As we move into the fall semester, most institutions had planned on return to primarily face-to-face classroom instruction. However, the growth of the delta variant has cast some doubt on that and it’s likely that we’re going to be seeing some disruptions as infections spread on our campuses. In this episode, we discuss some things that faculty may want to keep in mind as we move into the fall semester.
- Sathy, V., & Hogan, K. A. (2020). “Structured for Inclusion.” Tea for Teaching podcast. September 16.
- Sathy, V., & Hogan, K. A. (2019). Want to reach all of your students? Here’s how to make your teaching more inclusive. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
- Eddy, S. L., & Hogan, K. A. (2017). Getting under the hood: How and for whom does increasing course structure work?. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 13(3), 453-468.
- Hogan, K.A. and Sathy, V. (forthcoming, 2022). Embracing Diversity: A Guide to Teaching Inclusively. WVU Press.
- Hogan, Kelly A, and Sathy, Viji (2020). “Optimizing Student Learning and Inclusion in Quantitative Courses.” in Rodgers, Joseph Lee, ed. (2020). Teaching Statistics and Quantitative Methods in the 21st Century. Routledge.
- Panter, A.T.,; Sathy, Viji; and Hogan, Kelly A (2020). “8 Ways to Be More Inclusive in Your Zoom Teaching.” Chronicle of Higher Education. April 7.
John: As we move into the fall semester, most institutions had planned on a return to primarily face-to-face classroom instruction. However, the growth of the Delta variant has cast some doubt on that and it’s likely that we’re going to be seeing some disruptions as infections spread on our campuses. We may have students going into quarantine, we may have temporary closures, and faculty themselves may end up in quarantine because of their own or family exposure to COVID. So we thought it would be helpful if we talked a little bit about some things that faculty may want to keep in mind as we move into the fall semester.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
Rebecca: One of the things that I think many faculty were looking forward to over the summer was maybe a fall that looked a lot more like the ways that they had teached previously, unmasked, perhaps because of vaccination mandates. And there’s still a lot of uncertainty on many campuses around that and vaccination rates of students. So many faculty are finding themselves in situations where they’re going to be masked and their students are masked as well. Although we had some faculty certainly teach that way in the spring, it’s new to many faculty across the country. And so we thought today, we could do some tips about things to think about in the classroom or other face-to-face situations where masks are involved. Our teas today are…John, what are you drinking?
John: Ginger peach green tea. And Rebecca?
Rebecca: I have a decaf Irish breakfast today. And why is it decaf? Because I ran out of the caffeinated tea. [LAUGHTER]
John: I know in office where there is a lot of tea, although I did throw some of the older tea out that had been sitting there for a while. Because our campus has moved at least mostly back to face-to-face instruction. We just had an academic affairs retreat with quite a few faculty present in person, but also quite a few faculty present remotely. And I suspect we’ll be seeing many such events as we move through the fall semester. So you mentioned the issue of masks. And for those of us who set out last year because of health conditions or other concerns. We were not used to teaching with mass. So maybe we could talk a little bit about something that faculty who are teaching with masks for the first time should take into account.
Rebecca: I know that John and I have recently done some campus events. And the first thing I noticed being masked all day was that I couldn’t breathe. I ran out of air, you might get more winded than you’re used to, which might slow you down. But you want to think about how to pace yourself and maybe even making sure you have water. And then it’s also awkward to take your mask off and get a drink of water. So you may want to think about that maybe even practice ahead of time so that you don’t feel like an idiot, trying to figure out how to get a drink.
John: I had to give a really short presentation to our new faculty in person. And I very quickly ran out of breath because I was in a room where it was a very big room and there were no microphones, which was probably not ideal. Which brings us to one of the first things we’d recommend, which is that in the classroom, you should use a microphone. That’s always a good idea because there may be distractions and having clear audio would always be helpful, but it’s especially important if your voice is going to be muffled behind a mask.
