Susanne Stoddart (UCL Careers, SRS)
I run employability workshops on Blackboard Collaborate, with each session attended by a maximum of 15 students from across any programme or year group. For one activity, students work in pairs in breakout rooms to provide feedback on each other’s personal application materials such as CVs. A key issue for me is how to rapidly facilitate online community building and create a collaborative “safe space” when the students have usually never “met” before, unlike when they work with their peers online for their academic programmes over the course of weeks and months. Sometimes students are reluctant to provide constructive criticism when working online with peers for the first time. I aim to introduce more interaction from the start of the sessions, encouraging students to speak rather than typing in the chat box. I’ve also considered introducing more ice-breaker activities, but that can be difficult within a limited time frame.
In response to the shift to online teaching, the UCL Careers Recruitment & Selection Advice (RSA) team moved their small group employability workshops online during the 2020 summer term. Then, and throughout the 2020/21 academic year, the team has run their workshops on developing effective CVs and cover letters via Blackboard Collaborate. The sessions, which the team had previously ran in person, last for 50 minutes. Students need to book onto the sessions in advance and each workshop can be booked by a maximum of 15 students. The sessions are open to students from all degree programmes at UCL. A key issue to take into account when designing the highly interactive workshops was how to rapidly facilitate online community building and create an open and collaborative space. The students usually have never “met” each other before, unlike when they work with their peers on their academic programmes over the course of many months or years.
Session Details & Issues
For one of the session activities, students work in pairs or groups of three in breakout rooms to receive and provide feedback on each other’s CVs or cover letters. Students are required to prepare these application materials in advance of the session. In order to promote student understanding and confidence around providing feedback on their peers’ CVs or cover letters, before the breakout activity we run a whole group exercise where we look at a sample CV or cover letter. Students are invited to comment on what is good about the documents and what could be improved. The facilitator is able to instruct and validate students’ comments, building confidence around their ability to go on to assess application documents put together by their peers.
During the breakout activity, the facilitator checks-in with the different breakout groups, answering any questions and helping to ensure discussions are staying on track or encouraging discussion where necessary. Particularly in earlier sessions, facilitators found that the discussions were sometimes quite limited during the breakout exercise. Then, when the breakout activity ended and students returned to the main room, discussion could again be quite limited when students were asked to feedback to the whole group on issues that came up during the exercise or what their key takeaways from the activity were.
Developing the Sessions
Breakout room ice-breaker activities were subsequently introduced to the sessions to help promote online community building. Particularly because the sessions are open to students from all degree programmes, students are sometimes unfamiliar with the types of roles that others are applying to. Facilitators instructed the students to spend the first few minutes of their time in the breakout rooms introducing the role or sector that they were interested in using their CV or cover letter to apply to, as well as the types of relevant skills they were trying to showcase on their application documents.
Another way that the sessions were developed in order to help promote online community building relates to the sample CV or cover letter exercise discussed above, taking place before the breakout activities. During this exercise, where students are asked to comment on what is good about the documents and what could be improved, originally the students could only make comments by typing and posting chat messages. They could not share their audio. The facilitator would read out and comment on contributions added in the chat. However, this was subsequently changed to allow students to use the hand raising function and then share their audio during this activity, although they could still type in the chat if preferred. We observed that many students did prefer to share their audio during the first activity. Students were also more warmed-up and more comfortable going into the breakout rooms and continuing their spoken discussions about their own application documents, compared to previous sessions when they were only able to speak for the first time at this point. This led to better quality discussions both during the breakout exercises and when students returned to the main room for the round up.
Student feedback (via session surveys emailed to all participants) highlights that they find it helpful to discuss their application documents with fellow students from different academic backgrounds and with different work experiences and aspirations. However, we are keen to hear your thoughts on virtual ice-breaker activities or techniques that may work well for creating an open and collaborative atmosphere for groups of students particularly who are, during a relatively short session, meeting and working with each other for the first time.
Written by Susanne Stoddart, Recruitment & Selection Advice Manager. With many thanks to Victoria Abbott and Emily Oliphant, the Recruitment & Selection Advice team, for all their hard work on creating and delivering these sessions. Thanks also to Tessa Parsons, Amy Lourenco and Sally Brown for their instructions and advice on setting these sessions up.