In national polling of students for the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission, 59 per cent of students cited the resumption of face-to-face teaching as the thing they were most looking forward to for the autumn.

Yet a significant percentage of students said they enjoyed online learning, and a majority wanted a blended mix of online and in-person teaching to survive into next term.

So when we asked five students unions to report back from their focus groups at a dedicated SUs evidence session, we were keen to discover what students meant by a preference for “blended”, and whether their preference for flexibility that fits around their individual lives is compatible with meeting others at the same time, and in the same place.

Somebody’s listening

Before they could get to answers, we were reminded of how important it often is to talk to students on their own terms. One of the things that Dani Bradford, the Research Coordinator at Herts SU said they’d found with all their focus groups this year was that students have been craving someone to talk to about how their year has been – because while there have been lots of surveys, so many haven’t really felt listened to.

If we want constructive and creative engagement from students about recovery from the pandemic, we may have to set aside our impatience for solutions and answers as we help them process and interpret a traumatic year.

Picking up some of the findings from the quantitative results, Herts SU’s groups had focussed on connections with other students – and as we saw reflected in national polling, students that hadn’t experienced Herts pre-pandemic and had started their course during it largely reported having no friends at all.

This was exacerbated for international students – many of whom reported that the reason they came to the UK was not just for the academic provision, but to meet people of different cultures and different backgrounds – that that social aspect was a huge aspect of the decision to study in the UK.

For most of these students, online classes were fine academically – but the role that these timetable tentpoles play in fostering social connection that is, in turn, valuable for the academic experience should not be underestimated.

There’s no doubt that students’ confidence has taken a hit. Students spoke about how discomfort, shyness and shame has meant they’ve kept microphones and cameras off – and so for them, online teaching has meant they’ve struggled to reach out to other students and staff, and their anxiety has intensified. Students report having forgotten how to interact and connect with others, and say that this has sometimes resulted in tensions and arguments in group chats, exacerbating biases and stereotypes about different student groups – particularly around race and culture.

Students are going to need time and space to build the confidence to engage in a diverse community again – something we shouldn’t leave to chance if we want students to reap its benefits.

To the front

At Leicester, the SU’s Research and Insight Manager had also found student concerns about diversity dominating the discussion. In Lily Patrick’s focus group, students identified important factors in feeling part of the university community – finding other students who shared similar lived experiences or a similar identity, being able to get to know others on the course, and finding diverse students with common interests.

All three were already a challenge for a university that caters better for white, middle class students than the Black students in the group – but a sense that suddenly everyone had been impacted did little to alleviate the worry at being left behind.

In the UK we have a model that disproportionately relies on student societies, where student volunteers operate and deliver much of what we call the wider experience. That provides a vibrancy for many, but for these students the only events “for them” that have been available during their time at Leicester have been self-organised – lacking the money in funding and advertising to reach a wide selection of students, as well as putting the onus on students who have been marginalised to create their own entertainment. Put a pandemic on top, and the isolation has intensified.

What was clear was that when many in universities and SUs scratch their head about the sort of the “events” that should be staged, much of what’s needed is straightforward. The group talked of the importance of semi-formal gatherings like going for coffee in groups, and encouraging student societies to stage events that were deliberately about new people trying new things.

They also stressed the importance of time and investment in activity that allowed diverse students to find eachother – but to make sure that we don’t assume that this is all that Disabled or Black or LGBT+ students want to do.

What’s next

Confidence was high on the agenda at City University SU for Ryan Ginger, the Membership Insight Coordinator and Ruqaiyah Javaid, the outgoing Vice President Education. In their groups, students perceived the jobs market to be awful, competitive and bleak. In particular, students felt infuriated and confused by the process of applying for jobs. They said that rejection for jobs and not hearing back from employers were some of the reasons why they weren’t feeling positive about the whole process, and others described being disheartened by multiple rejections and the silence that surrounded it.

Students did have ideas for what would help. They said they would value support with bouncing back from rejection, and because everyone is saying “I’m resilient” and “I’ve gained digital skills”, deliberate investment in opportunities like volunteering, internships, and soft skill development – even for those graduating now – would really help.

The lack of exposure to professional working environments was also something that students said was knocking their confidence – and creating deep uncertainty about what roles to apply for – so finding ways for that kind of exposure to be “built back” was important.

For some students, the pandemic brought new found opportunities through digital internships and online work experience opportunities – some were applying for roles that they wouldn’t ordinarily have considered if everything was in person. And for others, the pandemic has delivered genuinely useful opportunities through remote working and the flexibility that it provides. Online opportunities were useful in being able to get a taste of different industries – and this is something that they would like to see continued post pandemic, but not as a replacement for in-person experiences.

It’s clear that just as we are moving to a “blended” future for teaching and learning, we should be doing so too for careers support, not least because careers themselves will likely involve a mixture of remote and in-person working. And for students, the value of career coaching – through figures like (but not necessarily as currently imagined) personal tutors – should not be underestimated.

Flexibility and workload

For Rob Samuel – Bangor SU’s Student Voice Manager – focus groups were a great opportunity to understand how students have used and interacted with the “emergency pivot” teaching provided by academics at the university.

One major finding was the feeling of time pressure when watching pre-recorded sessions – some students said it can take nearly double the time to process the material because they’re pausing the session or rewinding part of it to look up concepts or run things past others in group chats.

Add in the extra materials supplied by well-meaning academics in the name of “value”, and we overwhelm students. If we’re hunting for blended best practice, we should note the positive reception for one students’ pattern of hour-long recorded lectures, plus a one hour interactive session focussed on application and opportunities to ask questions in a relaxed way.

As with others, the importance of social connection to learning came through strongly. Both pre and during Covid, students are more likely to ask their peers for clarity on learning or when confused than staff members – and they often work in social groups in a way that provides encouragement, a sense that they’re in it together, a place to ask questions and a way to get clarity of understanding. Because much of that happens organically and informally, it’s clear that platform inconsistency can be confusing and overwhelming and some students miss out from being left out. Being more deliberate about the creation of course communities feels important in a post-pandemic world.

In the groups at Bangor, many felt that their grades had dropped from their first year. These students felt that not being able to bounce off each other in class affected their performance. Grades are an indication of how they are doing, and lecturer interaction does help to gauge progress. But talking to peers helps students to gauge academic progress too. They also really missed the moral support, and the chance to debrief each other after assessments – especially exams – and perhaps not thinking they were the only one who thought they’d completely and utterly like bombed out, for example:

So when I had the exam, for that particular subject, it was really, really hard. But then I met this, there was this one student, I remember he was in a meeting. And he also had his camera on. So I still remember his face. I saw him at the supermarket in Morrison’s and he and I was like, hey, do you remember me? I was like, feeling sick, worried, depressed, crying, overwhelmed. And all these sorts of exams, sort of fever things that usually we have in the exam, I thought I was the only one. It was so like, liberating to find out that I wasn’t the only one”.

Students were also keen to discuss group work. There was quite a lot of negativity towards group work pre-pandemic, but even more so during. Students are still saying that for group work to work, they need help with team management, coordination and dynamics. “In at the deep end” was never really an effective way of engendering these skills – and specific interventions that make this process more valuable and less painful could really help in the future.

An expert panel

For Nick Glover, Student Voice and Insight Manager from the University of York SU, running the focus groups was straightforward – they’ve worked with their university to invest in maintaining a group of students called the “student expert panel”, taken from Office for Students APP target groups, and acting as a recruited group that are paid for their insight. It’s an approach that has ensured SU input into APP work at the university has been richer in insight and more impactful.

One interesting finding was that quite a few of the students Nick talked to described the importance of having a group to go to, or a certain activity at a certain time in the day or time in the week – they really placed a high priority on structure, and having a routine, that’s obviously been hugely disrupted and impacted by Covid. The everyday mundanity of living at home really caused their learning to be impacted, and they had really struggled to motivate themselves and self-regulate. It all points to a need for a period where we are more forgiving about deadlines and work patterns as student and campus life “fills back up” its mixture of work, social activity, extra curricular experiences and study components.

Lots of the students Nick saw talked about how difficult it has been to meet people on their course – that online seminars and teaching sessions haven’t been conducive to students getting to know each other. There’s something for universities to learn about how we organise and how we design courses, and a potential for “course design” more generally to include being an enabler of social connection – we have to think about how we design that and how we curate it.

Quite a few students talked about academic societies too, and the potential importance of them in terms of facilitating interconnections between students on different streams within a department, and with different cohorts too. They talked about being quite feeling quite restricted to making friends within their year group and within their course, and wanting to make friends and make connections beyond these confines. Taking steps to boost partnerships between academic departments and SUs in building these academic societies in the years ahead feels like a no-brainer.

More than freedom

There was lots more to digest from the sessions, and I’d recommend watching back the recording on the commission site. And without throwing shade on any of my colleagues around the country from the year just gone, it also struck me how rich SU-led focus group work can be when compared to just plonking a student officer on a committee. Not all SUs have the funding or capacity to run real research – and they should. A bit of ring-fenced resource to make student input more authentic would help everyone.

We should be careful about misreading survey results. Students do desire the flexibility of recorded and asynchronous learning materials – but not at the expense of human contact with others and not if they are going to be overloaded. It underlines how important it is to listen to students about their lives as well as poll their preferences.

Above all, what struck me about the session was that most of the issues students were raising in focus groups were things that impacted some students pre-pandemic too – as with lots of other aspects of our lives, they’ve just hit more students in a more significant way, and we’ve become more aware of them.

Most importantly, it’s clear that a lot of these fixes are not just about restrictions lifting, but are instead about everyone in higher education taking deliberate steps to improve our cultures of access and inclusion – improving students’ social capital as a way of supporting students to develop confidence and attainment both socially and academically.

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