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From: Beckie Supiano

Subject: How One Professor Helps Online Students Forge Connections

You’re reading the latest issue of Teaching, a weekly newsletter from a team of Chronicle journalists. Sign up here to get it in your inbox on Thursdays.

This week:

  • I share one professor’s approach for helping students in her remedial math course deepen their understanding – and connect to their classmates.
  • Planning a course? We point toward a tool that can help you decide how much work to assign.
  • We pass along the titles of some new books on teaching.

Office Hours for Online Students

Students who placed into the University of California at Irvine’s remedial math class sometimes felt like they started their college careers in a hole. To avoid that, the university moved the course online in 2012, allowing students to take it before their other courses, even if they weren’t on campus.

Rachel Lehman, a lecturer with a continuing appointment who teaches the course, worked hard to build a great online version, which she teaches in the summer, fall, and winter. But she kept hearing the same complaint from students: Given the asynchronous, online nature of the course, they didn’t get to know their classmates.

That presented a particular challenge for new students, Lehman observed. “They don’t know anybody,” she said. “They’re afraid. They feel stupid because they’re not in the class they’re supposed to be.”

Besides, Lehman said, students can be a tremendous resource to one another, since they all have different pieces of the material mastered. Students who don’t connect with their classmates are missing out on that.

So Lehman came up with a way to help: a spin on office hours that takes an active-learning approach, with students working in small groups. The program, called Aloha, for Active Learning Office Hours and Assignments, began in the fall of 2018.

Aloha happens in person, but Lehman’s goal is for students who are not on campus — especially common during the summer — to be able to attend over video chat. In the meantime, those who are unable to attend in person can instead participate in an online version of office hours where small groups meet with Lehman.

Lehman, who runs Aloha with support from undergraduate learning assistants, creates worksheets covering parts of the material students are struggling to understand. They then work together in groups, and Lehman allows them to make mistakes before stepping in to instruct. “This is how you learn mathematics,” she said, “by trying, struggling, failing — and then you will never make that mistake again.”

The learning assistants observe groups and can pull Lehman in to talk with students who have hit a snag but haven’t realized it yet. Their help, Lehman said, allows her to keep tabs on a large number of students working in small groups. Enrollment in the course varies by quarter, with as many as 600 students taking it. Lehman runs between one and four Aloha sessions to accommodate the number of students in the course, with 45 to 180 attending a session.

Students tell Lehman that they have found friends in Aloha and that it helped them feel connected to the course. She said they are also more confident.

At first, the program was optional, with Lehman dropping students’ lowest quiz score in return for attending 10 sessions. Later, she made the program mandatory, counting it toward students’ grades.

Running Aloha is a lot of extra work, Lehman said. But the results are promising. She gave students who took the course in the winter 2019 session — when Aloha was required — a very similar final to the one she had used the previous year. The class got an average of 70 percent on the final exam, she said — nine percentage points higher than the 61 percent average of students the year before.

That result was very encouraging to Lehman, who will begin her first summer term with the Aloha requirement in place next week.

How do you help your students connect with one another? Have you seen those relationships improve students’ learning? Write me ( about your approach and results and I may include them in a future newsletter.

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How Much Work Should I Assign?

In theory, at least, college students spend quite a bit more time studying than attending class. But just how much work can professors expect them to accomplish during that time? A recent tweet from Claire Major, a professor in the Educational Leadership, Policy, and Technology Studies department at the University of Alabama, points to a handy tool: The Course Workload Estimator from Rice University. Fill in some blanks on your course’s reading and writing assignments and exams, and the tool will provide an estimate of the hours you’re asking students to put in per week.

Are there other online teaching tools you think newsletter readers might benefit from? Send me your suggestions:

New Books on Teaching

Our colleague Ruth Hammond has compiled her latest list of new books on higher ed — read the full thing here — and it includes quite a few teaching-related titles. Here are Ruth’s descriptions of some of them:

  • The Instruction Myth: Why Higher Education Is Hard to Change, and How to Change It, by John Tagg. A guide to shifting the focus of higher education from instruction to learning of lasting value, using research-tested practices.
  • Out There Learning: Critical Reflections on Off-Campus Study Programs, edited by Deborah Curran and others. Examines what students can learn, and unlearn, about communities and places through short-term field trips.
  • Learning to Collaborate, Collaborating to Learn, by Janet Salmons. Explains how to engage both classroom and online students in increasingly complex collaborative tasks that will prepare them for team projects in the workplace.

A correction to last week’s newsletter: The middle initial I gave for the program director of two large psychology courses at Ohio State University was incorrect. She is Melissa J. Beers, not K. The story has been updated online.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us, at,,, or

— Beckie

Beckie Supiano writes about teaching, learning, and the human interactions that shape them. Follow her on Twitter @becksup, or drop her a line at