What changes when delivering support online?

Traditionally when we make recommendations for support in assessments, we assume that this support will operate in the physical world, on campus, where teaching and learning is happening as normal. 

In these current months of enforced remote learning, students’ support needs remain, which means we have to ensure that this support is maintained in order to prevent their education from being negatively impacted. 

And as you may know by now, some forms of support will be more flexible in adapting to remote delivery than others. 

Maintaining study skills support

Study skills support sessions are now being held remotely, which can work well via video conferencing platforms that allow tutors and students to share screens. Collaboration tools might also be helpful here so that both the tutor and the student can work on a document together (e.g. planning an assignment using mind mapping software). These tools allow both parties to edit and add to a document in real time. 

Mentoring continues…

Mentoring is another vital stream of support on which many students with mental health difficulties and autism heavily rely.  Luckily, this can also easily be adapted to support students remotely. 

Quite often, mentoring is used to motivate students to attend lectures and help them to deal with anxieties around social interaction and accessing their education. Mentors may meet students on campus prior to their lectures. Mentors can still meet students before these sessions, over video chat or conferencing platforms. Meetings to discuss practical strategies to help manage stress and anxiety can take place remotely. 

… but some students will need more

Given the current situation, it may be that students need additional support and advice to help them manage their difficulties and protect their mental well being while we patiently wait for life to return to some degree of normality. More regular ‘check ins’ might be needed. There are also specifically designed apps that allow students to flag when they need help.

The dramatic change in routine will be difficult for many people to adapt to, but even more so for those with autism, who often rely on routines to help manage their stress.  These students may struggle to adapt to an unfamiliar structure and way of working and may benefit from additional support in the form of virtual chats and monitoring of progress with tasks and assignments. 

Don’t forget about note taking

Note taking support is also a vital source of support for many students.  When attending online lectures, students can use software that will record the session and allow them to replay the sections of audio later, as well as allow them to make quick and easy notes to aid their learning and retention of the information. 

However, students unable to use note taking software will need additional support, and this is sometimes provided in face to face lectures by peer note takers. This will need to be mirrored for their online lectures. To ensure that this support is flexible enough to deal with this sudden change in circumstance, the note takers will need to be able to quickly adapt and use the technology necessary to access the lecture, or even use note taking software themselves. 

There should be less demand for note taking support that occurs in the student’s absence (often referred to as periodic note taker) as factors such as social or travel anxiety are less likely to prevent students from attending a virtual lecture. Using note taking recording software, they will also have a recording of the lecture that they can listen to multiple times to support their processing and retention. 

How assessments are changing

When it comes to examination assessments, most universities are adapting these to be one of the following: an alternative coursework assessment taken over a number of weeks; an open book exam that must be completed within a 24 hour period but not within a specific timescale (so the student could spend any amount of time they wish on the paper); and lastly an open book exam to be completed at any time the student chooses within a 24 hour period, but that has a fixed duration (e.g. 2 hours). 

None of these options will include invigilation (proctoring), as many universities will not have the facilities or platforms in place to allow this. For students recommended extra time for their exams, this should be reflected in these options. 

Many students are given rest breaks to help manage stress and anxiety in their exams, as well as medical needs, physical conditions, and those who suffer with attention difficulties. For the fixed duration exam, these rest breaks would need to be added to the time. Those students who have a reader to help with understanding the written questions (ensuring accurate processing of the question) should have arrangements in place for them to meet with them virtually at a specific time to read the exam questions to them.

Keep calm and carry on

At a time when we are physically distancing ourselves from one another, students with support needs may need an injection of virtual social communication and contact from disability and support staff to manage stress, anxiety and changes in routine. Technology makes this possible, and the range of assistive technology available on the market should ensure that support staff can still support students as and when necessary, to ensure they are not further disadvantaged by the current situation. 


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 supporting students remotely.


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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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