Behind the screens with our staff

A student watching a tutor as they deliver an online tutorial


The coronavirus pandemic quickly forced us all to adapt to a ‘new normal’ but what has it been like for staff that are teaching and supporting students?

We asked the people working with students how they supported them during Trinity term and how their working lives have changed.

Oxford’s colleges, departments, divisions, faculties, libraries and museums lay mostly empty during Trinity term. But while keyboards, whiteboards and floorboards across University buildings went silent, colleagues worked hard to continue supporting students in their studies and wider university lives, quickly switching to teaching and working remotely.

Students shared diverse stories of life and study under lockdown, ranging from Naomi’s video of her post-grad household finding fun to the Blavatnik School of Government (see below)  sharing how students and staff are adapting to remote learning. Classics undergrad Zahra blogged about her experience of the third week of Trinity, and students and staff at Pembroke and  St Hilda’s shared postcard blogs.


Overall students reacted well to the change, telling us that they felt supported by their tutors and enjoyed attending online lectures. The flexibility and understanding tutors and supervisors showed over this period was mentioned by many students who sent feedback to the Centre for Teaching and Learning. They told us that they recognised the difficulty of the situation, and admit it’s not perfect but see that their tutors are trying their best and they very much appreciate this.

Colleagues involved in teaching have been busier than ever during Trinity term, and in the run up to the next academic year –recording lectures, learning about new technologies and tools, teaching students in different time zones, working with research students to redesign their projects, modifying assessments and supporting students individually through all these changes.

They’ve also learnt more about their students. Some are more likely to engage in an online class and others prepare better for virtual tutorials than they did for those they attended in person. Overall some aspects of teaching have transferred well to the new remote model, whereas others – such as practical tutorials – have come with greater challenges.

At the height of lockdown we spoke to colleagues across the collegiate University about what they’d been doing to support students during the pandemic and what it’s been like for them. Here’s what they had to say.

Teaching and learning remotely

Vicky Neale, Whitehead Lecturer at the Mathematical Institute and Supernumerary Fellow at Balliol College

Close up portrait photo of Vicky Neale

Adapting to remote teaching has thrown up a few challenges and forced us all to adapt quickly. Teaching maths, you usually need to write on a board or paper and I am now an expert in setting up my phone to share formulas and workings with students. Some things are more difficult – marking online takes much longer – but there are positives, particularly relating to technology, and I hope we can take the best parts forward in the future.

Since the beginning of lockdown I have been very conscious that my students are in different circumstances and a variety of time zones. However, they have been very constructive and adaptable, and remain engaged. They have also become well acquainted with my two cats, who expect their tea at 6pm, around the time I’m holding tutorials with my students in North America.

It’s extraordinary that our global community can all be together in the same virtual room. In the end I am glad to be able to chat to my students about our shared passion: maths. It offers us all something concrete to discuss, a beacon of normality in a time of uncertainty.

Adapting to remote teaching has thrown up a few challenges and forced us all to adapt quickly. Teaching maths, you usually need to write on a board or paper and I am now an expert in setting up my phone to share formulas and workings with students. Some things are more difficult – marking online takes much longer – but there are positives, particularly relating to technology, and I hope we can take the best parts forward in the future.

Dr Matt Williams, Access Fellow and Lecturer in Politics at Jesus College

Matt Williams and his son

As well as shifting our college access work online, I’ve also been teaching politics to a range of Oxford undergraduates — including the Foundation Year students at Lady Margaret Hall, and everyone from first-year students looking for an introduction to the subject to finalists hoping to cram for exams.

Besides fairly predictable technical hiccups here and there, the move online has been amazingly painless. Oxford tutorials lend themselves to digital platforms because working in such small groups means that not much is lost in shifting from in-person to online. But, and it’s a big ‘but’, I cannot so easily gauge my students’ comprehension and confidence when working online. In part this is because I am half blind and struggle to see them, and, more potently, the students I suspect are less willing to share their anxieties on the secure side of a laptop screen. 

When sharing a space, I can not only sense a student’s reaction to my questions, but I can also encourage more of a back and forth between students until I’m confident that they feel confident. This psychological aspect of teaching is largely missing now. I suspect, therefore, that online tuition will better suit self-possessed students, and will push those with less confidence into even greater self-doubt. To mitigate this risk, I make sure to ask pointed questions to gauge comprehension and confidence. I also confer with colleagues about a student’s development and whether more one-to-one support is needed. Ironically, this all adds up to more work in contacting students and providing detailed feedback, even though a lot of commuting time has been saved. 

Dr Helen Swift, Associate Professor and Fellow in Medieval French at St Hilda’s College, and Assessor in the Proctors’ Office

Dr Helen Swift, Associate Professor and Fellow in Medieval French at St Hilda’s College

My ‘normal’ for the past fifteen years has been as a college tutor. But in mid-March I took on the role of Assessor in the Proctors’ Office: no teaching for a year, and relocating from my river-view room at St Hilda’s to the University Offices. This ‘new now’ feels strange (not least since Wellington Square was immediately replaced by our loft at home), but I have no pre-history with which to compare it, so it is, oddly, usual.

The Proctors and Assessor are normally identifiable by wearing sub-fusc, which foregrounds that you represent an office, not yourself as an individual. Working from home, we have a virtual equivalent in the form of a distinct online identifier: in videoconferences I am ‘Assessor’. Learning how to inhabit that new role, whilst inhabiting my house, is an ongoing process.

I hope that we emerge from lockdown with a stronger appreciation of diversity – of how people’s professional identities are variously informed by what they’re juggling more generally; this both enriches our understanding of each other (appreciating also the things that we don’t know about each other) and helps us not to fall into assumptions about what we ‘normally’ expect from people based on their role.

You can read Dr Swift’s blog in full on the St Hilda’s website.

Supporting students beyond the virtual classroom

Dr Jonathan Black, Director of the University Careers Service

Jonathan Black, Director of the University Careers Service

Students’ second question after ‘how will the pandemic affect my exams and teaching?’ is ‘And how will it affect my career prospects?’.

Following lockdown, the University Careers Service team moved all the services we could online. We also adapted and transformed other services for online delivery and added new ones.

As a result, compared with the same period last year, more students are having one-to-one discussions by phone or video call; two or maybe three times as many people are attending online workshops; and twice as many applications are being made for the internships we have been able to convert to virtual programmes.

Looking to Michaelmas term, while we hope eventually to host small group workshops in the building at 56 Banbury Road, we have announced that all the information fairs will be virtual, using a dedicated platform – more details coming soon! We believe more students will find these new virtual fairs more welcoming, friendly and accessible. They will stay open much longer and visitors will be able to drop in between essays or lectures, without having to travel to distant buildings in autumn weather. Being virtual, we’ll also be able to quickly create new fairs in new sectors to react quickly to how the economy is evolving in 2020/21.

Student welfare during the pandemic

The Student Welfare and Support Service (SWSS) has continued to work with students to support their mental and physical health. SWSS still offers all the welfare support that it did before the pandemic, but in a remote form. While in-person sessions can no longer go ahead, the service offers help over the phone or online. SWSS has also teamed up with Togetherall*, a free digital mental health and wellbeing service offering safe, anonymous online support to students.

A range of materials has been created to support all students throughout the pandemic. This collection of blogs and podcasts for finalists aims to help students to come to terms with their feelings during these uncertain times and offers advice on a range of issues including coping with the loss of normality and moving back into the parental home while studying.

Physical health is also important, so University Sport has partnered with Wellbeats to launch a new digital streaming service of on-demand workouts, called Active Anywhere. Free to all members of the University it also includes stretches and nutritional education classes. This is alongside the #StayInWorkOut campaign, an extension of the existing #ActiveAtOxford campaign (encouraging students to be active in Oxford), to encourage staff and students to share their home workouts. You can follow this campaign on Instagram and Twitter.


If you are concerned about a student or would like more information about student welfare, visit the Student Welfare Support Service website.


Photo credits:

Banner image of student watching online tutorial sourced from Shutterstock.

*Togetherall changed from Big White Wall - 25/08/2020