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Concurrent teaching: lessons from dissertation preparation sessions

1 July 2021

4 minutes to read

Concurrent teaching: lessons from dissertation preparation sessions

Teaching students who join a session together, either from campus or online, has become an increasing feature of the last 12 months. Here Dr Matt Finn and Dr Laura Smith (Geography) describe their week-long series of concurrent workshops for second year BA Geography students, to prepare for their final year dissertations.

What we did

The final part of a Year 2 BA Geography research methods module includes ‘Research Planning Fortnight: Getting Dissertation Ready’ – a space where students are introduced to the final year Dissertation module. Over two weeks at the end of the summer term, students have the opportunity and support, through a series of two-hour morning workshops and self-paced afternoon activities in the first week, to develop their dissertation idea into a dissertation proposal, and then discuss their ideas with their dissertation advisor and group.

In 2020, with the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic, we moved the Research Planning Fortnight online. This year, we explored ways of delivering the fortnight’s activities with a flexibility that would fit around the lockdown and social distancing restrictions. We settled on a workshop format that students could attend either on campus or online, and that would include everyone.

In the week before the sessions ran, the maximum room capacity was increased from 30 to 75, subject to the individual room capacity, with social distancing, ventilation and a range of other controls in place to support Covid-safe practices. The University’s new seat booking system was used, and if places were over-subscribed seats could be allocated, giving fair access to sessions across the week.

Before the pandemic we ran the sessions together, so translating them into a concurrent setting worked well. Matt acted as the on-campus host, in the lecture theatre, and Laura as the online host, on Zoom, to welcome people to each space. We were careful to structure the workshop content as a conversation between the two of us as hosts. While this might not be possible for all concurrent teaching, we wanted to ensure that both spaces were treated as fully legitimate learning spaces – without one being seen as ‘real’ and the other as ‘virtual’, for example.

All students were ‘online’ as those on campus also used the chat function on the Zoom meeting, and Padlet to facilitate questions and create a shared medium of interaction across locations. Matt was able to use the technology built into the room with the Zoom call projected on the screen. This was sometimes supplemented by a laptop and webcam, as some spaces were still in the process of being upgraded.

Why we did it

Students had received significant amounts of their learning online, and in the context of easing restrictions, we wanted to offer them the choice to learn on campus or from another location. We wanted to understand what makes concurrent sessions effective for students – whatever their location –  and how we and students would experience learning in this way.

As the teaching runs in a stand-alone two-week period at the end of the year (and after the summer assessment period has finished), it allowed us to design and try out different ways of organising and presenting sessions and activities, that matched the interactive and collaborative ethos of Research Planning Fortnight.

We were also curious to know how many students would choose to attend on campus. In March, around 60% had said they would like to attend the June sessions on campus, if conditions allowed. Finally, we wanted to explore whether concurrent teaching is a viable option for enabling more students to access learning on campus should social distancing remain or be reintroduced.

What we learnt from it

We had very positive feedback from students, who were asked to reflect on their learning. They appreciated both the teaching, flexibility and interaction across sites.

I think the sessions have worked well, especially the back and forth between both Matt and Laura, enabled by the technology of Zoom, and have appreciated the time and effort that has gone into setting this up. I think this set up enabled me flexibility in how I joined in and was equally accessible both online and on campus.  Student participant

In practice we had about 10-20% of the students on the module attending on campus each day, with the majority attending online. We had high levels of attendance and interaction overall, but with a clear preference for attending online. In student responses about learning in this way we can see several reasons for this.

There were often social reasons for attending in-person with others, or online from student residences:

The first two days I went in person but the second two days I have other commitments that are quite close to these workshops finishing so it makes more sense to do it online. However, I prefer doing them in-person because I find it more engaging and I get less distracted…. The main thing that affected my choice was whether my friends were going in-person or not.  Student participant

Although I considered joining the workshops in-person, I later decided that it would suit me more being at home with my housemates.  Student participant

This reminds us that learning is a social practice, with community as something students – and many others – have found limited during the pandemic.

For others, learning from home was more convenient, although some students noted they would have attended if there was more (or smaller group) teaching. Students’ choices appear specific to this period, however, with some noting that they would like to attend on campus from September, and others noted current nervousness in returning. This social aspect of learning, and transition for new students, will need to remain an important consideration in starting a new academic year.

The concurrent teaching approach of Research Planning Fortnight has allowed us not only to continue, but also develop new ways to provide the creative, collaborative, and social learning experience of the workshops, in ways and across platforms that are accessible and inclusive.

You can read more about our reflections on the workshops in The spatialities of running a concurrent dissertation ‘bootcamp’.


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Dr Laura SmithDr Matt Finn
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