Rebecca: And we may think typically of this being something only for a big lecture hall. But I would argue that even in smaller classrooms, it could be incredibly helpful. Another thing to consider too is students in the class not only need to be able to hear you but each other. So if there’s not a microphone to pass around to students, for example, then you want to make sure that you’re repeating questions or comments that students are making so that everyone has the benefit of conversation. This can also be true if you happen to have students who are Zooming in because they’re in quarantine or something else to make sure that they can hear what’s going on in the class as well.
John: Because it’s going to be harder for everyone to hear each other you should be prepared to speak a little more slowly than you might normally to make it easier for students. And also you may want to minimize the amount of time you spend talking in class. If you have not already cut back on lecturing, this would probably be a great time to replace a lecture-based class with the use of more active learning activities where there’s more small local discussions taking place, rather than one person having a voice at trying to fill the whole classroom.
Rebecca: I think those more intimate settings can be helpful to deal with volume and things, you may need more space between groups because they may actually be louder than you’re accustomed to, because of the masks and people needing to try to speak up. So you might want to plan with that and be flexible and ready to adjust. And making sure you’re supplementing with videos and other things for clarifications. You’re noticing a lot of issues that are arising, you know, just-in-time teaching techniques, maybe those need to be a little bit of video follow up too, just to make sure that everyone got that information. You may also want to think about using slides or other digital materials to supplement what’s happening in the classroom to reinforce terms, concepts, ideas, etc., just to make sure that everyone can get that information, especially if anyone’s having trouble hearing.
John: And in general, the use of videos is something that many of us have been recommending anyway, because students can listen to them at their own pace. When you record them, you’re recording them typically at a computer without a mask on, so your voice will be much clearer. And it will make it much easier for students to understand what you’re trying to say. And they can listen to it at their own pace and as often as they need to. So there’s a lot of good reasons to do that, in general. And once you’ve created them, many of them can be used multiple times in multiple years. So if you haven’t done it, that can be helpful.
Rebecca: What we hope that you’re hearing is this idea of multimodal ways of engagement. We mentioned having slides or text-based materials, video materials and activities that might all address some of the same concepts and ideas so that there’s many ways that students can dip in and engage with the material and the content of the class.
John: And when you have students engage in activities in the classroom, don’t just give them instructions early, provide the instructions in writing with a shared document, perhaps a Google Drive document, or put them up on a slide on the screen, if that works better in your environment. But because students may have trouble understanding instructions because of the mask and your muffled voice, giving them other ways to see the instructions and refer back to them is going to reduce uncertainty. And it tends to be a very effective tool in any case, as Viji Sathi and Kelly Hogan have noted, giving students more structure tends to be really effective in reducing achievement gaps for students as well.
Rebecca: This is a really great time to mention the use of polling, as well, to collect information from students. Usually when we’re doing polls, you might present something both in text and orally, so there’s a couple of different ways to get that information. But one of the things you could poll on is how well students are able to hear and the general happenings in the class and what people need. So I would highly encourage doing some polling around those kinds of needs early on in the semester, because we’re all learning and adapting and trying to figure it out together. And the more you can collaboratively do that with students to meet the needs that they’re identifying, the better.
John: With polling, you’ve got a variety of questions you can use. But you can also use things like Jamboard and other whiteboard activities, or even Google Forms where students are submitting things in text rather than verbally. The more communications that take place in a nonverbal format, the more clear that communications will tend to be while we still have mass requirements in effect.
