Online learning during Covid – A student perspective

By Bethany Brinsmead-Williams

I’m a first-year English student at the University of Exeter, and have just experienced the impact of Covid-19 on my first two terms. It’s been a very strange year – with words and phrases such as ‘key worker’, ‘social distancing’, ‘lockdown’ and ‘masks’ becoming everyday language. And, of course, what with social distancing and restrictions on meeting in person, this academic year has been an interesting one. In the beginning, it was a little unsure whether I’d even be able to move to university, and the run-up to my September move-in date was a nervous one, due to the swiftly changing rules and restrictions!

Many of my peers were unsure about whether they should commit to university this year, or whether taking a gap year was the better option for them. Personally, I was eager to begin my university experience, and so was willing to accept some restrictions in order to start the next stage in my academic journey. I haven’t regretted my decision to start university in the slightest – although it hasn’t been exactly what I expected, overall my first year at university has been an incredible experience. It’s been filled with new friends, engaging teaching, exciting new challenges, and a lot of memories to look back on (yes, including the lockdowns!). As my subject hasn’t yet been advised that we should return to university, I’m currently studying from my family home, but I’m confident that my studies aren’t being negatively affected in the slightest – I’m still able to access the resources I need, connect with academics and peers, and keep learning, wherever I am, and am very thankful for the technology that allows this.

A positive of the last two terms has been that everybody I’ve met has been really keen to connect – people were purposefully putting in effort, planning group walks, meeting in outside spaces and studying in cafes (when restrictions allowed), and overall it was still completely possible to meet with my peers. Of course, the restrictions provided a bit of a challenge at times, but we’ve just all had to be a little more inventive, making the most of times when we were able to meet in person, and organising socially distanced walks or video calls when we had to stay apart. I may have met a few less people than I would have in an ‘ordinary’ year, but I think I’ve got to know those I have met really well – we’ve had to purposefully organise ways to meet, and so have made the most of our opportunities!

At times, it has felt like a bit of a shame to not be able to do things in person, and I do look forward to next year, when hopefully I’ll be able to attend more lectures and seminars in person – but overall, I don’t feel that there has been any negative impact on my studies as a result of coronavirus. Of course, it’s been a different experience – but in no way has it been a bad one!

I have experienced a limited amount of in-person learning, attending a few seminars on campus but mostly I’ve been watching lectures and attending seminars from behind my computer screen. When I was studying on the university campus, all the measures that could be taken to minimise the chances of Covid-19 spreading were taken – social distancing, open windows, masks in seminars, hand sanitiser and careful tracking removed a lot of the potential concern around the idea of interacting with others. However, I learnt very quickly that, when attending seminars in person, masks and glasses don’t mix!

So, overall, my learning has been online – and overall, it’s been enjoyable and encouraging! Throughout the last two terms, the university has listened to students and done what they can to allow us to keep learning in an un-interrupted way. The university team have been incredibly understanding of the potential extra stress caused by Coronavirus – and one of the ways they’ve helped take some of the pressure off of us students was connected to their mitigation policy in the first term. The student body were allowed to ask for extensions without needing to offer a reason – a decision which lessened the pressure and demonstrated that the university was aware of the strangeness of this year of study.

It’s also been easy to access everything I needed – whether texts from the online section of the library or office hours with my seminar leaders. There are, of course, a few frustrations around online learning (with muting and unmuting and connection issues being the main annoyances) but the quality of the learning has remained outstanding. A bonus connected to online learning for me was not having to trek up the sizeable hill that lies between my accommodation and the campus!

Another really positive element of online learning has been the freedom to study wherever we like. There have been available study spaces across the campus, but I also have a friend who’s been attending their seminars and lectures on a bench outside their accommodation and enjoying being able to spend time outside in a way we wouldn’t have been able to, in a ‘normal’ year. I’ve also made the most of the beautiful Streatham campus and studied outside as much as I could!

I’ve still been able to interact with my peers and with the lecturers and seminar leaders – especially through office hours, and through the last two terms I’ve been able to easily sign in and connect with people. As would be expected, these interactions have been different to how they would be in a more normal year, but they’ve still been meaningful and important to my learning. Involvement in conversations and discussions has also been very possible, with our seminar leaders ensuring every participant is able to voice their opinions – whether that’s through recognising that someone is holding back from speaking (an impressive feat from the other side of the screen), or simply taking the time to ask each individual about what they have to add to the discussion.

