Brittany Lindsay and Dr. Melissa Boyce, PhD
The unexpected shift from in-person to remote learning at UCalgary in winter 2020 was demanding for instructors and students alike. This time was full of stress, anxiety and a plethora of unknowns. It was a new challenge to learn different technologies and platforms, write online assessments, and manage distractions and other stressors associated with working from home.
These new circumstances were difficult on student learning and well-being, and although instructors adjusted to these challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic was uncharted waters. Since UCalgary courses are predominantly online for the foreseeable future, our research team in the Department of Psychology became interested in students’ remote learning experiences and what instructors could do to support students during this time.
In collaboration with Dr. Simon Spanswick, PhD, (Department of Psychology), Dr. Jason Wiens, (Department of English), Dr. Kim Johnston, PhD, associate dean of teaching and learning in the Schulich School of Engineering, and Dr. Andrew Szeto, PhD, director of the Campus Mental Health Strategy, we surveyed students across our three units about their remote learning experiences during winter 2020.
What worked? What didn’t? What can instructors do to support them, their learning, and their well-being in the upcoming academic year? We wanted to use this data to help instructors with their course design. Over 300 students responded, and although we did not find a “one size fits all” ideal learning experience for students, we developed eight recommendations for instructors that were informed by the students’ responses.
1. Hold class synchronously when possible but record the class for those unable to attend
There was a divide between students on whether they preferred synchronous (i.e., a designated lecture time via Zoom) or asynchronous (i.e., posted lectures for students to learn anytime) lectures. An easy resolution? Do both! Instructors can offer a synchronous class for those who would like to maintain a schedule and interaction with their professor, but record and post these lectures (and corresponding chat) for any students who may be unable to attend the lecture via Zoom. If synchronous, most students prefer instructors keep their videos on whereas they are more comfortable leaving their cameras off. To maintain a sense of class community, however, instructors could recommend students use video or profile pictures for smaller classes or break-out rooms.
2. If the course is asynchronous, post taped lectures online with PowerPoint slides (or other notes) to facilitate students’ ease of note-taking
Students did have some requests for instructors who go the asynchronous route. They recommended instructors post both taped lectures (ideally with the instructor’s face rather than a voice-over only) and lecture notes (i.e., PowerPoints slides) for each topic. They also found it very difficult to stay focused during long lectures in a home environment, as distractions (Woof! Ding Dong! Mommmm!) are very common. Instead of recording one long lecture, consider breaking a typical lecture into shorter taped segments that are more manageable for the students.
3. Include interactive elements in your course to promote active learning and a sense of community
Although students have some anxiety and stress about interacting online, they also stated it was very important to maintain social connections during remote learning. Given this, consider providing opportunities for students to communicate with each other, not just about the class material, but socially as well. Icebreakers anyone?
4. Create a clear course schedule to ensure the course stays organized
It was very clear that students benefit from assistance with organizing their time. They are finding it challenging to stay focused, remember deadlines and maintain a schedule. Instructors can help with this by providing a schedule of all deadlines or providing students with a weekly to-do list. Did you know there is a checklist feature on D2L?
5. Give online assessments that are open book with built-in extra time to accommodate distractions or technical difficulties that students might encounter
Regarding assessments, students were essentially in total agreeance. They believe the best option during this time is open book assessments with extra time. Many students expressed concerns that honest students are going to be disadvantaged if assessments are not open book because those who do cheat will benefit. If exams are open book, instructors don’t have to worry about policing this! In creating your open book assessments, it is best to test conceptual understanding or application of the content, rather than memorization. Students also suggest a window of time (e.g., 24 hours) to start any timed assessment (for distractions, technical issues, obligations, etc.) and to allow for longer deadlines for other types of assessments (e.g., two weeks for an assignment that is normally one week).
6. Include regular check ins and openly talk about well-being and academic skills development
Students largely found well-being discussions, and their instructors being open about mental health and well-being, to be a valuable use of class time. Talking about these topics may be uncomfortable at first, but Victoria Maxwell, creator of the one person show Funny You Don’t Look Crazy, offers four strategies to make this easier! Are you nervous about creating your first open book exam? Well, students are certainly nervous about taking it. Share in that nervousness!
Also, check in with your students! How are they feeling? Is there anything that needs to be adjusted in the class to help aid in their learning or well-being? Talking about well-being, even when it isn’t well (maybe especially when it isn’t so well), is so important for creating a community of caring and braver space in your class.
Want more concrete topics? Consider discussing stress management, study strategies, time management, tips for writing exams online and establishing a home workspace. The Student Success Centre has many resources that can be utilized, including strategies for students regarding online learning success, staying motivated and completing online assessments.
7. Ensure students have ample opportunity to interact with instructors and TAs
Students who endorsed both synchronous and asynchronous course delivery emphasized having opportunities to interact with their instructors and teaching assistants. Consider weekly office hours via Zoom or Q&A drop-in sessions that provide opportunities for students to see your face and have a conversation with you. You’ve likely noticed that student questions are often so much easier to answer in a conversation than an email. You can also gauge students’ stress and anxiety better this way and offer support if needed.
8. Recognize that students are managing a lot of stressors and would appreciate understanding, support and accommodations from their instructors during this time.
Lastly, and probably most importantly, remember that remote learning during a pandemic is always going to be tough – especially for all incoming students and those from vulnerable populations (e.g., those managing mental health concerns or financial issues). Support your students the best you can and have understanding and empathy for their situation. Be flexible when possible. Consider providing additional resources to ease understanding of course content (e.g., online videos, guided examples). Make sure students are aware of the wellness services available during COVID-19. Students have emphasized that they will appreciate your efforts!
We hope instructors find these recommendations useful when thinking about how to approach remote teaching and learning. It is important to take care of your own well-being when planning out your courses. For additional resources to assist with teaching remotely, visit our Teaching Continuity website for essentials, experiential learning resources, online resources and more. If you are nervous about using Zoom or other learning technology platforms for the first time, visit the eLearn website.