Remote Teaching Case Studies: Dan Marshall, President of the Student’s Association

Friday 21 August 2020

This week our series on remote teaching and learning is talking to Dan Marshall, President of the Student’s Association. Dan was finishing up his undergraduate degree in Physics and Astronomy when the University campus shut in response to the spread of the virus. He didn’t find studying online impossible, and he tells us that he got better at regulating his time working at home as things went along; but it took a lot of extra self-discipline! He also missed going in to the Physics building in the morning and then working together with everyone else in the lab for the rest of the day. He missed the breaks with everyone too, the spontaneous moments of inspiration that other people bring, and, of course, the culture of everyone helping each other out that the School of Physics and Astronomy is famous for.  He gives a special shout-out to his supervisors, Dr. Claudia Cyganowski and Dr. Vivienne Wild, for being so brilliantly supportive throughout.


Could you tell us about your role at the University of St Andrews?
I have just finished my MPhys Astrophysics degree and have now taken up office as President of the Students’ Association.


How much had you integrated the use of technology into your study habits before the Covid-19 outbreak? What did you use until now?

Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak I used some technology in my study as my degree was fairly heavily concentrated on computational modules. I also made use of simulations and some online resources to aid my learning. Additionally, I used remote access to work on computers in the physics lab from home in the evening or sometimes at the weekend when the lab was closed.


What were your first thoughts when you heard that St Andrews teaching, learning, and study was switching online?

I was a bit concerned because although I had finished with classes by then, and was working full time on my project, I have always preferred a daily routine where I am working around other people. It’s just easier to bounce ideas off friends and colleagues, or to ask for advice, when working alongside them. I was really worried about losing that.


How do you manage the process of learning and studying online?

It took a lot of self-discipline! Before the outbreak, I was accountable to my friends: we would all come in to the physics building in the morning and then work together in the lab. We would take breaks together and help each other out. When working from home, I found it much harder to start early and then, later, to know when to stop at the end of the day. I also really struggled to be motivated throughout.


Did the process of switching to an online mode of learning make you think differently about the way you approach your study? Did you make any changes to your study habits?

Before the ‘lockdown’, I would typically work for 2-3 hours before taking a break and would then stop for 15/20 minutes for a coffee. Whilst working on my project from home, I found that my attention span was much shorter and I was having to take much more regular breaks in order to remain productive.


In general, how has your student experience of learning and studying online been?

Studying online is not my desired preference but it’s not unmanageable either. As time progressed, I learned not to see everyone else’s shiny graphs and results in isolation and remember that they too had probably spent most of the week banging their head on a desk (something I would have been well aware of had we been working together in person). I also learned how to better set goals for myself and to regulate my productivity throughout the day. I think I was still less productive at home and I’m sure my work suffered from the loss of those spontaneous moments of advice and inspiration that other people bring; but I think it improved with time.


How has your experience of lectures, seminars, and tutorials (if you have them) been?

I haven’t really had any online lectures, and so on, only some online guest talks. They followed a typical format of talk then questions as they usually would, and the only thing that was really lost was the discussion you may have with a colleague about it on the way out.


You have just finished your undergraduate degree in the School of Physics and Astronomy and are now Student Association President for 2020-2021. Which technologies or online resources have you found especially practically useful for studying your subject in particular?

Remote access to Linux computers, code sharing/compiling tools like Git, the ability to easily screenshare through Teams, Trello board to keep track of separate projects.


What has been your experience of having undergraduate supervision online been?

My supervisor was brilliant and was really supportive throughout the pandemic. The challenge came from those little struggles that don’t seem to merit an email or a Teams call but that you might have knocked on an office door over or pulled someone aside quickly in a corridor for. I probably struggled on too long without help that could have quickly corrected me once those spontaneous moments of collaboration were lost.


What one piece of advice would you give someone based on your own student experience of learning and studying online?

Don’t judge other people’s highlights against your behind the scenes.

Here’s another important one: keep collaborating and ask for help/advice early!


Is there anything else that you would like to add?

That’s it!



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