Online writing retreat leads to Excellence in Education Award

Excellence in Education Awards: Excellent Educator Award winner

  • Date

    Mon 31 Jan 22

Profile pictures of Kat Sundsbo, Hannah Pyman and Anne Kavanagh

An online writing retreat for postgraduate students at Essex, which was said to be a “real lifeline” during the pandemic, has won a University team an Excellence in Education Award.

The team of three, from Library and Cultural Services and Organisational Development, came up with the idea after the in-person, and well-established, Thesis Writing Boot Camp was cancelled due to the first national lockdown.

Anne Kavanagh, Katrine Sundsbo and Hannah Pyman, wanted to provide support for postgraduate students in what they knew would be a difficult time.

As well as providing practical guidance around thesis writing, the aim was to create a community to provide support and share best practice between postgraduate research students, and to help overcome isolation.

Education Development Officer Anne Kavanagh, one of the project leaders, said they were particularly aware of feelings of isolation the students may have and wanted to create a sense of community and support their wellbeing.

“We are very aware of the vulnerability of PhD students to feelings of isolation in normal times, but we felt the lockdown could exacerbate those feelings and possibly trigger an increase in stress and anxiety,” she said. “We opted for a lighter version of the traditional Thesis Writing Boot Camp – where the focus was mainly on writing with word count checks at the end of each day – and focused on including opportunities for participants to meet together in a relaxed atmosphere.”

Called Time to Write, the programme provided writing support, encouraged a structured day, and created a sense of community. It used Zoom meetings, had an online platform for messaging and sharing files, and had a clear timetable for individual active breaks –including yoga, walks and time for wellbeing – to encourage a community spirit.

The initiative initially started in March 2020 as a three-week pilot with a series of two writing days a week. At the beginning, 13 students signed up to take part. Once the format was working and well-received, the team advertised for more students. By the end of August, there had been 339 individual bookings.

Anne, Katrine and Hannah conducted a research project to get feedback on the programme. Of the respondents, 100% agreed that they had achieved what they wanted from the programme and said that it had “met” or “exceeded” expectations. Having a time structure and a supportive community were cited as the most helpful aspects of the programme. Feedback included that it “felt like a big family” and that the course had been “a real lifeline”.

On the back of this success, the team continue to run once-weekly sessions and have actively sought opportunities to share their experiences from the programme.

Speaking on behalf of the team, Anne said they were delighted to receive the award.

“We are thrilled to receive recognition for this project which has provided a community of support to a significant number of postgraduate research students, both during lockdown and beyond,” she said. “We hope that this will provide a template for others to develop similar programmes that create opportunities for students or staff to flourish by coming together to carve out time and space in busy schedules to support one another and share best practice.”

More about our Excellence in Education Awards

Our Excellence in Education Awards are inspired by the University’s mission to achieve excellence in both education and research. We aim to provide students with a transformational education experience and intellectually challenging and stimulating courses that are based on creative and innovative approaches.

The Awards recognise and celebrate our institutional commitment to enabling our students to contribute positively to communities and societies around them.