our full-time equivalent students highlighted a desire for more flexibility in the study calendar, to make it easier to complete research well in advance. These discussions also highlighted concerns about clashing assignment deadlines. In response, we piloted a spreadsheet for students to help them to map different module submission dates. 

Our final report offers some additional strategy ideas to support our higher study intensity cohort. For example, we were able to identify popular module combinations, where it might be possible to coordinate assignment deadlines, thereby reducing the number of stress-points caused by clashing submission dates. Also, extending early access to module websites and online tutorial recordings would give our full-time equivalent students more flexibility when it comes to working ahead of their study calendars.  

It may be that in the future, other institutions of higher education expand their opportunities for part-time – or flexible undergraduate study, as this would help students (of all ages and demographics) to maximise their academic potential. In the OU, while we continue to review our support for our higher intensity students within Classical Studies and History, our investigation reveals that the majority of this cohort are achieving their study goals.  

 Elayne Chaplin 

 Project team:  

Dr Elayne Chaplin, Lecturer in History 

Dr Trevor Fear, Lecturer in Classical Studies  

Dr Suzanne Forbes, Lecturer in History 

Dr Anna Plassart, Senior Lecturer in History 


The motivated student: academic, demographic and emotional factors in student engagement 

Image licensed from 123RF


As Associate Lecturers on DE100 (Investigating Psychology) for some time we had noticed the change in study patterns, where more students were opting for study at fulltime intensity (FTI). With the advent of Covid-19 and the associated restrictions on social interaction, we saw an unprecedented rise in student numbers, and a growing proportion applying for FTI. This we put down to the requirement to study online, so that students who may have applied for places at brick institutions were choosing Open University courses instead as we have such a long track record of quality distance learning provision.  

We were curious as to whether, with this changing study mode, came a different demographic, with different drives, needs and approaches to study. In response to our curiosity, we undertook an exploratory study of students enrolled on core psychology modules to identify whether there were fundamental differences between the types of students enrolling at different study intensities.  

The project was survey based, collecting demographic data as a means of better understanding the student profile, as well as two psychometric tests assessing academic motivation and study engagement. To complement the quantitative data we also asked a series of open questions  about students’ reasons  for their engagement in specific learning activities.  

As we collected such a huge dataset (over 900 students across three levels of study) it allowed us to explore different and emerging patters that were not restricted to study intensity, but go beyond, and allow us more of an insight into differing modes and explanations for student engagement.   

Study intensity findings  

With respect to the demographics, we found that FTI students were more likely to be female and younger than the more traditional part time students. The FTI students also tended to work less hours per week in paid employment, possibly allowing them more time for their studies. 

An important academic drive for FTI students was their focus on their career and potential earnings, which might also indicate a rationale for FTI study as a means of realising these ambitions sooner. Achievement motivation was captured in two different ways: the intrinsic drive to achieve and the drive for others to see you achieving (extrinsic). The latter appeared to be the greatest driver, therefore emotions linked to social status were more important than self-improvement.  

Although their self-reported cognitive and behavioural engagement levels were the same regardless of study intensity, the FTI students were less emotionally engaged. This may be the product of their functional motivation for choosing to study – to achieve a career aim. Alternatively, this may be seen as the part time students having time to engage more deeply with the study materials and gain more pleasure through this. This latter explanation, when combined with the relationship between age and motivation, suggest that older students are more motivated by the love of learning, so their drive is for the pleasure. 

This is interesting as the more traditional OU learner is driven much more by experiential features, linked to arousal and pleasure from the study experience, whereas the FTI student drive is about future events and rewards.  

Study engagement findings  

Our two-pronged approach to study engagement allowed us to observe patterns of engagement, and understand these trends through the students’ qualitative responses. Both data types allowed us to see that there were two dimensions important to study behaviours:  the origins of the material and the depth of engagement. Materials that were perceived to have originated from the institution were more valued that student-derived material, therefore website materials and tutorials were more valued than student forums. This linked to their need for knowledge and very specific guidance linked to assessments, so relevance and accuracy were perceived as paramount. The second dimension related to how involved the student would need to be with the learning activity: the more they were required to be involved, the less likely they were to engage. This means that students were more likely to opt for passive forms of engagement such as website materials and recorded tutorials, whereas the interaction required in live tutorials was more off-putting. The one form of learning activity that was lowest in institutional origin and high in involvement was forum use, their least preferred of all activities.  

When the data was examined for explanations of these engagement behaviours, there were two universal themes: time poverty and anxiety. Time poverty meant that many students became adept at identifying where the most relevant sources of trusted information could be found, and focused their precious time and attention on these resources. The theme of anxiety was expressed along a continuum of feeling a little bit nervous about posting a comment, through to feeling humiliated in a learning event to diagnosed social anxiety. It may well be that their choice of a distance degree is a means of avoiding these distressing situations, and therefore the encouragement to interact may be counterproductive for some students.  

The study has highlighted that learners are enrolled on Open University degrees for quite different reasons, and how they fit their study into their life may be linked to their academic motivation. It may be useful for us to reflect on these different motivations at the point of module production to accommodate the different approaches to study.  


