This week:

  • I share stories from faculty members who saw engagement improve with flexibility in their classrooms.
  • I point you to articles on teaching you may have missed.

Keep the Flexibility

Regular readers know that I’ve been digging into a looming question: Should pandemic-driven changes continue this fall? Or is it time to return to more structure and less fluidity with deadlines, assignments, and attendance, along with taped-lecture and hybrid options? Did this flexibility, in short, benefit students and professors or just create more work for instructors and fewer incentives for students to keep up with their coursework?

Last week I shared the stories of two professors for whom that flexibility clearly did not work well and why they plan to return to more structured teaching in the fall. This week I’ll introduce you to others who hold a different point of view: Increased flexibility worked well for their students.

First up is Marguerite Mayhall, an assistant professor of art history at Kean University, which serves many first-generation, immigrant. and working class students, she wrote. It is also a designated Hispanic-serving institution. Mayhall changed her teaching significantly during the pandemic, she says, “especially in terms of being much more aware of how transparent I need to be with students.”

“I’ve taught metacognition to my introductory survey students for quite a while,” she wrote, “but I could see that being on campus again last fall, with some students having never had a [face to face] university experience, would necessitate me emphasizing things like study and note-taking skills much more clearly and repeatedly. I very deliberately discussed the reasons for doing the things we did in class and linked them to student learning, and incorporated a lot more active learning in both intro and upper-division courses (Perusall annotations, entry and exit tickets, whiteboard comments and discussions, small group discussions and presentations, short lectures, and more).”

She believes that flexible deadlines, for one, are very useful. About 90 percent of her students work, some are parents or otherwise take care of family members, and many deal with high levels of stress.

“Knowing that they could catch up with no penalty made students more willing to keep working, although some of them admitted that they could put my class last in the queue because of that. So what?! I know school is not the most important thing in their lives, nor should it be. That doesn’t mean they’re not learning! I am much more aware of the contradiction? disconnect? between rigor and learning than I ever used to be, and have gotten in fights with people about it, to be honest.”

Mayhall also plans to continue using open-educational resource material she wrote for her intro course in the fall of 2020, as well as mini-exams that are open book and open notes, not proctored, and have a time limit of a week to finish. “I have had very little problem with plagiarism and cheating,” she wrote. “I keep in mind Jesse Stommel’s motto, ‘start by trusting students’; it has made relationships with students infinitely better.”

She is also keeping her flexible attendance policies, which she has used for a long time. Students quickly figure out that they won’t do well if they don’t show up. And she stepped up retrieval practice games this spring to help students maintain focus.

Mayhall did have her share of disengaged students and incompletes this past year. But she found that most were listening and participating as needed. She believes that her efforts to try to connect with her students paid off in that respect.

She acknowledged that she has the ability to change up her teaching in ways that others may not. “I don’t know what I would do if I had to teach a math or science class,” she wrote. “Attendance and progress through the subject matter would have to be much more consistent for students to be successful over all, I would think.”

Next is Christopher Jones, an assistant professor of religious studies at Washburn University. He wrote that the changes he made to his teaching happened before the pandemic, and he plans to continue them even after, as they are working well.

“Before the pandemic, I used flexible deadlines and attendance policies to make my classes more accessible to students with disabilities, complicated lives, and unanticipated circumstances. I plan to keep using these tools after the pandemic, too,” he wrote. “As long as expectations are clear and consistent, most students will make good choices around them: They’ll come to class and turn in their work within a reasonable time.”

He agrees with Jonathan Malesic, author of the New York Times opinion piece “My College Students Are Not OK,” that most students do best when they are in the classroom rather than on Zoom, “but the answer isn’t to return to toxic rigor. It is to make sure that we are doing things in the classroom that students can’t get anywhere else.”

Jones struggled with attendance problems and burnout, like everyone else, but believes his strategies encouraged most students to come to class. He shared those that he has found to be effective in his 35-student general-education introductory course:

  • Emphasis on small group discussion and student contributions.
  • Intellectually charged atmosphere (class starts with serious questions and uses discussion to explore them — no data dumps or busywork).
  • Random silly things (memes every day on the intro slide, review Kahoots, “badges” given out via the learning-management system for participating in discussion).
  • A deliberate atmosphere of care and support (students often say they feel motivated to come to class because they like the way it feels to be there).
  • Students know if they skip class they’ll get emails asking them how they’re doing.

“Ultimately, I emphasize building relationships with students and using classroom space/time to let students develop relationships with each other. That motivates them more than anything, probably. They know they’ll be missed if they don’t come.”
I’m going to continue to report on this topic and will share some thoughts from other readers in my next newsletter, including a strategy that one reader described as “flexibility with guardrails.”

If you haven’t weighed in and want to do so, write to me at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com and your story may appear in a future newsletter.

ICYMI

  • Beckie dives into the heavier burden of emotional labor that faculty members of color, women, and others often have to deal with compared to white, cisgender men, in this Chronicle story.
  • A new playbook offers guidance on how to better support online adjunct faculty members. It was produced by Wiche Cooperative for Educational Technologies, the Online Learning Consortium, and Every Learner Everywhere.

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

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