Dr Juliane Scheffel and Dr Andrew Mearman discuss welcoming economics students, 2020-style
Dr Juliane Scheffel and Dr Andrew Mearman discuss welcoming economics students, 2020-style, from their presentation to the TeachECONference 2021.
TeachECONference 2021 was organised by the Centre for Teaching and Learning in Economics at University College, London.
Whilst this is a story primarily about Economics students differently in the Covid pandemic, it is also about communication between colleagues. So, it is important to note that prior to the pandemic, Andrew Mearman was seconded to the Leeds Institute for Teaching Excellence on a (joint with Dr Ruth Payne) research and transformation project examining welcome and induction practices at Leeds, called ELIXIR.
Key principles that emerged from this work were that welcome and induction are ongoing processes, designed to foster a sense of belonging and community, in which social networks are incredibly important. Advice from peers is really valued but relationships with key academic staff are crucial. Induction needs to recognise that students do not have the headspace for lots of information, which can come later. It is therefore vital to understand the student’s emotional journey as they enter University, which can differ greatly depending on the student. This work became central to the new University response to Covid, helping to establish principles and an evidential base for the new year.
A central element of that response was that the University-built Getting Started at Leeds, a Blackboard-based wrapper mainly for existing resources, sharing practice across the University, curated so as to guide students through at their own pace. It provided students with their basic information and ways into other resources for deeper exploration. This work was intended to take the burden off Schools and Faculties, so that they could get on with building community and establishing a sense of belonging.
Within each faculty every division (akin to a department) was given their own space to share information with the new students about the organisation of the induction week, the material used and links to all synchronous sessions. In Economics, we wanted this space to be more than a mere file repository. We therefore added a personal touch by providing short welcome videos of our Head of Division Professor David Spencer, brief introduction videos of the personal tutors as well as short introductions to the modules offered by the Economics Division during their first semester. To help students with any queries or problems they may have faced during this week, we have also made available a Q&A Padlet on which they could get in touch with us and receive answers to their questions quickly.
As is currently typical, our initial welcome to new students took place in an ‘induction week’, immediately before teaching started. All synchronous sessions offered during induction week had a clear purpose. We held our first session on Monday. It was aimed at welcoming and introducing the new students to the University and the Division. Building community and creating a sense of belonging to the Economics Division was at the heart of this session. To achieve this, we used different activities, for example a TopHat quiz in which students could learn about others and could share thoughts about starting university life (word cloud on the left) and their worries (word cloud on the right). Recognising a common experience is known to enhance a sense of belonging. We also put students into break-out rooms and gave them ice breakers to allow them to start conversations with others on their course.
To allow students to get organised, to choose their optional and discovery modules and to not overload them with information, we did not schedule anything on Tuesday. It is important to give new students space in this week, as it is an intense period for them.
An important feature of the induction week was to provide a variety of opportunities for the new students to meet key people, to foster the sense of belonging. In this regard, we ensured that all students were allocated their personal tutors already during induction week (in previous years, the personal tutor allocation was completed by week 2). On Wednesday, students then had the chance to meet their personal tutors in a ‘Meet-and-greet your personal tutor’ session. This session allowed students to get to know their personal tutors and to learn about the personal tutorial system and gave them the opportunity to ask any questions they may have. Each personal tutor was joined by a second-year student (PASS leader) to provide the student perspective and to give the new students advice about studying effectively.
To introduce students to the research and the open debate culture of the Economics Division, on Thursday we invited students of all years to our first “Lunch with the Economists”. This is a bi-weekly event organised in association with the Economics Society. During this session, three members of the Economics Division talked about the implications of the pandemic and the lock-down on different areas of economics. Attendance was excellent and students from all years engaged in very lively discussions.
Finally, the Friday session was aimed at preparing students for teaching and online learning which started in the following week.
During the entire induction week, we made sure to refer students to the central induction resources and if possible, to integrate some of these resources into the delivery of the induction week. For example, each induction session was held on one of the platforms that our students use in their online learning (Zoom, MS Teams or Blackboard Collaborate). This ensured that students were exposed to these before starting the semester.
One of the main challenges of the induction week was community building. In previous years, students had the chance to get to know each other and the campus with all its amenities on a campus challenge which was organised with the help of student volunteers. To replicate this to some extent in the online context, we initiated an Induction Group challenge during the Welcome session on Monday. Students were randomly allocated into break-out rooms with up to six members. After a few ice breakers, they were then given the task to either produce a short video or a poster about the economic impact of working from home and to submit their final work to us by Thursday. The task was accompanied by an ‘Induction Challenge brief’ in which students were directed to supporting library resources for advice about creating academic posters and video presentations as well as guidance and tools to facilitate group work and to work on shared documents etc. So instead of a campus tour, students were given a tour of university resources with the added benefit of making friends while working on a joint task.
By the submission deadline on Thursday, 45 groups submitted their posters. In our Friday session, the winners were announced, and small prizes were awarded. This activity contributed to building a sense of belonging because this activity allowed them to work together on a joint project and create something together. The added benefit of this task was this online group work prepared students the group assessment on their core economics module.
What have we learned? It was really important to align central and local activity, and key to that was that Juliane understood the overarching philosophy and objectives of induction. Also, it was important to share good practice across the University on the specifics of online induction. In that sense, conversations between the two of us were crucial to the design of welcome and induction in 2020.
However, as it turned out, information about the details of the institutional resources came late so the ability to embed them into local practice and activity planning was limited.
Having said that, online welcome and induction was not by any means bad, and in some respects, worked well. Indeed, many elements of the new approach taken, including a revamped institutional resource, plus the local videos, introductions, early peer mentoring, and meeting personal tutors earlier, will be retained beyond this exceptional year.