Cathy Schofield, Lecturer in Psychology and Counselling; Ali Gisby – Lecturer in Psychology & Counselling  


Increased retention and improved achievement through weekly email communications 

Image from Shutterstock

Entering university as a young student is challenging not least because students coming straight from school are used to regular contact and encouragement from teachers up to their final exams. Add to that a sense of isolation, particularly in a distance learning environment (and exacerbated by the pandemic), and new experiences of studying, for example, psychology and research methods, plus a tendency to imposter syndrome (questions about ‘am I good enough?’), and a set of risk factors emerge that are directly linked to both retention and achievement (Blair, 2017).  

Some years ago, the Open University had a successful scheme known as YASS, or Young Applicants in Schools and Colleges. This depended on the availability of short courses (10 or 20 credits) which allowed 17- and 18-year-olds in schools to study an OU course alongside their AS and A levels. As a coordinator on that scheme in the south of England, it became evident to me that students succeeded on these short courses if they had a teacher in school supporting them alongside their designated OU tutors. Schools who did not provide this additional support often found students did not complete these courses, missing assignment deadlines and not doing the required activities because they did not have someone reminding them or urging them on to the end. With that in mind, I designed a scholarship project to see whether regular weekly emails from tutors to their students studying level 1 Psychology courses could help them to keep going, improving retention, and increase student achievement.  

A team of 16 tutors teaching the module DE100 (Investigating Psychology 1) were recruited to support this project. These tutors taught 27 groups of students, giving a student sample of 412 students starting the module in October 2020. The tutors were provided with three batches of emails in September, November and January which were designed to be sent out through a group email function on the Monday of each study week. The emails were written in a friendly and supportive tone and included information about what was coming up in the study week, highlighting key activities and readings, explaining difficult concepts, and reminding students of upcoming assignment deadlines. Tutors were asked to top and tail these emails with a greeting and sign off but not to change the main content. All 16 tutors diligently sent these emails out every week until week 28 of the module, just before the final examinable component was due. They also collated any feedback from students, usually in the form of email replies, to help understand how these emails were being received.  

At the end of the module, the analysis of the impact of this took place through looking at the number of students who managed to complete the module (333 students), and their achievement levels, differentiated by age and gender. A survey was also put together and sent out to a sample of 160 students to gauge their opinion of the emails and their effects, with 48 students responding. The retention data was compared with students in the same region who had not received the emails, and a similar group in the southwest region, as well as across the module as a whole. Achievement was also explored, looking at pass rates across the same groups, and the number of students receiving a distinction. 

The findings were encouraging, with a retention of younger students (aged under 25) of 82.3% compared with older students (aged over 25 years) whose retention rate was 80.9%. This compared very favourably with students who did not receive the emails in the south region (73.3%) and in the southwest region (73.2%). It was also higher than across the module as a whole (78.2%). Younger students seemed to benefit slightly more from the weekly emails than their older peers.  

When looking at achievement, the outcomes were even more encouraging with 91% of students who received the emails passing the module. This compared with an overall module pass rate of 67%. Distinctions were also more abundant in the emailed group – 60% of younger female students and 32% of male younger students received a distinction. With the older students, 41% of males and 55% of females managed a distinction. This compared to the overall module distinction level of 18%. 

The survey and collated email responses also revealed an overwhelming appreciation of the emails with students reporting that they ‘made me feel part of something’ and were ‘more recognised and encouraged to continue with my work compared with my other module’. Around 83 percent of students who responded to the survey were positive about the emails and felt they helped them both to keep going on the module and to achieve higher than they would have without them. Over 80 percent agreed that this type of weekly communication should be part of every module.  

Tutors on the module were also positive about the intervention, reporting that it was an easy process and had many benefits, not least the positive responses from students and their improved engagement with the module. Tutors were also surprised at their students’ results, with these visibly better than previous presentations. Most are continuing to use the emails on more recent presentations of the same module. The success of the intervention may lead to recommendations on modules under development for this type of communication, including guidance for tutors on what could be included in a weekly communication.  


Sue Nieland, Lecturer in Psychology 



Blair, A. (2017) ‘Understanding first-year students’ transition to university: A pilot study with implications for student engagement, assessment, and feedback’, Politics, 37(2), pp. 215-228. 



How can we better support student learning of sensitive topics in distance education?



Kintsugi Bowl image by Max Pixel 

In the arts and social sciences, topics can frequently touch upon violence, injustice, and oppression that many in our university community directly experience and are affected by. In this context educators think carefully about how to teach these topics whilst also safeguarding and supporting students, or whether it is safer to avoid topics that are just too difficult and sensitive. These challenges become deeper in distance learning. Educators and students are typically not in the same room: distance students study their learning materials flexibly at home, work and everywhere in-between. For those responsible for creating distance learning materials, it can be very difficult to anticipate the emotional impact of content on students until it is too late. The onus is on universities to deliver on our duty of care and appropriately equip students to engage with the learning materials that educators create for them.  

