Lecturers have prepared for the arrival of thousands of new students at the University of Sheffield and are trying to balance their education with their safety.  On the go since March, Professor Pieter Kok has had no time for research this summer. He’s spent his time adapting to online teaching and working to find the best teaching solution for students arriving on campus.

As head of first year physics, Prof Kok sees this as an opportunity to make a long-term change in teaching – to continue using the videos lecturers have made to aid learning when teaching is normal. He explains an advantage of online lectures: “[students] can pause, go back, and if your mind starts wandering as you think about something that the lecturer says, you can just pause and think about it.”

Although Prof Kok has found the ability to put lectures in bite sized chunks useful, he sees the most difficult part of online teaching is keeping students engaged.

“Every year group should have something in person, the last thing you want is people just in their room all the time. What is a practical way for keeping everybody safe and providing an in-person contact? For first year it’s labs – most people don’t have an oscilloscope at home! We can do distanced lab work and still play with equipment.”

“In first year, you don’t necessarily realise how important maths is, and then you get to second and particularly third year and realise this is all used. It’s important we properly support the students in their maths so have prioritised that in in-person teaching too.”

Other than labs and maths classes, first years will have their lectures and tutorials online, and will be supported by tutors to keep a portfolio containing homework and extra support they have found to fully understand topics.

Students using a laser in the lab – Image: University of Sheffield

It isn’t only teaching that is affected – what is the social side of university life going to look like? Molly Vokes, physics society president, reflects on how her first-year experience is different to freshers this year. She was able to walk around activities fairs joining societies and socialising with everyone she could. Although she didn’t get involved with physoc immediately, after going to events like the Halloween bar crawl and pub golf, she really enjoyed being a part of it. Lots of this won’t be possible this year.

Molly explains why students should join physoc: “It’s really useful to have good connections with people on your course, you value that a lot more as you go through physics – getting advice from everyone around you. In first year everyone does the same things but then you start going onto modules in smaller groups, when you get to that point you at least recognise people as you go into classes.”

Prof Kok also reflected on the importance of experiences outside of academic studies: “It is a part of the cultural environment of being at university; it’s where you learn who you are as a person and how you interact in different environments. As an academic, I want you to be a responsible student, do all your homework and understand the material, but I also think this is not the only thing – people should go out and join societies.”

Physics society on a trip to CERN. Image: Sheffield Physoc

This year students will still be able to join physoc. “We’re trying to think of things we can still do online,” explained Molly, “like adapting the coffee socials we usually do and pint with a professor. I’m excited about the candid camera social we usually do, where you have a list of things to take a photo of throughout the evening, because that’s something we can still do online. We’re hoping to run zooms where everyone can play games, you get to know and recognise people.”

For any student who does struggle this year, every student has a personal tutor who will aim to ‘meet’ with them three times per semester. The personal tutor system is really important for students, Prof Kok explains, “especially for first years, everything is new to them, we need to help them get into the habit of studying again.”

Both Prof Kok and Molly offered similar advice to incoming students – get involved! “I don’t like the term social distancing,” Prof Kok says, “it’s physical distancing, but it shouldn’t be social distancing. Socially you should still be close, don’t isolate yourself socially.”

Molly adds: “it would be such a shame to not take the opportunity to get involved with everything you can, and remember that every person is in the same situation, all of the societies are doing everything they can to put people in contact online – don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and you’ll always be able to find people.”

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