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‘The Next Chapter’: understanding the ambitions of Creative Writing MA students

 

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Creative Writing inhabits an unusual place in the academy. A well-established and rigorous academic discipline, it also maintains a relationship with commercial publishing with many of today’s successful writers having an MA in the subject. 

The aim of our scholarship project, The Next Chapter, was to understand the career aspirations of students on the Open University’s MA in Creative Writing, and to develop teaching and assessment to support them. 

There’s an assumption that all students signing up for an MA in Creative Writing share the ambition of becoming published authors. We’d designed the Open University MA with that in mind, and embedded teaching on how to develop a career as a writer into the programme. This includes virtual ‘visits’ to online forums from industry professionals such as literary agents and editors, as well as assessment on core skills like synopsis writing. However, since the MA launched in 2016 we have noticed two factors that prompted us to undertake this project. The first was the relatively low levels of engagement with the industry professionals, and the second was objections from some students to the assessment of professional practice. We wanted to gather the views from as many students as possible to better understand why they were doing the MA, and whether they thought the professional practice elements would help them achieve their objectives. 

To do this we developed an online survey, with questions on all these areas of interest. The MA is delivered in two modules, both starting in early October of each year. Part 1 runs for eight months, and Part 2 for twelve months, so we timed the survey to capture the views of three cohorts of students: those who had just started Part 1; those who had completed Part 1 and were beginning Part 2; and those who were nearly at the end of Part 2. Naturally, the questions had to be modified to make them appropriate for the stage of study, but all three surveys covered the same main aspects of the students’ experience: 

  • Their motivations for doing the MA 
  • Their writing aspirations  
  • Their views on the teaching of professional practice (including engagement with the industry professionals’ visits)  
  • Their views on the value of assessing professional practice 

We had responses from 167 students, approximately 35% of the 474 students who were sent the survey. 

Looking at the motivations for doing the MA across all three cohorts, 63% said they wanted to be published writers, while 16% were doing the MA mainly for enjoyment. 8% wanted to improve their writing skills, with another 8% studying to help their career. So, while a sizeable proportion of students were primarily motivated by their desire to be published, over a third had other reasons for taking the MA. The 16% studying mainly for enjoyment suggests that the ‘leisure learner’ is an important component of the student intake. One interesting finding was that 41% of students had already been published prior to starting the MA, usually in small press journals or through self-publishing. 

The vast majority of students had ambitions to be traditionally published – between 54%-79% across the three cohorts – and this was ‘Extremely important’ or ‘Somewhat important’ to 75% of them. 

We also asked students to reflect on what their ambitions and intentions were for after they had completed the MA. The combined responses show that 30% of students want to write part-time, with 22% aspiring to be full-time writers. Somewhat surprisingly to us, only 10% of students hoped to teach Creative Writing. An MA is often considered a necessary or advantageous qualification for Creative Writing teaching even in informal settings, but it would seem it was not a significant motivator for this cohort of students. Another surprising result was that nearly a quarter (23%) of students were interested in pursuing further Creative Writing studies, such as a PhD.  

Engagement with the professional practice forums was low among Part 1 students, with 16% posting on these forums. Part 2 students seemed more engaged, with 49% of the surveyed students saying they had posted questions or comments. The reasons students gave for not participating were: they didn’t have time (16%); they didn’t feel confident enough (12%); they didn’t post a question because someone else had already asked it (48%). This final figure is backed up by the reported high degree of ‘passive’ use of the forums – i.e. students reading and learning from others’ posts.  

When it comes to the assessment of professional practice, the majority of students (62.7%) had not expected to be assessed on elements pertaining to publishing. However, for students approaching the end of the degree, 66% felt it was appropriate that this element should be included in their assessed work, while the remaining 34% thought the task should either be zero weighted or not part of the assessment, at all. 

 We are already putting the data we’ve gathered to practical use. For example, we’ve acknowledged the appetite for doctoral study by running a workshop for MA students in Creative Writing and English on how to write a PhD proposal. In its first year, this was well-attended.  

