Author Archives: Tracy Cooling

Understanding how anxiety affects participation in online tutorials

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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!)

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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) 

How to run engaging academic conferences online

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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 ( 

What difference does it make? Embedding the teaching of good academic practices

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Between August 2011 and July 2019, I was the Lead Academic Conduct Officer for the Arts and Humanities at The Open University.  My role during this time primarily involved investigating cases of poor academic practice (aka plagiarism) which had been referred for disciplinary treatment.  As such, these cases required a formal approach, including sending students evidence of our concerns in the form of marked-up copies of their essays and asking students to explain in writing the reasons behind the lack of appropriate referencing in their assignments.  Students’ responses almost invariably brought up one or more of these issues:

  • Lack of appreciation of when and why to acknowledge other people’s work,
  • Panic and confusion around how to reference,
  • Lack of confidence in their ability to write in their own words, or to paraphrase effectively,
  • Special circumstances leading to difficulties finding time for or being able to concentrate on their studies.

The overwhelming reoccurrence of such responses soon led me to realise that plagiarism at The Open University truly was ‘the surface manifestation of complex learning difficulties’ (Angelil-Carter, 2000, p. 2).  Our open entry policy means that many of our students have limited prior educational experience and will often lack basic awareness of good academic practices.  I knew from this point that I needed to use whatever influence I had as an Academic Conduct Officer to move beyond ‘robust and transparent procedures for detecting and punishing plagiarism’ (Park, 2004, p. 294).

My early and relatively modest attempts to make a difference to students’ chances and experiences focused on ensuring that the disciplinary process was not just about issuing warnings or penalties but, also and crucially, more of ‘a place where learning can occur’ than had hitherto been the case (Carroll and Appleton, 2001, p. 30).  I complemented these reactive efforts with ongoing support and guidance to colleagues via regular staff development interventions as well as the production of a toolkit to assist tutors who are asked to deliver a study skills session.  Ultimately, my aspiration was to help introduce proactive ways of supporting students that were suitable to our part-time, distance learning model with relatively limited formal opportunities for students to meet tutors and fellow students and with formal teaching content delivered via our high-quality module materials.  And so, mindful also of the importance of relatable examples in helping students learn, I lobbied for study skills to become embedded into the teaching and assessment strategy of our modules (Lampert, 2008, p. 11)

From aspiration to reality: early indicators

The obvious place to introduce a new approach was our foundation Arts and Humanities module, which had an intake each academic year of around 4000 students, and an opportunity arose in 2015 as plans to revise our Level 1 teaching commenced.  Our new foundation module, Discovering the Arts and Humanities eventually launched in October 2019 and includes a number of innovations.  Amongst these is a unit on Academic Integrity, written by myself, which: contains practical advice and activities based on my experience of students’ struggles with good academic practices, draws directly from the module materials for examples, and is assessed via a short compulsory quiz.  The unit, whose primary concerns are with the when and why of referencing, with encouraging students to reflect on the impact of quotations, paraphrases, and summaries, and with providing some strategies to encourage them to use sources effectively, is supplemented by a larger suite of strategically placed Study Skills sessions with practical exercises on topics such as time management, note-taking, planning, and writing assignments, reading, and creating references.

Given that teaching good academic practices actively, extensively, and as part of a structured and integrated approach was new in the Arts and Humanities, I was keen to assess the impact of this innovative approach.  To this end, as part of a larger academic-conduct project I am currently undertaking, I am seeking to ascertain whether Discovering the Arts and Humanities is more effective in developing students’ skills than its predecessor module – The Arts Past and Present­ – was.  I am doing this by considering trends in poor academic practice referrals for the two modules as well as responses to a short questionnaire sent to students who have completed either module between October 2018 and September 2020 (so students from two presentations of each module).

It is admittedly difficult to link any change strictly to the modules’ handling of good academic practices.  For instance, although on average the profile of students undertaking the Arts and Humanities foundation modules since February 2018 is similar in terms of gender, age, disability, and ethnicity, it has been more likely for Discovering the Arts and Humanities students to be registered on more than 60 credits at any given time in the presentation than was the case with The Arts Past and Present­ (AA100) students (29.7% v. 19.54%). With regards to the questionnaires, also, the responses from AA100 students could well be influenced by these students’ experiences since completing the module, or by the time passed between finishing the module and responding to the questionnaire (about a year).  There is, additionally, the wider complicating factor of the Covid-19 pandemic, which will have affected all students who have enrolled on the current foundation module so far in different ways.

