This week:

  • I talk with professor and faculty developer Lindsay Masland about the benefits — and heartache — of designing a course that can pivot.
  • I remind you about Talking About Teaching, our upcoming virtual event series.
  • I pass along some recent articles on teaching you may have missed.

Flexibility and the ‘Upper Limit’

The early days of pandemic teaching were stressful and chaotic — but also kind of exhilarating. Faculty developers and teaching experts who’d long urged their colleagues to be more flexible and student-centered in the classroom suddenly had a captive audience.

For most professors, especially in those early days, moving a course online forced them to think carefully about what was most essential and be creative about staying connected with students.

The pandemic “had almost everybody level up, in terms of their innovation in teaching,” says Lindsay Masland, an associate professor of psychology and interim director of faculty professional development at Appalachian State University.

Pandemic teaching is in a different phase now, and there’s nothing exhilarating about it. Covid cases have reached new heights: Even the vaccinated are becoming infected and spreading the virus to others. While some colleges are starting the semester online, many others are moving full speed ahead, locking professors into course-modality decisions they made months ago and making modest, if any, adjustments to Covid mitigation.

That’s led some instructors to ask for the flexibility to teach online, at least during times of high transmission, and shift back in person when it’s safer.

Creating a course with that kind of flexibility isn’t easy, but it does have some upside. “Designing for a pivot encourages folks to make their courses more accessible,” Masland wrote in a recent Twitter thread. “This is perfect for the person who previously had unforgiving attendance policies, in-class timed exams, long instructor-driven lectures. This class will be improved if it’s pivotable.”

Masland has thought a lot about how to design a flexible course. She wrote a chapter of Resilient Pedagogy, an open-access book focused on actionable strategies for instructors. In her mind, the most adjustable course, the one least vulnerable to disruption, is one that’s built for Zoom.

Build a course for Zoom, and teach it in person to the extent you can. Then, whatever happens, your plan will still work. You can put students in small groups — just don’t bank on them doing anything that requires their physical presence, or materials they might not have at home.

In her own teaching, Masland has focused on accessibility for years. But now, her own course plans are in tension with what’s feasible given pandemic conditions. “Designing for a pivot,” she wrote in her thread, “creates an upper limit on what you can do in a course.”

This semester, she’d hoped to do something really ambitious, teaching a redesigned version of a course she’d taught for over a decade: “Psychology Applied to Teaching.”

Masland asked to teach the course hybrid, not because she expected continued disruption, but because she wanted to split her class of 50 into two groups so they could use a tricked-out active-learning classroom. She planned on moving the class through centers, like those used in early-childhood education, some of which would be hands-on, and one of which would be talking with her. She was excited.

But as the semester approached, Masland felt she had to walk back her plans. She’d figured some students would Zoom into class, but she hadn’t accounted for the possibility that all of them might have to.

Masland will still be experimenting—this will be her first time fully ungrading an undergraduate course. And she feels fortunate to be teaching a hybrid course at a time when many professors feel forced to teach fully in person, whether doing so makes sense or not.

Still, she’s been feeling a real sense of loss. She can teach a good version of this course; she’s done so before. But it won’t be the version she’s been dreaming about.

Does Masland’s sadness about scaling back her plans resonate? How are you feeling about this semester? How do you think it compares to the last few terms of pandemic teaching? Share your thoughts with me at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com and they may be included in a future newsletter.

Join Us Next Week

Talking About Teaching, our new series of virtual events, kicks off next Friday, January 28, with an interactive roundtable discussion on the changing professor/student dynamic. Did emergency-remote instruction change the way you thought about your students? Are you still figuring out how the last two years have changed you, and the way you want to be in the classroom? We hope you’ll join us — and teaching experts Isis Artze-Vega, Regan A.R. Gurung, and Viji Sathy — for discussion, answers to your questions, and a chance to find common ground with other instructors. Sign up here.

Have a question you’d like our panel to tackle on this topic? You can share it now: beckie.supiano@chronicle.com and/or beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com

ICYMI

  • Students find course attendance policies to be inconsistent, confusing, and frustrating. They have a point, I report in my latest story.
  • As Covid cases reach new heights on many campuses, instructors are asking for the option of teaching online, at least for a while, report The Chronicle‘s Sahalie Donaldson and Chelsea Long.
  • What happens if students watch that class recording at double speed? A new paper in Applied Cognitive Psychology shows it can be an effective study strategy, under the right conditions.

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.