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How students reviewed distance learning programme online

Dr Tim Young, Course Co-Director of ION Clinical Neurology by distance learning, was partnered with students through 'UCL Arena's Peer Dialogue: Option C' to review teaching.

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27 January 2021

Staff who teach or support teaching can get a student perspective on their practice through UCL Arena's Peer Dialogue scheme.  

Students team up with the staff member to build a reflective dialogue about their teaching practice and the learning experience of students on the module or programme. 

Dr Tim Young was allocated students from his and other programmes through Student Reviewers of Teaching. He explains how he worked with them to improve the Clinical Neurology by distance learning programme, and his teaching. 

What did you gain from taking part?

Although all of us will have had to adapt our teaching to the online environment as a result of Covid-19, this project took place before the pandemic as we were already a fully online course, and had been so for most of the prior decade. Nevertheless, I learnt a lot more than I thought I would through this project.  

When I began I was doubtful of how much I myself would learn as a teacher. This was probably a sure sign that there was room for significant improvement in my teaching and our course, as I was to find out!  


Key learnings included: 

Gaining deeper interaction with students

Unless we are closely supervising a single student on a prolonged project (such as a dissertation), it is likely that our interactions with students can be fairly quick and superficial, especially on a large course like ours. This is a shame because we can learn so much from our students.

This was especially true for this project where all our course students are experienced doctors based around the world, and the external student reviewer was an experienced educator. 

Learning to be open to improving ourselves

As we become more senior in any walk of life, there can be a tendency to think we ‘know it all’.

This can sometimes be allied with an increasing concern that if we admit we can still learn things, we might be viewed by others as being less knowledgeable. This vulnerability is important to acknowledge to ourselves as it can hinder further development.

Following the great impression this project left me with, I decided to actively seek further educational development by beginning a PG Cert in Medical Education at Cambridge University in 2020 – a decision I am so happy I made! 

“This project really surprised me as to how helpful it would be. I have gone from being a sceptic to a strong advocate as a result! 

How did the students help develop teaching? 

1. Appreciating the need for an external viewpoint

If I could sum up my main learning from this project, it was that being in the centre of the course, I might think all was well and yet miss out on something obvious to an outsider. 

After the project had finished, I thought of a simple analogy. I thought of myself as having been like a shopkeeper, waiting at the counter for customers to come in, thinking all was well with my shop.
However, it would take views from the customers themselves to understand how external features of the shop may make it more or less attractive to them. 

2. Providing alternative views

Although we may talk of a ‘student voice’ as if it singular, of course, each student is an individual and will have their own take on things. 

In this project, the students’ differing standpoints allowed me to view the same object (my teaching/our course) from different perspectives, and I think gave a better overall view. The input of a student altogether external to our course (an educationalist with almost no knowledge of neurology) was especially helpful in this regard. 

As a result of this project, our main assignments were adapted to be more user friendly for new students.

3. Update to assessments

The student reviewer recommendation for a more ‘dynamic’ element was met with:

  • revised and updated examination video
  • video generic discussions of assignments
  • interactive discussions with students of assignment questions by video-conferencing.

Our online project, spanning 4 continents, resulted in a publication co-authored by all reviewers an International book on student empowerment.


What benefits did you gain from discussing your teaching with a student rather than a peer?

Practical experience

Two of the student reviewers had already spent some years on the course. They gave a practical relevance to our discussion which I feel may have been lacking from more theoretical discussions with peers about educational theories. 

Less vulnerability

Perhaps, initially, we may feel as teachers that to open our teaching and our course up to discussion by students might make us feel very exposed.

In reality, this was not the effect at all. Indeed, in hindsight, I suspect I would have felt greater vulnerability had done the same process with my peers reviewing my teaching. This I think lies in part because we already have a shared goal with students of learning and developing. I found turning that focus on myself was much easier than I thought it would be.

I suspect that if I tried this with peers, I might have been so self-conscious about their views that I might not have been able to open up (and develop) as much as did. 


How did you address any challenges? 

There were some challenges – but not as many as I thought! 

Goal alignment

To begin with, there was a bit of divergence with the goals. One of the student reviewers in particular had hoped that we might be able to review the course curriculum as well.

As that was outside the remit of the project it was not possible to take forward then, although I explained that I was planning to look into this separately. I am very happy that we discussed these goals right from the start. If I had been unaware of such views I suspect it would have impacted adversely upon the project.

As we were all able to openly discuss these right from the start, universally agreed goals were then made. It has indeed been possible since then for me to look at wider views of the curriculum. 

Time difference 

I was based in the UK with one student each in South America, Australia and Asia. Two of us were Northern Hemisphere, two in the South.

As I viewed this project as being a ‘flat hierarchy’ I did not want to dictate the meeting details and instead we actively discussed the challenges of timing, each adopting a flexible approach. After some discussion, we agreed for a time of around 11 am for me in the UK, equating to around 7 am for our South American student and mid-evening for our reviewers in Asia and Australia. 

Top tips for working with students online to review your teaching 

  1. Begin by broadly considering aspects of your teaching or your course that you like to be reviewed. Be open to revising this somewhat following initial meetings with your student reviewers-aligning the expected goals of teacher and student can result in a more productive outcome 
  2. Schedule your meetings with the students at mutually agreeable times, especially remembering any different time zones! Mutual respect is a key component and being considerate on matters like these can encourage open engagement.
  3. Consider a ‘flat hierarchy’ approach where the student’s opinions are just as valued as your pen-this can not only encourage true dialogue but can allow us as teachers to be open to learning ourselves. 
  4. Remember to thank the students during and afterwards and let them know you have listened to their views. Ideally then feedback to them when you have enacted any resulting plan. This can really help show that their voice is being heard. 

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