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OU research informs “Relaxed Tutorial” model for HE sector

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Open University (OU) researchers have developed a new “Relaxed Tutorial” model which offers a more accessible learning experience to neurodivergent students and students with anxiety.

The model has been developed from The Relaxed Tutorial Project, a two-year action research project, funded by FASSTEST, the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences’ centre for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. The project ran on a Classical Studies module and involved over 200 Level 3 students.

Consisting of six tutorials in the first year and twelve in the second year, with follow-up surveys, the researchers modelled their principles on the 'Relaxed' events which in recent years have become common in the Arts and Heritage sector. In Relaxed theatre performances and cinema showings, sensory and social pressures are reduced to accommodate different preferences and sensitivities. Relaxed events were originally created to respond to the needs of autistic children and their families; but like many accessibility adjustments, they have become popular with other people too.

Key findings are:

  1. Being put on the spot – or the fear of being put on the spot – can prevent people from taking up educational opportunities.
  2. Many neurodivergent students prefer communication by text chat, rather than speaking in public.
  3. Webcams can be a source of stress to many students, neurodivergent and otherwise.
  4. Break-out rooms can be socially awkward and intimidating.
  5. Sending out slides in advance is an important accessibility adjustment.

In response to these observations, the team sent out the following commitment to students:

In a Relaxed Tutorial you will:

  • Not be recorded
  • Not be expected to use the microphone
  • Not be asked to switch on your webcam
  • Not be put on the spot, or called upon by name

Dr Cora Beth Fraser, OU Associate Lecturer in Classical Studies and a key project team member said:

“Relaxed Tutorials not only improve the experience of autistic and neurodivergent students but have also proved popular with lots of other demographics too.

“As autism diagnosis rates increase, we're seeing more and more autistic students entering Higher Education, and their needs should be considered: but what most people don't realise is that the accessibility adjustments that we make for autistic students can also have a much wider appeal. Designing for autism can create a better environment for everyone.”

The OU will continue to roll out this model in Classical Studies. Findings are also being shared with other departments and consideration given to adapting the principles to fit other contexts.

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