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Unique First Year Student Engagement (Semester 1, AY 2020/21)

During the summer period of 2020 and in the context of the Covid-19 global pandemic, the Student Support/ 1st Year Experience Working Group identified key issues predicted to impact new undergraduate students to UL. These included;

  • A curtailed learning and social experience; particularly for students entering from second level as many had experienced limitations in their education since March 2020.
  • Significant reduction in peer interaction in UL; this risked a reduction in opportunity to form communities of learning, develop friendships and socialise. It was likely there would be no physical orientation tours or large-scale orientation activity.
  • Academic supports that were previously provided in physical spaces and face-to-face would no longer be appropriate.

UL1001: Foundations for Success in UL

Significant adaptions were made across central and professional services in UL over the summer period in preparation for the new academic year and to address the gaps noted above.

A new project which was undertaken to provide additional and adapted support to new undergraduate students to UL was ‘UL1001: Foundations for Success in UL’.

In the context of Covid-19, and in the absence of an Orientation Week (Week 0), UL1001 was developed to provide introductory and transitionary sessions for all first year students between Weeks 1 and 5 inclusive.

These sessions sought to provide a socialising opportunity for new students and was offered within academic programme cohorts, and facilitated through Sulis (VLE) programme sites.

Design

New undergraduate students to UL ordinarily experience orientation activities the week before lectures for all undergraduate students commence. This was not viable at the beginning of the academic year 2020/21, and there were significant logistical challenges orienting and inducting new students to UL within the limitations of the pandemic. The transition for new students into an online and hybrid environment, instead of a physical one was considerable. Programme socialisation was prioritised in the design of UL1001 because of opportunities lost due to pandemic restrictions, and a staged approach to transition was taken to avoid information overload for new students.

The involvement of peers to navigate this transition for new students supports research on the importance of peer interaction and peer relationships and was practical with the volume of new students. The interaction between older peers and new students was designed to occur in small groups for four of the five weeks (Weeks 1-4), with the fifth week facilitating Active*Consent workshops.

During weeks 1-4 older peers, referred to as Virtual Guides, would facilitate a range of activities and content, and allocate students to small groups to socialise amongst each other. The first two sessions would focus on setting up a social media group for small group interaction, ice-breakers to get to know classmates, explain the academic timetable, navigate Sulis, explain the provisions through Academic Registry and ITD, and spend time on Q&A sessions.

The third and fourth sessions focused on understanding the transition to Higher Education, setting expectations, planning for assessment and time management. These sessions also covered the range of academic and personal supports available to students during their time in UL.

Operations

To provide weekly sessions to a first year cohort of over 3,000 students, a recruitment and interviewing process was undertaken to select older undergraduate and postgraduate students to take on the role of virtual guides. A pool of guides were trained and there was ongoing communication with guides throughout the course of the module. This group were well positioned to provide regular feedback which allowed for timely responses to structural or operational concerns.

The module was scheduled in the evenings, Monday to Thursday from either 6.00-7.00pm, or 7-8.00pm.

The project was operationalised by the Student Engagement and Success Unit (a collaborative unit between CTL, Student Affairs Division, and Library), CTL staff, members of the Sexual Health and Wellbeing Working Group, and Student Life.

There was significant support provided to this project by the Education Technology team in ITD, and Academic Registry.

Evaluation

An evaluation of close to 600 first year responses is being prepared to gauge the effectiveness of this work.

For more information on this project you can contact sarah.gibbons@ul.ie

The Student Support/ First Year Experience Working Group comprised of representatives from;

AVP, Student Engagement; Centre for Transformative Learning; Student Affairs Division; Student Life; Library; Academic Registry; UL Global; ITD; Faculty.