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26 March 2024

Fostering supportive student learning communities in an online, distance learning context


Dr Hannah Lavery
Director of Teaching for the Arts and Humanities, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, The Open University

Dr Debbie Parker Kinch
Lecturer and Staff Tutor in English, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, The Open University

Dr Encarnación Trinidad Barrantes
Senior Lecturer and Staff Tutor in English, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, The Open University

Enabling students to develop confidence as learners and feel part of a supportive learning community can present particular challenges in an academic institution, such as The Open University, with an open-entry policy, an online distance model and high numbers of students with declared disabilities. Our context also comes with unique opportunities, however. And so, we have recently introduced a range of incremental initiatives which are helping us better facilitate Arts and Humanities (A&H) students’ academic development.


We started with a curriculum change: from October 2019, coverage of academic writing skills has been an integral part of our stage 1 (Level 4) teaching materials. (These include a combination of module-specific, professionally-edited printed and online resources). While previously students were generally expected to develop their academic skills with reference to generic, often university-wide, resource packs, they now have access to tailored A&H advice. To maximise its effectiveness, this guidance takes the shape of short, interactive, activity-led, online study skills sessions embedded at points of need and using examples from the adjacent teaching materials.


Our most crucial innovation at this time, however, came from ringfencing a week of study during students’ first year for a unit on academic integrity. This unit, the first of its kind at the university, directly draws on the struggles students often reveal to Academic Conduct Officers. Set up similarly to the study skills sessions, the unit explores academic integrity principles, the when and why of referencing, strategies for using sources effectively, and the different effects of quoting, paraphrasing, and summarising. It is also complemented by a moderated good academic practices forum and assessed through a compulsory quiz.


Comparing data from immediately before and after the curricular change offered encouraging insights: there was a noticeable reduction in the number of stage 1 academic conduct referrals, significantly so for serious, disciplinary breaches (Fig. 1). Additionally, students’ answers to a short questionnaire upon completion of their first module overwhelmingly showed appreciation for the gradual, carefully structured, supportive and explicit teaching of study skills and the repeated opportunities this offered to develop self-awareness and confidence. Simultaneously, the questionnaire also surfaced students’ keenness to have regular, ideally live, discussions on good academic practice matters.

TimeframeFeb 2028 -
Sept 2019
Oct 2019 -
Sep 2020
% of scanned submissions leading to study skills referrals0.910.64
% of scanned submissions leading to disciplinary referrals0.440.10
% of students referred more than once2920

Figure 1: Breakdown of referrals for stage 1 (Level 4) students before and after the embedding of explicit good academic practices teaching.

Aware of students’ interest in live support sessions, we have been piloting (since 2022) module-specific synchronous online ‘Write Now’ assignment writing workshops. These sessions, drawing on principles and practices of academic writing retreats, support students to make progress with planning and writing their next assignment. The workshops combine tutor-led activities linked to the skills required for a specific assignment with opportunities for students to chat informally with their peers about their progress. Students are then invited to set themselves a writing goal and spend a set amount of time (usually 20 minutes) working individually on this task in the virtual company of other students and the tutors running the session.

Results from this pilot show that many of the positive outcomes documented in scholarship of face-to-face academic writing retreats (usually aimed at postgraduate researchers) can be replicated in an online environment for the benefit of undergraduate distance learners. Survey feedback from students demonstrates that they value the combination of elements in ‘Write Now’ workshops. While most attendees regard activities focused on breaking down the assignment into smaller tasks as the most useful overall, there are also high levels of positive response for being able to meet with other students working on the same assignment. Students report that hearing their peers discuss common queries and concerns helps reduce their anxiety and increase their confidence, by providing reassurance that they are not alone in facing these challenges. Attendees also report that the workshops enable them to focus attention on their studies amid competing demands on their time and that working alongside others provides a motivating sense of accountability. Such responses indicate that this approach to supporting academic writing skills has particular benefits for students with mental health conditions.

Alongside the above innovations, we set up an online Writing Centre for A&H in July 2023, which acts as a hub for resources and activities associated with developing academic English and writing skills, as well as supporting good academic practice at all Levels. This resource hub provides invaluable support for students on our programmes, but also for students choosing to study an A&H module as a stand-alone option (in their ‘Open’ degree), as well as for students joining our modules through credit transfer. To complement the materials available for asynchronous study via the Writing Centre, we have run a series of online, open access skills workshops during 23/24, including one on good academic practice, as well as writing skills, and planning and researching. The latter two workshops embed a ‘Write now’ segment in the final 30 minutes, which has opened these up to a wider audience. Student feedback has confirmed there is an appetite for supported, online live writing sessions to be open to students across different programmes of study, with attendees recognising the value of building a sense of community as an A&H student, not specifically their discipline affiliation.

Overall indications are that these innovations foster the building of supportive learning communities which reduce feelings of isolation that distance learners can face and thereby enhance students’ study experience overall. We plan to embed module-specific Write Now workshops in our tuition from the next academic year. Additionally, a programme of ‘Write Now’ sessions, open to any A&H student, no matter what their level of study, current module, or discipline affiliation, will be offered in the run up to submission of their end of module assessment in late Spring 2024.