Lessons from the Front Lines of Online and Blended Instruction

Tips from Faculty Colleagues

Lessons Learned: Reminders and things to consider for the rest of the semester

Some of the suggestions below (submitted to Deans from your colleagues across campus) might be things you already know to do, but this semester it is more important than ever to think about our teaching and how we connect with our students.

Connecting with students and connecting students together

  • Use the iCollege Announcement tool to send weekly reminders
  • Answer emails in a timely manner and let students how long it may take for you to respond to emails.
  • Use a system for students to sign-up for individual student meetings (Signup Genius is a useful platform)
  • Use SLACK, GroupMe or TEAMS for class communication.

Advice from GSU faculty:

Connect with students as much as you can on a personal level.

  • Show that you are a human being and that you are also impacted by events that are occurring in the world as well.
  • Engaging with students on their level; Providing an empathetic ear
  • Demonstrating patience and being as flexible as much as possible with them. If a student did not submit an assignment by the deadline, I sent an email inquiring about how they were doing and letting them know that I was available to speak with them.
  • Throughout the pandemic, my approach to working with students has been to show an overabundance of empathy, flexibility, and compassion. In every e-mail at the beginning of the semester, I repeat the phrase “do not suffer in silence!” and students seem to internalize it and reach out regularly for help. I have a section in my syllabus called “Learning during a pandemic” that lays out more details about how I work with my students to maximize empathy, flexibility, and compassion
  • The key to my class is getting to know the students and making them feel heard.  I have a class of 60 but do my very best to know everyone’s name by sight within the first month of class.  I have them fill out a questionnaire at the beginning of the semester about what they want to get from the class and also a little about their background.

Announcements and discussion posts

  • Make a commitment to posting at least one announcement per week. This can either be a reminder or information on how you’ll evaluate student work (either reading through their discussion board posts to look for patterns, assessing where their quiz scores seemed low and trying to figure out why, pointing out information that students have historically gotten wrong on exams, and soon).
  • I created a contact log of students to keep track of how often I was communicating with them.  If I had not heard from someone ever, or within a couple of weeks, I would just send a quick email with a summary of how I thought they were progressing in the course.
  • The Discussion posts throughout the course are very helpful to engage across the class.  I also participate in posts and use that to take the learners down a longer path.

Students supporting each other

  • Reducing/shrinking student group sizes to better facilitate group work and instruction.
  • Collect students’ testimonials about how to do well in my class. Post them (anonymously) if I teach the same course again next time. I think it might be a good addition to the ‘tips from your professor’ notes.
  • Using the peer mentor program was really helpful for a few of my students who got off track for different reasons.  They seemed more open to engaging with the peer mentor about their struggles and I think it gave them confidence to reconnect with me and the class.

Virtual and in-person check-ins

  • Office hours are no longer office hours—call them something else
  • Virtual Check-ins
  • Virtual Drop-ins
  • Class Support Time
  • Class Virtual Gatherings
  • Let your students have input on when to meet and schedule

Advice from GSU faculty:

  • Flexible open-door policy to address issues pertaining to hardships; An understanding ear when it comes to issues.
    • I sent a calendar of times I was available for individual meetings and asked them to sign up for virtual meetings with me. I had conversations with each of them about the impact of the pandemic on them and listened with empathy to them.<
    • Enhance students’ ability to communicate with instructors in real time.<
  • Add weekly study hall session to answer students’ questions and present a short lecture on one topic or two.
  • Be flexible with virtual office hours—it takes a while for students to figure out the cadence of the semester.
  • Used zoom hangouts– if the day was asynchronous I would be on zoom for an hour and they could join me to talk about the content.  They could ask questions or just explore the topic.  They were not required to join but many did.
  • Meet some students face to face outdoors which makes everyone feel better
  • Created Check In Chats.  These are optional Zoom meetings I offer on Fridays where I spend 15-20 minutes chatting with students about anything they’d like.  It was popular.
  • Collected weekly feedback from the students about various topics such as content, accessibility, pacing, and communication. I made adjustments accordingly.

Content, Organization, and information

  • Don’t post full length lectures! They are too hard to upload and download and they aren’t good for learning.
  • Make sure to follow clear schedule that includes due dates and links to assignments.
  • Let your students know how long you think they should spend on each assignment or reading.

Advice from GSU faculty:

Clarity, Consistency, and Flexibility

  • Instructors need to provide clear and concise instructions and delivery of material. Don’t overload students with unnecessary information and keep your course consistent throughout the semester.
  • Created an active checklist document for students to follow as they go along.
  • Make room for some kind of flexibility in your teaching. A lot can go wrong when working online so make sure your course is set up to handle extensions if necessary or other ways of dealing with missed assignments (dropping or replacing a low grade) so students can still be successful even if something comes up.

Streamlining classes.

  • Simplify content and make content as less complicated as possible. More structure could help struggling students.  This was envisioned in two ways:
  • Micro (within a course):  structure such as due-dates and clear expectations as to time-lines.
  • Macro (between courses): more uniformity between courses in how things are structured. Currently, if a student is taking 5 different courses, they may well be dealing with 5 very different structures.
  • “Right sized” the course.  Rather than data dump everything of which only a little bit sticks, I opted to prioritize essential materials for them to learn. Deeper rather than broader.
  • Decide on the 3-5 things you want students to carry away from your course and cut down on “filler”
  • Streamlining classes. Simplify content and make content as less complicated as possible.

Relevancy and Alignment

  • Keeping the content relevant and current is another way to keep the learner engaged and interested.
  • Align my materials. On-line quizzes and discussions all were aligned with assignments, meaning that each reinforced the essential points and acted as draft preparation for the associated assignment.

Engaging formats and activities

  • Used a book club format for teaching—students were assigned an article or chapter and they developed talking points and questions and then ran the discussion of the material.
  • Modeling research development based on GSU 3 min thesis presentation competition.
  • Use personal stories to illustrate the learning objectives whenever possible.  And if not a personal story then a story to illustrate the concept.  Story telling is critical to learners really grasping the topic and concepts.
  • I created extra credit opportunities for engagement…  For example, we had a role-playing exercise in class so we turned that into homemade videos.  I was amazed at how seriously students took it and even got their parents or quarantine roommates involved.  They got a few extra credit points if they made the video and that was doubled if it “won” to be shown in class.
  • Developed a WALK AROUND SURVEY that can be in person, 25%, or online:
    • I developed a question for most class sessions that revolved around some important policy issue. The question described a situation and gave students 2-4 choices. All students had to pick one choice.
    • I assigned a side or corner of the classroom (or WebEx box) for each choice and students had to stand up and walk to that spot (Walk Around Survey). Moving to a location wakes up students who are dozing or have lost interest in the class (students have to remain standing for the exercise), requires each student to commit to a choice/position and physically identifies their position by where they are standing, visually lets the class know the level of support for that position among fellow students, and I came to find also generates interest and excitement to explain each position.
    • I served as the referee asking members of each group to explain why they agreed with that choice and went back and forth among the groups asking each to respond to the arguments of the other group(s). Much of my refereeing was asking “what about….”
    • I found for most walk around survey questions, time flew and the discussion quickly took us past the end of the class. The goal was not to solve any policy dilemma but rather to make students think about the questions and understand that often there are important goals on both sides of these situations.
  • Revise & Resubmit. After an assignment is graded, I reopen it for revisions. The revisions are longer and require more work than the original. Students must tell me why they thought the original answer was correct, they must tell me where (book, video, assignment walkthrough) they found information that updated their understanding, and they must tell me why they think their new answer is correct. This is at minimum two paragraphs of work or it doesn’t qualify for a regrade. However, if they do this, I will regrade the answers they missed.
  • I am now more comfortable in front of the camera and patient with the uncomfortable silence of waiting for a student to answer.  We use the icons in Webex a lot… a lot for them to check in and tell me they agree, disagree, etc.   I am getting almost the same attendance on WebEx each week that I was getting in the classroom.

Tools to help you teach better

The social e-reader Perusall will be integrated into iCollege in mid-October. Perusall allows students to jointly annotate and comment on readings and works great to support group work and student engagement in any type of course.

(Note that some of the technologies listed by instructors below may not be officially supported by university support staff.)

Advice from GSU faculty:

  • Tracked student iCollege activity very frequently and reached them out as soon as I detected a problem.
  • Rigorously designed the iCollege on-line discussion prompts and vigorously participated in on-line discussions. Well-designed prompts help everyone write composed posts and responses, and set up the assignments. My participation also provides feedback on these “draft” and serve.
  • Use a textbook that was designed for online access.
  • EdPuzzle. It’s a platform that’s free, provides instructors with an open exchange of video clips with embedded questions/the ability to edit and embed questions and has a phone app. Working students, students with limited WiFi, and those who are sharing space with family members also in school can use their cell phones to engage with the video assignments. Making these portable and ensuring that they fit quarantine specific needs was important.
  • Discord. It’s also a free platform that can be accessed through a cell phone. Making a Discord classroom server takes about 20 minutes if you’ve never done it before. It’s simple and secure. A Discord classroom server allows students to get in touch with me via text without anyone having to share contact information such as phone numbers. Due to low tech requirements, students were able to engage even while commuting, at work, or dealing with a crowded home. This made engagement less intimidating and increased the amount of communication between students within the class.