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The experience of learning during Covid-19 could help students show us who they really are

As university campuses prepare to reopen for mass face to face teaching, Tom Whitford and Chloe Threadgold wonder what Covid-19 has taught us about student agency and self-determination.
This article is more than 3 years old

Tom Whitford is the Learning Experience Lead for Curio UK

Chloë Threadgold is a consultant with Curio UK

We have all been witness to the many ways in which UK higher education institutions have been forced to rapidly migrate to online provision. All of these changes because of the online migration have meant that the sector has experienced a grand audit of who learners are, and what teaching serves them for.

The recent Skills to Thrive survey makes clear the role of universities in “soft” skills development. The report acknowledges that the qualities embodied by a sense of “personal agency”, though vital for graduates to gain through the course of their studies, are often difficult to embed within the curriculum, especially without taking a tick-box approach to skills development.

The online mode arguably offers greater agency to learners and creates opportunities to more easily build curiosity-driven learning experiences. Now that campuses look set to reopen for face to face teaching, it’s time for universities to reflect carefully on the learnings from online teaching over the past year and consider what stays, what goes, and what can be gained through using online tools to support students to develop a greater sense of personal agency through their learning.

Educators have been witness to a mass re-imagining of online teaching approaches and strategies in the migration to the online mode of delivery of the past twelve months. The grand audit has impacted all sectors of education from elementary to higher education, characterised by comprehensive instructions, designing for asynchronous student engagement, and supporting self-directed learners.

However, a greater degree of prescriptiveness has sometimes been the end result of these efforts, perhaps out of fear of creating a confusing student experience. This in turn results in a greater fear of the administrative burden and a higher effort for the educator through potential requisite in a one-to-one troubleshooting.


When we drift back to our most memorable days as a student, we may recall an eccentric educator, or strong and vibrant personality steering us through a new idea. Often, it is a profound educational experience; one that has meaning, personal connection, and has inspired us to share the anecdote and repeat to enthralled peers or family members. The co-construction of learning has actually occurred in this moment of teaching and re-telling. This is an important pedagogical trick to refresh – through retelling – and to preserve the memory of the moment.

Semantically, the definition of pedagogy is the theory and practice of learning (and, by proxy, the profession of teaching). But look deeper, and it refers to teacher-led learning, often to children as students (etymologically, ped- being the Greek prefix for the teaching of young children). For higher education contexts, this language is not only chronically misused, but also limits an understanding of who teaching is for, and how learning can be adapted to an adult learner.

The most accountable and autonomous situations occur when learners are self-determined and driven by a deep desire or challenge to “find problems”. This is referred to as heutagogy, where learner motivation stems from seeking out unfamiliar spaces, welcoming new competencies, for example languages, skills or paradigms.

The challenge to the higher education sector, more widely, is to return to a basic understanding of who learners are, and to reaffirm a commitment to adult education. This requires a shift in thinking of how learners are guided, what motivates cohorts, but also the best way to inspire a sense of autonomy. Fulfilment from learning comes from a deep connection to experience, relevance to personal lives that excites and furthers an individual to continue to learn.

The role of developing autonomy should be front and centre of the educational mission, and – despite some apprehension – can be supported in an online context. This is done through designing for activities that are less structured, for example requiring students to choose a case study or example to investigate, or “flip” more of the learning materials.

With clear signposting, adult learners can come prepared to live webinars with examples to share that constitute the subsequent learning session. Or perhaps students can come prepared to showcase an example of their personal or professional life that is tied explicitly to a theory or model. Better still, a good online facilitator would ask them to explain how the model does not correspond or align, and what a better framework could look like.

Educators should be encouraged to set the challenge, coach adult learners towards a set of resources and ask for meaning to be made. In adult education it’s vital we develop an online environment for students both to provoke, and be provoked, and harness the discussion and potential of students with tangential ideas. Educators should foster and nurture these, and resist a temptation to apply a rubric. Radically, educators could give students the “answers” and ask them to write the best and most complete question, to gamify a simple learning activity.


All of these above ideas require professional educators to go beyond a linear view of the semester and to think about setting out a roadmap for students to be self-determined beyond an online course and subject. It might also require creativity with the use of reflection as a formative assessment tool, or even peer assessment. This has the added potential to reduce workload on educators while improving the quality of feedback and collaborative outcomes for students.

In situations where educators may doubt the preparedness of their students for higher education, for example students entering the first year of undergraduate degrees from school environments where they’ve had little education beyond coaching to pass exams, I urge educators to give this approach a try.

Undergraduate students revel in being asked to contribute to their learning, and create a roadmap of what they would like to apply new ideas. Release some control of the classroom and the need to be prescriptive with how comprehension is demonstrated.

By addressing students as adults, it necessitates a mature response. Invite even the most green and recent high-school graduates to articulate their study purpose, and what the course or degree means to them, and why. The rationale is key to the reflective possibility and power of heutagogy.

The challenge is made no easier or harder by the online mode. It requires an educator mindset to appreciate the maturity of the learner, and the bravery to set-aside a prescriptive one-size-fits all approach to the student experience.

2 responses to “The experience of learning during Covid-19 could help students show us who they really are

  1. Self directed learning is hard for many undergrads, having been spoon fed through everything up to this point and too often expecting the same at University. Those that can shed that expectation and grow themselves do better overall, but too many parents do the adulting for them, delaying the students development both academically and as an adult.

    Some of our 2nd and 3rd years who have developed prefer attending lectures virtually from home/HMO, why get up at stupid o’clock to go in the cold and wet to attend a lecture you can’t concentrate on because your cold and wet?

    It’s those transitioning from childhood taught learning in the first year that need support, once beyond that 1st year if they can’t cope they’re going to be pretty useless ‘real world’ employee’s, and become perpetual s-TOO-DENSE or academics…

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