This week:

  • I speak with two math professors about what worked in online courses this past fall.
  • I ask you to tell us what pandemic-driven changes are worth keeping.
  • I point you to a new resource on digital learning and inclusive teaching.

A Math Project

I’ve been doing a lot of reporting lately about students’ grades last fall. How did they do in their first full semester of pandemic learning, where many courses were taught online?

It turns out that, academically, they fared pretty well on many campuses, which I wrote about this week. That’s a big generalization, I realize. And for many students, good grades came at a cost: Feelings of overwork and isolation have been pervasive this year. But the fact is that grades at a number of large public universities didn’t plummet, as some had feared, when teaching shifted online.

At California State University at Fullerton, for example, average GPAs actually rose slightly for undergrads compared with grades for the fall of 2019. That trend held true across virtually all categories on the diverse campus: Pell-eligible, first-generation, and Hispanic students, among other groups, saw their grades go up.

“There’s almost a ‘we’re all in this together’ effort,” says Karyn Scissum Gunn, associate vice president for student success.

To find out more about what seemed to be working at Fullerton, I turned to two mathematics professors who took a deep dive into the fall experience. Martin Bonsangue, a math professor at Fullerton, and Jennifer Clinkenbeard, an assistant professor of math and statistics at Cal State-Monterey Bay, surveyed thousands of students and professors who took or taught math classes at Fullerton.

The researchers, who are father and daughter, focused on math in part because it’s their discipline and in part because math is a large service department at Fullerton, instructing about 8,500 students each semester.

Math is also a highly controlled discipline, with many instructors using the same content, grading standards, and rubrics, which made comparing the fall of 2020 and the fall of 2019 “pretty meaningful,” says Bonsangue. When they began the study, he says, “we really did not know what to expect with course grades, the experience of students, the experience of faculty. Our hope was to try to get our hands around this.”

After reviewing responses from 81 faculty members and about 2,800 students, the two professors have a few ideas about why students performed just as well in online math classes as students did previously in in-person classes, which they did across all demographic categories.

One was that instructors put enormous effort into professional development that focused on both tools and teaching strategies. More than 60 percent of them took part in training over the summer to prepare for a fall online. And 80 percent reported spending more time on their courses this fall than in previous years.

These faculty members reported that break-out rooms, synchronous chats, and polling, in particular, worked well for them and their students. When asked if they would continue using any of the approaches they adopted this year after pandemic teaching ends, more than 80 percent of instructors said yes.

Among the things they want to keep around: recorded video lessons that students can watch on their own time; virtual office hours; and smaller, more frequent assessments. Clinkenbeard said that many of her colleagues at Monterey Bay have adopted similar strategies, including mastery-based grading, which allows students to revise their work based on feedback until they get it right.

Another important dimension to math courses at Fullerton: All of the classes have been taught synchronously (with some asynchronous components). Bonsangue says that was a deliberate decision by the department to create “accountability,” and it seems to have paid off.

Students appreciated the effort put in by their instructors, the survey indicated, and liked certain aspects of virtual learning, such as being able to connect with professors online. Some even seemed more comfortable with virtual platforms. Clinkenbeard notes that she saw a wider range of students come to her virtual office hours, for example, compared with the handful of students she typically sees during a semester in person.

Clinkenbeard noticed something else as well: Students were communicating regularly with one another on discussion boards, which helped create more-active learning. Professors have always told their students, for example, about resources available to students on campus, like tutoring. But, she says, “those tend to be quiet conversations,” meaning that the faculty member explained what was offered, and students listened. On discussion boards, by contrast, “those conversations have taken on new life,” she says, as students chimed in with advice and shared their experiences.

Still, the two professors don’t want to diminish the challenges that online learning has created. Many students do not have accessible, reliable technology when they need it, or quiet spaces in which to work, Bonsangue notes. If online courses continue into the fall, as they most likely will in some form, those problems will need to be addressed. He also notes that faculty training remains important, since instructors continue to find some of these new teaching paradigms challenging.

So the lesson here may be that new technologies, combined with the use of more-effective teaching practices, can help counteract the challenges of remote learning. That’s not news to digital-learning experts, perhaps, but Bonsangue and Clinkenbeard were able to demonstrate how that played out on one campus.

What Changes Are Worth Keeping?

Speaking of online learning, the pandemic has forced all kinds of changes in college teaching. Some of them may no longer be needed whenever the pandemic is over, but others are worth sustaining.

We’d like to hear from you: Which pandemic-inspired teaching changes should colleges keep? Your ideas don’t have to be classroom-specific. We’re interested in responses about academic support, technology, and curricula, too. Use this form to share your thoughts. Thanks!

A New Coaching Resource

Need help incorporating inclusive teaching practices into your classroom? Have an instructional team that you’re guiding through digital-learning strategies, and in search of advice?

Check out the Expert Network, a new offering from Every Learner Everywhere created to provide free coaching to faculty members, instructional designers, academic leaders and others on college campuses. It started in January and is, so far, underutilized, says Jessica Rowland Williams, director of Every Learner Everywhere, a network of organizations focused on digital learning and student success. The services provided by the Expert Network are paid for by grants, says Williams, so there is no charge to users, nor are they trying to sell anyone anything.

Among the challenges experts have helped with so far: retention and engagement in online classes, creating collaborative learning communities for students and tutors, supporting literacy research among students, and seeking out effective institutional policies to close achievement gaps.

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.