New student induction is a process. Students start their courses with some understanding of what it’s going to be like, with a mountain of expectations and plenty of anxieties. Historically, universities often rush the transition process and seek to squeeze it into an administratively convenient week of guest lectures, important messages and introductory events. Of course, most colleagues recognise that the process is longer and more complicated, but institutions often still place huge expectations that by the end of Freshers/Welcome/Induction/Orientation Week students will have essentially got ‘it’ and we can move on to the normal business of teaching and learning.
In 2018, Nottingham Trent University (NTU) began providing a centrally delivered Welcome Workshop to help new students start to build support networks. In 2020, we faced a global pandemic and had to move it all online.
This is a a snapshot of what happened.
Background – Welcome Week at NTU
Since 2005, NTU has run a programme of social and orientation activities designed to help students make the transition into HE. The programme, Welcome Week, intentionally increased the variety of activities available to students away the traditional party focus of Freshers’ Week (*). At the same time, there has been work to improve the quality of the course induction with more emphasis on pre-arrival activities and encouraging staff to replace lectures with smaller, more-interactive learning activities.
First year student satisfaction about the early university increased, particularly amongst groups such as mature and international students. Course inductions are also now slightly longer, with a greater variety of activity included and student feedback about their induction has also improved.
However, NTU researchers continued to uncover student anxieties about how well they were fitting into their course and that early reasons for considering leaving were often social rather than academic. In 2018, the University took a different approach. Instead of solely relying on course teams to integrate community-building into their induction practices, a central team organised a programme of Welcome Workshops to augment the transition process. Evaluation from the first year showed that students felt an increased sense of community and agency from taking part and were more aware of support services available. The effect was more noticeable amongst under represented groups.
The two-hour participatory Welcome Workshops were developed by the Collaborative Engagement and Retention Team (CERT) in partnership with the charity Grit. The workshops were designed to:
- provide students with an explicit opportunity to meet their peers
- find common ground with their peers
- explore some expectations about learning at university
- participate in sessions with an appropriate level of personal challenge in the learning space they would come to call home
- meet their second and final year CERT Student Mentors
The workshops comprised four core activities:
- Paired discussion – essentially an ice breaker with some feedback to the whole group
- Whole group disclosure activity – the facilitators use an approach to draw the whole group into a quick opportunity for safe disclosure about themselves. This activity aims to establish connections by helping students orientate themselves to their peers, partly by sharing a few memorable points, but mainly by helping students to understand how diverse their peers are and hopefully reduce any anxieties about being imposters
- Small group discussion – working in small groups, the students have the opportunity to discuss some of their talents, for example finding someone in the group who “has travelled from another continent to be here today” or “has done a bungee or parachute jump”. Students are encouraged to feed these back in plenary.
- Small group discussion – this time students discuss any myths they may have heard about university life. Importantly, the CERT Student Mentors play a more prominent part by sharing their own views about the myths. Once again these are fed back to the whole group in a plenary at the end.
- CERT mentor/ mentee networking – The session closes with the opportunity for students to meet their CERT Student Mentor and discuss how to stay in contact and next meetings
The sessions scale well, they are often hard work to facilitate, normally requiring two staff facilitators and involvement from the relevant CERT Student Mentors. I was slightly involved in the early development work and had some anxieties that the disclosure would be too high pressure for less-confident students. The truth is that the more-confident students tend to start happy to step in and this behaviour usually increases all students’ confidence. At the end of the day, less-confident participants can just watch; they don’t have to reveal anything they don’t want to.
Moving it all online
And then, 2020 and the global pandemic.
The workshops were moved online and facilitated using Microsoft Teams. Throughout the summer, the organisers were promised that breakout rooms would be available in Teams for the start of the academic year, but they only just appeared in time. The workshops followed essentially the same structure as used in 2019. The sessions were slightly shorter and group sizes were reduced to be more manageable. The raised hands function replaced the whole group disclosure activity, the virtual break out rooms replaced tables for discussions and the myths activity was moved into the first CERT Student Mentor meeting.
Key lessons from moving online:
- Low risk first contact – these sessions were often the first instance of university learning that the students encountered. In some respects this meant that if there were problems with log ins or the technology, it was during a relatively low stakes, enjoyable session.
- What email was that on? – Whilst students are often very tech savvy, one of their biggest challenges is working out what messages are important. Clearly this is a problem everyone faces, but it’s particularly acute at such a transitional/ liminal period. In the workshops I facilitated, several students logged in using personal, not university, email accounts and so had to log out and log back in again.
- Second facilitator – in all the sessions there was a main facilitator and a coordinator. One talked and one made groups and rooms magic happen. And backed up, chipped in, kept time and generally kept the show on the road. That second staff member was essential.
- They’re all looking at me – in real life sessions, I’ll chat to small groups of students at a time as we wait for other students to arrive. I found talking to the CERT mentors and a couple of early students was a really pleasant way to start the session. Then within one minute there are fifty faces looking at you. There are many ways that online facilitation is harder despite all the obvjous benefits.
- CERT Student Mentors needed more support – We had planned for the CERT Student Mentors to lead the break out room discussions. Truthfully, this was a real challenge for many of them as they were practising facilitation skills for the first time and doing so in a slightly difficult environment. The mentors appeared to find facilitation in the real world a little easier as they could take cues from the main facilitatiors and the staff involved were able to move between groups a little more naturally offering nudges and tips.
- End of day catch ups – whilst many aspects of facilitating online were more difficult than in real life, the major boon was the end-of-the day review meetings. Getting all the facilitators together in a single room is impractical; catching up online is relatively simple. The catch ups became incredibly useful for both unwinding after a busy day and learning from one another.
Learning from the experience
After each Welcome Week, the University gathers student feedback through an online survey. Students were asked to state how much they agreed with the following statements:
- The Welcome Workshop was useful
- I feel more confident about starting NTU after attending
- The Welcome Workshop helped me make connections with students on my course
Satisfaction with the first two statements remained broadly the same. In 2019, 70% of students found the workshop useful, rising slightly to 74% in 2020. In 2019, 73% of students felt more confident after attending the sessions, dropping slightly to 73% in 2020. Both responses might just reflect the messiness of data year on year, or genuine shifts due to the mode of delivery. However, the student responses to the third question are most interesting. In 2019, 72% of students reported that the session had helped them to make connections with their peers, in 2020, only 57% of students felt the same way. It appears that students felt better able to connect when they were physically present in the same room as their peers.
For me, moving the sessions online worked. The hundreds of workshops are a real logistical challenge to organise, but I feel that even under these more challenging circumstances, they add value to student induction. Clearly, in a perfect world, we’d have achieved better satisfaction about getting to know peers, but I feel that the feedback often reflects the limitations of the media. For example, in the real world session the small group discussions are usually led by the CERT mentor with the facilitators moving between groups. I feel that’s a different experience to taking part in break out rooms. There’s no hubbub from the other groups and if the mentor is struggling to facilitate a discussion (facilitation is after all a skilled task) it can be harder for the facilitator to spot and support effectively. The session is very embodied: students move around the room, they don’t get the chance to become rooted behind desks. The step in circle is often quite powerful as students have to take a physical action as they engage with one another. I feel this physicality is an important feature.
It is possible to deliver active, community building events online, but it does present challenges and we’ll need to evolve our teaching approaches.
(*) Of course students have an expectation that they will enjoy a brilliant social experience. It’s interesting how numerous articles written during lockdown stress the extent to which students missed alcohol and cheesy night clubs.