This week:

  • I share strategies on how to assess students during the first week of class.
  • A professor makes the case for adding flexibility to your syllabus.
  • I point you to articles on teaching you may have missed.

Assessing Students

Instructors headed to a reopened campus this fall won’t be the only ones in their classrooms feeling a bit nervous. Your students probably aren’t so sure about how well prepared they are after more than a year spent under Covid restrictions. Many of them learned mostly online and largely alone. And while high-school teachers and college professors may have adjusted their content and teaching strategies to help, that might mean students now worry about what they need to do to adapt or catch up.

So how can you quickly assess where your students are, both in terms of what they know and how they feel about being back on campus? Kelly Hogan, a teaching professor of biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and associate dean of instructional innovation, has a few ideas.

I called Hogan after reading a recent thread she wrote on Twitter, asking her to elaborate. Here’s a summary of her advice.

Send out a survey before the first day of class. This is a good opportunity to ask students about two things: what experience they have with the content of your course and how they feel about returning to in-person learning. In her foundational course, for example, Hogans asks students when they last took biology. She already knows the answer: It was usually ninth grade. But this gives students the chance to tell her that they haven’t studied biology in a *really* long time, which helps reassure them that she now knows this. She also asks what they’re nervous about. For some this year, it’ll be the prospect of showing up to an in-person class, or perhaps not having the opportunity to rewind a pre-recorded lecture. Understanding students’ concerns, Hogan says, can help instructors think about how to adapt their teaching this fall.

Give a nongraded assessment. Sometimes, Hogan notes, if you give students an assessment before the course starts they might Google the answers. But if you do this during the first or second day of class, you’ll get a more accurate view of what students know and remember. Then, use the results to adjust your course goals as needed. Let students know that you’re not testing them in a formal sense, but are simply trying to figure out where they are. Hogan suggests reaching out to your campus teaching-and-learning center if you’re not sure how to structure such an assessment.

Provide resources to review. Many instructors taped their lectures this past year, so they could consider offering relevant ones to incoming students looking for review material. Or if your department has a suite of videos for, say, Chemistry 101, you could use those, or materials found on YouTube. Hogan is also planning to give her students a first assignment that is something of a how-to: how to use the technology, an introduction to the textbook, and where to go to find other study resources.

Set clear expectations. Hogan ties this back to the student survey. Many students have already expressed anxiety about a return to face-to-face teaching. So on your syllabus, let them know what to expect in terms of deadlines, assignments, and tests. Hogan plans to keep open-note tests in the course she is co-teaching this fall. And she will continue to offer flexibility with deadlines by giving students tokens that allow them to turn things in late on occasion.

How are you planning to approach your first week of class? Write to me at and your ideas may appear in a future newsletter.

Rethinking Your Syllabus

Another area instructors might want to consider adjusting this fall: their syllabus.

In this Twitter thread, Matt Johnson, an associate professor in the department of educational leadership at Central Michigan University, lists 10 things faculty should re-evaluate as they prepare for “another hellish and difficult semester for students spurred by our inability to control the virus.”

Among Johnson’s suggestions: Don’t link grades to attendance, de-emphasize group work, avoid penalizing students for turning in assignments late, and have someone read through your syllabus to ensure that you “sound like a human being invested in students’ success and well-being.”

Are you adjusting your syllabus this fall to take account of the fact that you may be back on campus but are not yet out of the woods? If so, tell me how at Your ideas may appear in a future newsletter.


  • In this Inside Higher Ed opinion piece, Mays Imad, a neuroscientist and the founding coordinator of the teaching and learning center at Pima Community College, describes 13 actions you can take to support students’ mental health.
  • Are your students taking a long time to graduate? It could be that your degree programs are too complicated. Read my latest story to understand why curricular complexity is also an equity issue.
  • What does a trauma-informed return to campus entail? The Chronicle’s Sarah Brown takes a deep dive into the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee’s approach. Here’s what she learned.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us at or

— Beth

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