Do you know what’s going on? The first-year undergraduate perspective

Have you ever sent an email to students containing some vital piece of information about an assessment, or a change in where they have to access their class, only to be inundated with unrelated responses about completely unrelated things?  ‘Hey miss ive been meaning to ask you……’.  It can be really frustrating!

Why do they do this? Because it’s easy.  They see a message from me, and it prompts them to ask me that thing that has been on their mind for a while.  Suddenly all they have to do is to click ‘reply’ and they can ask me that question.  So why not use this to our advantage?

All students are inundated with communication from us, in our desperate attempt to ensure that they have all the information they need: emails, texts, on-line platforms, websites.  The list is endless and for students it is very confusing (Khalid et al, 2016).   For first-year students, accessing most of their lessons on-line with the option of face-to-face classes at different times each week, it must be completely overwhelming.   We work very hard to provide a blended learning solution, but despite our best efforts, the result, for the most part, is a conversion of the traditional lecture / seminar model into a blended format.  Our first-year students have no experience of that traditional model, so no context in which to place the blended learning approach that we offer.  They don’t know what the ‘traditional’ way looks like, let alone the adaptation of it.

So how do we help them? How do we reach out to those students who aren’t attending on-line seminars  because they don’t know where to find the virtual classroom? Or those students who still haven’t got the sound sorted on their laptop or are trying to access all the material on a phone?

The first challenge is to try and grab their attention – to make your email stand out from the other 25 they receive that day, and then to make it easy for them.  Tell them, all they have to do is to click ‘reply’.  The subject line is important.  I used, ‘Do you know what’s going on?’ There is an implication there that I may not know myself and if they think I haven’t got any idea what is going on, they may feel better about confessing that they don’t either! My email was purposely short and  said quite clearly that if they needed help with anything, they just needed to click ‘reply’.

And they did.

I had emails from students who were by their own admission ‘struggling’, ‘overwhelmed’, having ‘problems’, ‘lost’. They didn’t know where to look on our VLE, or what to be looking for.  They had ‘missed stuff’ and didn’t know what to do about it, had no idea what to do each week, had problems understanding assessments.  One student didn’t know if he had any ‘homework’ or when it was due. Others had trouble accessing on-line seminars or couldn’t find their timetable.

One by one I was able to guide them through what they needed to do and where they needed to go, and as I look back at those student names now, I note with some satisfaction that they all sat their year-end exam.

What have I learnt?  That first-year students may be struggling more than they ever have, certainly more than I realised. That they need an easy, non-threatening route to help, and a friendly face to greet them.

Clare Robertson-Hughes BA (Hons), ACMA, CGMA, FHEA, has taught in higher education for 25 years and is currently a senior lecturer at De Montfort University in Leicester.


Khalid, S., Saeed, M., & Syed, S. (2016). Impact of information overload on students’ learning: An empirical approach. FWU Journal of Social Sciences, 10(1), 58-66

4 thoughts on “Do you know what’s going on? The first-year undergraduate perspective

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  3. I loved this idea, and took it to my team (not in Education, but a national charity). This morning (about 30 mins ago) we sent a ‘Do you know what’s going on’ email to around 750 practitioners. The responses are already coming in, and we’re already helping people who were feeling a bit overwhelmed. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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