A new teaching model

Staff and students come together around topics in a way that has a clear educational purpose.

In late March, the lockdown created a problem for MPH students at Edinburgh: dissertations that relied on fieldwork or access to on-campus resources faced significant challenges. At the same time, staff at the Usher Institute were dealing with requests from policy makers to provide evidence reviews at great speed: the world was locking down and evidence about COVID-19 was scarce, but rapidly emerging.

UNCOVER was formed to provide rapid evidence reviews, but the speed that was required also needed many hours of work. Professor Harry Campbell and Dr Ruth McQuillan, working with the rest of the leadership team, came up with the idea to involve students. Together with Dr Neneh Rowa ­Dewar, the MPH Campus and Online Dissertation Lead, they recruited volunteer students - and in particular those students whose dissertation plans were scuppered by the lockdown.

One senior academic and three or four students worked together to produce, within days, reviews that would normally take weeks. This way of working flattened the hierarchy that usually exists between students and supervisors, with the teams working very closely together for long hours. UNCOVER also gave both students and staff a routine and sense of purpose at a time of great upheaval. Many students were left alone in Edinburgh as lockdown kicked in, with their dissertations in peril and their normal routines gone. UNCOVER gave them meaningful jobs, and learning opportunities that embedded what they had covered on the MPH course.

Learning and applying my skills while working closely with members of staff was a delightful experience. I was much more confident about my work because I was being guided very closely at every step.

Ambika Narain
Master of Public Health student

Many students volunteered for UNCOVER, but preference was given to those who had training in doing systematic reviews; a lot of time to give; and whose original dissertations were no longer feasible. UNCOVER drew up authorship principles to define how people would be included for publication.

I was able to apply my MPH skills and get an insight into the broader working of this field, as part of a team dealing with a real-world, real-time problem. The experience has given me a sense of satisfaction and achievement, and has boosted my confidence.

Durga Kulkarni
Master of Public Health student

The team is now considering how this new model can be applied in future, both for the MPH and other Masters programmes. There is a sense that something valuable has happened, and that other students should be given similar opportunities in future.

'This was a unique time, and we would like to see its legacy," said Dr Rowa-Dewar. "We're considering how we can involve policy makers and other organisations, and get students and staff to work together on new evidence reviews or grant proposals."

The core objective is to develop new ways in which staff and students can come together around topics, in a way that has a clear educational purpose. UNCOVER made this happen, but it's not sustainable in the format it took during lockdown. It has, however, sparked many ideas for novel ways of learning, teaching, and contributing to research.

Students are the reason we teach and the UNCOVER staff/student model not only allows students to learn from us, but we also learn a great deal from them. Working together we are able to elevate the quality and quantity of the work that is produced in a short period of time.

Gwenetta Curry Ph.D.