University priorities in preparing for the academic year 2020-21

Published: 30 Jul 2020


The Society’s Education and Training Committee met on 16th June 2020, where we discussed preparations for the academic year 2020-21 as we emerge from the COVID-19 lockdown. This blog summarises that discussion, with a view to recording useful insights and solutions that are being developed across the UK Pharmacology education community.


We discussed broadly the importance of engaging students as early as possible in their university experience, and the fact that induction activities were perhaps more important than ever in the current climate of uncertainty. Members of the group shared plans for combined central and school/discipline specific orientation to help create a sense of student belonging, both to the wider institution and the component school or department.

In place of face to face sessions, committee members are actively preparing pre-recorded sessions with live post-event question and answer sessions, to provide a more personalised connection between students and the staff involved with their degree programmes. We highlighted that it was particularly important to supply information and develop a sense of community among new students, but other specific cohorts (varying from one HEI to another) may also require specific attention to induct them into their specific year of study. For example, this might be relevant for those entering final year and those returning from placement.

We followed this by expressing the need for all students to feel supported, included and actively involved with their university. Several committee members flagged the need for students to be reminded or made aware of support services, as part of the induction programme. In addition, we all agreed on the importance of guidance and training for students in how to learn and engage online. We also recognised the importance of training for staff in how to develop online materials and build skills such as editing video content and creating audio PowerPoint files. We saw this as vitally important for supporting student expectations and upholding the student experience. 

We acknowledged that, while the measures above cover orientation with the university, they fall short of allowing students to interact with each other and begin to form the social connections that are so important at university. We discussed the role of social media in this type of interaction, and the role that individual student associations, clubs and societies could play in this. We also discussed having group-based activities early and quite frequently in our teaching and the learning approaches that would help create this community interaction.

Blended Learning

The discussion moved on to consider what teaching would look like as we approach academic year 2020-21, and we discovered that all our institutions were proceeding with a blended approach, involving online provision with some face to face/on-campus delivery where possible. We all agreed that the circumstances have contributed substantially to our workload and stress levels, and that our institutions had responded to this challenging and ever-changing climate, for example by designating rest days and focusing on staff wellbeing. However, there were concerns about the physical and mental health of teaching staff moving forward, and agreement that this was something to be mindful of.

We were also grateful that start dates for the next academic year had been pushed back to allow greater preparation time. We discussed the logistics of some programmes being pushed back to January or indeed some programmes being run with intakes in both September and January. Following on from the more general discussion around blended learning, we discussed plans for the different teaching activities that would normally have run and how these will likely change in a blended learning context. These are summarised below.


We agreed that lectures, as we recognise them currently, were unlikely to exist in a traditional format during the blended period. Instead, materials would be delivered in bitesize chunks of around 10-20 minutes. Some committee members explained that these would be new recordings, while others intended to edit existing recordings into abridged versions. The plan is for these to be posted online for students to engage with in an asynchronous manner. We considered how best to recap main points and consolidate learning, and several committee members explained their plans for follow-up lecture blocks with live tutorial sessions. We felt that these sessions would help students to engage with staff, explore the subject matter and ask questions, and so would serve as a useful addition to recorded mini lectures.


We discussed the importance of tutorials for staff-student interactions and to allow students to ask questions. We explored the different types of tutorials that might take place, including:
Lecture consolidation tutorials (see above)
  • Pre- and post- practical tutorials, to create depth and context around condensed practical sessions
  • Group tutorials to develop group working and peer interaction
  • Community tutorials focussed on student wellbeing
  • Drop-in tutorials where staff open sessions to any student who wants to discuss an aspect of their studies
We recognised throughout this discussion that the tutorial exercise is a critical way of engaging the student with their studies, the course staff and each other. We agreed that regular, timetabled tutorials would help build a sense of routine for students, similar to what they would get from a traditional timetable. 


We had a particularly long discussion around practicals and the current plans for running these in the coming academic year. We acknowledged early in the discussion that changing guidelines may impact on these preparations, but most of us reported that planning was advancing and at least some practical teaching was likely to take place, if permitted. We shared current planning approaches including one-way systems, reduced laboratory capacity, running multiple sessions for smaller groups and distancing measures.

From a educational point of view, we explored ways in which the practical exercises themselves were likely to change in the coming term. We all described ways in which time in the actual laboratory would be reduced and minimised where possible by having tutorials, pre-lab information and some simulations provided ahead of the laboratory class. This would allow a more focussed wet session exploring the specific techniques, which would had already been framed by the pre-class materials. Follow up analysis sessions and write up guidelines could then be run online in a synchronous and/or asynchronous manner.

We explored ongoing discussions within our institutions about condensing the practical sessions to only those that are fundamentally important. Those supplementary skills could be replaced with online simulations or analysis, allowing what time is available for actual wet lab sessions to focus on core skills.


We briefly discussed approaches to projects and heard about current experiences with supervising projects for the current cohorts of undergraduate and postgraduate students. Here, we heard that most students and supervisors were progressing well. There has already been substantial work and discussion to explore how projects will operate next year, but we admitted that the situation is very uncertain and so planning is difficult. However, we were grateful for the work of Dave Lewis  at the University of Leeds, and the British Pharmacological Society, in providing some excellent guidelines and alternative approaches for research projects.

One approach discussed and highlighted was establishing small groups of around ten students who can participate in techniques common to their projects, such as Western blotting or Polymerase chain reaction. While we appreciated this would not recreate a fully laboratory-based project, it would help develop some hands-on approaches.


We were all in agreement that we are learning as we go, and that the summer would provide some time for training in many of the skills needed to deliver effective online materials. However, we also acknowledged that our institutions were working hard to provide appropriate guidance and training to support us. We then discussed the issue of accessibility of materials and how appropriate the level of training was for educators. We felt this was of utmost importance in our design and planning of teaching and learning exercises to ensure equal learning opportunities for all. However, we also acknowledged the sea-change in our abilities to create and develop a splendid blended learning journey.


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