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The role of empathy and near-peer teaching in PGR teaching in the COVID era


  • Fran Morris University of Leeds




Relationship-based teaching, empathy, near-peer teaching


Literature on education at all levels, from early-years to postgraduate, highlights the role of positive relationships in effective teaching. My experience of teaching undergraduates as a PGR has stressed this emphatically, especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The impacts of what many students know as “the Rona” are twofold: not only has undergraduate mental health suffered through the uncertainty and isolation of the recent years (e.g. Appleby et al., 2022; Catling et al., 2022), but the already-overwhelming workload of the academic staff primarily responsible for the education and welfare of students swelled during the transition to online teaching. Overcommitting staff even further results in reduced scope for relationship-building with students, in terms of both time availability and emotional capacity. PGR teachers, by comparison, have more flexibility and freedom to connect with undergraduates directly and in smaller groups, and the role of building relationships to support learning can fall to them. 

In this reflective account, I consider how my role as a tutor of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths (STEM) subjects for interdisciplinary undergraduate students allowed me to create an encouraging space for them to build relationships with me and each other. I found that near-peer teaching and the mutual trauma of studenthood in the pandemic created a strong connection where I was able to hear the students’ worries and concerns, not simply about the calculus I taught but regarding their entire course structure, systemic biases affecting their experience of their degrees, and the approach of the university as a whole. 


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Author Biography

Fran Morris, University of Leeds

Fran is a final-year PGR in the Institute for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Leeds. She started her PhD, focusing on organised convection over West Africa, in 2019. Since then, she has taught on various mathematics, computing, and meteorology courses for undergraduates and master’s students on environmental science courses at Leeds. The wild variation of teaching quality during her undergraduate degree inspired an interest in pedagogy in higher education, and she was awarded an Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy at the end of 2021. In her spare time, she enjoys evaluating ludicrous weather headlines in tabloids.