Lessons from Spring for a Successful Fall

Girl studying by window with fall foliage.

By Blythe Tyrone, Communications Strategist, and Amy Kenyon, Associate Director of Teaching Innovation

Feedback from students about how faculty and Duke supported their learning during emergency remote teaching in Spring and Summer 1 is critical to consider when planning flexible courses and learning experiences in Fall 2020. Trinity College Office of Assessment conducted a far-reaching student survey, followed by focus groups, and has created a data-driven list of suggestions for faculty and administrators to consider now, during summer planning. The first draft of evidence-guided suggestions that continue to evolve can be read here, but this post provides an overview of the following seven topics: 

  • student wellness & engagement, 
  • effective communications, 
  • using technology effectively, 
  • remote teaching and learning, 
  • assessments, 
  • academic integrity, and 
  • high-impact experiences. 

Student Wellness & Engagement

In general, the majority of students reported a decreased level of overall well-being in the second half of the spring semester. In their own words:

“I regressed this term. I went backward. I had to go back to my childhood home with rules and restrictions.”

“I was already struggling with severe depression and have felt extremely isolated… I don’t have a normal sleep schedule… I can’t separate a work environment from a home one or get any work done.”

“At home, I have other obligations.”

Though DukeReach is committed to supporting students’ well-being, faculty’s expectations of and interactions with students can affect their wellness. Below are some steps that faculty can take to ensure that they are not adversely affecting their students’ wellness this Fall:

  • Start class with a check-in, suggest/model good coping, refer students with challenges to their dean.
  • Give students opportunities to connect with each other in class. When creating groups, sort students by time zone or blocks when they prefer to do collaborative work.
  • Students ask for understanding and privacy: “I shouldn’t have to reveal my trauma to receive compassion from my teachers.”
  • Respect student time and other responsibilities. End live class meetings on time. Also,  keep the course requirements equal to (or perhaps a little less than) a regular semester. 
  • Zoom and recorded videos are mentally and physically draining. Chunk them whenever possible.

Planning Effective Communications

A significant portion of students reported insufficient interaction with their faculty; others felt they  received too many or unclear messages in the Spring. Some students shared:

“Professors [need] to be consistent in their communication with students and clear about the grading policies of their courses.”

“I had one teacher send 10+ emails a week changing rules for assignments because she was clearly making up a plan as she went along.”

“It would be nicer to have [messages] posted somewhere on Sakai. During the initial transition each professor was sending multiple updates about how the class would be changing and it was difficult to keep track for each one.”

Overall, when teaching online we recommend communicating frequently to students, even if it turns out that you need to update an earlier communication due to a change in policy or plans. Here are some simple solutions for improving communications with students you can enact this Fall:

  • Set up clear communication channels for your course, so students know how you will be connecting with them, how often you expect them to check their messages, and how they can best reach you. 
  • Do your best to ensure you’re communicating confirmed information to students, but if you must change something previously announced, do so as clearly and immediately as you can.
  • Consider text-based short communication like Remind, with links to Sakai.
  • Distribute email communications via an Announcements page (e.g., in Sakai) for archiving and later retrieval by students.
  • Remind students about the current academic policies, and changes from spring term, e.g., grading, inform them about the change from the S/U option.

Also, keep in mind that the main reason students come to Duke is to access its most valuable asset: you. Students reported that they took greater advantage of their professors’ virtual office hours and valued the online synchronous meetings for Q&A. If possible, offer more office hours than you usually do, but consider student time zones when scheduling these.

Using Technology Effectively

Although over 80% of survey respondents said the technology used was generally effective for learning, there was a gap between student campus and home learning environments and support. On campus, the University is able to provide access to quiet spaces, devices, in-person tech support and a reliable internet connection for students to conduct their studies, but many students reported (and surely many of you had the same experience) that their remote living circumstances deprived them of these crucial supports. Some students explained: 

“Not having access to the library with multiple monitors and high speed internet was frustrating and difficult.”

“Zoom is impossible because I cannot explain where I am stuck [because] they can not see my work.”

“I spent more time trying to figure out the software than I did learning the scientific concepts.”

Though the plan for Fall is for many students to return to living on campus, many students may still be participating remotely. In addition, there is always the possibility that the pandemic will require us to return to fully remote teaching, so we must assume that these challenges will persist. To address them, we recommend the following:

  • Provide a detailed, well-organized, and welcoming course website to serve as a “home base” for access to course activities and tools such as Zoom, assignment collection, course readings or videos, discussion boards, etc. 
  • Check with students early to make sure they can purchase or access the required readings and textbooks. If students are unable to access the readings, contact Duke Libraries to see if they provide e-versions or scanned copies of chapters.
  • If you’re teaching via Zoom, give students periodic breaks. Utilize the hand-raising feature and use the chat to document and address questions. Wait time is important.
  • Create structure for Zoom break-out rooms by giving the small groups specific objectives, rather than just telling them to “discuss.” 
  • Use Duke technologies which align with your learning outcomes and planned course activities; drop into Learning Innovation Office Hours if you’re not sure what tools are available. 
  • Refer students to OIT for technical help: 919-684-2200, option 2 or chat/email.

