Tackling engagement and building relationships at third level

Most students were familiar with online communication tools pre-pandemic

Relationships are central to the third-level experience.

The pandemic, however, ripped them away, making it more difficult for many students to get to know their classmates and lecturers. Not only this: lecturers had to race to build new, virtual engagements with the colleagues they may previously have popped into for a quick chat or coffee.

With a return to campus in September and October looking likely, the thought of meeting not just one or two people outdoors for a walk but meeting dozens of people – indoors – can feel overwhelming. Our socialisation muscles have atrophied.

That said, it is likely that some element of online learning and social life will remain. For most school-leavers, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing: while there’s plenty of evidence that excessive smartphone and social media use can be harmful, video calls and online group hangouts were a feature of life for most teens before the pandemic was even a glint in a coronavirus’s eye.


We spoke to two experts on how to build relationships in college –whether online or in real life – and why we should avoid returning exactly to how things were before.

Dr Terry Maguire is director of the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and a pioneer in developing flexible and blended approaches to teaching and learning.

Dr Shivaun Quinlivan is the vice-dean for equality, diversity and inclusion at NUI Galway. She recently spoke at an event hosted by NUI Galway's Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching and the university's inclusive learning project, which explored issues of diversity and inclusion in higher education at the university, nationally and internationally.

How good teachers engage

The national forum runs the Teaching Hero Award, a student-led learning impact award, in partnership with the Union of Students in Ireland.

“The awards are less about the [lecturer] who made everything great and easy, but instead about the teachers who pushed you harder to make you see what you could achieve,” says Maguire.

“We ran the awards in 2014, 2016 and last year, with the results announced at a virtual ceremony in April. We asked students to describe why they were nominating this person and, in all our analyses, we found that students picked out teachers who were passionate, kind, caring, supportive, approachable, knowledgeable, good communicators, inclusive and encouraging. Good teaching is about those relationships regardless of mode, and it’s about creating learner-centred teaching.”

The national forum’s analysis, which included interviews with the 2014 award winners, found that there were some key aspects to how good lecturers and tutors approach their teaching, says Maguire.

“Learners are central and learner engagement is actively pursued. Communications are varied and adapted, and the pedagogy is more important than the technology.

“Student evaluation and feedback is at the centre of the experience, and not just a form handed out at the end of a module. Students feed back to their lecturers on what is and is not working for them. Working with their students in a partnership approach, lecturers seek to improve and build on their modules.”

Why online is better for some students

You can’t engage in college life if you don’t feel included.

Quinlivan’s focus has been on ensuring that students from diverse backgrounds – a different ethnicity, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background or simply a different life experience from the majority of their college classmates – were both listened to and heard in such a way as to make them feel included.

“We survey students or former students twice a year, based on issues by the students themselves,” she explains. “Every year, we run a training event for staff and students who can speak about their experience, and staff find it very informative.”

“Lecturers may not be clear on the problem of dead-naming a trans student [the name assigned to them at birth, which may not correspond with their gender identity]. I teach constitutional law and noticed that a lot of the examples used were of white, heterosexual couples, whereas it’s better to use a range of examples. I recently assessed an exam paper and nearly every example was of a male business owner. It’s not deliberate, but it is unthinking and can reaffirm the most privileged positions. Lecturers and students might equally be guilty of making assumptions about someone and their background – speaking loudly to someone because they don’t think, for instance, that they speak [fluent] English. It’s just about not stopping to think because you don’t want to hurt a student in front of you.”

Building relationships can be hard if a student feels excluded, but Quinlivan points out ways around this:

“On engineering courses, which may have more male participants, it’s better practice to split groups in such a way that there’s all male groups and then groups which may have two women and two men in them; the reverse is true for education or nursing courses, which may be more female dominated.

“Let students know they are welcome and will be included by reading out an inclusion statement at the start of class.

“NUI Galway has set up an inclusive teaching award which recognises lecturers who are inclusive in their practice.

We have tended to universally assume that students have lost out by having a full year of their third-level experience online, but this is not true for everyone.

“I teach first years,” says Quinlivan. “It has been hard to get that class atmosphere going online and the social side did suffer, but for some students, it was a better experience. This is true of students with disabilities who say they are now getting everything at the same time as their classmates. Because we are online we had to make everything accessible for everyone, and the problem of limited textbooks in limited library space has been addressed by publishers making their material available online. Some students with anxiety said that they preferred being online as they got all the content quite clearly and were not distracted.”

Quinlivan says that these unexpected gains work for some students. “I’d like to see a mix of online and person, and perhaps this might be a mix of on-campus for the social side with some of the smaller classes happening in person and the larger ones staying online.”

The next steps

We have learned a lot about student engagement over the past year, says Maguire. “This includes being more flexible and agile than we realised when it comes to supporting staff and students, and academics and support staff working collaboratively.”

But what impact, if any, will it have on teaching and learning?

“We won’t go back to where we were, but there will be chances to take stock – including in a report we will launch later this year – and there will likely be a blended offering for students that offers more choice. This will be underpinned by principles of universal design for learning, and we will ensure that learning will be accessible for all.”

For some students who simply need technical upskilling, this can be done online. “For newer students, we know that the whole sense of belonging is critical and more difficult to do online,” says Maguire. “That said, being online can provide opportunities for some of the more marginalised groups. What matters most is meeting the students where they are; if we keep that in mind, we will have good learning opportunities and give students a sense of belonging.”