Pandemic Pedagogy: a student perspective 2

By Sophie Moennich (University of Roehampton)


Now over a year since the first lockdown, many history students have adapted to the challenges of online learning. But levels of engagement with online learning has seen wide variation, especially as time has gone on. Some lecturers have used new approaches to help history students stay engaged, something increasingly helpful as time has gone past. Jamboard, breakout rooms and other approaches have helped for history students to share their ideas and stay engaged.

When I asked other history students about their experiences, a common reply was that pre-recorded lectures have been really useful. One student commented that they ‘engaged even better than in person as there was no distraction and I could re-watch and make proper notes’. Pre-recorded lectures have allowed students a sense of control over their time, and responsibility to ensure that they have watched them before the seminar. They are even more important for international students who may be in a different time zone. Because lectures are more accessible, students are more able to engage throughout the seminar, and have a stronger understanding of the topic. Another student confirmed that ‘lecturers make sure everything is electronically available, so I have access to more than last year, especially e-books.’ This implies that for many history students, learning resources have been largely unaffected by online leaning.

Screenshot showing a Jamboard discussion on shellshock, with post-it notes highlighting key themes linked to the topic and to images of 'shell shocked' patients
Screenshot of a Jamboard discussion on shell shock

Breakout rooms and websites such as Jamboard have stood out to me as one of the most important developments. Breakout rooms have allowed students to share their ideas, and establish a sense of involvement for students who may prefer to share their ideas with a smaller group of people. This has helped students with different confidence levels, and also ensured that they stay engaged with their course. Additionally, Jamboard has allowed students to share their ideas on a virtual post-it note seen by everyone else in the seminar. This has been especially useful as it has allowed students to share their ideas anonymously and more extensively with other students’ ideas. This suggests that the transition to online learning has helped students who are less confident in sharing their ideas to feel more secure in doing so, even if anonymously.

On a personal and social level, one student I spoke to additionally revealed how online groupwork was also useful in offering a space to discuss how they were adapting to online learning, and to share ideas. With group presentations still occurring within my own course, students have been able to stay in contact and discuss module work together.

It is the sense of control over learning that I would like to emphasise going forward. It is so important to empower students when they watch lectures, and give them the space to share their ideas in an environment they feel comfortable with. This independence in relation to time management and preparation for seminars is especially important when so many may feel their motivation dwindling as a result of lockdown.


We’d like to thank Sophie for sharing the results of her research into how the pandemic has affected History students and would love to hear more from academics and their students, either on this blog or via Twitter @history_uk – get in touch if you’d like to have your say.

We’re currently collecting feedback on the Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook and would encourage you to fill in the survey here.

In addition, we’ll soon be announcing a follow-up project on pedagogy after the pandemic. So watch this space!

Pandemic Pedagogy: A student perspective 1

By Conor Penna-FitzGerald (University of Roehampton)


My name is Conor Penna-FitzGerald and I am a postgraduate history student at the University of Roehampton. My project analysed how students experienced online learning during the pandemic in comparison to the ‘normal’ classroom experience.

Starting my research for this post, I had thought there would be an abundance of views and opinions on online learning to be found online. In reality, I was amazed at how little there was. On ‘The Student Room’, I found only two forums, both of which emphasised limited access to primary sources, as well as other learning resources, such as course readings. Instead, I conducted my own research and spoke to nine UK-based History students (all postgraduates) on their experiences of online seminars, the predominant teaching method adopted by universities during the COVID-19 pandemic. These offered mixed views on the value of online seminars over the usual classroom experience.

The most consistent positive response was that of praise for the history faculty at their university. Not only have they have provided high levels of support and adapted quickly to the changing circumstances, but they have helped to establish a sense of normality. By keeping to a clear schedule, lecturers have helped to mitigate feelings of discontent amongst students. They have also taken on extra responsibilities in terms of providing psychological aid, providing reassurance about student’s abilities. Furthermore, their willingness to use new technology is commendable. Ultimately, history lecturers have clearly maintained a high level of professionalism, which has positively shaped student experiences.

