This week:

  • I summarize key ideas from our Talking About Teaching series, which just wrapped up.
  • I share one faculty member’s thoughts on disconnection.
  • I point you to articles about teaching you may have missed.

That’s a Wrap

The end of the semester is close: The last couple of weeks of classes are here, followed by exams and then, no doubt, a sigh of relief and exhaustion. By many accounts, this was a particularly rough semester, and a tough year. (See the next section on what students have to say.)

Helping faculty members adjust to the return to campus amid a continuing pandemic was one reason Beckie and I created the Talking About Teaching virtual-event series, where we convened a panel of teaching experts monthly, starting in January, to address your questions and concerns. Over four sessions we covered a range of reader questions, a few of which I will highlight here.

How can instructors balance compassion for students with course expectations? We tackled that key question in the first session, which focused on the changing professor-student dynamic. Nearly 70 percent of viewers agreed at least somewhat that they had found it difficult to create a flexible course without making a lot of extra work for themselves. So what’s the solution? Flexibility is important, our panelists said, but it’s also important to be fair and firm. And to make boundaries and policies work well, it’s important to explain to students why you are setting them.

“It’s a form of respect for our students,” said one of our panelists, Isis Artze-Vega, vice president for academic affairs at Valencia College, in Florida, “to be able to have a why, and where we don’t have a good one, really then thinking about whether that’s a policy we can do without.” But, she added: “You can be a really important why. Your wellness, your boundaries, the limits on your time are super, super important.”

How can I get students to participate? That was a central topic in our second session, on how to foster motivation and engagement. While disconnection may have reached record levels this semester, classroom dynamics are often challenging, and our panelists dug into some strategies to bolster participation.

Cold-calling students, for example, can be problematic, but there are ways around it. “The oldest trick in the book,” said another of our panelists, Regan Gurung, associate vice provost at Oregon State University, “is to have somebody write something down and then just read out what they’ve written.” That lessens the pressure and gives students time to compose their thoughts. Another strategy, he said, is asking students to apply what they’ve learned by, say, writing a letter about it or imagining how it might be used in a future career. These assignments need not be graded, he noted, to be valuable.

Should I move away from traditional measures of learning, like high-stakes exams? That was a key question in our third session, on the future of grading and assessment. The pandemic forced instructors to rethink conventional approaches during the pivot to emergency remote teaching. It turns out that many found real value in the changes, such as frequent, low-stakes quizzes and essays. Now faculty members are wondering if they need to upend their entire approach.

There’s no need for a vast overhaul of your course structure, our panelists said. Instead, you might try writing quiz questions that better reflect what you want students to learn; creating new assignments or group work that focuses on participation, not grades; and allowing students to drop or retake a quiz. That approach sends a message, said another of our panelists, Viji Sathy, associate dean of evaluation and assessment at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: “Not one single assessment is going to take you down,” she said. “You’re going to have lots of chances in this course, and I’m here to support you every step of the way.”

During our final session, last Friday, panelists responded to questions that you had sent in, addressing challenges of hybrid teaching, student engagement, grading, and assessment, and providing support for faculty members who have been running on fumes for the past couple of years. “What we’ve done is basically kept ourselves up for two years straight, without a good night’s rest,” said Sathy.

Faculty members should do what they can to pare back, including dropping some content and assessments from their courses, as well as scaling back other obligations, like committee work and Friday meetings, the panelists said. Gurung suggested creating a “sorry, not now” folder for all of the things you need to take off your plate in order to regain energy.

If you are interested in watching the series, it is available on demand on our virtual-events page. And if you have ideas for future sessions about teaching, we want to hear from you. What topics should we cover next? And what format would you like the events to be in? Please write to us, at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com and beckie.supiano@chronicle.com.

Reflection on Disconnection

A number of faculty members have shared my recent story on disconnection with their students. I’ll be telling you about what came out of those discussions in the coming weeks. First up is Shaun Russell, who teaches an introduction-to-poetry course at Ohio State University.

“This semester in particular was such a stark departure for me in terms of students not attending, not submitting mandatory assignments, or just disappearing,” Russell wrote. “The day after your first article was posted, I opened up a frank conversation with my class … about how things were going for them personally … and I’ve never had such a flood of hands shoot up, sharing how hard things have been for them. Many also made the troubling comment that I’m the only professor who has actually seemed to care, or even acknowledge that things are tough right now.”

“A few students,” Russell continued, “talked about how their first year was all online, which gave them a distinct sense of what college was all about — wake up, roll out of bed, no need to get showered or dressed, log on to class, log off, get back in bed, etc. When their second year was back to in person, they realized that they had no idea about all of the social aspects of college life, and were also poorly positioned for the time-management issues that tend to be magnified in in-person classes. Combine that with a seeming lack of empathy on the part of professors, and a lot of students suggested that they were set up to fail.”

I asked Russell if he thought that lack of empathy was due to faculty burnout, or to something else. He replied:

“The sense I got is that a lot of professors seem to be either pretending that the pandemic didn’t happen (i.e., ‘business as usual’) or not understanding why students aren’t just bouncing back. For a lot of professors (probably the older ones), the pandemic forced new and uncomfortable work habits, and the return to the classroom was very welcome. And that’s fine — I welcomed it too! But the problem is that many of those same professors have the mind-set of returning to normal, and don’t think about how a lot of students don’t have the same baseline of normalcy.”

Have you talked to your students about this semester (or year) of disconnection? If so, write to me, at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com, and your story may appear in a future newsletter

ICYMI

  • In her latest Chronicle story, Beckie asks, Does getting rid of grades make things worse for disadvantaged students?
  • Quality Matters released a white paper this week on course-design considerations for inclusion and representation, written by two people at North Carolina Central University, Racheal Brooks, director of the Office of e-Learning, and Siobahn Day Grady, an assistant professor of information science/systems.
  • In this Chronicle advice piece, James L. Lang describes how the practice of annotation can help boost learning.

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.