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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: Beth McMurtrie

Subject: Teaching: How Professors Can Help Students Get Through the Semester

This week:

  • A student leader explains why students are struggling with online classes this semester.
  • I share insights from a new faculty survey about teaching this fall.
  • I point you to studies and stories you may have missed about teaching.

Listening to Students

Students aren’t participating in online discussion boards. They’re blowing deadlines. They’re not talking in Zoom class. They won’t turn on their cameras.

If you scroll through Twitter or Facebook, where professors often post complaints like those and ask for advice, you’d be forgiven for thinking that a lot of college students this fall just don’t care about their classes. And that has led many faculty members to feel frustrated and confused, especially if they put in extra hours, as many did, designing the best online courses they could.

So what’s going on? Last month, I wrote about what students want from their professors this semester. I’m diving into that topic again, this time with Roaya Higazi, president of the Undergraduate Student Government at Ohio State University. She and I were among the guests on a radio show on WOSU, in Columbus, last week to talk about Covid-19’s impact on teaching and learning.

The student government has asked Ohio State to extend a pass/no pass option into the fall, on the grounds that students continue to need compassion and flexibility from their professors. The University Senate agreed to allow that option for some courses, and extended the deadline for students to decide into November.

“A lot of faculty members are coming from a good place, but there’s still not that understanding of the scope and to what degree students are struggling right now,” Higazi says. Housing insecurity, food insecurity, family members affected by Covid-19, isolation, social-justice issues, and the stress of taking multiple classes online are weighing heavily on students, leading many to feel mentally and physically exhausted.

“Students say they need help,” Higazi continues, “and they hear, ‘OK, go to therapy, go to counseling.’ That’s all good. But how does that show up directly in the classroom?”

She worries that in an effort to “get back to normal,” faculty members are overlooking how abnormal it is for students to take an entirely online course load, which is challenging even in the best of times. She notes that during one five-day span, shedidn’t leave her apartment as she plowed through coursework. “Last year, if I didn’t leave my apartment for five days,” she says, “that would have been incredibly alarming.”

I asked Higazi to describe the kinds of accommodations students would most like to receive from their professors. Here are her top suggestions:

Be flexible with deadlines. This is probably the biggest sticking point between instructors and students. Professors may see deadlines as a way to maintain rigor. But given other demands, like work or a sick family member, “for a lot of students, deadlines do not have a sense of urgency anymore,” Higazi says. The risks of missing deadlines, though, could lead to long-term academic harm. Professors could help students by being flexible whenever possible. “Recognize that it’s important,” she says of deadines, “but should not be a threat to their grade.”

Respect people's privacy. Higazi tells the story of a friend who wears a hijab on campus but not at home. And she leaves her camera off during Zoom classes so she won’t need to put the garment on. But a professor kept emailing her, telling her that she needed her to turn on her camera, even if it meant putting on her hijab, so he could see everyone in the class.

That should never happen, Higazi says. The same is true if students feel awkward about their home setting and don’t want to show it on camera. She notes that her father, a professor at another college in the state, says it’s not uncommon for students to take classes in their car, in the parking lot of a McDonalds, because that’s where they can find reliable Wi-Fi.

Support students in isolation. Professors may not fully understand what it feels like for students who have to isolate because they have been exposed to Covid-19 or are recovering from it. Higazi heard from one student who reached out to her professor, explained why she couldn’t come to class, and asked to be able to attend via Zoom or watch a videotaped lecture. The professor told her it would be fine for her to simply read the textbook.

The professor may have thought she was being supportive, says Higazi, but that response only increased the student’s feeling that she was cut off from her classmates and could fall behind. It would have been better if the faculty member had found a way to keep that student connected to the classroom.

Explain your policies. Many times professors intend things one way, but they’re interpreted another. In the above example, with the quarantined student, the message she received was: Teach yourself.

Another commonly misunderstood practice is the use of discussion boards. As student-government president, Higazi knows that Ohio State has asked faculty members who teach asynchronous classes to require regular discussion-board posts from students, in order to keep them engaged every week. But many students aren’t aware of this policy, or the reasoning behind it. To them it just seems like busywork, and they have complained that they already have a lot of that.

With any assignment, project, or grading criterion, explain your rationale to students, Higazi says. That goes a long way toward reducing frustration and misunderstanding. Tell students that “this may feel like a lot right now, but this is why I have these assignments. If it’s difficult to meet, let’s figure out a way that’s benefiting, and not overloading, you.”

Acknowledge the moment. Higazi points to the day when a grand jury declined to indict police officers for manslaughter in the killing of Breonna Taylor. Black students in particular had an especially rough time, she notes; simply showing up for class may have seemed a burden. And it would help for professors to observe in class how this and other events may be weighing on students.

“We assume that just because something is happening in the news, it doesn’t need to be discussed in the classroom,” Higazi says, when the opposite may be true. While many faculty members may feel unsure of what to say, acknowledging what happened and how it may be hard for some people is enough. “At the very least, make your intentions clear about how you want to support your students, and what kind of space you want to create for them.”

How have you adjusted your expectations or otherwise addressed what students are going through this fall? Write to me at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com, and your story may appear in a future newsletter.

Faculty Survey on Fall Teaching

A new report out this week shows that faculty members remain concerned about equity issues this fall, even as they feel more confident in their ability to teach online. “Time for Class: Covid-19 Edition,” produced by the consulting firm Tyton Partners in collaboration with the digital-learning advocacy group Every Learner Everywhere and other partners, surveyed more than 3,500 instructors at two- and four-year institutions in August.

Researchers compared the data with those from an earlier survey, which concluded that extensive training over the spring and summer had helped faculty members feel better about teaching online this fall. Seventy-four percent of respondents who were planning to teach fully online, for example, said they felt prepared to teach a high-quality course.

Yet faculty members continue to have concerns that first-generation and lower-income students on their campuses did not have the tools or support needed to help them get through the semester, in either an online or hybrid format. Sixty-six percent said they were concerned about equity gaps between student groups at their college.

“As soon as we made the decision to go fully online last March, there was a clear difference in success rates for the rest of the term because of access to technology, equipment, and internet,” wrote one faculty member at a two-year institution. “It was frustrating and heartbreaking to see which students struggled to manage the class. This is THE biggest hurdle we face. Making online classes is hard, but not as hard as making sure everyone has equal access.”

Faculty members also felt overwhelmed at times by the number of tech tools and online-teaching strategies presented to them. Many said they preferred to use tools vetted by their colleges, and found learning from their peers more valuable than some other forms of training. They also said they wanted more strategies for engaging students in large online classes and for helping students learn better in online courses.

ICYMI

  • A survey by New America and Third Way breaks down the cost of the continuing digital divide on campus. Our colleague Audrey Williams June highlights some of that data here
  • Students from China stuck overseas because of the pandemic bring censorship concerns into newly global online classrooms. Our colleague Karin Fischer reports on how professors and colleges are addressing the challenge.
  • Beckie and I are continuing to collect professors’ stories this fall. To tell us what it’s like to teach during the pandemic, fill out the form here

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

-Beth

Learn more about our Teaching newsletter, including how to contact us, at the Teaching newsletter archive page.

Beth McMurtrie is a senior writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education, where she writes about the future of learning and technology’s influence on teaching. In addition to her reported stories, she helps write the weekly Teaching newsletter about what works in and around the classroom. Email her at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com, and follow her on Twitter @bethmcmurtrie.