We are Julia Downes (Senior Lecturer in Criminology), Ruth Wall (Associate Lecturer and Consultant in Social Sciences), and Anne Alvaer (Associate Lecturer and Consultant in Social Sciences) and we met when we were all working on producing a new level one undergraduate criminology module Introduction to Criminology at The Open University. On hearing that some students were finding topics (e.g., deaths in custody, sex work, immigration, and homelessness) on other social science modules distressing (and finding case studies in the criminology curriculum we were part of developing upsetting for us) we decided to get together to see what could be done to better support students who are regularly required to engage with these kinds of topics.  

As an interim measure we introduced new study skills guidance ‘Studying Emotive Topics in the Social Sciences’ and got some content notes included at the start of each block of study and selected videos on the module. However, we knew that much more needed to be done. So, with support from the FASS scholarship centre, FASSTEST, we designed a scholarship project to address a gap in what is currently known about what diverse distance students actually do when they encounter sensitive and emotive topics in their learning materials. We chose to partner with the first two groups of students to take the Introduction to Criminology module starting in October 2019 and February 2020. Our project aimed to explore and understand undergraduate criminology students’ emotional responses and emotional resilience skills, to evaluate our interventions (the guidance and content notes we put in place), and to co-produce recommendations and solutions to guide future practice. Students were invited to take part in multiple ways including online surveys, semi-structured interviews, and collaborative workshops. 

So, what did we learn together?  

We learned that students arrived with skills, capacities, and strengths to navigate the emotional aspects of their lives that they could then use to reduce risk and increase resilience in their study of sensitive topics. Exactly what students felt and did was unique to them and could range from stepping back and taking a break, getting support from a partner or friend, escaping into a Disney movie, box set or video game, planning to study and taking a different study approach. We call these ‘emotional resilience skills’ and understand these as a universally relevant academic skillset for all educators and students. 

Not surprisingly, we found that many students expected to study sensitive and emotive topics in criminology. In fact, the ability to engage with difficult topics was considered an important employability skill for students who currently worked, or aspired to work, with people in contact with the criminal justice system. Some students also told us that they deliberately chose to study criminology as a distance learner to make sense of crime, injustice, or harm that they had directly experienced or been affected by. It is therefore crucial for educators to always assume that someone with lived experience of a case study or topic they are teaching will be in their classroom, be it a virtual, print, or face-to-face relationship.

Educators are understandably concerned about the detrimental impact of negative emotional responses on students. However, we learned that when confronted with topics that students found sensitive, students reported experiencing a much wider range of emotions across the affective spectrum as illustrated below.


The range of emotional responses reported by student participants 

Whilst students commonly reported feeling sad and upset this was often accompanied by acknowledgements of how engaging with these case studies also benefited them. Benefits included gaining a deeper understanding, an ability to look at a situation differently and a reminder of their purpose and motivation for study. Engaging with sensitive content could also spark a passion and curiosity to find out more and make sense of the world around them. This echoes previous studies that found positive and negative emotions are inevitable, productive, and necessary for learning (O’Byrne 2014; Lowe 2015; Connelly & Joseph-Salisbury 2019). 

We learned that, in practice, the content notes and guidance we put in place enabled students to better engage with, rather than avoid or ignore, emotive and sensitive content. Content notes were a signal of care that worked to enhance engagement by activating emotional resilience skills including preparation and planning, self-care, and self-awareness. The guidance acted as a valuable space to normalise emotional responses, which could reduce feelings of isolation. Students told us that they wanted more spaces, activities, and resources that acknowledged their emotional responses, affirmed, and strengthened their emotional resilience skills across the student learning journey.  


At The Open University, the largest UK provider of distance education, the development of innovative and digital tools to embed and sustain emotional resilience skills within learning will equip educators with ways to remove potential barriers to learning and maximise engagement, deep learning, and a positive study experience for all. How we do trauma-informed distance learning is an exciting new area for higher education, particularly as many universities have shifted to hybrid and online forms of delivery during the pandemic. This is the focus of the next phase of our work: to develop our recommendations into an emotional resilience skills toolkit for staff and students as part of the Office for Students funded Positive Digital Practices project (2020-2022).  

In closing, we learned a lot during our project, and we are looking forward to writing up our findings in more detail to share in academic journals, conferences, and as part of the British Society of Criminology Teaching and Learning Network. We want to express our gratitude to the students who generously shared their experiences with us, FASSTEST for supporting our project, as well as staff and students who we continue to learn with and alongside of. If you are interested in getting in touch, or trialling any of our digital outputs in your teaching and learning, feel free to email us at: 

Julia Downes, Senior Lecturer in Criminology; Ruth Wall, Associate Lecturer and Consultant in Social Sciences; Anne Alvaer, Associate Lecturer and Consultant in Social Sciences 


Connelly, Laura & Remi Joseph-Salisbury (2019) Teaching Grenfell: The role of emotions in teaching and learning for social change. Sociology, 53(6): 1026-1042 

Lowe, Pam (2015) Lessening Sensitivity: Student experiences of teaching and learning sensitive issues. Teaching in Higher Education, 20(1): 119-129, DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2014.957272  

O’Byrne, Darren (2014) The Places and Spaces of Human Rights Education. Enhancing Learning in the Social Sciences, 6(1): 66-74, DOI: 10.11120/elss.2014.00021 

