Preparing Your Fall 2021 Course

Teaching and learning during the pandemic has been and will continue to be a challenge at Duke, even if Fall courses may be more classroom-based than last year. Many teaching practices that became common during the pandemic are still encouraged this year and in the future, because they create a better learning environment for all students. We’ve gathered some helpful guidelines from experiences last year, student surveys and published reports across higher education. Jump to the section of most interest:


Start with Course Design

If the course is new or new to you, follow our guide for course design (or Course Design Planner) on Learning Innovation’s Flexible Teaching site. This guide will take you step-by-step through designing your course to create achievable and aligned learning objectives, assessments and course activities. Use this alignment to pare down your course content if needed.

Review your course to focus on the learning objectives, to help you cut down on less critical material and to ensure your activities and assessments align with your learning objectives.  

Ensure that your course design and all materials are accessible.

Make your course inclusive. Use this worksheet, review this inclusive practices toolkit and consider antiracist and decolonized teaching strategies.

Build on previous successes and use teaching strategies that have worked.  

If you’re teaching a course which will include both in-person and remote students in the same section, review our Hybrid Teaching Guide for suggestions about designing for the needs of both cohorts of students. Check with your local classroom support staff to verify the technology set up in your scheduled classroom, or to request updates to accommodate your class plans.

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Make connections and create community

Deliberately build community among your students. Provide multiple opportunities for students to engage with each other — use both informal activities at the beginning of class to promote community, and use active learning techniques to encourage students to practice with the course content and receive feedback. 

When possible, arrive in class a few minutes early in order to chat informally with students before class. Start each class meeting with a low stress activity to welcome students, like asking students to answer a fun question in chat, BuzzFeed quizzes or using a friendly warmup activity. 

Take the time to connect with your students

Use student groups for course work.

Provide ways for students to connect with each other to form study groups outside of class meetings. 

Consider using asynchronous discussion tools such as Sakai Forums, Ed Discussions, or Voicethread to encourage communication among and between class members, instructors and TAs, to make learning visible and encourage students to apply concepts. 

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Consider your students

Set a welcoming tone in your syllabus, using approachable language to invite students into your class learning environment. Be sure to include links to student support units relevant to your course, such as the Academic Resource Center, DukeReach and the Writing Studio.

Use your live class time wisely. Students can learn basic content before a class meeting from websites, books and videos (either your own pre-recorded short presentations, or those from other sources such as Coursera). Use synchronous time (in-person or online) to deepen learning, to connect with each other and to explore concepts and to build on them. 

Assure all students that they can succeed by using inclusive teaching practices and trauma-informed teaching practices to create a welcoming learning environment. Provide flexible options to engage in course content and activities, options for assignments, flexible due dates when possible and asynchronous options for participation.

Provide office hours that are accessible to all students regardless of time zone. Encourage students to meet with you at office hours, even if they don’t have questions. Use online office hours at least some of the time, for your and your students’ convenience.

Create a simple, well-organized course website; remove unneeded menu items and content. In Sakai, use the Lessons tool to create a structured course outline including links to readings, assignments, recordings and other materials.

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Reconsider assessments 

Use frequent, low stakes assessments to provide feedback to you and your students on their learning. Consider a forgiving grading policy by dropping the lowest grades or providing feedback, not grades, on some assignments.

Consider lowering stress on assessments by allowing students to use their notes and being very clear on when students are permitted to collaborate and when they are not. Give a practice exam to allow students to prepare.

Grade consistently using pre-created rubrics based on course objectives, which are shared with students ahead of time; don’t use grading curves. 

Be flexible with due dates and grading. 

Break large assignments such as papers or projects into smaller parts; provide timely feedback on each to encourage learning as students develop their assignment. 

Provide more than one way for students to succeed in your course; examples include dropping the lowest grades on some assignments or allowing students to choose how they demonstrate they’ve mastered the learning objectives, perhaps by choosing the form of their final project.

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Email us to arrange to talk about how to make your course work!


More Resources

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This post is based on an April 2021 post by my colleague, Andrea Novicki.