Dear Fall 2020 On-Campus Students – Please Lead Us

Dear Fall 2020 On-Campus Students:

It didn’t take much time after campuses re-opened for face-to-face education and living for some university administrators to berate (some of) you for your partying, desire for connectedness, and heightened risk-taking behaviors [See here and here and here.]. I don’t want to do that.

I’m a sociologist and we study how people form social connections, create groups, and create identities. My academic discipline knows that every group creates its own norms/rules and develops its own culture—especially beliefs and values which become the “emotional glue” which binds the group together.

A pen, next to empty text box, with the words, "I agree"You probably have been asked to pledge your support for your campus’ creed or statement of values. You might have been asked (in pre-COVID times) to sign it during your matriculation, at the beginning of your first week on campus. Or maybe you were asked to sign it virtually if this is the beginning of your college experience. What you promised was to follow the values of your institution, of higher education generally: To be curious or inquisitive, to be open to learning new ideas and welcoming opportunities to meet others unlike yourself and to learn their stories; to be open to questioning yourself and others in a calm manner; to disagree with respect; to live, learn, have fun, and work with integrity.

I’m not sure that you considered all that your school’s pledge might entail. Don’t worry—we know that few people do. How many of us read the license agreement when we download a new app? So you are not alone for not considering all the ramifications of that pledge.

Graphic of multiple people's hands joined togetherBy coming to college (and signing the pledge) you agreed to what sociologists call “the social contract”—you and others, together, vowing that the group is somehow stronger than any one member individually. On-campus, that social contract involves not just behavior in the classroom, but behavior in residence halls, on athletic fields, dining halls, and recreation centers. Students are expected to live up to the social norms about underage drinking, overnight visitors, interacting with your roommates and hallmates, property damage, and so on.

The campus social contract is actually more complex—your campus exists within other, larger communities. It might be a town or a county, your state, and so on. The residents of the towns around your campus need your economic buying power but there are often town-college tensions (sometimes called the “town-gown problem”). Some of these problems might involve off-campus parties, the number of students living in a location, and parking problems that spill over from campus.

And in a normal year, most of you do live up to the social contract. But 2020 is not a normal year—it is the year of viruses: COVID-19, a heightened visibility of long-term racism, income and wealth inequities, health disparities, and other social injustices. The campus social contract became more fraught with anxiety, when even a touch or a cough could kill.

So you have been asked to do more this year. And it is not just “wash your hands, cough into your elbow, and wear a mask,” though those are a part of this new contract. Social distancing is too, and not just in the classroom or the residence hall. Social distancing impacts so many activities—most of them quite fun! That might be going out, be it to a bar, a movie theatre, for dinner, or a party off-campus. Following these new rules can feel like a burden—because it is. No one should deny that, especially not to you.

But you are not the only individuals living under these new campus rules. So are the staff, the faculty, the administrators, even the visitors to campus are too. So let’s talk about them for a moment.

During the spring and summer, most colleges shifted to remote teaching and learning. It happened abruptly for most. Faculty sometimes had to reconfigure classes—how to share course content and how to change some assessments—on the fly. They did it—mostly it went smoothly. And college students were patient with technological glitches. Teaching and learning happened…thanks to everyone pulling together. That’s the social contract at work!

Image of two enjoined hands; the hands are actually people standing in that shapeUnfortunately, some people who also “signed the pledge” counted on you to do your part, but did not necessarily live up to their part. Administrators—who admittedly had to balance health safety, the fiscal health of the university, the recognition that many staff and faculty have financial worries too—had to make a decision. They brought you back, face-to-face. Even if they reduced how many of you were on campus or living in residence halls, they promised you, as part of that social contract, that they had a plan based on the best of public health and science, a plan that had some likelihood of success. That was their contract with you.

Well—often it didn’t work. Some of you acted pandemic-reckless and so did some administrators. So let’s do a reset of the academic social contract:

-Let’s use science and public health data to assess realistically what level of risk would bringing even faculty and staff, let alone a percentage of students back to campus in particular communities, be.

-Let’s understand that a certain percentage of faculty, staff, administrators, and students will break whatever new pandemic social rules are created.

-Let’s stop blaming only students.

-Let’s also create a wave of individuals who will call our elected officials, demanding better ways of financing education, at all levels. If an educated citizenry begets an educated workforce, then that too has to be part of the social contract.

Wordle with terms about social inequality-Let’s realize that the other “viruses” of health, income, racial, and gender inequality (to name just a few) should be addressed simultaneously with COVID—on and off of campus. Too long some have been told “not now” or “not yet.”

The new academic social contract will require all of us to examine our behaviors, to self-regulate our desires to better conform to this new time, and to examine the past in order to make a better social contract now and in the future. Let’s use our rights in order to foster responsibility—and our responsibility to showcase our rights.

So, students—you are not to blame for the outbreaks of COVID on college campuses, nevertheless, some of your behaviors have put others at risk. The same goes for campus administrators’ behaviors as well.

Corkboard with message pinned to it; says "Lead by Example"If we want to get to a “COVID in control” society (not sure if we’ll ever get to a “post-COVID” one), we all have to do better, be better, and learn together how to do that. I beg of you—teach others on your campuses by leading: do what science has shown to work. Be the teachers in this new social contract. Be the leaders I know you can be. We need such leaders now. Show us the way.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual pedagogical consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.

And So It Starts…

Graphic of wall calendar; first sheet has "1" on itFor many faculty, classes will soon start or already have. First days are a bit nerve-wracking for many of us, but now the pedagogical and health stakes are so much higher. How will you begin your class?

Normally I’d advise that it’s best to start with something intriguing and/or fun involving the topic of your course. Get students engaged and their curiosity piqued. For example, in my face-to-face sociology classes, I sometimes started the class with a discussion of why students chose the seat that they did. I would write down who were the first few students in the classroom and ask them why they chose the seat where they did. They often had clear reasons for their choices that got the entire class buzzing. Other times, I would put up numbers about US suicides and ask students to come up with possible explanations for them. We’d debate them and figure out what kinds of data we would need to better understand the patterns.

But the pandemic might require some tweaking of the “course subject first” advice. You might need to go over the norms for health safety—mask-wearing (if required or suggested), social distancing, quarantining if sick, etc. But I still wonder if that has to be the first thing you talk about—what do you think?

Pair of glasses: backwards text say "Make them feel they are important"If you are partially or completely online, there will have to be some tech talk during the first days, that’s obvious. But how you illustrate the technology could end up making or breaking your students’ online pedagogical experience. Make it about them and about your subject. Figure out some ways to have them introduce themselves. Maybe it could be:

-Worst experience in learning math or science (e.g., algebra, calculus classes)

-Best experience reading a required literature book (e.g., world literature classes)

-Happiest moment reading a book (e.g., any class!)

-Best moment linked to weather (e.g., weather and climate, meteorology, even geography classes)

-Best moment in a collection of strangers (e.g., sociology, psychology classes)

-One moment when one’s life connects to history (e.g., history, sociology, political science classes)

-Something about one’s family experience which links to the broader society (e.g., sociology, history, political science, psychology classes)

-One moment where doing an exercise made one aware of how one’s body works (e.g., dance, exercise science classes)

-How the pandemic has changed their lives for the better (e.g., any class) (I suggest you stay away from how it has changed their lives for the worse).

"Road sign: placards pointing in all directions, each with different name of an academic disciplineI think you might also want to introduce who you are even more than in a “typical” academic term. How did you come to choose your academic discipline? Tell them your story. They need to hear why they should care about your class, about your discipline, even if it is for the few weeks of the academic term. Practice telling this story, so that you can build in pauses, maybe ask them some questions about what they would have done in your situation, etc. Make it as engaging as you can!

If you plan on using either “Think-Pair-Share” or group-work in your class, then use those techniques in this “first day” exercise. Begin routinizing patterns you plan on having in your class. Do you want lots of questions? Then break students into groups and ask them to work through the virtual syllabus and create a list of questions for you to answer. Do you want them to use an e-whiteboard to post questions? Then open one and show them how to use it! If you have some sort of action to symbolize that it is time for a breakout activity, teach it to them now. In my face-to-face class of nearly 300 students, I would clap a pattern and ask them to repeat it. Only then would I introduce the “think-pair-share” or other small group activity I wanted them to do. I’d clap the pattern again when I wanted us to come together. They’d repeat it and we’d come back to learning as one large group. When I would sometimes forget to do this and found we went an entire class without such an activity, I put an icon of a pair of hands, clapping, on the PowerPoint slide after which I wanted to do the activity. That allowed both the students and me to know we were changing up how we were learning!

Picture that says "virtual office hours" and also has red apple and computer mouseAnother pedagogical thought about the first few weeks of class, no matter how the educational content is being shared—consider holding extra office hours or even inviting smaller groups of students to some of these extended office hours. They might be more willing to ask questions about technology or plans for COVID-19, etc., in smaller groups. Recognize that not all students will “come” (unless you make it required) and so still do “check-in’s” at the start of class about how they are doing emotionally and physically as well as if they have any questions about upcoming assessments.

Normally I subscribe to the “be who you are” while in the classroom (perhaps a slightly better version—I vowed I would never swear, and never did) but pandemic pedagogy might call for an upgrade to that pedagogical philosophy. I think faculty definitely should not be “pandemic cheerleaders” and tell students that “all will be okay.” Instead, faculty need to be straightforward and reassure students that the faculty member (and the administration, as the case may be) has a plan “in case” face-to-face classroom teaching and learning have to end, temporarily or for the duration of the term. Don’t share that is what you expect that to happen (even if you do) – just share in a matter-of-fact way that, “Here’s what we’ll do if the some or all of the class has to quarantine” or “If I (faculty member) become sick,” or “If the school switches to online-only delivery.” Knowing that there’s a plan in advance can provide the reassurance students might be needing on day 1 of this unusual academic term. The details can wait for if/when they are needed.

teach strong teach onNo one is sure of what this academic term will be like. What will classrooms be like with 40% occupancy? With online students Zooming in some of the time? With participatory documents replacing the buzz of students working in groups? What students need from you during this opening time, is hopefulness about the learning to come and realism about what the future might hold. Be your better self as often as you can. While they may not be able to see you crack a smile, don’t forget that cracking a joke every now and then can be just what is needed to break through the awkwardness and create opportunities for learning.

Have a good term, whatever that looks like now and into the future. Be safe, be confident in yourself and your students, wear that mask, wash your hands, and practice physical distancing—but create as many connections with your students as you can. They need it, even if they can’t or won’t ask you for it.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual pedagogical consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.

Meet Your New Students: When Anxiety and Fear Join Your Class

covid graphicWhether you will be teaching completely online, in a Hyflex class, or in a face-to-face environment, you likely will have two more “students” enrolled in your class: fear and anxiety. They might be your emotions or they might be what some of your students are feeling, or both, but they will be there, every day. Some days they might be fairly quiet, lurking in the background of discussions. But there might be days—when a student falls ill with COVID-19 or when a student has to quarantine because a family member falls ill, or you or one of your loved ones fall ill with this virus—when they will be front and center in your classroom. And as a social scientist, I can assure you that there will be rumors which will run rampant through your institution and the community it is embedded within, which likely also will at times, induce fear and anxiety in at least some members of your class.

Man, head in hand, with computer screen behind him that says "Coronavirus"So how can you teach with these hidden emotions being present among members of the class? I don’t think there is one correct answer to that question. Rather, I think it depends on several variables:

What is your discipline? As a sociologist, one of the things I study is how people connect their beliefs with their behavior. It would seem odd to me to avoid talking about COVID-19 in a class I might teach. But the other night at dinner, I asked my husband—a physicist—how he might have handled COVID-19 in his classes (save for changes needed in the lab component of the classes). He looked at me, a bit startled, and said, “I don’t think I would talk about it. I don’t see why it would come up.”

But if the discipline you are teaching analyzes income or health or racial inequalities, or public policy construction or implementation, or law enforcement—it will be difficult to avoid talking about the coronavirus and the movements for social justice which are happening in our nation. It will be there, even if your readings and assessments do not address it specifically. Expect that students will ask about how what they are learning might apply to the global pandemic in which we all are living. Be prepared for being asked how to apply readings, theories, and other course content to the events of the day.

But academic discipline, I fear, will not stave off these expressions of emotion. When—likely not if—these emotions get expressed in classes like physics or accounting, these faculty might not be as adept at handling those questions with their students. Which brings me to,

Who are you as a teacher? Are you comfortable with discussing emotions, be they yours or others, in order to process them and see if all of you can address them enough to focus on class content? If you are, this might mean talking about COVID-19 on the first few days of the new academic term. You might begin by sharing how you built “virus flexibility” into your class. That might be flexible deadlines or alternative assessments in case a student falls ill, and so on. For many students, hearing that information might comfort them, might reduce some of the anxiety they are feeling (but recognize it may increase it in other students).

Be prepared though: raising the issue of the virus in such a way may signal that it is okay for other virus-related questions. How would you respond if a student asked you if you are afraid of catching the virus? Or if you are worried about if some of your students’ behaviors might lead to you and others catching COVID-19? Some other students may want to know what will happen to the class if you become sick. Are you prepared to tell the truth about how you are feeling? Building trust requires truth-telling, after all.

If you are not comfortable discussing emotions—yours or your students’—then I think you will need to practice deflection strategies. How will you divert comments about the virus when they come up? How will you interact with a student complaining, for example, about another student who is not wearing a mask? Or who gets closer than the CDC’s recommended six feet distance for those not living communally? What will you say (or not say)? How will you pivot back to only talking about your academic content? And most importantly, can you only talk about your academic content? (In case I haven’t been clear, I don’t think it will be possible ultimately, to teach this fall without COVID-19 coming up for discussion—no matter the discipline you teach.)

How do you process emotions? And how quickly do you process them? It might not happen every time you interact with a student, but expect that at least a few times during the academic term, that you might feel anxiety or fear. Perhaps the student will not want to wear a mask or the student might be sharing with you about the big party he or she attended last Thursday night or just hearing that a student in your class has become infected with COVID-19—but there will likely come a moment when you will feel anxious, even fearful about catching the virus. How will you react? Practice now what you want to say. How will you manage your body as you are saying what you want to say? Remember, students will be noticing your nonverbal behaviors as well as your words, and any differences between the two. You need to realize that authenticity will be most important now (it always has been in the classroom, but in a pandemic classroom the demand will only grow).

Another emotion you might feel or that students might express that they feel is strangeness. It might arrive the first time that they see you teaching with a plexiglass shield between you and them or it might be when their small group activity means that they have to stay six feet apart (at least) and “talk” via an online shared document or when you ask them to clean their space as they exit the classroom. Will you own that you too might feel strange? Are you prepared to have these emotions voiced but then pivot back to the academic content of your course—in a way that makes students feel heard and respected?

Emotions will help construct and shape the relationships you build with your entire class and individual members of it. They always have and always will. However, they are likely to be heightened during a pandemic. I would expect that the visibility of emotions in your classroom will parallel the COVID case counts in your locale. Thinking about this now will help you when the inevitable moment happens.

Quote about supporting studentsWe’ve all heard it from administrators—“this is an unprecedented time and we are asking you to do something that hasn’t been done before”—but in a way, they are right. Emotions will be much more front and center in your teaching likely than ever before.

Many faculty have had to face intense emotions in the classroom already. Feminist, BIPOC, and LGTBQ scholars, for example, are often all too familiar with hostile feelings emanating from students. I suggest reading some of that literature (but please, at this moment, don’t reach out and ask these colleagues to help you learn about processing emotions in the classroom. They are just as challenged as you are about preparing classes for the fall, be it face-to-face or online). I’ll post some below under “Resources.”

Meme that talks about it is okay to have a variety of emotionsTeaching during a pandemic will be a challenge. The presence of emotions like anxiety and fear among those in a face-to-face class is understandable—be they yours or your students. They could also emerge in Hyflex or even online courses. Classes might be one of the few routines in people’s lives right now, so classes might provide the safest place to process emotions of fear, anxiety, and likely…grief.

Personally, I don’t believe that one’s academic discipline will wall off the emergence of these emotions. I believe that processing these emotions jointly with your students will be the best pedagogical strategy. I stand ready to help anyone who wants to think this through in advance. You can reach me at

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual pedagogical consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.

Resources on Emotions in the Classroom – A Very Short List to Get You Started

Alsop, Steve and Darren Hoeg. 2020. “Collegial Conversations at a Time of COVID-19.” Journal for Activist Science & Technology Educators 11(2):60-74.

Cohan, Deborah J. 2016. “Learning for a Change: Rage and the Promise of the Feminist Classroom.” In Teaching Gender and Sex in Contemporary America (Springer), edited by K. Haltinner and R. Pilgeram.

Corbera, Esteve, Isabelle Anguelovski, Jordi Honey-Roses, and Isabel Ruiz-Mallen. 2020. “Academic in the Time of COVID-19: Towards an Ethic of Care.” Planning Theory & Practice 21(2): 191-199.

Hill, Dominique C. 2017. “What Happened When I Invited Students to See Me? A Black Queer Professor’s Reflections on Practicing Embodied Vulnerability in the Classroom.” Journal of Lesbian Studies 21:432-442.

Johnson, Zac D. and Sara LaBelle. 2017. “An Examination of Teacher Authenticity in the College Classroom.” Communication Education 66(4):423-439.

Juhasz, Alexandra, Laura Wexler, Liz Losh, and Sharon Irish. 2020. “Feminist Pedagogy in a Time of Coronavirus Pandemic.” Report for Brooklyn College, The City University of New York.

Kaplan, Emily. 2019. “Teaching Your Heart Out: Emotional Labor and the Need for Systematic Change.”

Mazer, Joseph P. 2017. “Students’ Discrete Emotional Responses in the Classroom: Unraveling Relationships with Interest and Engagement.” Communication Research Reports 34(4):359-367,

Palomar College. 2019. “Hostile Students.”

Pittman, Chavella T. 2010. “Race and Gender Oppression in the Classroom: The Experiences of Women Faculty of Color with White Male Students.” Teaching Sociology 38(3):183-196.

Rodriguez, Dalia. 2008. “The Usual Suspect: Negotiating White Student Resistance and Teacher Authority in a Predominantly White Classroom.” Cultural Studies ßà Critical Methodologies 9:483-508.

Woodson, A. N. 2020. “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood: Psychological Safety, Black Girls’ Speech, and Black Feminist Perspectives on Directness.” Journal of Educational Psychology 112(3):567-578.


Communicating with Your Large Online Class: Frequency, Consistency, Tone, Honesty, and Humor (pt 5 in a series)*

Click on the title to read the earlier posts in this series: 1 (Going Big, Online); 2 (Backward designing your large online class); 3 (Designing for and with Accessibility); 4 (Online Assessments that Engage Them…and You). Again, apologies for a longer-than-usual post.*

Infographic: best practices for teaching onlineSo you are teaching a large class in an online environment! This means that you will be communicating almost if not entirely online with them. So what are best practices?

Frequency of communicating with your class

How often should you be in contact with your students? Are you using a learning management system (LMS) to—at least in part—communicate with them? If so, consider doing the following:

Write a welcome email to the class. It is usually possible to email your class from your class registration software (e.g., “Banner”)—if so, use that for this first communication. BUT, this is important—students will add and drop from your class, so save the email and post it to the LMS, as a Word/PDF document in a “Welcome Module.” [Yes, you’ll want a Welcome Module!] You’ll go crazy trying to figure out which are newly registered students and only resending it to them, etc.

This email should have the basics (your name, title, office if you will be in it regularly; the full name of and number of the course; a brief course description; any text you are assigning that students have to buy [ideally in advance] or which they will need immediately at the start of the term; the URL for the class in the LMS (even if they cannot access it yet); the date when they can access the LMS; how to access the LMS (especially important if your fall class is primarily first-year students; and just a bit from you, about you and them as a teaching-learning team.

Graphic: hand, index finger has string tied to it as reminderSet up a communication calendar. Consider the following as you create it:

-Do you want notifications to be sent about the following: a module about to open or close? An assessment about to open or close? One week before a major assessment is due (test, major assignment—by major I mean worth 10% or more of the final grade)?

-Do you want notifications to be sent one week in advance, then 72 hours, then 24 hours before any synchronous, required activity for the course? The emphasis there is on both synchronous and required.

-Do you want to make scheduled announcements or emails, say at the start of every week to walk students through what to read, what assessments there might be, what videos to watch or presentations to go through, etc.?

-Do you know if your students are using other social media, such as Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook? Do you want to make notifications there as well?

I used a Facebook class page and made all announcements/notification there as well as in the LMS. It was useful—some students would see an announcement/notification and share it with students who didn’t log in to the LMS as often (either in face-to-face interaction in another class or that they were on social media with each other). So the Facebook page was the second layer of communication that only those students who wanted to join the page received, but they were able to magnify the communication.

I sometimes used my professional Twitter account in the same way but found that only about ten students either were on Twitter or followed my account, and so over time, I stopped using that social media to make class announcements.

Note: If you want to use Facebook, Twitter, and/or Instagram in this way, I strongly urge you to use software that will let you post once and it will push the announcement/notification out to all those social media accounts. I use Hootsuite ( or TweetDeck . That way you are writing the announcement once but most or all those social media will “get” it. You can also write the posts and schedule them in advance. So Sunday afternoons I would write the weekly announcements and schedule them in the LMS and in Hootsuite and know they’d be sent out no matter how busy I got. Remember to download this to your phone, in case you are away from your primary computer (if it is not your phone!) but need to put out an urgent notification.