One of the most important positives of this situation, is that commuting is no longer an issue. Many of the students I spoke to were commuting students, and their strenuous, long, exhausting journeys have now been diminished. Not only has online learning made it easier to attend seminars, but much cheaper. One international student shared this sentiment: it is easier for them to stay in their home country and study, much cheaper, and more familiar. Another UK-based postgraduate student emphasised that not needing to commute made her feel much safer. She is reliant on public transport as she does not own a car, and with seminars often taking place in the evening, ‘Zoom’ seminars have worked well. This suggests that when pandemic restrictions do ease, universities should consider continuing their offering of online learning, as it ensures access to higher education for people with physical and mental health problems (e.g. anxiety). It allows students to bypass social insecurities that come from physical presence, enabling them to reach their full potential in a safer and more comfortable environment.

To my surprise, only one person I spoke to mentions the benefits of pre-recorded lectures. The reason why I was shocked by this is because they can now be watched at any time. This allows flexibility for students and allows them to study at their own pace. If students do not understand any content, they can pause the video and re-watch it until they understand it.

Despite these positives, online seminars have been much more divisive in terms of student experience. Many of the issues with them have been clear since the beginning of the pandemic. One of the factors which can ‘make or break’ the student experience is their internet connection, and most of the students I spoke to confirmed this. Buffering, pixilation, ‘robotic’ sounding voices, and eventual disconnection from seminars have all posed challenges. These disrupt focus, cause a loss of motivation, and ultimately dampen the online learning experience. I suffer from bad internet and have needed to turn off the webcam to increase the bandwidth, or dial into the seminar by phone. I often chose the latter option, leading to a virtually non-existent social experience due to not being able to see the other students.

To further illustrate this, the image to the right is a screenshot of what ‘dialling in’ to a ‘Zoom’ meeting looks like. As can be seen, it is like that of a normal phone call.  This has contriImage of Zoom 'dial-in'buted to an atmosphere which has been totally ‘unlike’ university, and for those who do have to dial in, it unfortunately permits the emergence of solitary emotions due to the lack of community. Even students who have been able to engage with a webcam have felt the same.

As social interaction has been minimal, communication between students has suffered. One student commented that online learning has been disappointing because of the inability to freely communicate with their peers about what they really thought about the readings, as well as how assignments and dissertations were progressing. This has added feelings of what I call ‘assignment isolation’ (undertaking stressful and demanding work completely on your own), which was seldom there when students were physically present together in class.

In addition to this, online learning has made it easier for students to fall behind. It has been much harder for students to ask questions about lectures that have been pre-recorded and uploaded online. If a student needs clarification, they must take the time to email their lecturer and wait for their response. Students who dial into seminars to ask questions are also unable to use any ‘raise hand’ functions. Again, students would then have to email their lecturer after class and once again wait for their response. The online teaching format additionally (although inadvertently) allows for procrastination, due to recordings being available to watch anytime. It therefore requires the student to exercise more discipline over their time, which before the pandemic would have been structured in a clear university timetable.

Many of the problems described here reflect wider issues associated with the lockdowns and remote working, and so ways of combatting them are unclear. Nevertheless, even small steps could improve the student experience of university. If the student uses wireless internet, for example, the purchase of an ethernet cable would result in a much more stable internet connection. These cables vary in expense but are typically rather cheap! Moreover, for students who feel that university is now ‘no longer like university’, a group chat could go a long way in helping maintain contact with their peers. This would not only aid social interaction, but also allow students to discuss and assist each other in their assignments, reading, and dissertations. In this way, even if online learning is not seen as effective as campus-based learning, it does serve a purpose.


We’d like to thank Conor for sharing the results of his research into how the pandemic has affected History students and would love to hear more from academics and their students, either on this blog or via Twitter @history_uk – get in touch if you’d like to have your say.

We’re currently collecting feedback on the Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook and would encourage you to fill in the survey here.

In addition, we’ll soon be announcing a follow-up project on pedagogy after the pandemic. So watch this space!

Pandemic Pedagogy 2.0: A summary

As we bring our series of blog posts following up on the Pandemic Pedagogy initiative to a close, we thought it would be useful to summarise the interesting contributions that we’ve received. Looking back through them, we thought that they fell into three broad categories. First, there were several posts that addressed the issue of accessibility and building a sense of community among the student (and staff) body:

Second, several contributors reflected in a broader sense on the staff and student experience of teaching and learning during the pandemic:

Finally, we had three posts that explored innovative approaches to teaching and learning, from fieldtrips to assessment via the role of paper (remember that?) in the digital classroom:

To these we can add the posts that were published last year as part of the original Pandemic Pedagogy initiative, which you can find by looking back through the blog.