There have also been opportunities to join extra workshops and talks – and many things that would usually happen in person (such as poetry-reading sessions and citation workshops) have been offered online throughout this time of restrictions. Even group work has still been able to happen – in my seminar groups, we’ve given presentations and edited Shakespeare, utilising video calls and online document-editing to work together whilst being separated.

Connections with other students and with lecturers and academics have still been very possible – they’ve just required a little more organising, and as would be expected, have often been online. Many of the university’s societies have continued to meet online throughout the periods of lockdown and restriction, and I’ve been able to partake in a multitude of activities – from a virtual weekend away to Zoom bake-alongs!

It’s actually been a very exciting and memorable experience, and it’s been interesting to see all the different ways clubs and societies have provided ways for their members to meet. I’ve taken part in a city-wide photo scavenger hunt, joined orchestra rehearsals in which every member muted themselves and played along to a recording, and joined a group of artists to chat as we worked on our individual projects. There have been socials, quizzes, lessons and informal chats – and although it hasn’t been quite what I expected, I’ve still been able to connect with many people who share my interests, and I look forward to carrying those connections into the next term and year.

Of course, it’s been an odd year – but it has been a fun one! I already have many memories to look back on that would never have existed without Covid – a variety of walks, the hilarity of trying to communicate through masks, the experience of lockdowns – in 10 years, I’m sure I’ll look back on this entire experience with fond memories, and enjoy telling stories from this very strange beginning to the next stage of my life.

In many ways, you could look at the past few months as the ‘worst case’ scenario – but yet, I can confidently say that it’s been a positive and enjoyable experience. I will admit that it hasn’t been quite what I expected, but I can truthfully say that I have no regrets about deciding to start university this academic year. Of course, I look forward to restrictions lifting and things being more in person again, but I’m very glad I made the decision to take the leap and start my first year of university during Coronavirus. My first year of university has certainly been unusual – but has also certainly been an amazing experience!


Read more about the commitment to our students university experience 

Contextual offers

Fair access to Higher Education is hugely important to us at the University of Exeter. We aim to make our application and recruitment processes as transparent as possible.

Part of this commitment, outlined in our Access and Participation plan, involves a contextual offer. On each of our course pages, you will see the contextual offer alongside the main entry requirements.

For example, our course page for History BA Streatham campus (2021 entry) outlines required grades, and then the contextual offer.

What are the grades for a contextual offer?
Our contextual offer is broken down into 3 categories:

  1. BMBS (Medicine): contextual offer would be
    • A-Level: ABB
    • IB: 32
    • BTEC: DDM
  2. Grade range ABB or above: contextual offer would be
    • A-Level: BBB
    • IB: 30
    • BTEC: DDM
  3. Grade range BBB: contextual offer would be
    • A-Level: BBC
    • IB: 28
    • BTEC: DMM

Are my students eligible?

  • All applicants from state schools who live in an area with low participation rates in higher education (POLAR 4 LPN Q1/2). Pupils can check eligibility using the postcode checker available on the Office for Students webpages
  • All applicants from state schools with more than 60% or at least 450 pupils who live in areas of deprivation (IMD Q1/Q2). View a list of Eligible schools.
  • Applicants we define as either a Care Leaver, a young person who has been looked after by the local authority for more than 13 weeks since they were 14, including some time at age 16 or 17, or Care Experienced any student who has been or is currently in care or from a looked after background at any stage of their life.
  • Applicants engaged on specific progression programmes run or managed by the University of Exeter
  • Applicants seeking asylum, have limited leave to remain, are under ‘humanitarian protection’ or have refugee status

Any questions?

You and your students are welcome to get in touch with the University of Exeter admissions team at or via phone:  0300 555 60 60 (UK callers) +44 (0) 1392 723044 (EU/International callers)

Support available for care experienced students

The University of Exeter has specialist provision to support care-experienced students’ progress to Higher Education. I hope that the following information helps when you are discussing future pathways with students who have been or are currently in care. Please do not hesitate to get in touch with our team if you have any questions.

Support before university studies:

  • Exeter Scholars
    If your students are care experienced they may be eligible to be part of the Exeter Scholars programme, by completing one of three pathways which feature events and activity. The free programme provides opportunities to develop knowledge about university and experience what it’s like to study a subject at University level. Find out more about Exeter Scholars
  • Admissions support
    During our admissions processes we recognise the impact that being in care can have on a student’s attainment and this may be taken into account when we are considering their application. This might mean that the applicant is made an offer at the lower end of the grade range, or made an ‘aspirational’ offer if their predicted grades aren’t quite in line with our expected levels. In addition, some GCSE requirements may be waived.
  • Designated contact points
    If your students are considering higher education and need advice or guidance before (and during) the application process please do point them in the direction of our designated point of contact for care experienced students: Natalie Bracher:

Financial support for care leavers *

  • Fee Waiver Care Leavers starting undergraduate or PGCE courses at the University of Exeter will not have to pay tuition fees. In order for the University to provide this support, a care leaver must indicate they they have been in care on their UCAS application form. Our Admissions Team will contact the student asking for further information.
  • Care Leavers’ Bursary The bursary is intended to help with the cost of accommodation during the summer vacation period after first and subsequent years of study (but not final year). The bursary amount is not fixed, but is decided by taking into account the additional cost of accommodation needs.

* At the University of Exeter we define a care leaver as a young person (up to the age of 25) who has been looked after by the local authority for more than 13 weeks since they were 14, including some time at age 16 or 17.

Academic and careers support

While studying at the university of Exeter, students who are care experienced  have access to a range of support services including:
– one on one meetings with the university’s designated member of staff for care leavers and care experienced students.
-care experience support groups
-Peer mentoring scheme for care leavers and estranged students
– career and employability support and guidance throughout the duration of their degree, and continued support after graduation.

For further details regarding how the University of Exeter supports care experienced students please visit

Please get in touch with our outreach team if you have any questions about how we support students considering their university options:

Spotlight on the Penryn Campus, Cornwall

The University of Exeter has three campus. In Exeter we have the Streatham and St Luke’s Campuses, and in Cornwall we have our Penryn Campus. Throughout this week current students from each campus will talk about their experiences of studying at their campus, what makes it so unique and why they made the decision to study at the University of Exeter.

Today Zac Lazarou (BSc Zoology) tells us about his experience of studying on the Penryn Campus, Cornwall.

The main reason I chose the Penryn campus is its unique location, Cornwall. Being a bioscience student, I did not want a city environment, and instead easy access to outdoor settings, especially the coastline. Secondary to this, was the look and feel of the campus itself, everything is modern and state-of-the art, with laboratories, seminar rooms and lecture theatres, library, bar, and café all in close-proximity. I also loved the emphasis on green spaces around campus with plenty of areas to relax in between studying or simply as an outdoor social space among peers. Finally, the community feel, as a mature student I felt accepted on campus regardless of my age or background and the synergy of sharing a campus with Falmouth University brought about a unique relationship between the science and humanities with the arts.

Drawing on my previous comment about sharing a campus with Falmouth University, it creates a distinct community of creatives and academics, in turn providing a plethora of opportunities in both societies, events and the diversity of students drawn to the campus. The environmental ethos on campus is also something I found unique. Facilities such as the cafeteria source their produce locally with a push to reduce single use plastic and use recyclable or reusable products. Recycling points are scattered all over campus so that you are never too far in disposing of rubbish appropriately. The campus itself hosts a variety of green spaces from grassland, scrub, hedgerows, and treelines, this attracts numerous native species and being a zoologist, it is a great place to explore nature. With the campus being in Cornwall, I have some of the most incredible coastline in the country on my doorstep, which in turn brings the Cornish outdoor lifestyle that I have fully-embraced with rock-climbing, hiking and sea swimming. The campus is very well integrated to the local community, which is something I did not feel at other universities. The university and the student union alike, organise engaging events or activities in the local area, on campus or between local community groups. These experiences really enrich my university journey, as I not only joined the University of Exeter, but I have also moved to Cornwall and want to integrate in living here as much as possible rather than just being a student.

Zoology was the perfect fit for me, as it is a wide-scoping degree in terms bioscience that covers whole organism biology, evolutionary theory, and broad-scale ecology. I was not exactly sure what I wanted to specify my interests in, Zoology offered a lot of modularity so I could choose topics in marine biology, animal behaviour and ecology and conservation. I knew that this would allow me to experiment with my interests and discover what worked for me. What also jumped out at me, are the practical aspects in both the field and the lab. My knowledge of the natural world was limited before joining the course, so being able to learn theory in lectures or seminars then apply that practically solidifies knowledge while gaining real-world experience.

Field courses are arguably the most distinctive aspect of my course. The emphasis on gaining relative experience in real-world scenarios provides skills that would not normally be available through taught lectures or seminars. The University is research led, thus the field sites we venture too are there to build upon what we have already learnt and also give new and challenging experiences in understanding biological aspects, especially species and environments not found in the British Isles. For example, my second-year field course, although having to go virtual due to Coronavirus, explored the montane ecology of the Pyrenees. Key topics were how altitudinal gradients effect biodiversity and ecological assemblages, transhumance farming in mountainous regions, migratory patterns of species, human-wildlife conflict and conservation strategies that incorporate socio-economic benefits while promoting biodiversity. All these aspects were explored broadly and in-depth, and which I would not have learned typically in lectures or perhaps not have fully understood without this applied outlook.

One of the defining factors for me, was the sense of community and welcoming. The moment I received an email from the University it felt personal and non-generic. Then fast-forward to my offer-holder visit day, the staff, student ambassadors and academics were so friendly and approachable. Students I interacted with at other Universities often seemed bored, uninterested and were only doing it for the experience which left me quite cold. In contrast the students at the University of Exeter were incredibly upbeat, passionate about their courses, student-life and most importantly ready to answer any questions I had. The academics went above and beyond in detailing the structure of my course, teaching methods and the utility of gaining experience through university opportunities. I felt like I was going to be taught by leaders in their field and learning topics that were informed by the latest research.

As a mature student, one of my biggest worries was fitting in while being older than most students and how the university accommodated for those circumstances. It was a relief to know that the university had a dedicated mature student group, allowing to meet other students in the same situation, but regardless of my age I also felt well integrated with the university community. Unlike other universities I had visited, staff were very supportive of mature students in terms of accommodation, financing, and part-time job opportunities. All these aspects influenced my decision, knowing that I would be well supported, be able to utilise opportunities that enhanced my experience, be part of a dynamic and welcoming community and finally being taught by leading academics.  

A large part of final year is to conduct a research project alongside an academic supervisor. For instance, my project looks at Gall wasp communities, primarily focusing on the evolutionary and ecological mechanisms that sustain the rich biodiversity in an enclosed ecosystem, especially due to the parasitic interactions that should cause species exclusion. As a bioscience student, this project encompasses everything we have been taught throughout our degree, from theory, essay-writing, field and lab work, objective critical thinking to comprehension of current literature. I believe it is the best way to embody our knowledge and experience and applying that to something that can contribute to the latest findings in research. What I find most rewarding, is the autonomy of the project, as we need to come up with our own methodologies, spend time background reading the topic and conduct all the data collection and analysis ourselves. At this point I truly feel like a scientist and perhaps imposter syndrome is kicking too.

Penryn offers a plethora of societies and sports, I believe 150 or so, for a campus inhabiting 7000 students that’s quite a lot. From quidditch and lacrosse, to gaming and dungeons & dragons. There is something for everyone, and I also think the creative arts from the Falmouth students certainly enhances society opportunities which provides unique hobbies or interests to explore during university. With the campus having an environmental ethos, student led societies build upon this to further contribute to the student experience. My interests are mostly associated with nature and outdoor activities, these societies are very much front and centre during my time on campus. For example, EcoSoc (Ecological Society) host events to teach students about natural-history, particularly local native species, as well as partnering with local conservation groups to conduct volunteer days or surveys. WildDocSoc (Wildlife Documentary Society) host film nights for students to watch natural-history documentaries and bring in guest wildlife filmmakers to talk to students about their journey into the industry while sharing their incredible stories. MarineWatch partner with a local wildlife-watching business that take students on boating trips to watch marine-life off the Falmouth estuary where we can spot peregrine falcons, common dolphins and minke whale.

I am personally part of a committee called Life Magazine as the photo-editor, it is a student-led publication focusing on science-communication and journalism with an emphasis on natural history. I like to think of it as the universities version of National Geographic. The quality of each issues is always mind-blowing to me and each committee member dedicates a great deal of work to produce a polished and professional magazine which we are all very proud of. We also host workshops on photography, writing, illustration, and graphic design, it’s a great way to engage with the student body and also provide skills that perhaps some may pursue in their career.

In terms of volunteering, the university and the students union are partnered with many community groups, such as the Flicka Donkey Sanctuary, Cornwall Wildlife Trust, Cornwall Seal Sanctuary, and many others. It’s great that as students, we are spoilt for choice in extracurricular activities to get involved with, the variety accommodates for peoples wide-ranging interests and alongside studies can ensure we gain a fulfilling experience during our journey at the campus.

The Cornish lifestyle is perhaps my favourite aspect of living in Penryn. Cornwall offers so much in terms of outdoor activities, unique locations to explore and as I keep repeating, the sense of community. The traditional university setting is often within the hustle and bustle of a city environment, whereas Penryn is very much integrated to a rural landscape. This in turn provides an incredible backdrop of the British countryside and the stunning Cornish coastline. In my free time, I am either exploring coastal walks, searching for local wildlife, relaxing on beaches, swimming, or rock climbing which I could not imagine doing at most other universities. It is this integration that makes my university experience so enriching and embracing a totally different lifestyle to the London one I had before moving here. Obviously this may not be for everyone, some prefer a city environment with a cosmopolitan feel and vibrant nightlife but if you have a sense of outdoor adventure, like me, then Penryn is ideal given the swath opportunities both at the University and the wider-community in Cornwall.

Spotlight on our Streatham Campus, Exeter

I really enjoyed the location, of Devon and the South-West in general. I had intended to come to a visit day delayed by snow and so when I came in spring it was gorgeous to behold. Streatham was the choice as St Lukes is the medical campus so the Devon Campus and so liking Devon and Exeter in general meant that Streatham was the choice for me. It wasn’t too far from home, but neither did it feel like I was too close either as I wanted the freedom to be able to get home if I really really needed but not be in a position where I would just go home on the weekends and not truly “live” as much at university like some of my friends who went to universities with locations much closer to home for that reason. Streatham was well located and I wanted a campus for my university experience compared to a city experience. I also chose Streatham for the variety of accommodation options, when I had to list my preferences I felt that I wouldn’t have minded being put in any of them even as I obviously had a favourite and this helped make it really appealing to make a choice like that over Penryn or other universities for me personally. I also chose Streatham because while not out of the way, it wasn’t a campus in the middle of Exeter and therefore I felt that I’d not only be slightly safer though this wasn’t the primary concern but that it would generally be quieter for me at night and that when I did want or need to go into Exeter that the trade-off wasn’t so great in terms of being close enough to be a short walk but far enough to not have constant noise at night into the early hours.

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Supporting student progression: Exeter Scholars

Here at the University of Exeter, we think it’s really important to support all students to make informed decisions about Higher Education and help them decide whether it’s the right pathway for them. Our longitudinal access programme, Exeter Scholars, does just that! Exeter Scholars is designed to give participating students the opportunity to find out more about the options available to them and to experience a ‘taster’ of university life. There are opportunities for students in the South West of England to join the programme in Year 9, Year 10, and Year 12, and the support continues right through until the end of Year 13 (and beyond, if they go on to study at the University of Exeter)! Read More

Help and support on campus for prospective students

Each student has individual needs and the prospect of attending University can feel overwhelming even before considering any extra support they may need to succeed. Each University will have its own rules and provisions which can seem daunting at the point of application and confusing for parents/guardians alike. We just want to highlight some of the key services available to prospective students that you may wish to direct them to.

We highly recommend that any prospective students fill out the following form  this will enable the team to put a plan in place to support the individual before arrival. This could range from extra time in exams, counselling or accessible accommodation. If they would like any help or guidance on filling out our prospective student online form, please call us on 01392 72 4381 or email


The Wellbeing team promotes better mental health across the student community and supports students who may be experiencing anxiety, stress and have other mental health problems which affect their studies. They have 1:1 appointments alongside drop-in sessions and short term courses on a range of topics such as anxiety disorders (panic, social anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder), eating difficulties, depression, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, psychoses.

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Assessing applications

We know students can feel overwhelmed with the prospect of starting an application to university. In this blog we will highlight the key areas that the University of Exeter focuses on when assessing applications.

We take a number of factors into account when assessing an application. This information is correct at point of publishing (23/09/2020). Current policies can be found on our website at:

How do we assess an application?

In considering an application, we consider:

  • Achieved academic performance in level 2 and 3 qualifications (GCSEs, A Levels, and their equivalents)
  • Predicted performance in future examinations
  • Personal statement
  • Reference
  • Any additional statement supplied by a school or college regarding any special personal or extenuating circumstances which may impact, or have impacted on an applicant’s studies.

We may also take into account the educational context in which your academic achievements have been gained.  For further information please see the section on School Performance in our Admissions Policy.

What are we looking for?

We are looking for applicants who:

  • Are suited to the course
  • Have the qualifications and qualities to succeed on the programme
  • Are ambitious, conscientious & hardworking
  • Are able to work under pressure
  • Can adjust to the new university environment
  • Show dedication to the course & have researched it
  • Have a genuine interest in the subject
  • AND a desire to learn more…

Do we interview?

The majority of our courses do not require applicants to attend an interview. A key exception to this at the University of Exeter is Medicine, where we invite applicants to Multiple Mini Interviews (MMIs). Your students can find out about the Medicine interview process in the video below: