This week:

  • I describe the questions explored in my latest story, on how freshmen are doing so far.
  • I ask for your examples and ideas about courses that center students.
  • I share one reader’s strategy for encouraging students to wear their masks correctly.

How Are Students Doing?

When professors want to try out a new approach in the classroom, they may run an experiment, comparing their students to those in a different section or those who took the course before. What do they compare? In many cases, it’s grades. If students are taught more effectively, the thinking goes, they’ll learn more and perform better.

These instructors understand that the way they teach influences student performance. Yet in many other contexts, grades are used as if they’re a pure measure of students’ ability and effort: what they know, what they can do — even how smart they are.

To borrow a phrase from my college political-science professor, “reasonable people disagree” about how much responsibility for learning falls on students versus their instructors. But most everyone in higher ed, I imagine, accepts that both parties have a hand in it. The debate is about how much of a hand.

That’s been on my mind since reporting my latest story, which you can read here. It follows two professors, Jeff Padberg and Mita Puri, who teach introductory biology at the University of Central Arkansas. When I started talking to Padberg and Puri over the summer, I was really curious to find out how prepared the first-year students they teach would be after completing more than a year of high-school in pandemic conditions.

The go-to way to find out, at least in the short term, is to see how students do in the course. But that’s where it gets tricky: Students’ preparation is just one of many variables in their performance, and it’s not the only one that’s changed. Students, the professors have noticed, are happy and excited to be learning in person again. They seem particularly willing to reach out for help when they need it. Another change: The professors have adjusted their teaching, making an extra effort to break things down, to be clear, and to check in on how students are doing.

In the end, I am not sure that students’ academic performance can be untangled from this extra energy and effort. At least not yet.

The story also paints a picture of what it’s like teaching in this, the fourth semester touched by the pandemic. I’m curious to what extent the situation Padberg and Puri find themselves in matches your own experience. Beth and I talk a lot about how different pandemic teaching looks from one campus to another, and while we make an effort to find stories that are representative, we know they won’t reflect everyone’s experiences.

Is there an aspect of teaching this fall that you don’t think we’ve covered? Let me know: I might include your example in a future newsletter.

The Student-Centered Syllabus

Pandemic teaching, Beth and I have noticed, has pushed many professors in two related directions. They’re relaxing rules — about deadlines, attendance, and more. And they’re giving students more control in choosing which content to focus on and which format to use in completing assignments. I’m working on a story about this development. If you have a good example and/or perspective to share, please let me know:

Another Tip for Proper Masking

Recently, I shared how one professor used a class discussion tied to her discipline to try to encourage students to wear their masks correctly. Lucy Chester, an associate professor of history and international affairs at the University of Colorado at Boulder, wrote in to share her own approach:

“I should start by saying I’m lucky enough to teach at a school that has mandated indoor masking,” she wrote. “What I’ve done in my classes this semester is offer extra participation credit, to the class as a whole, for every day when I don’t have to ask someone to wear their mask properly. It’s hard to tell for sure what difference it’s made, but at the beginning of the semester I had to ask several people to pull their masks up to cover their noses, and that hasn’t been a problem for weeks.

“I like this approach because it incentivizes contributing to the community. I also offer extra credit for other acts that help build community in our class (using each others’ names during discussion, sharing cool research finds that might apply to a classmate’s research, etc.) and for days when the whole class is present (or has an excused absence, which I offer to anyone who just lets me know they can’t be in class for a reason they deem sufficient).”

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

— Beckie

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