The Open University (OU) is a leading provider of distance learning education and key to our learning model is digital teaching in online tutorials. Central to our online tutorials is student engagement via active participation, something which our colleagues Kevin Amor and Allan Mooney have recently blogged about. As both Associate Lecturers (ALs) and Student Experience Managers (responsible for managing ALs) we have observed student engagement (or lack of) in online tutorials and this prompted the start of our scholarship journey. Our scholarship has focused on student engagement through consideration of students’ likes and dislikes in online tutorials. Underpinning all our thinking is that tutorials should be interactive allowing the students to learn from their peers and by experience. Our work has been based within the OU Law School and focused on first-year students studying the law introductory module on the LLB.
Our data has been obtained via questionnaires, with a mixture of open and closed questions, and a thematic approach taken to analysing our results. Initially we contacted ALs who delivered the Law degree introductory module W101, Introduction to Law. The questionnaire focused on barriers to participation and student engagement in activities within the online tutorial room. For the purpose of this blog, we are going to focus on tutor comments about online activities. The key findings identified that students preferred using the chat box rather than the microphone and they had a real dislike of breakout rooms. While we had observed the chat box issue in our own tutorials, we were surprised by the breakout room feedback.
We decided to triangulate this feedback with students’ views. A questionnaire was sent to the first-year students studying the same module as the AL respondents exploring their likes and dislikes in the online tutorial.
Findings and reflections
Online tutorial tools – students likes and dislikes
Our findings are shown in the diagram above.
Excluding the chat box, we noted that the poll, drag and drop and whiteboard are all anonymous thereby allowing the students to actively engage while developing their confidence. They can provide answers without others identifying if they have made a mistake. Students supported the tutor view about breakout rooms. A range of negative comments regarding breakout rooms were offered by the students.
For example, breakout rooms are “awkward, you don’t know the people and it is hard to get discussion going,” “confusing” and “disrupt the flow of the [tutorial].”
We speculated that the breakout room may be a problem for first-year students lacking confidence to engage with their peers. As level three ALs we had observed final year students were more willing to engage with the breakout rooms thereby supporting our idea of confidence.We considered the data and felt it was important for students to develop their confidence in engaging with other tutorial participants. We argue that a first-year tutorial programme should focus on developing subject knowledge and skills but also confidence to engage. We had the opportunity to test this argument in the development of tutorials for a new first-year law module.
How we used our findings
Historically first-year tutorials included breakout room activities early in the presentation partly with the aims of developing peer learning, friendships and tackling isolation. On the basis of our research, we promoted a tutorial programme that avoided this approach and focused on developing these aims through anonymous activities. The programme was scaffolded to ensure students gained confidence in participation, gaining a sense of belonging whilst enhancing their legal knowledge and skills. In early tutorials, drag and drop, polls and writing on the whiteboard were frequently used. This allowed the students to engage but not be identified. In addition, a number of cross module tutorials were introduced based on wider themes for example – “What is success” and “Law in a digital world.” The aim was to help students appreciate they are part of a greater student body beyond their tutor group of 20 students. Breakout rooms were introduced towards the end of the programme.
To evaluate the new programme a questionnaire was sent to 470 students of which 34 responded. Although it is not possible to draw conclusions from this limited response, we feel there is value in sharing our observations for colleagues devising strategies for digital teaching in online tutorials.
77% of respondents agreed the new tutorial strategy allowed them to develop their confidence. One student commented on the variety of interactive tools used saying, “you cannot be passive in the activities.” Thus, suggesting the tutorials required active participation which was one of our aims.
Another underlying aim was to develop a sense of belonging. Respondents indicated that the tutorials helped them feel part of their tutor group (38%), part of the module (71%) and part of the Law School (61%). This would suggest there is a role in tutorials beyond that of learning the material and skills and that they can be key in fostering belonging. A sense of belonging can impact positively on retention and improve wellbeing. Online learning can be isolating and anything that can address these benefits the students.
One student stated, “[Tutorials] help prevent some of the isolation involved in studying alone.”
We have had the opportunity to design an online tutorial programme for first- year law students, which has used student feedback in its development. We have focused on developing confidence and belonging to support students in their degree journey. We are still analysing the data but are excited at the prospect of further student engagement with the development of this programme.
 At the OU we use the Adobe Connect virtual room to deliver tutorials. The platform allows tutors to share PowerPoints and their screen. It includes a range of interactive tools including microphones, breakout room, polls, drag and drop, whiteboard and chat facility.
 Bruner 1960 cited in H Fry, S Ketteridge & S Marshall, (2015) A Handbook for Teaching & Learning in Higher Education, 4th edition, Abingdon, Routledge
 Final year of our degree, i.e. level 6 in the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ).
 S, Peacock and J Cowan, ‘(2019) Promoting Sense of Belonging in Online Learning Communities of Inquiry in Accredited Courses’, Online Learning, 23(2), pp. 67-81
 Skread, N. and Rogers, S. (2014) 'Stress, Anxiety and Depression in Law Students: How Student Behaviours Affect Student Wellbeing' 40 Monash U L Rev 565, p.84
Carol is a Senior Lecturer within The Open University Law School and Assistant Head of Student Experience – Retention and Outcomes within the Faculty of Business and Law.
She joined the OU as an Associate Lecturer in 2015 and became a Student Experience Manager in 2018 before taking up the role of Assistant Head in 2023. Carol is also actively involved in the scholarship relating to online teaching pedagogy.
Other research interests include tackling student and staff isolation via such programmes as online mentoring, The Belonging Project and Tutor CPD programmes. Before joining the OU Carol worked in further education.
Andrew Maxfield is a Lecturer and Student Experience Manager within The Open University Business and Law Schools.
Andrew’s research interests include exploring student engagement, understanding online teaching pedagogy and supporting veterans in their studies.
He tutors on LLB Law modules. Before joining the OU, Andrew worked as a solicitor practising in family, property and charity law.