In response to our more nuanced understanding of the range of student ambitions, we are now working with the Society of Authors (essentially, the union for professional writers) to deliver some collaborative teaching which focuses on the various ways that students might build a working life which includes writing. This is a shift away from the original attention paid to more traditional mainstream publishing success. In a smaller sense, we’ve tweaked the professional practice assessment task in Part 2 of the MA to bring it into line with current publishing practice. We will seriously consider the weighting of this assessment, in light of student comments arising from the scholarship project. 

 In conclusion, this project has been invaluable in providing us with a detailed insight into the students’ aspirations, and their views on how well the MA supports them in achieving these. It has also given us solid data on which to base important decisions about continuing to develop and improve what we offer to our students in future.  

Dr Ed Hogan, Lecturer in Creative Writing 

Dr Heather Richardson, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing 

Running an effective online gallery visit

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Open University Art History modules have offered optional face to face gallery visits as part of their tutorial offering for decades. Experience shows that there are a number of both tangible and intangible ‘tried and tested’ benefits of these visits for students who might not have many opportunities to do this. These include critical engagement with physical art objects; an enhancement of students’ understanding of the role of cultural institutions in the display and interpretation of art objects; and opportunities for students to discuss with tutors and fellow students how the visit relates to study of their specific module in a more informal, socially interactive way than might be possible in a classroom setting. Our scholarship project, Running an effective online gallery visit, explored how and to what extent these benefits can be replicated in the online situation by collating data on the experiences of students and their tutors, putting this in the context of other related scholarship, and coming up with recommendations and ideas for further investigation. 

Online study visits have been an integral part of Open University programmes for some years, with the aim of increasing access and inclusivity. This project was originally conceived to evaluate how these sessions were being run, and to share ideas and identify best practice. An important part of this was to explore how students perceive the value they add to their studies, and how we can mediate this to them. The move to all-online teaching, forced by the pandemic, made this an even more timely piece of scholarship.  

Each online gallery visit focuses on a specific museum or similar institution and is delivered using the same software package (Adobe Connect) as that used for online tutorials.  The majority of tutors base them on a PowerPoint presentation which can include their selection of images of individual art works, whole gallery displays, interior and exterior architecture, historical and other contextual material, and quotes, references and questions from the module the students are studying. Both microphone and chat box facilities are available and can be supplemented by inbuilt facilities for polling (quizzes, surveys, etc.) and for sharing video and audio clips.  The aim is to deliver, as far as possible, a similarly interactive and varied experience as would happen face-to-face.  The majority of the events are recorded as another way of widening accessibility. 

Our research covered the two main stakeholders in these visits, students and tutors.  Students were surveyed following the online visits in the 20/21 academic year, using a qualitative survey with free-text responses, asking two main questions of those who had attended: ‘What worked well for you in your experience of this online equivalent to a gallery visit?’ and ‘What would have improved your experience?’, and following this up with detailed analysis of their responses.  In the case of tutors, detailed interviews were carried out with colleagues who already had considerable experience of planning and running online gallery visits, and existing resources collated. 

We also carried out a review of existing literature, to keep abreast of the way this is proliferating. The majority of the scholarly and professional literature and activity we reviewed had been centred on and emanating from the work of the museum as a provider of content and of cultural capital more generally: our focus came from a different direction, being on how we can best make use of this as professional ‘users’ of the art museum and similar venues.  

Across the modules surveyed, there was a great deal of appreciation expressed by students for being able to virtually visit museums and galleries and get to know collections that would not normally be accessible to them, due to travelling distance and/or students’ personal circumstances (e.g., economic, disabilities, etc.).  Allied to this was the opportunity to attend more than one online visit, and it was clear from responses that many students had embraced this with enthusiasm, seeing it as a particular advantage of having all the gallery visits online and most recorded. Students had also been able to experience different tutors’ approaches to delivery of this very specific kind of learning event.  Many students praised the knowledge and enthusiasm of the tutors leading the visits, found them informative, and enjoyed sharing the experience with other students.  

In terms of content and pedagogy, positive feedback was noted on the relation of material in the gallery visit to module content in general, or to the place in the module students were studying at the time.  Comments on methods of presentation of the galleries and their contents suggest that we may need to clarify that different tutors’ approaches are underpinned by their own scholarly interests and methods, all of which also emerge at different places in the regular teaching materials. This may be informed by contextualising approaches, institutional critique, theories related to the artist or the art work (stylistic, iconographic, etc.), postcolonial or feminist studies, among others.  Opportunities to work together on analysis of specific art works and images of the wider gallery/institutional context were clearly appreciated.  A bonus aspect of an online visit was the fact that tutors had been able to include relevant works not currently on show in the galleries, or which students might not have spotted on their own, as well as covering images, displays and information from former exhibitions pertinent to their studies. 

The need for a well-planned structure to online visits was emphasised by a number of students; while we can allow for a certain level of serendipitous ‘on the hoof’ change when physically taking a group round a museum, this can prove confusing in an online visit.  This also highlights the potential value of preparatory and follow-up activities if time permits. 

There were a number of reservations about the technological aspect of accessing these sessions; this is probably inevitable given the broad nature of the OU student demographic, and we continue to consider mitigations. 

Our immediate aim on completing the project was to share our findings with Art History colleagues within the OU who are currently teaching student groups or engaged in module development. This has already been done and has proved its use both to experienced and new colleagues. The longer-term aim is that these findings will prove of value to colleagues in other subject areas, and beyond the Open University. 

 

Dr Veronica Davies, Associate Lecturer in Art History 

Dr Lindsay Crisp, Lecturer in Art History 

Enquiry Into the Impact of Extensions

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On becoming Module Chairs of one of the Open University’s largest Level 1 entry modules, Introducing the Social Sciences (DD102), myself, Zoe Doye, and my colleague, Ieman Hassan, have become fervent data watchers.  As soon as an assignment cut-off date has passed, we find ourselves in front of our respective computers, impatient to find out the percentage of students who have submitted their assignments.  This we continue to monitor as days and even weeks pass, for our Level 1 students are enthusiastic extension requesters, and it is not unusual to have around a quarter of students not submit their assignment at cut-off; most, but not all, with extensions logged on the system.  

As a distance and open learning institution, the Open University is known for being student-centred and flexible in its approach. We have to be: many of our students work – some full time; many have caring responsibilities; high numbers have health and disability issues; increasingly they are studying full time. Our students are finding time to study amidst often very busy and demanding lives.  It is presumed that allowing students more time to submit their assignment, if they need it, aids retention as this reduces the likelihood of the student not submitting the assignment, or worse, dropping out of a module. This approach is used and encouraged particularly at Level 1 where students are new to degree-level study and may be returning to education after many years.  However, as Ieman and myself pored over module data and watched as the submission rates slowly inched their way up, we started to wonder whether extensions really were helping our students, or simply creating a delay. Might other interventions or discussions around study be more appropriate?  It was on that basis that we undertook a high-level data analysis of extensions on two level 1 modules: Introducing the Social Sciences (DD102) and Voices, Texts and Material Culture (A105) for the October 2018 cohort of students (therefore pre-COVID).  There were 3229 students registered on DD102 and 1482 on A105. 

The OU’s policy on extensions is published on both the tutor facing and student facing intranet sites. Students are expected to request an extension before the assignment cut-off date.   For students who wish for an extension of between 1-7 days after the cut-off due to ‘unforeseen circumstances such as illness of a student or their family, or severe work pressure’, their tutor, or Associate Lecturer, can grant this request to give the student time to catch-up. A tutor can also give a student an extension for 8-21 days after the cut-off if there are ‘serious reasons’ why the student cannot submit at the normal time.  The guidance suggests that an extension of this length can only be given twice on a 60-point module and once on a 30-point module (to give  context here, 120 points is equivalent to one-year full time study), and any further requests for extensions should be referred upwards, as should requests for an extension longer than 21 days.  Unlike more traditional universities, students don’t need to provide supporting evidence for most assignment extensions. Therefore, on the most part, an extension can be granted following a single phone call or email exchange between student and tutor.  

Ieman and I started our investigation by looking at the existing research into extensions.  Surveying the literature, we quickly realised that we had to be extremely cautious in what we could take away from previous research as, with a few interesting exceptions (see, for instance, Patton, 2010),  most focussed on traditional, brick, HE institutions, mainly in the US.  Nonetheless, existing literature on student extensions seemed divided between that which is focussed on students who do not submit an assignment because they ‘procrastinate’ and that which looks at the very real reasons why, for distance learning in particular, it is difficult for students to adhere to deadlines.  Both sets of literature are concerned with impact of assignment extensions on academic performance, with again, a division between those that strongly feel that a delay negatively impacts academic achievement whilst others argue that delays enable progression that would otherwise not happen.   

Intrigued by the broad spread of opinion and findings on the subject, we analysed the available data on the two modules we were investigating. This gave us the following headlines:  

  • Between 60-70% of students don’t ever ask for an extension 
  • A higher percentage of students who passed the modules had an extension than those who failed or withdrew.  This would suggest that extensions do play a role in helping a student pass a module. 
  • Of those students who do ask for an extension, generally the more extensions requested, the more likely that a student will pass the module. This isn’t surprising: once a student is behind, more extensions might be needed as the student catches up. 
  • Students who ask for an extension for the first assignment are more likely to fail the module than those who ask towards the end of the module.  Again, this isn’t surprising as the use of an extension so early on would suggest that a student is struggling with study and/or has a lot of other commitments to contend with. 
  • The percentage of students who have an extension logged and withdraw from the module is greater than those students who withdrew from the module with no extensions logged.  This one is a little of an oddity.  In contrast to the bullet point above, it would suggest that extensions weren’t necessarily helping student not to withdraw. 
  • Students who formally withdrew from study had longer extensions granted (in terms of days) than those who passed the module.  Again, this isn’t surprising.  Longer extensions suggest that a student is really struggling with study or juggling other commitments.   But this last point made us pause – were the length of the extensions themselves perhaps the culprit here for the numbers of students withdrawing despite extensions?  Would shorter, extensions, even if they accumulated, support students from withdrawing from study, not least because the process of extension negotiation would prompt increased communication between the student and their tutor? 

So far, there weren’t really any surprises.   The data we were looking at could only give us limited information: extensions were obviously being used by some, but not all, students, but we could not know if the same student who passed a module with an extension would have likewise passed if no extension had been granted. 

We then started to look at what the data told us about student extensions and demographics.  This painted – in places – a rather more surprising picture: 

  • Older students (46 and over) are less likely to have an extension than younger students, with the 26-35 age band being the most prevalent. 
  • White students have generally less extensions than other ethnic groups. 
  • Students who have declared a disability have more extensions than those students without a declared disability. 
  • Students in a high socioeconomic group were substantially more likely to have an extension than those in a low socioeconomic group. 
  • Students with no formal qualification prior to entry to the Open University were substantially less likely to ask for an extension. 

So what were we seeing here? The data seemed to suggest that it was those students with some previous experience of study and in a reasonably strong socio-economic position, were more likely to request an extension than other students.  In other words (and we realise that this is generalising) it is our middle-class students who, perhaps because they have the voice and confidence to do so, are asking for more time to get their assessment tasks done.  Equally, looking at the prevalence of 26–35-year-olds asking for extensions, students who are likely to be working and/or have families or care responsibilities are using extensions to get themselves through study.   So, acknowledging that there might be very real reasons why students may need more time to submit an assignment, it would seem that extensions are also used strategically by our students.   

Recognising the limitations of our scholarship so far, we are cautiously talking about our findings to others within the University, including our own tutors on DD102.  We very much wish to add the student voice to the data we have so far, and with this in mind, hope to engage in a follow-up scholarship project in order to interview our students as to why, or why not, they are using assignment extensions to get through their study.  

 

Patton, M, (2010), The Importance of Being Flexible with Assignment Deadlines, Higher Education in Europe, Vol. XXV, No. 3, pp. 417-423 

 

 Zoe Doye is a Senior Lecturer and Staff Tutor in the School of Social Sciences and Global Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.  She is the FASSTEST Scholarship lead for the School of Social Sciences and Global Studies. 

Ieman Hassan is a Lecturer and Staff Tutor in the School of Social Sciences and Global Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences 

 

 

Study Intensity at the Open University

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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 

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Rationale  

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 

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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 

 

Reference 

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@open.ac.uk. 

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

References 

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 

References:  

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] https://proceedings.eden-online.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/RW10_2018_Barcelona_Proceedings_ISSN.pdf 

 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] https://doi.org/10.18792/jbasr.v22i0.51 

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