Recommended reading 

Zembylas, Michalinos (2020) Against the psychologization of resilience: towards an onto-political theorization of the concept and its implications for higher education. Studies in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2019.1711048 

Carello, Janice & Lisa D. Butler (2015) Practicing What We Teach: Trauma-Informed Educational Practice. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 35(3): 262-278, DOI: 10.1080/08841233.2015.1030059 



Digital photography and multi-sensory learning online


Waterfall called “Female tears” and ribbons in Abkhazia’, photograph by A227 student Evgenia Marder 

How can we encourage online learners to engage with their local and physical environment beyond their computer screens? There is increasing evidence of the benefits of object-based and multi-sensory learning at all levels of education (including higher education) as a way of supporting student engagement and deep, personalised learning (see, for example, Chatterjee and Hannan, eds., 2015). These benefits do not just apply to subject disciplines that rely explicitly on hands-on experiences, field work, lab experiments or placements. Multisensory learning can also help students come to grips with complex theoretical concepts in any subject discipline in the Arts and Social Sciences (and beyond). However, how can this be facilitated in online and distance learning environments? 

These questions were important to colleagues in the Department of Religious Studies here at the Open University when we designed the module ‘A227 Exploring Religion: Places, Practices, Texts and Experiences’. This module introduces students to the study of religion, with the aim of helping them understand ‘religion’ not just in terms of abstract beliefs, but as it is ‘lived’ and expressed through objects, places, sounds, smells, tastes, and practices. We were looking for ways to actively and creatively engage students in their learning and help them work out how the concepts they are learning about could be relevant and applicable to their own local environment.  

To support the critical discussion of different definitions of the concept of ‘religion’, we decided to ask students to take and share photographs of an object or a place (human-made or natural) that expresses something interesting about what religion ‘is’. Students are free to take/select an image of something which may not conventionally be understood as ‘religion/religious’, but that raises questions about the possible blurring of boundaries between the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’. Students are encouraged to be creative (whilst being mindful of privacy and copyright issues). We ask them to upload their images onto a digital pinboard (we used an inhouse Open University platform called ‘OpenStudio’ – though there are many other platforms that can be used for the same purpose), along with a brief image description and a comment on why they chose this picture. We also ask students to comment on at least one other student’s contribution to the pinboard. While this activity is not assessed as such, it is linked to a two-part assignment requiring students to (a) discuss how the image they selected for this activity addresses the question ‘What is religion?’ (engaging with definitions and debates they have been introduced to in the module materials) and (b) reflect on their experience of this activity. This is followed by two further unassessed activities using the digital pinboard. One of these activities is asking students to share images of objects or buildings in their local neighbourhood that reflect urban and religious change (such as religious buildings which had changed use and become secular, or vice-versa). Another invites students to make, share and comment on sound recordings, reflecting on the role that sound can have in religious experiences.  

In order to get a better sense of how students and tutors experienced these activities, we sent out a survey to students, interviewed tutors and analysed contributions to the digital pinboard as well as assignment submissions (with the students’ permission). My colleague John Maiden and I published the findings of this study in two articles that are available as Open Access publications. Our paper on ‘Personalised and multi-sensory approaches to engaging students at a distance: A case study from Religious Studies’ (2018) explores the strengths and limitations of the way in which these activities use digital technologies to facilitate personalised, multisensory learning. Our article ‘Take a picture of religion: Engaging students in the multisensory study of lived religion’ (2020), on the other hand, focuses on how this pedagogic approach addresses issues of particular relevance to the study of religion in higher education.  

Our project findings are of particular relevance to online and distance learning settings, where opportunities for object-based and multisensory learning are relatively underexplored. However, they can be applied to a wide range of settings and will be of interest to anyone looking for creative ways to engage students in the Arts and Social Sciences (and possibly beyond)! 

To show you some examples of the kind of contributions students have made to these activities, some of this year’s 227 students have kindly agreed to share photographs here that they used for the ‘Take a picture of religion’ activity.   

‘Livestreamed church service’, photograph by A227 student Jude Taylor 

‘Wudu area on the Open University campus’, photograph by A227 student Jo Clarke 

Journalling Bible’, photograph by A227 student Cerys Wood 


‘Collection of Buddhas’, photograph by A227 student Helen Harman-Freer 

‘Rosary by my bedside’, photograph by A227 student Lisa-Marie Donohue 

‘Truro, photograph by A227 student Joel Absalom 

‘St Peter’s church’, photograph by A227 student Helen Harman-Freer 


Chatterjee, H. and Hannan, L. (eds) (2015) Engaging the Senses: Object-based Learning in Higher Education, Abingdon/ New York, Ashgate. 

 Maiden, John and Sinclair, Stefanie (2018) ‘Personalised and multi-sensory approaches to engaging students at a distance: A case study from Religious Studies’ in Josep M. Duart and András Szűcs (eds) Towards Personalized Guidance and Support for Learning, Proceedings of the 10th European Distance and E-Learning Network Research Workshop, EDEN, Barcelona, pp. 261-269. ISBN 978-615-5511-25-7 [Online] 

 Sinclair, S. and Maiden, J.  (2020) ‘Take a picture of religion: Engaging students in the multisensory study of religion’, JBASR: Journal of the British Association for the Study of Religions, Vol. 22 (Visualising Cultures), pp. 122-37. [Online] 

Fun and Games: designing a playful approach to writing a postgraduate thesis

Studies have shown that the use of games in Higher Education can improve the ability to learn new skills and can facilitate deep learning by increasing the enjoyment experienced by students. This project draws on the expertise in Open University (OU) design to employ such gamified approaches in teaching and sought to apply them to helping students taking the first module in the MA in Art History (A843) with devising a sound end-of-term essay topic. The aim was to make the difficult task of selecting a suitable research question and topic for this essay a fun and enjoyable activity, thus lessening the stress and anxiety students often experience at this stage of their course.  

The project is a collaboration between Art History and Design – disciplines that, in the OU, sit respectively in the faculties of Arts & Social Science and STEM. When inspiration struck, I was chair of the first year of the MA in Art History and was thinking about how to support student success in the end-of-year-assignment. Not only is this the first long essay students get to write on the MA, but also the first time they are asked to develop their own research question and ways to approach it. Experience shows that a judicious choice of topic is key to doing well in the assignment, and I was wondering how to support students in making good choices at this pivotal juncture in the course. At the same time, as editor of the special issue of Art History and Design in Dialogue: Abutments and Confluences, I was working ‘across the aisle’ so to speak between Art History and Design. As I edited the contribution my Design colleague Georgina Holden had co-authored with Prof. emeritus Nigel Cross, I became intrigued with the use of gamified approaches to teaching in Design that were mentioned in the article. These approaches were exemplified by a game called PIG (short for Problem Identification Game) that was visualised, yes, you guessed it, in the form of a pig!  


It seemed such fun and also very effective! This got me thinking about how one might be able to adapt this approach for the end of year essay on the MA, as finding the right essay topic was, after all, a problem to be solved. Georgina was happy to get involved in a project that would seek to develop ways to adapt the gamified strategies that were commonly used as teaching aids in Design for use in the Humanities. I was immensely grateful to be able to draw on Georgina’s expertise in constructing games and also for the support in the development of the game by Pamela Bracewell-Homer and Joel Robinson, Associate Lecturers with many years of teaching experience on the MA.     

The first step was to assemble the project development team and to get the requisite funding in place. Then we engaged in lots of brainstorming, which was great fun. But we soon realised that the task at hand was more onerous than anticipated, and that translating the game expertise from Design to the Humanities required heavier lifting than expected. In fact, we had to develop a new hybrid format for a gamified approach to revision as a foundation for broaching the question of the essay topic.  

To achieve this, we developed a set of resources that used playful exploration to enable students to understand their individual learning styles as they approached their end of module assessment (EMA). This material comprised a 60 page, multicoloured ‘guidebook’ with space for responses and reflections, a set of cards for use at various points as the students worked through the booklet, two dice for a game around argumentation, and stickers for the successful completion of sections of the guide book. The approach was based on the idea of conquering ‘Mount EMA’ (i. e. writing a successful EMA) and introduced different aspects of the work needed for ‘reaching the mountain top’ as stages of preparation. It led students systematically through a series of steps to identify and analyse sources and construct a coherent argument while offering exercises to test their skills as well as checklists to assess their understanding and preparedness. These exercises were likened to gathering the right gear, packing one’s backpack, selecting a route up the mountain and ensuring readiness for the ‘climb’ with metaphorical climbing equipment associated with respective tasks and preparation stages.  



Overall, applying playful approaches to assessment tasks in Art History proved to be a bigger challenge than we anticipated. After a period of intense brainstorming it became clear that the nature of the ‘problem’ (finding a productive essay topic) is quite different to those addressed in Design, which refer to life situations and contexts and do not require players to draw on specific, course-related academic approaches and skills. This had not been anticipated and required extensive developmental work as well as the elaboration of a new approach. The issue of ‘translation’ therefore took time and required extensive discussion and careful consideration. We realised that there was a need for guidance and playfulness to enable students to realise their goals, and that the game would need to be combined with the provision of resources for revision as well as references to skills, concepts and theoretical approaches introduced throughout the course. These insights necessitated a change in our strategy. We resolved to present the skills and approaches needed in a playful way to bring light-heartedness to their process and allow greater freedom to expand beyond familiar realms of thought. A central element here was a game that threw up chance combinations of materials they had pre-identified as themes and resources they wanted to draw on which had been devised to aid this process, invite experimentation and open up unexpected vistas. We also added elements inviting self-awareness about students’ learning styles as an essential ingredient to writing a successful essay. 

In terms of outcomes we learnt that the gamified approach we developed seemed to particularly benefit the weaker students in the cohort, which we were very pleased about. And while the feedback was positive overall, it revealed that there was potential for the game-cum-guidebook to be more effective still if the game was introduced earlier in the course and some tweaks were made to its overall remit. It also transpired that students in the Humanities are not used to game-based approaches to learning and needed some ‘warming up time’ to engage, which will need to be factored into the overall approach and will be addressed in the next test phase. Last but not least, there will also be a board to go with the cards and the tasks specified in the guidebook this time round!  

Overall, the aim is to fully implement this gamified approach to writing the final year essay in the upcoming remake of the module and, once improved and road-tested further, to make the format available to colleagues throughout the Humanities who might be interested in diversifying their approaches to teaching. 


Renate Dohmen, Senior Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Art 

Understanding how anxiety affects participation in online tutorials

Image by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

As an Open University tutor, I am very aware that some students find it hard to join online tutorials and others who do join may not participate. Although many participate by using the chat box or take part in other interactive activities such as answering polls or writing on the whiteboard, few students turn their microphones on to speak. Without visual clues, it is very hard to interpret how students are feeling when they take part in online tutorials, and in larger tutorials it is difficult to know when or why they might disengage from the session. As someone who experiences anxiety myself, particularly in relation to being in an online environment, I thought that it was likely that some students would similarly experience anxiety and I wanted to find out more about what the triggers for anxiety are in relation to the online tutorials that we offer as part of the teaching on an Open University module. I also wanted to explore ideas about what we could do as tutors and as an institution to help alleviate such anxiety which would in turn help students to develop their confidence both in joining and  participating in online tutorials to get the most out of their academic studies. 

My project was in two stages: a questionnaire sent out to students on three Social Science Level 1 modules followed by interviews a few months later with a small cohort of students who had completed the questionnaire. 

The questionnaire was completed by just over 600 students. It asked questions about anxiety in relation to joining and taking part in online tutorials. Students were asked to give their age band. The questionnaire was sent out when students were in their second month of study on their module, so they would have had several opportunities to join an online tutorial. It found that nearly 1 in 6 students had not attended an online tutorial because they did not feel comfortable in doing so and that nearly 3 in 4 students who have taken part in an online tutorial had experienced some level of anxiety in doing so. The aspects of online tutorials that caused the highest anxiety were being asked to speak and being asked to directly answer a question, with more than 3 in 4 students who have some anxiety about participating in online tutorials reporting significant or moderate anxiety about doing so. The percentages were higher amongst younger students, particularly those under 25. 

The interviews were conducted with a small number of students from different age bands registered to a variety of Social Science qualifications. All had taken part in online tutorials. They were asked questions in relation to the anxiety they experience when joining and taking part in these sessions and were invited to consider whether certain strategies would help them to manage their anxiety. During these more in-depth discussions, it became clear that there was a range of different interpretations of the concept of anxiety, with some students happy to talk about the anxiety that they experience whilst others preferred to talk about stress or apprehensiveness, although the triggers for these feelings were the same.  

The interviews found that the anxiety that students felt about joining or taking part in online tutorials at the start of the module fell into three key areas: 

  1. Accessing the room/technical issues
  2. What the tutorial would be like/the ‘abstractness’ of being in a virtual room
  3. Fear of saying something ‘stupid’/not being able to keep up with the other students.

One of the key triggers for anxiety in relation to joining a first online tutorial was not knowing what it would be like, particularly whether students would be required to have cameras on. 

For the most part, interviewees felt that their anxiety diminished over time and with experience of how online tutorials are run and what their options are for taking part. It also helped to be familiar with the tutors running the sessions as well as names of the other students in the session. This was helpful in reducing anxiety related to feeling out of step with the group. 

All interviewees thought that being able to access a short video showing what the online tutorial platform looks like would have been very effective at helping to manage anxiety ahead of the first session. Interactive activities such as polling were popular as they allowed participation whilst remaining anonymous. Although the idea of breakout rooms was a trigger for anxiety amongst the interviewees, most said that they were more likely to speak in smaller groups and that this would help with getting to know other students. 

In summary, the questionnaires and interviews found that there were a number of triggers for anxiety amongst Level 1 students in relation to joining and participating in online tutorials, many of them related to the level of confidence of the student. A first step to helping to alleviate such anxiety will be to make a short video available that shows what an online room looks like as this will help students to know that they do not need to be on camera and can participate as much or as little as they want. In addition, it will be useful to think about how to develop confidence in participating, with well-managed small group activities that promote conversation and discussion, since familiarity in doing this should help alleviate anxiety in the longer term. 

Beyond this, it would be useful to think about what could be done to promote both student identity and a sense of student community since this will make it easier for new students to settle in to making academic study part of their lives and develop confidence in their skills. 

Janet Hunter, Lecturer in Social Sciences & Global Studies, Politics

The Top Five Things You Need to Know about Tutorial Attendance (from folks who have spent far too long wrangling the numbers!)

Image by Jeanne Provost via Shutterstock

Admittedly, the Arts and Humanities are not traditionally known as the spiritual homeland of number crunching, but in 2019, colleagues and I from the departments of Classical Studies, History, English, and Creative Writing at the Open University broke with tradition and embarked on a quantitative analysis of student attendance patterns within our school.  

Three years before, the Open University had introduced a bold new framework for tuition, the Group Tuition Policy, that guaranteed students an online alternative for every face-to-face session on offer. The objective of the policy was to ensure students had a greater range of options (face to face or online/weekday evenings or Saturdays) when it came to choosing a tutorial to suit their schedule and needs.  

We reckoned it was time to take a good hard look at attendance in the wake of these changes.  What was working well? What wasn’t?  So much of our tuition strategy and implementation in the past had been based on gut instincts about what works well for students and tutor—but we wanted to establish a solid evidence-base for tuition moving into the future. With this in mind, we donned our data-wrangling chaps, and headed out into the wild frontiers of attendance statistics. 

Using data from our booking and registration system (LEM), we tracked student attendance from 2017-2018 (eventually adding in 2019-2020 in the second phase of our project) to help us get a broad overview of attendance across a range of Arts & Humanities modules, but also to give us a snapshot of student behaviour at a more granular level.    

We had all sorts of questions about attendance. What percentage of students actually attend learning events? What kind of events do students prefer to attend—online or face to face? Lectures or smaller tutorials? How does attendance relate to academic outcomes for students: do students who attend learning events do better than those who don’t? How has COVID impacted on student attendance? While the answers to these questions were interesting in themselves, what drove us was a desire to get it right for students in the future: how can we plan tuition so that it is attractive to students and helps them achieve their study goals?  How can we make the most of our present tuition resource so that our learning events benefit the maximum number of students? 

What we came up with, after many, many hours of wrangling data into submission, was a fascinating picture of student attendance behaviour within the school of Arts & Humanities.  It may not be the I Ching of attendance, but our report generated a number of valuable insights into the state of student attendance in our school. Here are a few tantalising snippets we thought you might like to know: 

Students want tuition.  There is clearly a strong demand for it. While attendance at face-to-face sessions remained fairly stable between 2017-19, attendance at online sessions seems to be growing, year on year, and we need to plan for that in terms of investment in our teaching platforms, staff development, and tuition offerings.   

Attendance has remained relatively stable, and even risen, under lockdown. Apart from a dip in mid-May 2020 when many end-of-module assessments were cancelled for students, attendance during 2019-2020 was generally higher than it was the previous year, and this trend appears to have continued on modules presenting from October 2020 as well.    

There is a strong link between attendance and attainment: students who got Pass 1 and 2s were more likely to have attended a learning event (and more of them) than those students with Pass 3 and 4 grades. 

Cancellation might be our best friend—when it comes to registering for online learning events at the beginning of a module, many students panic and book more events than they will realistically attend. Unfortunately, they often neglect to cancel bookings they don’t intend to use. Our study found that 1 in every 3 students who register for an event fails to show up! This means that a large number of the students on waitlists could have been accommodated at learning events if appropriate cancellations had been made.  Clearly, we’ve got a job to do creating a booking system that minimizes un-used bookings, but we also need to cultivate a culture amongst students of responsible registration. 

Some students REALLY like to attend. When we sampled student behaviour, it became clear that there was a wide range of engagement within our student cohort: some students didn’t attend at all, while others attended a great deal.  Of those who attended a great deal, we discovered the phenomenon of the ‘super-attender’, that species of student who not only books but also attends a massive amount of learning events on a single presentation. One student in our sample managed to attend a whopping 40+ sessions over the course of one module (and actually booked but did not attend a further 10). It’s not clear that attending this many sessions on a limited number of topics will actually help the student achieve their study objectives—in fact, it may rob them of time better spent on personal study and assignment writing.  While it’s great for students to have choice, booking into this many events means that one student’s choice may sometimes come at the cost of others who didn’t book early enough. Such students are relatively rare, but such a phenomenon does draw attention to some of the risks involved with having a booking system with no limits.  

The project has been challenging but hugely productive, laying the groundwork for a series of conversations with our colleagues in the school of Arts & Humanities who are responsible for designing and implementing tuition strategies on future presentations. Our findings have also been a springboard for broader conversations within the university community, with stakeholders ranging from tutors to university policymakers and system-commissioners.  All of us are keen to make the most of our resources to meet students’ needs in the coming years and we firmly believe that the best way to do that is by sharing our understanding of what is working—and what is not—in our present tuition and systems offering. 

Have you been involved in a project looking at student attendance, in another faculty of the Open University or at another institution? Have you found that these trends in student behaviour really resonate with you as a tutor, teacher, or tuition manager?  Or perhaps you’d like to read a more detailed account of our methodology, conclusions, and recommendations? We’d love to hear from you. Please do add a comment below or drop us a line at or 

Jennifer Shepherd & Astrid Voigt 

on behalf of the ‘Investigating Tuition Attendance in Arts & Humanities’ Project Team (Robin Mackie, Steve Padley, Maddy Sharman, Jen Shepherd, Lee Simmonds, Astrid Voigt) 

Cosy bedfellows? Independent learning and peer interaction online

Image – Radek Sturgolewski via Shutterstock

Independent learning is usually envisaged as something that students do alone. But on ‘A329, The Making of Welsh History’, an online distance-learning dissertation module at the Open University, the situation is quite the reverse. Launched in autumn 2017, A329 was in late 2018 the subject of a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning project supported by FASSTEST, the OU’s Scholarship Centre for the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. That project looked at the efficacy of various pedagogic innovations introduced on the module and found that the two most far-reaching of these new approaches, in terms of student experience and outcomes, were: 

(1) the embedding of external found content directly into online module materials to promote independent study habits, and 

(2) the frequent use of online research activities through which students form a tight-knit community of learners by offering constructive feedback on both formative and summative pieces of their peers’ work.  

Students studying entirely online and at a distance traditionally suffer in two important respects. Firstly, they do not have access to the kinds of physical learning resources that their counterparts at conventional universities do. Secondly, the norm is to study in at home in isolation, with only occasional interactions with peers. As a result, at the Open University the standard approach to Humanities curriculum has until recently assumed that students will habitually study alone. In addition, the use of external found resources to foster independent study habits tends to be peripheral rather than central to the student experience. 

‘The Making of Welsh History’ uses innovative techniques to address these two deficiencies, using frequent online interactions to create an environment in which students help one another to develop the skills needed to successfully conduct an independently researched dissertation based on externally hosted sources and scholarship available online. The module thus successfully enables the social construction of knowledge and understanding via remote, online, and asynchronous means, built around extensive engagement with pre-existing online resources such as eBooks, journal articles and primary source databases. That is achieved by creating the conditions in which students’ feedback on one another’s arguments and interpretations, on short pieces of formative work involving found resources, and also on longer summative assignments in the earlier stages of the module. Whilst marks are always awarded for students’ own work, they also rest in some part on the extent to which students have helped their peers as well as on the quality of the academic work they produce.  

The skills gained through these bite-sized research activities, and by the ongoing rounds of peer comment associated with them and with some of the formal assessment points, equip students to produce a 7,000-word dissertation on a Welsh history topic of their own choosing. More broadly, the project examining A329 found that:  

Online learners do not need to study alone; they can access all the benefits of social constructivism and peer interaction that students at traditional universities take for granted. 

  • Online learning materials do not need to be, and in fact should not be, written from scratch. Found scholarship and resources online can be made central to the study experience in the same way as a physical library at a traditional university.  
  • Getting students to work together online, by engaging constructively with the work that their peers are doing, is an optimal way to prepare them for conducting their own research independently 

The project also found that the first presentation of the module achieved a satisfaction rate of 88%, a completion rate of 91.5%, and a pass rate of 89%. These statistics are impressive given the OU’s open entry policy and the fact that the module attracts more than 100 students each year. The figures were the highest in the OU’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences for academic year 17/18 and are largely the result of the two new approaches outlined above.  

‘The Making of Welsh history’ therefore represents a potential paradigm shift, not only in how online distance learners’ study but also in terms of how they develop broad academic and subject-specific skills. The model discussed here is to an extent taken as read at traditional universities but has proved a real challenge for online distance learning. However, that challenge can now be addressed as distance learning moves away from printed materials to the digital sphere. Indeed, A329 has been the inspiration for several similar dissertation modules at the OU, in subjects such as geography, sociology, criminology and art history. Moreover, the OU is far from the only provider of distance learning in the UK, and the approaches discussed here may be of relevance to anyone teaching Humanities or Social Science subjects online.  

Richard Marsden

Richard Marsden- Director of Teaching for Arts and Humanities, FASS, Arts and Humanities

How to run engaging academic conferences online

Image by Jagrit Parajuli from Pixabay

During the Covid-19 pandemic we have seen an exponential growth in the number of online academic conferences. While the online medium has posed some challenges, it is increasingly becoming apparent that holding conferences online offers a lot of opportunities beyond the pandemic. Online conferences are more accessible for people with disabilities or caring responsibilities. They are a lot cheaper (given that there are no travel or venue costs and no catering or accommodation have to be provided for delegates) and environmentally friendly (again, because online conferences don’t require delegates to travel). Online conferences also open up a host of new opportunities for knowledge exchange and can be easily recorded and widely shared.   

However, organising and attending an online conference requires new thinking. It’s not just a question of the availability and technical knowledge of different tools and platforms, but of planning how to use these tools wisely and effectively to engage and energise participants, be inclusive, widen participation and deliver good content. At the Open University, we have a lot of experience of teaching online, and particularly with engaging people from a wide range of different backgrounds. How could this expertise be applied to running academic conferences and make them more engaging and inclusive? 

FASSTEST, the Centre for Scholarship and Innovation at the Open University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, has supported a scholarship project aiming to identify best practice in the organisation and delivery of online academic conferences in the Arts and Social Sciences. This involved a literature review (of scholarly literature on online engagement as well as of existing ‘how to’ guides on running conferences online) and semi-structured interviews with 20 colleagues at the Open University, who spoke about their experiences as organisers, attendees or support staff of online academic conferences. Based on this work, the project team have put together a guide with tips and tricks of how to run engaging and inclusive academic conferences online. This guide is now available and can be accessed here: Planning Online Conferences in the Arts and Social Sciences   

Even as we start to open up again, online conferences are here to stay – so let’s do our best to make them as useful as possible!  

Dr Stefanie Sinclair 

Dr Stefanie Sinclair | Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (