From Endurance to Excellence

So you survived your first semester of remote instruction. Now you want not simply to endure but to excel as an online teacher. How do you begin?

Like previous posts, this one began with request from a colleague. They teach at another university and in a STEM discipline, but their goals are identical to those of so many of us in the humanities. Having successfully taught in brick-and-mortar classrooms, they aim to achieve equal success in virtual classrooms.

I am so passionate about this course, … and I want to make it an incredible experience for the students!! 

How should they begin? Well, first, I believe it essential to remember that teaching online is a science and an art, and time is necessary to become proficient. None of us learned overnight how to teach effectively in brick-and-mortar classrooms. Instead, we developed our pedagogies over years of observation, study, and trial and error. We found models of, and mentors in, outstanding scholar-teachers whose strategies and tactics we adopted and adapted. What this means is that “incredible experiences” may not be available just yet – for your students or for yourself – but they will be! Give yourself time to develop and hone your online pedagogy.

Walking the talk in my neighborhood.

Second, observe the rule of ones: one class, one concept, one change. Identify the most critical area for improvement in a course and make localized revisions that will work toward that goal. Then, when you teach the class again, focus on another area and make another change. Remember that any new or heavily altered content will require significant up-front labor, and we must reserve some energy for the semester itself. Indeed, the best thing that we can do for our students, our colleagues, and ourselves – and, I would argue, for the world right now – is to stay healthy! So moderate your pedagogical ambitions to support your physical and mental well-being.

Now that I’ve convinced you to begin with one change to your online class for the upcoming semester, what should that change be? Two critical areas for improvement for many educators new to remote instruction are collaboration and creativity. Collaboration, such as scaffolded discussions of course material among stable small groups, has several benefits. It

  1. fosters a strong sense of community despite the assumed alienation of virtual environments,
  2. sets the foundation for individual relationships that students come to rely on for academic (and sometimes personal) support,
  3. shifts learning from knowledge transfer to knowledge transformation as students work through course material together, and thereby
  4. takes the onus off the instructor to populate the course with predigested content.

Creativity involves reimagining (often) impersonal assessment in terms of personal application. Op-eds and podcasts are genres that work in a range of disciplines and require students to digest rather than regurgitate what they learn. For instance, as part of op-ed that aims to destigmatize mental health counseling on campus, nursing students might conduct a literature review and explain it to a non-expert, public readership. Music education students might create a podcast in which they combine scholarship, interviews, and music to argue for funding arts education. Such creative projects often yield more thoughtful student engagement, and thus better work product, than traditional papers and exams.

There is certainly a place for traditional papers and exams. Yet these modes of assessment are especially challenging in online classrooms – and not because students can cheat. Rather, the challenge originates, I believe, in the sense of assigning ‘busy work.’ However, as part of purposeful scaffolding, series of low-stakes activities, like weekly check-ins and “exit tickets,” provide students with manageable and meaningful opportunities to work toward high-stakes activities, like exams and papers. These low-stakes activities also have three practical advantages:

  1. They help students stay on track in your course. It is harder to fall behind when students must regularly demonstrate their interaction with course materials.
  2. They provide you, the instructor, with insight into students’ comprehension. You may catch and redress topics or skills with which students are struggling but are necessary for success on exams or papers.
  3. Efficiency! You may create automated feedback on check-ins and offer classwide feedback on “exit tickets” that make explicit connections between course content and assessments without requiring hours at the computer.

As long as you make clear the scaffolding that links these activities, students will recognize that they are not ‘busy work’ but structured, purposeful steps that support their success in your class.

The key takeaways for incredible experiences in teaching and learning online …

  • Remember that pedagogical excellence is a process.
  • Engage in this process cumulatively, one change at a time.
  • Collaboration, creativity, and scaffolding – each is a great change with which to start!
  • Prioritize your well-being, without which incredible experiences are impossible.

Please let me know if and how this post helps you to survive and to thrive this semester! And send me your questions and concerns about online pedagogy. My email address is marissag@unm.edu.

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