How Microsoft Teams is helping to create a virtual social space for our students

A student from the University of Leeds learning from home

The Physics Coffee Bar in the E C Stoner Building is the go-to place to hang out, meet friends and chat to staff members when we’re all on campus. If you need to find someone, chances are that they are in the Coffee Bar or someone in the Coffee Bar knows where they are! This year, we’re going online with the Virtual Physics Coffee Bar (VCB).

What did you do? Why did you do it?

With our VCB, we’re hoping to recreate our hangout space virtually on Microsoft Teams!

The purpose of the VCB is to bring students and staff in Physics and Astronomy together, be the go-to place for people to share non-academic information and opportunities and provide support and resources in one place for our VCB members.

We’ve created channels for each year group, Physoc and Astrosoc both have channels and we have a channel to advertise opportunities for our students to take part in schools and community engagement. There’s also the very important ‘Ask a question here!’ channel — which is pretty self-explanatory. We have also encouraged our students to create ‘special interest’ channels and, from this, we now have a ‘Women in Physics’ channel too!

In our School, we have a very healthy Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) Mentor scheme, where upper year students meet regularly with groups of first years to help with their transition to university. To help our first years get to know upper year students, we have a ‘PAL Mentor Takeover’ of the Year 1 channel each week with planned posts for each day:

Meet Your PAL Mentor Monday — A picture of themselves doing something extra-curricular saying who they are, where they’re from, what languages they speak, what A-levels they did, etc.

#TuesdayTip — What they wish they knew in first year, a top tip for being at the University of Leeds, etc.

What You Doing (#wyd) Wednesday — Share what they’re up to this week, anything cool that happened or will happen.

Throwback Thursday (#tbt ) — picture from their past, something to share about when they were in GCSE/A-level/First year.

#Friyay — what they’re looking forward to this weekend!

Our Head of School also has an ‘open meeting’ where anyone can join every Wednesday at 2pm to chat with students, answer questions and see how things are going.

What was the impact of your practice and how have you evaluated it?

In a perfect world, all staff and students would be commenting, reacting to posts and making new connections across the year groups. In reality, it’s become more of a notice board than a fully social space — and that’s ok! Microsoft Teams is a new tool for many staff and students, and to make the most of the tools everyone has to be using Teams regularly, but it does take some confidence to post or comment on a Team with 600+ people seeing it!

What we’ve done to make it easier to interact with others, is create ‘tutorial family’ group chats, where tutees from all years with the same personal tutor have a place to chat and ask questions to a smaller number of people.

The great thing about our students is that they self-organise very well and each year group has a Whatsapp group, a Facebook group chat and a Discord group. That’s really where all of the chatting is really taking place, so even though we’re not seeing a lot of interactions on the Microsoft Team, we know that they’re using the tools they’re familiar with (and away from the School’s gaze!) to speak to each other.

From speaking with our students though, they report that the VCB is a useful place to find information. And we know that people are reading the posts because we’ve been contacted on Teams chat by students who ask for more about the opportunities being shared and having sign-ups for the different events!

How could others benefit from this example?

We’re trying out different ways of interacting with our staff and students and seeing what works and what doesn’t. Having a communication plan with regular posts helps to take the stress away from coming up with ideas — having ‘Monday Motivation’ and ‘Friday Fun’ posts keeps things light. Getting students to post content is great too, so ask them what they’d like to see and nominate individuals to take the lead. We definitely recommend setting up a virtual space for your School as it’s been a positive step for our School community.

We’re very happy to help others set up their own ‘virtual’ space for Schools, please get in touch with Erin McNeill, Physics Outreach Officer, at or send her a message on Teams chat.

This blog is written by Erin McNeill, Physics Outreach Officer (



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