What changes when assessing needs online?

While the recommendations for support may not change, support staff may need to adjust their approach to allow for differences in communication when assessing online. 

Here’s how student meetings or interviews should be handled remotely:

Keep showing, not telling

Crucial to assessing a student’s needs is allowing them to understand any software being recommended. In a face to face meeting, staff can explain the benefits and usefulness of a piece of software, demonstrate it to the student, and allow the student to explore the software themselves. 

There are many online platforms available that can be used to conduct meetings or interviews that allow video chat and screen sharing. This way, you can demonstrate the software, showing what it can do and how to use it.

Here are a few apps that allow screen sharing:

  • Zoom
  • Hangouts
  • Slack
  • Skype
  • Loom

Be aware of the context

It’s worth considering that some students will be experiencing higher anxiety than usual, given the nature of this crisis. 

They may be concerned about their education, how they will access what they need for their course, and the change in routine and environment. This should be taken into account during the assessment. 

Anxiety could impact on the student’s ability to accurately and realistically convey their needs and difficulties regarding their course, as they are likely to be distracted and preoccupied. Reassurance and considered, targeted questioning will help here.

It may be harder to build up a rapport with the student over a video link, which makes it even more important to make the student feel at ease and explain clearly what will happen in the meeting, how long it will take, and what it will ultimately achieve. Ensure the student understands all this at the beginning and allow plenty of time for them to ask questions. 

Ward against distractions 

It is likely to be harder to maintain the student’s attention during the assessment, especially those students who already struggle with attention and focus, such as those with ADHD, Autism, and some SpLDs. 

Distractions in the student’s environment may interfere with what you’re able to get from the student. It is more difficult to concentrate when in your own home talking via video link than it is when you are in the controlled space of a campus office. 

To combat this:

  • Keep questions short and focused.
     
  • Make the assessment as interactive as possible by regularly sharing the screen and showing the student some of the tools that could help them. This should increase attention and minimize opportunities for the student to disengage. 
     
  • Monitor the student’s reactions and adjust the flow or order of the interview as necessary. Keeping them engaged and interested will be more important when carrying out assessments remotely. 

Replace non-verbal cues

Nonverbal cues that are so important in communication are more difficult to pick up on when communicating over video chat. Behaviours such as eye contact, facial expressions, hand gestures, and body language provide us with a lot of information about how the other person is feeling. 

Of course, some of this is still available via video chat, but generally it is more difficult to identify when we are not physically face to face with someone. 

To counterbalance this, it might be helpful to add in more verbal clarifications, and more questions relating to how the student feels about a certain suggestion or recommendation. 

Independence is more important than ever

During this difficult time, many students will be struggling with the additional pressures of having to be more organized about their studies, more proactive in terms of accessing sessions and support, and more motivated to engage in independent study.  

For many students, planning and organization is already a challenge, and this abrupt change in the fundamental delivery of their education is likely to be causing additional stresses and challenges.

Be prepared to advise your students on structuring their day, and direct them towards useful tools that might help.

A couple of practical considerations

There are also a few practical issues to consider when assessing remotely. Confidentiality should be considered; make sure you are using headphones or are in a room away from others, to ensure that the conversation you are having with the student remains confidential. 

Internet connections may also vary, and at times the connection may freeze or cut out, interrupting your conversation with the student. Patience and perseverance is needed to ensure this does not interfere with the overall objective of the assessment. 

Maintaining access, no matter what

Assessing remotely may have its challenges, but if you play it right, students will still have a full package of support.

It’s our job as support professionals to keep delivering for the students that need us. Though working remotely, we still have the power to unlock student potential – let’s not forget that!


We’ll be publishing more content from Dr. Sue in the coming weeks, including articles on the science of remote learning, implications for disability support and more.

Meanwhile, learn more about the science of remote learning.


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Published by

Dr Sue Wilkinson

Dr. Sue Wilkinson is a cognitive psychologist, Senior Fellow of the UK’s Higher Education Academy and and is an Independent Neurodiversity and Education Consultant. With 10 years’ experience in Higher Education and 4 years working with students with disabilities, she’s developed a particular expertise in neurodiversity in education, its effect on cognition, and the use of assistive technology to support learning.

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