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Helping students to flourish academically while studying remotely

9 March 2021

With boundaries increasingly blurring between students’ spaces for studying and relaxing, Unite Students is piloting a new, innovative webinar series called ‘The Study Skills of Highly Successful Students’ in order to provide academic support at this challenging time.

The past 12 months have seen many changes for Unite Students – among them, our properties taking on the role of not just home, but classroom as well. The necessity of remote learning during the pandemic has blurred the boundaries between where students learn, relax and sleep, and this hasn’t always been easy.

Students’ bedrooms are hardly uncharted territory as far as studying goes – our student survey has previously shown that the large desks we provide in our rooms are one of students’ favourite things about Unite Students’ rooms – but the limited alternatives for places to go, the impact of most teaching being moved online, and the wider stresses brought about by Covid-19 have placed a significant amount of pressure on the bedroom. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that a study in Italy found that students suffered more badly from insomnia in lockdown than the working population.

So, with university and accommodation more interlinked than ever, Unite Students has launched a pilot webinar series in Leeds, Sheffield and Birmingham called ‘The Study Strategies of Highly Successful Students’, designed to help the students living with us establish positive studying habits at this challenging time. There are six different sessions, with topics including time management, key components of academic writing, and passing exams. The series is run by Dr Martin Sedgley, who ran Effective Learning Support (ELS) at Bradford University for 12 years and is now Director at ELS International, and features recent graduates as guest speakers to share their insights on achieving a high-class degree.

Helping students with their futures is likely to become an important focus for the accommodation sector going forward. In the United States, home to the world’s most mature student accommodation market, luxury accommodation has in the recent past boasted indulgences such as climbing walls, golf simulators and tanning beds. However, the huge cost of tuition has seen a recent trend towards providing resources that students can use to boost their employability prospects, in part so they can pay off huge college debts: amenities of this ilk include professional headshot provision and assistance with writing resumés. There is also some precedent for blending living and learning in the US: ‘living learning communities’, which bring together students on the same or similar courses, are popular at American universities.

But specific support in private accommodation to help students academically seems to be a first in the UK, and the response so far shows it’s fulfilling a need. Student engagement has been strong so far, with positive feedback and students proactively enquiring about future sessions, and the session on academic reading – explaining how to effectively manage and work through large quantities of research – was so popular that additional sessions were required to meet demand. If demand remains high, the series will be rolled out nationally across Unite Students properties, supplementing the specialist study support provided by our partner universities.

“The sessions are to reassure students that their study challenges are normal, and even highly successful students still struggle at times during the university learning journey, especially in the early stages,” says Dr Sedgley. “Higher education requires different learning strategies from any previous educational culture – school, college or international institutions. Students need guidance, time and practice to become proficient in these new academic skills, and the sessions share simple, practical ways to feel more in control of their studies.”

He says that while the switch to online learning is positive for improving students’ digital skills, he has seen an uptick in students’ difficulties with maintaining study self-discipline due to distractions in their rooms and reduced motivation stemming from losing the social opportunities that face-to-face teaching offers. For students who are struggling to concentrate, he recommends breaking down study periods into manageable periods of 30-45 minutes, taking regular breaks, and aligning daily study tasks with longer-term goals and core values to stay focused.

Our recent student survey found that a lack of face-to-face teaching and mental health were the biggest challenges facing students at the moment, and for students who may be finding their course overwhelming, he suggests getting an online ‘study buddy’ or academic mentor to help overcome stresses and frustrations.

We recently wrote about the importance of a joined-up, holistic approach to mental health. Academic concerns can be a significant factor in a student’s mental health journey – and partnering with ELS International for ‘The Study Strategies of Highly Successful Students’ is just another link in the chain of supporting the students who live with us.

Dr Sedgley’s top tips for student success:

  • Align daily study tasks with your longer-term goals and core values. Recognise clearly what you want to experience in your life, and how you want to live it. Set a short, realistic list of achievable study tasks so that you take small steps each day that lead you further and further into that experience. The ‘Place Mat’ is one example of a visual tool to update your daily study tasks alongside a more permanent reminder of your personal goals and values.
  • Create a completely clutter-free, dedicated study area on and around your desk. Keep pens, paper etc in neat containers which leave a clear, inviting space for each new study period. This needs to welcome you with attractive symbols of your long-term goals and core values. These can include visual planners like the Place Mat (see above) and other personal motivators like family photos or beautiful posters. Keep each visit to this space short and meaningful.
  • Break study down into concentrated chunks – 30 to 45 minutes. Take regular breaks away from the study room. Do something quite different from the intellectual activity in a quite different space, e.g. outdoor exercise.
  • Share regularly with an online study buddy and/or an academic mentor. We all need someone who listens to our anxieties as well as successes, accepts our fluctuating moods, empathises, supports and advises as needed.