We hope that you have found these posts to be useful in thinking about your own teaching and learning experiences during the pandemic.

Many thanks to everyone who has contributed to this series of blog posts. We hope that you have found them useful. If you would like to contribute another short blog post or podcast/video that addresses how the pandemic has changed or affected history teaching and learning in higher education then please email Dr Sarah Holland (sarah.holland@nottingham.ac.uk), History UK’s Education Officer. We’d also love to hear your views on the Pandemic Pedagogy initiative and on these blog posts via our Twitter account.

Pandemic Pedagogy 2.0: Andrew Jotischky – Assessment during the Pandemic: ‘Take-home exams’

Andrew Jotischky kicks off week 2 of our Pandemic Pedagogy follow-up with a blog post about the challenges of assessment – particularly exams – during the pandemic. Andrew is Professor of Medieval History at Royal Holloway University of London, having previously taught for twenty years at Lancaster University. He teaches courses on various aspects of medieval religious life and thought, on crusading and on medieval food, at undergraduate and MA level. His most recent publications include, co-authored with Bernard Hamilton, Latin and Greek Monasticism in the Crusader States (2020).


About seven or eight years ago, as Head of Department at my previous university, I was involved in discussions with colleagues about the possibility of setting up a distance learning MA course. It didn’t happen in the end, for various reasons, but I remember the moment of shock at the realisation at just how much preparation time was needed to put on a single 30 credit course. I’ve thought about that many times over the past few pandemic months, when many of us involved in teaching History at university have been either designing courses for distance learning delivery, or converting existing courses for partial or wholly online delivery, in the space of a few weeks rather than months – and with sketchy training at best. It’s true, of course, that the technology has changed rapidly over the past few years, and that it’s possible to deliver online in ways that would have been unimaginable even in 2015. Even so, in the months since the March 2020 lockdown, we have all learned, at great speed, how to do things at that we hadn’t previously considered part of our jobs.

As I write, there is no prospect of anything like a return to ‘normal’ teaching this academic year. It’s worth asking ourselves what the legacy of pandemic teaching will be. From the multitude of things we’ve learned to do in the past nine months, what might we choose to retain as good practice in a post-pandemic world? What follows is an entirely personal view of one new practice that has changed the way I have thought about teaching and assessment: the online ‘home exam’. This was adopted hurriedly by many universities, including my own and the one where I am an external examiner, once it became apparent in April 2020 that traditional unseen ‘in-person’ exams would no be possible. Instead of a two or three hour period of sweating – or freezing – in a room often far from suitable for the purpose, students have 24 hours to write and submit their answers online, with a word limit instead of a time limit.  Since there can be no attempt to police the way they sit the paper, it is effectively an open-book exam. The system is far from perfect, of course. The traditional exam venue at least has the merit of equalizing the experience, whereas the online ‘home exam’ can expose inequalities between students who experience digital poverty or lack of appropriate space at home and those with plentiful access to books, fast broadband and privacy to work. If ways can be found for allowance to be given for these problems, however, there are real merits in the ‘home exam.’ My experience both as an internal and external examiner was that the overall quality of answers was significantly superior to the traditional exam answer written in a hurry – we’re all familiar with the ‘knowledge dump’ syndrome, the student suffering from nerves, the ‘off day’, and all the reasons why the in-person exam so often fails to reflect students’ true abilities. The ‘home exam’ allows time for reflection, for coherent, structured and well-informed answers. It also gives initiative to students, who have to make choices about how much time to spend on the different tasks involved in the exam, how much thinking and preparation time to allow themselves, how much to read or look up. It is more likely to produce a set of answers that tells us, as teachers, what our students’ real abilities are, rather than how much they can remember on a given day, or how fast they can write. And, of course, their answers rely less on our palaeographical skills. For these reasons, I hope that universities continue to find a place for the ‘home exam’ format even after it is no longer mandated by the need for social distancing.


If you would like to contribute a short blog post or podcast/video that addresses how the pandemic has changed or affected history teaching and learning in Higher Education then please email Dr Sarah Holland: (sarah.holland@nottingham.ac.uk), History UK’s Education Officer.