Remote Teaching and Learning

The quick and unexpected transition to emergency remote teaching in the Spring required a significant degree of restructuring, and we recommended that you scale down your expectations of both yourself and your students, focusing on delivering just the essentials. Students had mixed experiences of remote teaching and learning in the Spring. Some felt the quality of their experience decreased:

“Classes that moved to just powerpoints/ slides were much less fulfilling than a Duke class usually would be.”

“Canceling all group projects just made students sad and more isolated.”

Others reported that the rigor of their classes increased – to their detriment:

“A professor failed to recognize the many shortcomings [of the project] without adapting his course expectations.”

“Any course that added work or tried to maintain the same amount as before was unequivocally worse.”

Now that we have more time to prepare for Fall, there is a general expectation for a return to the normal level of rigor expected of Duke students. It is possible to conduct a course that allows students working remotely to achieve the same level of high-quality contribution while remaining flexible to their needs and pressures outside the classroom. Here are some suggestions for doing so, and consult the Flexible Teaching Guides for more specifics:

  • Plan to teach remotely, building in optional and non-graded live components when possible. 
  • Survey or individually ask students to share with you their time zone and whether they have an acceptable work space, stable internet connection, and other responsibilities beyond coursework. Adjust your course based on their responses. 
  • Rethink your course, rather than try to force the old design into a virtual environment.  Consider how to generate structure with flexibility. 
  • Students were most positive about courses in which content presentation was asynchronous (as readings or videos), and live class sessions were used for active learning, problem-solving and discussion. 
  • Focus on learning outcomes and desired course activities rather than content consumption. 

Assigning Authentic and Relevant Assessments

Due to the challenges shared in previous sections, students reported many issues with the way their learning was assessed during the second half of the semester. In response, they shared some enlightening examples of ways they would like their remote learning assessed:

“Find meaningful assignments that can be done remotely, but don’t try to create filler assignments just to assign work.”

“I would… suggest focusing more on assignment based evaluation (through things like problem sets and papers) instead of exams.”

“In one class, my final test was converted into a series of three labs…  I got to work for an equivalent amount of time as I would spend studying and taking the test, but I was working by myself on figuring out the labs, which was actually really fun.”

In addition to these students’ examples, here are some of our recommendations for how you can effectively assign authentic and relevant assignments for Fall courses:

  • Use more, lower-stakes assignments rather than few, high-stakes assignments. 
  • Tests that require printing, scanning, and uploading are highly stressful and prone to technology glitches. Try to avoid these.
  • If exams are essential, consider how the format, length, and platform might create inequities among students. Here are some suggested best practices. For timed tests, allow a longer time window. 

Reinforcing Academic Integrity

While nearly every student reported being familiar with and committed to Duke’s Community Standard, many worried that their peers did not adhere to it in the Spring. Students were quite clear about their concerns:

“Having online timed/untimed exams was extremely frustrating at times due to peers having 48-72 hours for… exams that allowed much of the class to circumvent academic integrity measures.”

“While I did not compromise the Community Standard on assignments, I know many other students did, compromising my overall grade in classes with a curve.”

“If the system is so unequal, why follow the rules?”

Academic integrity is one of the most important tenets students are expected to adhere to, but it is possible to maintain it in remote and hybrid settings. Here are some adjustments you should make for the Fall:

  • Consider eliminating grade curves and using criterion-based grading. Students feel that curves penalize those who do not cheat.
  • Brainstorm learning and assessment tasks that align with your learning outcomes, while disincentivizing cheating—formative, open-resource, collaborative, questions that require application or analysis rather than a “right answer.” 
  • Duke does not provide a proctoring tool. If you feel you must proctor your students, you may be able to do so using Zoom, which is free. 
  • If you do need to use an exam with multiple choice-style questions, use large question banks and randomized presentation of questions and answer choices. 

Maintaining High-Impact Experiences

For most courses, a common way to provide students with a high-impact experience is to design a collaborative group project. The majority of students did participate in such projects in the Spring and this practice can be continued into the Fall. For recommendations on how to facilitate group projects in a flexible course, see our Guide
However, for many courses, important elements such as artistic productions or performances, labs, and community engagement were hard to recreate equitably for remote students. While some faculty found ways to translate these activities online in the Spring, others were not able to or chose not to, as reported by students. We encourage faculty to keep such high-impact elements in their Fall courses if at all possible. If you would like to discuss these topics with colleagues, please join us for an upcoming Open Discussion, or share your ideas or questions with us through our contact form.