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Education briefing - Fitness to study and coronavirus

  • United Kingdom
  • Education - Briefings
  • Education - Coronavirus


A common topic for sector discussion is whether “fitness to study” is an appropriate term to use in connection with an institution’s regulation of its student community where a concern arises about the ability of a student to study due to issues connected with their mental health. In the context of the current coronavirus pandemic, where so many of us are having to adjust to self-directed and self-regulated work or study at kitchen tables and in corners of rooms, “fitness to study” may take on a different meaning and resonance.

What should students be doing to keep themselves “course-fit” in current circumstances, and what can universities and colleges do to assist them to stay on the academic track?

Fitness to study and learn virtually

Keeping ourselves in the required headspace and frame of mind to study and learn (particularly where this next term’s exams have been cancelled), away from the regularity and oversight of scheduled classes and lectures may be, to varying degrees, a skill to be mastered. It may take increasing self-effort as normal university and college timetables, and sleep patterns, wax and wane and re-calibrate in these most unusual of times. Students may need to dig a little deeper into their reserves of self-motivation and resilience to ensure they remain “in the zone” for study and learning. And whilst tertiary education students may be expected, indeed required, to be independent learners, able to self-manage their studies, institutions should recognise that all students may benefit from and welcome some general assistance in the current exceptional circumstances.

The present pandemic has not abrogated institutions’ duty of care, or their obligation to make reasonable adjustments for disabled students, but it has meant that the way in which institutions protect and support the health, wellbeing and learning of their students will have to flex and morph.

For example, just as institutions have traditionally put on induction events for freshers at the start of each new academic year, they may wish to consider arranging virtual orientations at the beginning of the new term to support students to continue to manage the challenges of remote teaching and study.

In order to deliver the educational services promised under the student contract, now delivered via on-line platforms, institutions will have been addressing the timetabling of virtual classes, lectures and tutor sessions, the long-distance setting and assessment of work, and the remote provision of student feedback. The receipt by students of such delivery will go some way to ensuring that their academic minds and mindsets are kept fit and active. In turn, institutions will need to provide appropriate academic and IT support to assure a positive pedagogical experience. Such support may be particularly important for students who do not have ready access to IT or a quiet or safe space to study.

Similarly institutions should remind students of the wellbeing and other support services which they and their students’ unions offer and how these support services can be accessed remotely at the current time (including in the event of student crisis). Institutions might also consider what they can offer on a more general basis to support students’ wellbeing (such as on-line mindfulness classes, virtual choirs or tips for healthy eating, exercising and sleeping).

Maintaining course proficiency

Whilst institutions can assist students to stay in the psychological “study zone”, what can they do to support the maintenance of students’ course-proficiency and to protect key course skills learnt to-date?

What will be required will vary across courses and their respective core competences (e.g. mathematics, clinical sciences, languages, music or sport), but institutions will already have identified these core skills and can be innovative (within the realms of practicality) in helping students to maintain them such as through on-line bench-work, distance-language labs and virtual field-trips as well as regular exercises in critical reading, analysis and thinking.


For some students an announcement that examinations have been cancelled as a result of the coronavirus pandemic may have come as a welcome relief and mean one less thing to worry about at the current time.

But cancellation of exams may also mean the loss of the intensive revision periods which are the inevitable precursor to such assessment. If students don’t have to sit exams, how can institutions look to ensure they remain motivated to consolidate and entrench the course skills they’ve been taught to-date? What tests or other assessments can institutions encourage or require students to take so as to help them forge and hard-wire core competences and ensure they’re prepared for the higher gears of the new academic year?

Return to study

One certainty amongst all the many current uncertainties is that, at some point, “normal” campus life will resume, whatever the “new normal” looks like. By assisting students to maintain their academic fitness to study, their course proficiency and their motivation to consolidate previous learning, institutions will be supporting students’ preparedness to return to “normal” study. Whilst this will be a two-way commitment, with students having to put in effort and take responsibility for their own pedagogical preparedness, institutions can guide, direct, encourage and assist students including by disseminating clear statements and reminders as to what core competences they will need to demonstrate to continue to the next stages of their courses.

All this will play a part in welcoming, in due course, students back onto campus who are ready for the demands of the next academic stages of their programmes and for the transition back to a more traditional and familiar student experience.

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