This Week:

  • I look back on the newsletters we sent this year.
  • I pass along readers’ perspectives on the mismatch between students who say they’re doing more coursework and professors who say they’ve cut back.
  • I share a few thoughts on the coming semester.

Pandemic teaching, so far

Journalists have a thing for end-of-the-year lists, and we at the Teaching newsletter are no exception. So we’ve made a little tradition of closing out the year by sharing the topics we covered that most resonated with you, our readers.

2020 has been a big year for breaking traditions, eh? Compiling our greatest hits from so many months of covering pandemic teaching doesn’t exactly sit right. Still, this is a natural moment for taking stock of things, so I went back through our archives for the year.

Before Covid-19, this newsletter wasn’t particularly newsy. We’d focus on any teaching topic we found compelling. These days, we’re doing our best to discern what problems loom largest for instructors in the moment, and to provide some insight — or at least document what’s happening and why it matters. As a result, the archive provides a rough timeline for what the difficult experience of teaching this year has been like.

Since mid-March, nearly every issue has been squarely focused on pandemic teaching (the exceptions: a few issues about racism and a couple on the election). Early on, we wrote mostly about how to help students keep learning through a disruption and the basics of how to quickly transform an in-person course to an online one.

After professors and students made it through the abrupt shift online, and as it became clear that Covid-19 would reshape campus life for far longer than a few weeks, we began covering a broader set of issues.

In May, Beth wrote about faculty burnout, a topic she would revisit several times, including in a feature story. In order to support struggling students, we heard time and again, professors themselves need support from their institutions. When we invited readers to share their experiences, it was clear that many weren’t getting that support.

Through the summer, Beth began writing more about hybrid teaching, an approach many colleges were discussing despite its complexity. Readers had a lot of questions about how it might work.

We wrote about other persistent questions we heard from professors: How can I keep students engaged online? How can I support them through this crisis? We also made an effort to document what the student experience looked like, a theme I explored in a recent story about one student’s fall semester.

We covered assessment and cheating, which led to this deeper dive from me. We shared how professors could bring creativity to their courses and create a sense of community. We wrote about college-level efforts to connect students with one another and to explore the “Big Problems” of 2020 — and wondered why more institutions hadn’t taken such steps.

Pandemic teaching isn’t over. The spring semester, like the fall, promises to bring weirdness and disruption, with colleges’ plans including an online start and then a return to in-person; bringing different, sometimes larger, groups of students back to campus; and continuing to forgo breaks.

Whatever comes next, we’ll be in your inbox, hoping to help make sense of it all. But we couldn’t do that without your help. Beth and I haven’t been able to connect with professors in person on campuses or at conferences in quite a while. The reader happy hour we held at a conference in January has, so far, been a one-off. So we’re more reliant than ever on the observations you provide in answering the questions we pose in the newsletter, filling out the Google forms we post, and sending us your tips, feedback, and reflections in emails.

We know you all have even less time than usual, and we truly appreciate it when you share your experiences and observations. Thank you.

Professor-student disconnect

A couple of weeks back I shared a Twitter thread from Jody Greene unpacking why students report doing more coursework during the pandemic, even as professors say they’ve cut back assignments. I asked for your thoughts and received some really interesting responses. (Greene has also expanded on the thread in this article for Inside Higher Ed.)

Rebecca M. Stein, executive director of the Online Learning Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania, shared two “conjectures” for students’ and professors’ differing takes. “The first,” she wrote, “is that students don’t have their usual busy social and extracurricular life. You would think this would give them more time. But rather, it makes them feel that all their time is focused on study.” Second, she wrote, “students depend much more on their peers as scaffolding for their learning then we realized.” Students turn to classmates to clarify both the content and logistics of their courses, and “when this scaffolding is gone, especially if it’s not replaced with stellar instructional design, students have a much larger cognitive load to deal with.”

Martha Oakley, associate vice provost in the office of the vice provost for undergraduate education at Indiana University at Bloomington, described using the Twitter thread to spark conversation in a student/faculty discussion group. “The new (to me, at least!) insight that emerged from this discussion has to do with the fact that faculty are looking at these assignments as a way to help students learn, while students are evaluating their worth on the basis of whether or not they help them get a better score on an exam or project,” Oakley wrote. “So it could well be the case that the assignments are great for helping students learn, but that our assessments are not great for measuring what they’ve learned.”

Leah Shopkow, a professor of history at Indiana, wrote in to say that “faculty have always been aware that students were not really doing that much work, but haven’t really wanted to deal with it.” Still, she wrote, “I do have considerable sympathy for the students, who are not only having (in some cases) to get used to doing more work, but also (again in some cases) to learn how to work differently. Even students who are doing the work are used to the punctuated equilibrium of two-midterms-and-a-final, rather than the steady-state of the online teaching environment where there is always something that needs doing. This is [more] like the working world (and like the way we do our own work) than what students are used to. However, for students this is also like having five or six different workplaces ... to keep track of. We only have one workplace to keep track of (and many of us feel overwhelmed by that!).

Agnes Kim, an associate professor of physics at Penn State Scranton, wrote, “I feel that the students are finally doing what they were supposed to do all along in order to learn physics properly. I ask students on weekly quizzes how things are going, and recurring responses have been along the lines of feeling overwhelmed. I also ask pointed questions about how their learning is going. They report finding the quizzes helpful, having some light bulbs going on, and describe how they achieved an understanding of such and such concept. Performance on exams has been superior to what I normally get, even though, if anything, they are more challenging than they have been in the past.”

Give ‘em a break

We noticed a trend in colleges’ plans for the coming semester: canceling spring break and replacing it with “wellness days” distributed throughout the term.

I reported in arecent article on this development and the extent to which it might give students — and faculty and staff members — the kind of break they badly need.

As I wrote, I thought about a tension that’s often on my mind while writing the newsletter. All of the big problems in teaching and learning are structural. Solving them involves colleges or disciplines or, at least, departments. But most instructors have control over only their own classrooms. For that reason, we often write the newsletter with an eye toward what professors are able to do all on their own, because they care about teaching.

Some colleges, I expect, will do a better job than others at giving students a break this semester. But whether or not a college has “wellness days” or some other formal structure in place — and whether or not the idea works well — professors can certainly find ways to build in breaks for their own students. Many, of course, have been doing so in various ways since March.

A programming note: Teaching is taking a break between semesters, making this our last newsletter of 2020. We hope you get a break now, too. We’ll be back in your inboxes in January.

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