What will university be like in 2020/21? Students share their experiences of university during the coronavirus lockdown

university students watching lecture

TSR members who are currently studying at university talk about how Covid-19 has affected their lectures, exams and societies

Applying to start university this year might feel a bit like a leap into the unknown. Campuses have been closed since March because of the coronavirus pandemic, and there’s lots of uncertainty around what university will be like in September because so much will depend on whether the rates of infection have slowed down.

We’ve spoken to some TSR members who are university students to find out what learning in lockdown has been like for them over the last few months. If you’re applying to start this year, their experiences might help give you some idea of how a socially distanced university experience could work.

How online classes are delivered might depend on the tutor

There are loads of different ways to deliver online teaching, and the TSR members we spoke to told us that not only will this vary from university to university, but for them it’s also differed depending on the lecturer.

“All classes were moved online, but how they were given depended on the lecturer,” shared gcsemusicsucks, who is in the second year of a mathematics degree.

And Barror1, a first year studying English literature and linguistics, agreed that “it really depended on the module – one lecturer gave us textbook work along with some slides while another did full-blown mini lectures and a past paper!”

More like this: should you take a university place in 2020 or defer until 2021?

student working in library

A combination of pre-recorded lectures and live tutorials

Although the details of how the modules were taught varied, most involved a mixture of pre-recorded material and interactive lessons.

“Some posted pre-recorded videos filming themselves talking about the content as a substitute for lectures, and then conducted live lectures on Microsoft Teams. Others chose to post pre-recorded videos and then conduct live team meetings for both lectures and tutorials,” gcsemusicsucks said.

JMR2020. is in their first year of a PPE degree. They explained that “we have access to lectures through lecture capture (which records all the necessary lectures through the year), and when the term was still ongoing seminar leaders often did classes on Microsoft Teams, where students can ask questions face to face.”

Online notes and additional support from tutors

There are some resources that have always been available online, so not everything has been totally new to studying in lockdown. And our interviewees reported that their lecturers were available to offer help and advice over email if they needed it.

“Online lecture notes and materials are always given at the start of the semester for maths so there wasn’t much change in that regard. Some lecturers also offered to mark any work we wanted to hand in, just to ensure we had the support we needed,” said gcsemusicsucks.

JMR2020. commented that all of the materials they need are “present online, including all the readings for the whole course, as well as extra readings,” and that they have been “able to email my lecturers questions and they usually respond by the next working day”.

More like this: how coronavirus might affect your university application

student working at laptop

How well does online teaching at university actually work?

A lot of this will be down to your personal preferences. If you’re finishing year 13 and applying to university this year you may have already had some online lessons, which could have given you an idea of whether being taught online is just as effective as in-person teaching for you.

“I learn much better in a face-to-face environment, so lockdown was obviously going to hit harder for me compared to, say, someone who was already using Panopto and missing lectures on a regular basis,” said Barror1.

JMR2020. shared that although they “feel the university has done a lot of work on making online learning available,” they still “feel like you can’t get the same learning environment that you can get face-to-face and being able to ask questions in class.”

And gcsemusicsucks commented that “although I think I’ve managed to learn the same amount of content… I’ve missed out so much experience-wise.”

“Being taught in person makes the content more memorable for me, so I think I've had to put in more time to learn the content compared to how I would normally in a classroom setting,” they added.

“Online teaching gives so much more room for miscommunication and misunderstanding, and it's so much easier to get distracted and miss important things. So unless you're actively communicating with the lecturer to pick up on these things, it's a lot easier to miss or ignore holes in your understanding that may be pretty crucial in the long run,” gcsemusicsucks finished.

TSR Answers: how will Covid-19 affect your university experience? 

Learning online can give you greater control over how you manage your time

One potential benefit of online learning, though, is the level of control it gives you over your own schedule.

Barror1 found that being given work to finish in their own time “was great,” because it meant that “I could take an extended Easter holiday and work hard at the end of term without many repercussions”.

They added that juggling working in their own time with their other commitments has helped them develop their time management skills.

“I have scholarships and a decently big role in the SU that I have to prepare for ahead of September which have really helped me learn about time management and perseverance in lockdown – I still need to do all of the research and attend all of the meetings for those alongside my online study!”

More like this: the universities minister answers your questions about the impact of coronavirus on your application

student typing on laptop

Some exams cancelled, others moved online

Some first-year students, like Barror1, had their exams cancelled.

“First-year exams at my university were cancelled during the pandemic, which made a lot of us feel very demotivated and directionless. It has got much better since we got reading lists and pointers about what we can do to prepare for second year,” Barror1 said.

Second and third years at their university were given online open exams, “so you can use books and other referencing materials without being penalised, and you had 24 hours to complete any exams,” they added.

JMR2020. has also just finished their first year, but their exams went ahead: “We have had exams for different modules. Some have been in the form of an essay due on a certain date and some have had 24-hour time limits. All of them are submitted online”.

And gcsemusicsucks shared that they were given open-book online exams which stuck as closely as possible to how the exams would normally work.  

“They essentially worked the same way as our usual maths exams would work, so they were still two hours (we used an online platform which timed us from when we downloaded the paper to when we submitted our solutions), and although they were open book we were advised to revise like we normally would,” they commented.  

More like this: universities “must be clear” about whether campuses will reopen in the autumn

student sitting on sofa to work on laptop

The downside of online exams

Gcsemusicsucks pointed out that online exams don’t necessarily create a level playing field for everyone.

“People are in different environments – some may have the luxury of being able to work in a quiet space whereas others don’t, so if you don’t have the space to take the exam in peace, you’d be disadvantaged,” they said.

More like this: studying in lockdown: Tips to make your study space more effective

University societies and social distancing

Some societies have found it easier to move online than others – a lot depends on the kind of activity that the society revolves around.

Barror1 belongs to seven societies and sits on the committee as social secretary for one of them, and as sponsorship/fundraising secretary for another.

“The social sec stuff has been particularly difficult because my society is not the most social unless there is a pub and a couple of beers involved. We have tried a Discord but it is barely used.

“My other committee has been inherently more difficult because of the nature of the club (an often competitive indoor sport). We are just hoping that locations will still want to sponsor us despite everything so that we can get some cool stuff for the club.

“Other societies have had much better luck though and probably have about the same engagement as they did pre-lockdown (shout out to York Pantomime Society and their amazing social secs),” Barror1 finished.

Gcsemusicsucks has had a similarly varied experience with university societies in lockdown.

“Most of the societies I’m a part of couldn’t really continue their main activity online, but most did host virtual AGM meetings to elect a president and treasurer for next year.

“However, there are a few societies/places which have continued to do online events, such as the Music Centre, who have been continuing their lunchtime concert series online via livestreams,” they said.

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