All of the above notwithstanding, preliminary analysis of both the quantitative and qualitative sets of data suggests that the new model is working.  On the one hand, academic conduct referral levels in the first three presentations of Discovering the Arts and Humanities (A111) are on average lower than those in the final three presentations of the previous foundation module (1.08% of all submissions were referred for poor academic practice v. 1.34%).  What is particularly noticeable, in fact, is the sharp decline in disciplinary referrals: these accounted for 16.9% of all A111 cases of concern between October 2019 and May 2021, whereas 32.3% of all referrals on The Arts Past and Present­ between February 2018 and September 2019 were for disciplinary treatment.  On the other hand, survey responses seem to indicate that the current module is providing students with more of what they need – at least judging by the number of comments (30 v. 8) picking up on the modules’ general effectiveness in developing students’ academic skills.  Appreciation for the new module’s focus on skills is repeatedly expressed in responses, often in connection to the advantage of study skills sessions being short, embedded in the module materials, and gradually released.  The Academic Integrity unit is also generally reviewed as a useful and insightful resource, helping build students’ confidence in when and why to reference.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, by far the most common response across both questionnaires when students were asked about areas their modules could have helped them more with is that referencing presents a real struggle and is something students identify as hard work.  There are some signs that this seems less acute for The Arts Past and Present­ students since they have had more practice in the area since completing this module.  Nonetheless, it is telling that referencing remains a source of concern after the foundation year, and that there are significant overlaps between the responses mentioning referencing across both questionnaires.  They highlight, for instance, that students particularly value referencing examples explicitly identified as such within the module materials (i.e., the Assessment Booklet for The Arts Past and Present­ or the ‘How to cite this unit’ pages within Discovering the Arts and Humanities).  Yet some students interestingly reflect that this promotes overreliance on these models rather than equipping students to understand how to reference, while some others in fact admit that they are still referring to the Assessment Booklet when referencing or that they felt lost once ‘How to cite this unit’ pages were no longer available towards the end of the presentation.  Respondents across both questionnaires also express their preference for more, more regular, or more structured guidance, and it is also apparent that at least some students would welcome an open discussion on referencing, tutor support being identified in various parts of the surveys as pivotal to students’ development of academic skills and, in particular, their understanding of referencing.

Next steps

Shortly after I finished writing the Academic Integrity unit for Discovering the Arts and Humanities (A111), I became the Deputy Chair for a module that in many ways follows on from it – Cultures – and was asked to take the lead developing its Study Skills strategy.  Eventually, this materialised as a suite of 8 sessions which appear at regular intervals throughout the presentation, use examples from the adjacent module materials, and build on the skills introduced on A111, with particular focus on working effectively with sources and academic writing development.  Responses to the questionnaires outlined above happily seem to confirm that these are two areas students would generally like more support with, and now that Cultures (A112) has presented twice (it launched in October 2020), we are now conducting a survey with current students as a way to test whether the study skills suite has worked in the way we anticipated.

I am also involved in Level 1-wide conversations about a number of follow-on initiatives, not least one which seeks to address two key findings from the questionnaires (the evident anxiety referencing still causes and the value students place on tutor advice and guidance) at the same time as upholding our firm belief that, at Level 1, the emphasis should be on the when and why and not so much on the how of referencing.

For further details please contact:  Encarna Trinidad, Lecturer and Staff Tutor in English


Angelil-Carter, S. (2000) Stolen Language?: Plagiarism in Writing. Harlow: Pearson Education.

Carroll, J. and Appleton, J. (2001) Plagiarism: A Good Practice Guide [Online]. Oxford: Oxford Brookes, Joint Information Systems Committee. Available at—a-good-practice-guide-by-oxford-brookes-university.pdf (Accessed 9 June 2021).

Lampert, L. D. (2008) Combating student plagiarism: an academic librarian’s guide. Oxford: Chandos.

Park, C. (2004) ‘Rebels without a clause: towards an institutional framework for dealing with plagiarism by students,’ Journal of Further and Higher Education, vol. 28, no. 3, pp. 291-306.  Available at: (Accessed 9 June 2021).

Reducing student anxiety whilst waiting for their marked assignments

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Submitting an assignment is usually accompanied by a sense of relief but then there is the wait for the mark and the feedback which can cause anxiety amongst students.  This is particularly the case for the first assignment on a new module and happened with DD212 Understanding Criminology in its first year of presentation. 

At the Open University (OU) part of our teaching is through written assessment feedback: explaining how well students have met the learning outcomes and met the assignment requirements.   So aside from the mark, there are the inserted comments in the text plus detailed general advice on strengths and weaknesses at the end. 

Most OU tutors work part-time and many teach on several modules.  Each tutor has 10 working days after the cut-off date to complete all the marking of a particular module assignment, called tutor marked assignments or TMAs.  The assignments are returned via an electronic assignment portal – the eTMA system  

Whilst some tutors mark all assignments early on and might return after three or four working days; others mark towards the end of the period.  Some tutors mark a few and return as they go along.  Unlike the end of module results, where the results are all released electronically at the same time, the electronic TMA system does not ‘hold’ marked TMAs and release them all at the same time.   This means that there is no standard point at which students receive their TMAs.  A tutor can mark and then return all TMAs at the same time but the eTMA system does not do this returning in an automated way. 

As many students are now on social media – for example some students set up their own module Facebook group – they are readily commenting on getting their assignments back.  This can then cause concern and raise anxiety amongst those who haven’t yet had their assignment returned.  This quote from the module Facebook group is typical of the comments made by students: 

It’s just frustrating when there’s a considerable amount of people with their results back and I’m still over here waiting 

Sometimes this results in telephone enquiries from anxious students to the Student Support Team (SST) and occasionally complaints.    

In autumn 2018, the Module Team of the new level 2 Criminology module (DD212 Understanding Criminology) were alerted by the Student Support Team that some students were ringing in about not receiving their marked TMA01. The module Chair was a member of the DD212 Facebook group and was alerted to student grumbles about waiting for their mark and feedback. The Module Team decided to ask tutors to return TMAs at the same time, that is on the 10th working day after submission date.  This was particularly important for TMA02 as that was due in 17th December but the University closed on 20th December for two weeks over Christmas and New Year.  Tutors thus had until 8th January to return the TMAs.   Mindful of a potentially wide variance between tutors marking and returning before the Christmas break and those marking after the break – and potentially not returning the TMAs until 8th January – this seemed particularly important.   The module team decided to implement this new module policy as an experiment for the whole of the module, that is, to cover TMAs 2- 5. 

It mostly worked – a couple of tutors forgot to follow this new policy and had to be reminded.  For one tutor who was going away three days after TMA03 cut-off date, and planning to go abroad after marking promptly with no  ability to return the whole group whilst away, it was agreed he go ahead but alert his students to this exception. 

The evaluation of this experiment looked at student complaints, student comments on the student Facebook group and tutor feedback.  There was anecdotal evidence from the Student Support Team of a reduction in student phone calls about TMA turnaround but no mechanism for recording these on the OU management information system. 

However, there was evidence of reduced student anxiety about when they would get their TMA marks back on the student Facebook group and these postings stopped from TMA03 onwards after the module TMA turnaround policy had bedded down.    

In addition, the feedback from the tutors, whilst mostly positive about the idea of the policy, did point out that it relied on tutors remembering the correct return date and for tutors working on multiple modules in particular, this was felt to be onerous, as these two comments illustrate:- 

much prefer this way of returning marks and feedback. I do hope this continues. It saves students worrying (or getting annoyed about) why some students have received their marks and others haven’t. 

On one hand I think this is a good idea. Everybody gets theirs back at the same time. On the other the stress of having to remember to send them back on a particular day and not on the day you marked the last one is difficult. 

This evaluation took the views of the students and tutors into account and found there is evidence of the practical benefits to students of returning all marked assignments at the same time and broad support from tutors to the idea of this policy. 

The evaluation of this module policy experiment recommended the following:- 

  1. That the Student Support Team creates a category for formally recording informal complaints from students about TMA turnaround time  
  1. That the FASS Teaching and Students Committee considers the required policy and technical changes need to implement a uniform 10 working-day TMA turnaround policy (excepting extensions), with a view to providing a recommendation for implementation of the new electronic TMA marking system, UNIWISE.  

Alison Penn – Senior Lecturer in Social Policy and Criminology

Dr Alison Penn | Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (