This week:

  • I share advice from two teaching experts on how to support anxious and distracted students.
  • I share the story of one professor who took a creative approach to teaching her students remotely.
  • I point you to an upcoming webinar about faculty work/life balance.

**We know things are in flux on many campuses. It’s a stressful time, and we will be following the coronavirus story closely. Please let us know what you think we should be covering along the way. And if you’d like to join our Facebook group for further conversation with people at other colleges, and with the Chronicle staff, you can find it at Higher ed and the coronavirus.**

Learning Differently Online

Welcome to Day 8,000 of remote teaching! Or does it just feel that way?

If, like thousands of other professors, your waking hours are spent holding Zoom lessons with students several states away, or taping lectures from your dining-room table, you’re probably feeling frustrated. Why aren’t students checking in regularly? How come they’re so quiet during chats or on discussion boards? Why is it so hard for everyone to keep track of everything?

It’s safe to say that crisis-driven, remote teaching can feel overwhelming and unsatisfying. But are there ways to make it somewhat better? This week I spoke to two people with expertise on teaching students with learning differences to seek their advice: Manju Banerjee, vice president for educational research and innovation at Landmark College, and Alexander Morris-Wood, director of transition services and outreach in the office of admissions and enrollment management at Beacon College.

Landmark and Beacon are very small, residential colleges that cater to students with learning differences, including dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and autism spectrum disorders. Their students arrive with challenges that are both social and emotional, and often struggle with executive functions, such as time management, prioritizing goals, and sustaining focus.

I asked Banerjee and Morris-Wood to shed light on how to structure a supportive learning environment, and how that might apply to an emergency situation such as this, where many students struggle to stay focused, or find it difficult to learn with unfamiliar systems and technologies. Here are some of their ideas.

Normalize the abnormal. All students are going to feel uncomfortable about the abrupt shift to the virtual classroom. Let your students know that you’re finding remote teaching a challenge, too. “As instructors, we tend to want to safeguard our feelings,” says Morris-Wood, who created a bridge program, called Navigator PREP, for high-school students with learning differences, to get them ready for college. Instead, acknowledge up front, and routinely, that this is an unusual situation for everyone and may create feelings of anxiety. “The more we as adults can model appropriate emotional expression for students, the more students will be able to express how they’re feeling during disruptions.”

Create an online presence. Even though they know you, your students are going to find it uncomfortable to interact through a screen or by phone, rather than in person. So help make them feel relaxed and welcomed. Start a social-media channel for the class. Or create short videos that explain what you’ll be working on that week. And don’t worry about seeming polished. Just focus on making your students feel like part of a community. “Research shows that homegrown videos that teachers and advisers can make create a greater sense of connection,” says Banerjee. “You don’t feel you’re in a commercial product. You feel you’re in a classroom with a faculty member.”

Explain, and then explain some more. Students are figuring out how to work with unfamiliar features in their learning-management systems or how to post assignments and chime in on discussion threads. They’re also facing new distractions — perhaps brothers or sisters interrupting them — along with worries about their future and their health. So help them out. Build regular and frequent guideposts into your lessons. Remind them when assignments are due. Tell them how often they’re expected to participate.

“Don’t assume, ‘Well I said that in the beginning,’ or, ‘The directions are in the syllabus,’” says Banerjee. Instead, build reminders into course modules. Add symbols if you can, so that students quickly know what’s what. Put a grade icon next to everything that will be graded, for example. “Creating memory cues that you build into the screen,” says Banerjee, “is a great way to build executive functioning.”

Take advantage of the technology. For instructors who teach students with learning challenges, providing content in multiple ways is the norm. Those strategies can benefit all students, particularly in times of stress and uncertainty. So if you videotape short lectures, include transcription. Add lots of white space to written assignments they have to read on a computer screen. People can easily lose their place scrolling through screens, so put in a lot of reminders of and connections to what came before. Send students copies of your lecture notes. Think of technology as an ally in how you communicate with, and provide information to, students.

Foster community. Building, or rebuilding, connections among your students can alleviate anxiety and develop students’ social and emotional skills. Morris-Wood encourages instructors to do regular check-ins with students, perhaps through virtual office hours or a private chat feature in the learning-management system. That helps students “become aware of their own emotions and energy level prior to class,” he says, “and can help instructors shift instruction as needed.”

It’s also important to keep students actively learning, rather than allow them to become passive participants. If a handful of students dominate a real-time class conversation, make sure you ask others to chime in and wait a good 15 to 20 seconds for responses. Or encourage students to work in small groups through Zoom breakout windows. “The more they can feel responsible for their learning, the better they will be,” says Morris-Wood. “The professor cannot do everything alone.”

You can find more best practices for remote learning from the Landmark College’s Institute for Research & Training here.

Teaching Creatively

Last week we asked to hear from readers who have, in the midst of this upheaval, found a creative way to teach the remainder of their course remotely. That might mean coming up with new strategies to engage students, or adjusting course content to include the pandemic. We’ve already heard from several dozen of you — thank you! — and we will share some of those stories in the newsletter in the coming weeks. If you want to add your story, tell us here.

For this week’s newsletter, I chose Nadine Dolby, a professor in the College of Education at Purdue University. She found a simple, yet impactful, way to incorporate the fact that her students are now back in their home communities. She writes:

I coordinate a large, multisection course on multiculturalism and education. Last week, I created a discussion prompt that asked students to watch one of the course videos with a family member, discuss the readings for the week with a friend, or otherwise engage someone outside of the class. The responses were amazing — students not only did the activity, but they had meaningful conversations. I think this is an example of how during this crisis we can think about not only how to teach our students, but how, through them, we can inspire and teach our communities.

Dolby’s prompt: This week’s prompt is an activity! For this week, you should try to talk/share/communicate with someone else (virtually, or if they live with you, in person) about the TED talk and the readings. Can you get a family member to watch the TED talk with you and discuss it together? Can you connect with one of your classmates about the readings? Can you talk to a family member or friend (virtually or in person if living together) about what you learned this week, what you are thinking about the readings and the video, and see what they have to say about it? For this post, tell me 1) what you did; 2) what that experience was like (how you felt about it); 3) what you discussed with that person/people (be specific, including the video and/or the readings); and 4) what you learned from your conversation about the video and the readings: What new thoughts or ideas do you have?

Chronicle Forum on Work/Life Balance

The coronavirus has upended the lives of faculty everywhere. How can you now balance academic work with the new demands on your lives? What’s a reasonable expectation of scholarly productivity?

Tune in on Friday, April 10, at 3 p.m., Eastern time, for a free webinar on the topic of work/life balance. You can also watch it on demand later.

The panelists are Aisha Ahmad, an assistant professor of political science (and author of the most-read Chronicle essay in recent history) at the University of Toronto, and Joli Jensen, a professor emerita of media studies at the University of Tulsa. It’s the latest in the Chronicle series, “Faculty Resilience and the Coronavirus.”

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