Teaching overhaul when moving a Psychology course online


Following the increase of COVID-19 cases in the UK in 2020, the University rapidly moved all its teaching to online and closed lecture theatres and most of its facilities.


This classroom-based course on Drugs and Alcohol needed to go online quickly. But this was also used as an opportunity to make improvements to student experience and engagement.

What was done

Angela and Olivia saw this challenge as an opportunity to make the course better; "Not just to survive, but to thrive."

This was done by focussing on five principles:

  • Ensuring clarity: The loss of face-to-face contact meant that materials had to give a clear road map and structure of what students had to do, why, and how long it would take.
  • Maximising engagement: Students would be physically distant from lecturers and peers, so other ways had to be found to keep them engaged in the course. Interactive and collaborative learning tools connected students with their classmates. Online polling, debates, voting, quizzes and chat made online lectures much more engaging than classroom ones had ever been.
  • Facilitating presence: New ways had to be found to make students feel supported. Enthusiastic responses to student comments in shared spaces stopped them from feeling like they were "writing into the void". Teleconferencing tools made it easier to bring in guest speakers.
  • Making live sessions "valuable but missable": Live sessions needed to be attractive, but not so vital to the course that those prevented from attending would be disadvantaged. Those attending were able to vote for their next assignment, take part in quizzes and have small-group discussions.
  • Being flexible: These techniques were new to staff and students, and both social and technological circumstances were unpredictable. Staff had to be willing to abandon planned approaches and rapidly take up new ones.

What went well

The online tools made lectures much more engaging, and voting gave students more of a sense of control over course content. Quizzes were particularly popular and were considered to be worth the extra effort it took to create them. Increased feedback (and the ability to store and quantify it) enabled sessions to be planned on the fly to better suit student needs as the course progressed.


There was a huge amount of positive feedback but there were students who seemed not to engage. Blackboard engagement metrics and online Zoom calls showed that a proportion of students were not completing or attending, but the metrics don't show if these were the same students across formats or weeks. Nor is it clear if the lack of engagement would have also occurred in a classroom-based approach, or if something about the new methods caused them to disengage. Potential barriers to engagement need to be explored so elements can be adapted if necessary, but ideally without losing the successful aspects of the new approach.

The biggest issue, going forward, is how to adapt back to using lecture theatres and in particular blended sessions. Sessions are much easier to plan and manage when they are either fully online or fully in the room. To deliver a mix will require further changes.