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December 3, 2020

From: Beckie Supiano

Subject: Teaching: What Students Are Up Against

This week:

  • I share some student observations about the fall semester.
  • I pass along one explanation for why students report they’re doing more work, while professors say they’re assigning less.
  • I link to some recent articles on teaching that you may have missed.

‘It’s a Lot’

Last spring’s shift to remote instruction was a remarkable moment in higher education. At the time, I marveled at the strangeness of talking with professors across the country — and even in other countries — and hearing the same experiences and emotions over and over. Neither instructors nor students were ready for online learning. They missed being on campus and in the classroom. Everyone was wrapping their minds around the reality of the pandemic.

By fall, the sense of a shared experience was gone. Some classes would be in person, others online in various forms. What did it even mean to have a class?

I was struck by a Twitter thread from Robin DeRosa, director of the Open Learning & Teaching Collaborative at Plymouth State University, urging professors to consider the collective workload students faced with a full schedule of courses that had been redesigned for online or hybrid delivery. “Your course may be fine!” she wrote. “But add it to three or four or five other hybrid or HyFlex or online courses sourced from f2f curriculum and whew. It’s a lot.”

I kept DeRosa’s words in mind as I reported my latest story, which considers this fall’s academic experience from one student’s perspective. The student, Jessica Orozco, who’s studying journalism at Ohio State University, shared her thoughts on many common challenges. Though Orozco is a dedicated student, she struggled to focus in class, online or in person. Though she’s organized, she entirely forgot about an assignment. She eagerly awaited the return of safe, in-person classes.

In the course of my reporting, I interviewed a number of other students, all of whom had interesting — and sobering — perspectives on pandemic teaching. Several, like Orozco, explained that they wanted to share their stories to help professors understand what students are up against right now.

Here’s some of what I learned from speaking with them:

  • A well-designed online course can be a big adjustment. In the cell-biology course Joel Hanns is taking, there are frequent, small assignments. It’s an effective format that makes it hard to procrastinate, said Hanns, a biochemistry major at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. But it’s also a big departure from previous courses, where he could work at his own pace so long as he finished up ahead of the next exam, he said. By junior year, Hanns said, students usually have the hang of classes. That’s not true right now.
  • Some classes are barely happening. Ben Conklin, a sophomore studying history at Georgia State University, described for me a geology course he’s taking asynchronously in which students are working through the textbook individually and have had very little direction from the instructor. By the time the semester ends, Conklin expects to have completed just two assignments. “The lack of audiovisual interaction is not something I expected when taking online classes,” he told me in an email. “I thought that professors would have widened their creativity, let alone participation in online formats.”
  • Many students are comfortable talking about their mental health. But that doesn’t mean they’ll tell instructors they’re struggling. When I asked students how they were coping during the pandemic, they were open, candid, and thoughtful. Emily Marsch, a junior studying geology at James Madison University, shared that she lost her father last year. Marsch saw a therapist and was just starting to feel like herself again when the pandemic hit, separating her from her supportive group of friends. Marsch has mentioned her loss to two of her instructors, she said. One’s her adviser. The other had sent around a student survey that included an open-ended question where students could share other information about themselves. Her other professors, though, don’t know.

A Pandemic-Teaching Mystery

In a recent Twitter thread, Jody Greene, associate vice provost for teaching and learning and director of a teaching center at the University of California at Santa Cruz, laid out a conundrum. Students complain that they’ve been inundated with busy work during the pandemic; faculty members say they’ve cut their expectations back — a lot.

It could be, Greene tweeted, that professors’ sense of how much work students were doing before was way off. In an effort to reduce stress, professors might have broken assignments into smaller pieces and, for instance, added reflection questions to a reading assignment to boost engagement. “So it's not that there is ‘more work,’” Greene tweeted. “It's that the expectations are becoming transparent and there is more "accountability" — by accident. That that accountability comes as the result of an attempt to help students stay motivated and engaged is … well, a bit of a bummer.”

Are you trying to reduce students’ workloads but still hearing from them that you’re asking too much? If so, do you think Greene’s explanation fits? I’d love to hear your stories and perspective and might include them in a future newsletter. Please write to me at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com.

ICYMI

  • James Lang, a professor of English and director of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, in Worcester, Mass., describes how change and variety can help capture students’ attention in his latest piece on combating distraction. 
  • Ben Armstrong, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, shares a technique for incorporating silent-reading time into your Zoom classes in this advice article.
  • Read what college leaders had to say about supporting professors through the pandemic during a recent Chronicle virtual event.

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.

-Beckie

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

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