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Our teaching-and-learning experts give you insights on what works in the classroom. Delivered on Thursdays. Teaching is written by Beth McMurtrie and Beckie Supiano. We love hearing from readers, so please don’t hesitate to reach out to us directly. You can also read more articles about teaching and learning.

From: Beckie Supiano

Subject: Teaching: How Your Syllabus Can Cater to Every Student

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.

Welcome to Teaching, a free weekly newsletter from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This week:

  • The pandemic has intensified differences in students’ circumstances. One way professors can respond: Create courses that give students options.
  • I share some online-teaching resources suggested by your fellow readers.
  • I remind you about a coming virtual event about preparing to teach online this fall -- and ask for your suggestions for future events.

Give Students Choices

Among the many challenges professors faced during emergency remote instruction this spring: Students were having very different experiences of the pandemic. Some craved the normalcy of regular class meetings. Some were eager for more to do in the face of boredom. Some were in the midst of life-altering health and financial crises. Some were too overwhelmed to get much work done at all. And there’s little reason to expect that students’ experiences will be more uniform come fall.

So how can instructors design their courses to work for students in such divergent circumstances? There are lots of ways to think about that, but I’m hearing a common theme: Be flexible, and give students options.

Imagine, for instance, an online course in which some students crave real-time interaction, and others are unable to participate. As Jesse Stommel, a senior lecturer and digital-learning fellow at the University of Mary Washington, in Virginia, said when I was working on our recent report on preparing for an online fall, a professor could give students the option of attending a discussion in Zoom -- or writing a reflection, or posting to a discussion board. In addition to providing access, Stommel said, such choices can lead to better discussions since students get to pick a format that appeals to them.

The same thinking can be applied to assignments. Christina Katopodis, a doctoral candidate in English at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, laid that out nicely in a recent blog post. Katopodis, who’s collaborating with Cathy Davidson on a related book project, describes working with a class several years ago to co-create an American-literature course at CUNY's Hunter College, where she is an adjunct professor. A survey course can’t possibly cover everything, Katopodis said in an interview. So she designed a process in which students worked in small groups to help decide what the class would read.

“Not necessarily in a pandemic,” she said, “but all of the time, I think it’s really important to trust our students and to give them ownership in their own education.”

Professors often write on their syllabi that course plans are subject to change, Katopodis said, but a hard copy doesn’t really hit that message home. For years now, she has instead put her syllabi in a Google Doc, a format that signals a document is editable and collaborative.

Katopodis also asked members of the American-lit class if they would prefer to do more regular, lower-stakes assignments or a more formal piece of writing. Nearly everyone wanted the lower-stakes writing, but one student spoke up in opposition. Katopodis decided to keep the assignment open, giving students a choice. And it turned out the student who had spoken up wasn’t alone -- the class was more split than it had seemed.

“By offering students options (e.g., a midterm paper or biweekly reading reflections; a final paper or digital project),” Katopodis wrote, “our syllabus catered to every student.”

Do you build flexibility into your courses? How? What benefits, if any, have you seen? Should professors experimenting with this approach in the Covid-19 era be aware of any wrinkles or downsides? Let me know, at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com, and your comments may be quoted in a future newsletter.

Resources From Fellow Readers

Last week, Beth shared a few book titles that came up repeatedly in response to our recent request for good books on online pedagogy. Some readers suggested other kinds of resources, including:

  • The Teacher’s Guide to Tech 2020, an e-book by Jennifer Gonzalez of Cult of Pedagogy, and a former schoolteacher.
  • Pocket PD, a resource from the California Virtual Campus that, one reader writes, provides “a very useful compendium of real, hands-on tools to use to develop a class.”
  • Learning How to Learn,” a Coursera course taught by Barbara Oakley, a professor of engineering at Oakland University..

A Reminder -- and a Request

Tomorrow at 2 p.m., Eastern time, Beth will host a Chronicle virtual event to discuss ways colleges can prepare to offer high-quality online courses this fall. Her panelists will be Deb Adair of Quality Matters, Melody Buckner of the University of Arizona, and Sheri Prupis of the Virginia Community College System. You can sign up here.

It looks as if virtual events will be part of our repertoire for some time, so we would love to hear from you: Are there topics you’d like to see The Chronicle address in this format? Is there someone you think would make a compelling panelist? Send your suggestions to beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com or beckie.supiano@chronicle.com. It’s fine if your idea isn’t about teaching per se; we’re happy to share suggestions with colleagues on other beats.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us: dan.berrett@chronicle.com, beckie.supiano@chronicle.com, or beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.

Prefer to read the article version of the newsletter? Here’s a link.

—Beckie

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