Rebecca: So you’ll notice these digital things that you started adopting, maybe when you were teaching online, can still have a really important place in a physical classroom, we can have those small group conversations and really enjoy the presence of other humans, but also supplement with some of this technology that can help fill in some gaps that we might still have. One of those gaps that we might have is the expressions we’re used to seeing. Even if you were using Zoom, for example, you got to see at least some expressions from students who might have had cameras on, but things can be lost in translation behind a mask, facial expressions might be hidden. So you may need to feel like you’re overexplaining. If you have a lot of emotion embedded in what you’re saying, you might need to actually say what that emotion is: “I’m really excited about this,” or, “I’m really happy to see this.” Rather than just expecting students to hear that change and inflection in your voice because it may be a lot harder to detect than it would be otherwise. One of the things that we mentioned at the top of this episode is really thinking about the many different circumstances that can arise and being prepared this semester. That means backup plans and probably backup plans for your backup plans. We can’t be too prepared. So some things that I know that I faced as a faculty member is, I have a daughter who’s four who’s been quarantined three times from daycare because of exposure to COVID-19. So you may be exposed, your family members might be exposed, so you may not be able to be in person. But the same thing can be true of your students and your students’ families, they might have kids too. So there’s a big complex web of people that may be not able to be or may not be able to participate in person and figuring out a way to make things go on or continue in their absence or in your absence is important. So maybe that means switching to Zoom. If you have to go into quarantine, maybe that means recording your classes and providing that to students who are out. It could be a lot of different things. How will I accommodate this circumstance? is a key question to ask without getting too overwhelmed with trying to do too many things.
John: I already had a situation where I’m teaching a relatively small intro class this time, I only have 189 students in person. And I already received an email from one of those students saying that they will be in quarantine for the first week or so of the term. It’s an international student who just arrived and has to go into quarantine for two weeks before they’re allowed to participate in classes. So you should expect that there’s a good chance that some of your students, even in small classes like mine, might end up having to go into quarantine. And you do want to provide ways for those students to be successful in the class. So I will be live streaming my class in Zoom for those who can’t participate in person.
Rebecca: And like John is mentioning, you probably won’t have a big heads up. Things are going to happen rapidly, and we need to be able to respond rapidly. So think about what works for you and your workflow and the kind of classes you teach. Maybe that means live streaming with Zoom. But if that’s not going to work for you, for whatever reason, then maybe that means recording a class session, or providing an asynchronous equivalent that you’ve developed in previous semesters that can just be made available to students if they need to be out, for example.
John: And we should remember that the last year has been extremely difficult for everybody and some people have been much more heavily affected. And we will be dealing with lots of cases of trauma for both faculty and for students. And we should be prepared for that by, at the very least, having mental health resources available to share with your students could be really helpful. And I suspect many faculty may benefit from that as well.
Rebecca: I think one of the key things is demonstrating care. We talked a lot about this on the podcast over the past year, demonstrating care, caring for students, what does it mean to be in a community of care and acknowledging that the people in your classes, including yourself, are humans who have emotions, can be really helpful. And affirming that people may be experiencing all kinds of trauma from a wide variety of things, not just COVID-19 related, but they might have family members in Afghanistan, they may be a student of color, they may be a student who survived sexual assault, there’s a wide variety of things. And people have been faced or traumatized by that we need to just be aware of and sensitive to. And doing those occasional check ins with students over the course of the semester just saying like, “Hey, how’s it going? Remember, these resources are available,” can go a long way. I remember that last semester, I had students say that no one else had asked them. And it’s not, I think, because our faculty don’t care, because I actually think we have a really deeply caring faculty. So just making sure you’re actually asking the question and making a little space for that is really important.
John: And also consider being more flexible, if possible, with some of your assignments, perhaps not being as rigid with deadlines as you might normally be. Because when students are dealing with issues that may involve life and death of family members, or with family members losing jobs because of economic disruptions, just being more flexible, in general, can be helpful.
Rebecca: Some of that flexibility comes in just providing some grace, like low stakes assignments, or the ability to drop low quiz grades, the ability to make mistakes and learn from it. These are things that aren’t just COVID related or kind of a transitioning back to the classroom related these are really good practices, so that students can develop a growth mindset and really improve over time and we give them the space to improve and the space to learn from mistakes, the space to have life happen, and just let it go and move on.
John: There are so many sources of trauma, we don’t need to make our classes an additional source for our students. We want to provide an environment that’s supportive and nurturing so that students can be successful in our classes. Many faculty have traditionally been very rigid about their deadlines and about the course requirements. But now is an especially good time to reconsider some of those policies.
Rebecca: Along those same lines, we want to be making sure that our students have access in all kinds of ways. So digital materials should meet digital accessibility standards. But we also want to think about cost of books, equipment, etc. and making sure that students have access to what they need no matter where they are. So keeping equipment needs down, software down, book costs down so that students can have access using OERs are all things that we can be thinking about. Digital resources might be particularly helpful at this time, especially if students have to rapidly move into quarantine, it might give them more possibility to have access to things.
John: We’re talking about the need perhaps to keep costs as low as possible in the context of COVID. But in general, we’re seeing a much more diverse mix of students entering our colleges with a much larger proportion of first generation students than at any time before, and many of those students are coming from very low-income households. And in general, I think we need to focus more heavily on the needs of those students, because students who come in with fewer resources tend to be much less successful. And we want to increase the chances of success by keeping costs as low as possible.
Rebecca: As we’re thinking about these same students, many of them are working at part time or even full time or have families that they’re caring for. So doing things like continuing to offer office hours virtually through Zoom or other techniques can be really helpful in meeting students at times that would have been more inconvenient for you, but now are more convenient if you can Zoom in quickly, because you don’t have to be in your office. The same is true for students. So maybe consider continuing that option if it was something that you were offering before in order to accommodate students more.
John: And we’re also in a somewhat unique circumstance this time in that many students have not been in a classroom regularly for over a year. That varies geographically quite a bit but many students have been taking classes from home and the quality of that instruction has varied dramatically across school districts and across households. Given the way we fund schools, primarily through local school property taxes, wealthy school districts have lots of resources for professional development for their teachers. And the students tend to have much better internet connections and have more resources to allow them to be successful in school remotely. In low-income school districts, though, students will often have very poor internet connections, they’ll be using shared devices. And in general, the quality of instruction in those schools and the preparation of the teachers is often quite a bit less. And it’s very likely that we’re going to see a much greater variability in the prior learning of students entering our colleges.
Rebecca: And part of that was our own as a teaching universe],like either higher ed or K12, shifting to modalities that many of us were unfamiliar with. The quality of instruction may just not have been as good and certainly not any of our intentions as instructors. But there’s a learning curve. And some of us took some time to figure out how to do things. And we’re still learning, we’re still trying to get it right. And so students may really need additional structure, more structure than you’re used to providing to help guide them through the materials, to guide them through the semester, to guide them through in person experiences, because they haven’t really interacted with peers that they don’t know, in quite a long time. So the more we can provide guidance, structure, specific roles, even saying, “Hey, we’re going to get into small groups, the first thing you want to do is introduce yourself to one another.” We might need to provide those little extra prompts just to make sure that everyone has equal footing when they start an activity.
John: We’ve mentioned this a little bit before but providing more support or resources, providing videos, practice tests, online tutorials, links to YouTube videos. In almost any discipline, you’ll find someone out there has created some resources that could be helpful for your students. Finding and sharing those with students can take a little bit of time, but it can yield some really dramatic benefits for students who are coming in with very diverse backgrounds.
Rebecca: You can also encourage students to share those materials with each other by providing a platform to do that, you can use discussion boards in your learning management system, you could use tools like Slack or chat capabilities. There’s many ways that we could do this. But the workload doesn’t need to be all on you because there are students who are going to find and be willing to share materials as well.
John: And it’s also really important that we give students early and frequent feedback so that they don’t get to a high-stakes exam and discover that they weren’t quite as ready as they thought they would be. Giving students a chance to practice, to try things, and to see how they’re doing when there’s time to improve can be really useful. So give students feedback as quickly as you can and as often as you can.
Rebecca: And for some of us, that might really mean putting some time in your calendar the first couple of weeks of school to make sure that you grade some things and actually putting it in like it’s an appointment, to make sure it gets done so that students are getting what they need.
John: And you can also, though in a learning management system, create some self-graded quizzes. So it doesn’t have to be something that requires more grading work, but it gives students that immediate feedback. Giving personalized feedback would generally be better, but in larger classes using some automated self-grading quizzes can at least help with that process.
Rebecca: One of the things that I had been thinking about over the summer is how many students that I had that were transfer students or first-year students who never actually stepped foot on campus yet. So we have sophomores and juniors and seniors who may really be unfamiliar with the campus but are physically there. So one of the things that we want to do is think about orienting our students to physical resources that are available. Like, where is the health center? Where are the computer labs? Where are there really nice spaces to sit outside where you have an internet connection? Right? Where are some nice places to socialize? All of these things we might just expect students to know. But in many cases, students have been away or remote for periods of time and they really need to be oriented to these spaces. So I know that I had brainstormed ideas of things that we could do in class that might actually take us to some of those physical spaces, either outside of class or during class. And so I’d encourage you all to think about ways to incorporate some of the physicality of in-person experiences if you’re teaching in person. One of the things that I’ve been really excited about, having taught synchronously online over the past semester, are some of these really great collaborative virtual tools that allow for all kinds of participation. I’m sure you’ve heard me mention things about virtual whiteboards, I think I’m a fanatic or something now. I should be, like, an advertisement for all of them. But I really enjoy the ability to collaborate with students, have them provide their opinions, get their questions, get their brainstorms, whatever it might be that we’re doing in class through sticky notes or whiteboard activities, which can be set up to be anonymous, or with names attached, depending on what platform you’re using. And there are some real benefits to having some opportunities for some anonymous participation so that you can get a real pulse on what’s going on in the class without people being concerned about being judged or being afraid to speak up.
John: In general, students who are first-generation students often don’t have the same level of confidence in their success. They haven’t seen as many of their peers going to college and being successful. And the more we can do to help students build confidence that they belong there, and simply telling them that “You belong here,” could be a good starting point. But working towards building a growth mindset, let them know that it’s okay to make mistakes and learn from their mistakes, we want to make sure that they don’t see struggle as being a sign of failure. To make sure that they understand and to reinforce that struggling to learn things is an essential part of learning.
Rebecca: And I think along those same lines, I know, I see this a lot with students, is that they’re afraid to ask for help. Because asking for help is a sign of failure or a sign of weakness or lack of expertise. So making it comfortable and having them have the ability to ask for help and get help is really important and encouraging that early is incredibly important for student success. So if someone’s really struggling with an early concept in that class where the concepts build on one another, and they don’t understand a really foundational idea early on in the semester, and they don’t get the help they need early on, then they’re not going to do any better over the course of the semester. So we need to find ways to welcome those kinds of questions and make it safe to ask those questions and also to get the extra help that some students might actually need.
John: And also to help students feel more comfortable using more small group discussions more think-pair-share type of activities that do not put the same implicit pressure on students to take a stand in front of the whole class, and that anonymous participation that you mentioned, can also be helpful through polls or virtual whiteboards to help students become a little bit more confident and be willing to share their voices more frequently.
Rebecca: I know one tip that I’ve taken away from Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan is the idea of when you’re doing small group work, having an assigned reporter to just speak on behalf of the group. And so it’s not an individual’s response but it’s the response on behalf of the group. So there’s not so much pressure to be right, because it’s reflective of a collaborative effort and that allows more voices to be heard. And maybe opportunities for others to speak out that might not normally be comfortable speaking out, or seen as experts, or seen as people who are able to speak out or allowed to speak out.
John: So we’d like to wish you all a happy and successful semester and we hope everything goes smoothly but we also hope that you’re prepared for times that may not go as smoothly as you’d like.
Rebecca: I know one thing that I’m wishing for everyone is the collegiality that I’ve seen across our institution and across institutions of sharing resources supporting one another. And I hope that we’ll keep up this spirit collectively to improve the student experience for all students moving forward.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.