by Dr Lewis Coyne, Study Skills Tutor for Social Sciences and Law
The past 10 months have brought about a minor revolution in the teaching and support offered at higher education institutions. The switch from in-person to online education hasn’t simply been a case of changing medium: the new medium has also shaped how we teach, altering practice and offering new opportunities.
An example of this is the series of Online Study Lounges created and hosted by the Study Skills team in Library Services here at Bristol. The fundamental idea is similar to an in-person writing retreat, which balances directed with self-directed learning: students are provided with a framework of writing blocks within which to carry out independent study, interspersed with skills-building activities that cut across discipline and level of study. In both cases – in-person and online – this framework offers students a relatively high degree of autonomy. But the Online Study Lounges differ in two key respects.
Firstly, the rationale is responsive to lockdown-specific problems amongst the student body: a diminished sense of motivation to study, and a drastically reduced sense of community. We believe that an Online Study Lounge, correctly formatted, can speak to these issues. We decided to hold the Online Study Lounges on a weekly basis and at set times, in the hope of creating a sense of reliability and regularity, and incorporated community-building activities in the overall structure, such as time for conversation about how work is going, and giving students the chance to collectively build a Spotify playlist of music to work to.
Our overall aim is to create a friendly but productive atmosphere among a group of familiar faces, tackling that self-reported sense of isolation and demotivation.
Secondly, the virtual nature of the Online Study Lounges allows for a greater flexibility in terms of activities offered, and by whom. Using Blackboard Collaborate we found we were able to draw on a pool of staff members working from home who, in a traditional physical setting, may not have been able to pitch in quite so easily. For example, we’ve been able to bring on board members of Library Services with backgrounds in teaching creative writing to lead optional sessions on how to develop as a writer. And this is true even within our Study Skills team: using breakout rooms, Study Skills Tutors are able to drop in for limited periods and offer one-to-one tutorials in specific academic fields – even if they were not in charge of running the Online Study Lounge that day.
So far, the Online Study Lounges have been largely successful. Feedback from students who attended indicates an increased sense of connection with the University, increased motivation to work, and a general appreciation of the structure and opportunities to discuss their work with staff and other students.
There is always room to develop, however, and we believe that the next step in increasing community and motivation amongst students through this format is to try holding Online Study Lounges on a School or Faculty basis. Not only might this better reflect the natural learning communities that form around disciplines, but it would also allow for more tailored support related to subject-specific requirements. The Digital Education Office (DEO) and Study Skills are collaborating to release a Toolkit in the near future to help other parts of the University set up Online Study Lounges of their own. If you think that your School or Faculty could adapt our model to the specific needs of your students, please get in touch! Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
 University of Bristol, Education Pulse Survey 2020 Results. Available at: https://www.bristol.ac.uk/students/updates/student-surveys/pulse-survey/ [accessed 18/01/2021].