3) Decide on an emergency policy that will prevent you from having to make many emergency notifications/announcements. What do I mean? Given the significant increase in online usage, it is possible that the campus network might go down. Create a policy that tells students that, for example, “If the campus network goes down, once I learn about it, I will go and extend any assessment due in 24 hours by X amount of time. You do not have to write to me to ask, assume this will happen.” Put it in the syllabus and consider including it in every assessment’s directions. I asked a small group of students to write to me, who were on the class’ Facebook page, to write to me there if the LMS went down on campus. That way I would be checking for when it went up and could go in immediately and make a change in the time the assessment would be due. Did every student remember this policy? No. But instead of 300+ students writing to me about the LMS going down, only about 20 did instead. That for me, was a communication “win.”

Graphic: weekly updates - computer monitor4) Consider writing the class a short summary email after you finished grading each of the major assessments (e.g., tests, projects, etc.). Tell them what went well and help them to understand if there were frequent errors. Don’t just tell them about the error, but give examples of how to correct those errors. Keep it brief. You might want to create a module called “Follow Ups” or something like that, and post each as a Word/PDF document too, in case a student accidentally deletes an email, etc. Students can use these as study tools if some of your assessments are cumulative. This could also be done via a discussion board, which would allow students to comment if they still have questions, etc.

Consistency of communication

Graphic: Text says "Consistency is" and then there is an old-fashioned keyI learned this the hard way. I had this wonderful idea (it really was!) of doing a flash mob on campus with my large face-to-face Introduction to Sociology class and we would analyze reactions to it using sociological theories. Most of the class would learn the dance, which was created and taught to us by the advanced Jazz Dance class at my institution. Other students who didn’t want to dance would interview the crowd who (we hoped) would gather, asking questions the class created. Others worked with campus leaders (e.g., police, the administration, etc.) as we planned this event. The Jazz class came and taught us parts of the dance over a series of four visits. We also had Friday practice sessions at noon in the Student Union and had our only “everyone has to show up” rehearsal the night before. But we found we needed to post videos for students who could not make these events. Soon the LMS was crowded—there were about 40 sort dance videos plus all the assessments, readings, etc. I didn’t use modules or any kind of an organizing tool–I just posted a file, with a name and a date. It was a mess.

The only critique students had from that semester was that I needed to think about organizing the class page in the LMS. And they were right. So—modules will be your pedagogical friend—use them! There are several ways to consider the use of modules:

-Weekly: Put all the readings, videos, URL links, and assessments in the module. Clearly label it by date and perhaps week number, if you use that in your syllabus. Think about when you want to open the module and when to close it. This will become critical to think through now—you might even want to get a policy from your campus administrator. Will students who might become infected be allowed to go back and complete work which has “passed its due date”? Will you open up a module (or parts of it) just for that student?

– Sections of the class: This might mean putting the content of two or three weeks in one module (submodules might come in handy if the section is too large!). So for example, I had a section of the course, based on learning objectives, which focused on how groups shape individuals and how individuals can shape groups. Another section was about “thinking like a sociologist” and covered course content about theories and methods used by our profession. Think about how you could divide up your class. One suggestion though—these sections should not just be in the organization of modules, but should be reflected in your syllabus. Your goal is that all parts of the class fit together seamlessly.

-Consider creating some modules that will remain open the entire term: Consider a “Welcome to Our Class” module, containing your welcome message(s), any explanation of required technology, and documents like that; another module that might be good to have open consistently would be a “FAQ” module (Frequently Asked Questions) which contains an open discussion board for students to ask questions, copies of technology documents in the Welcome module, perhaps edited so that you have several, each about only one type of technology, a link to the LMS class calendar, and so on.

If you start with the modular approach to designing the course, stick with it for the entire term. That is the consistency students will need to succeed. Similarly, if you open the first module on Sunday, open all of them on Sunday (unless pedagogically impossible). Keeping to patterns will help students to know what is expected of them, and when. This is especially important if you are teaching first-year students or students who are not used to online learning.

One more thing about consistency—if you write long messages, you might start with an “executive summary” for those students who are in a hurry. Also, think about bolding key points or writing them in a different color font. Teach students what your patterns will be, so that they know how to look for key information and then consistently follow that pattern. If for some reason you have to vary it, alert them at the beginning of the message.

Have regular office hours, which are on the class calendar, and can be easily “found” by students. Include a link to the online location in the directions for each assessment. You might poll students for the “best” times to have them but have them. I used to use the “chat function” in the LMS, but something like Zoom might work even better because it would be more of a conversation with humans I can see! Rarely did I have more than 10 students come visit me during the routine Monday evening chats; that number increased significantly (to about 50) the week of a test. Consider also having brief office hours 48 hours before major assessments are due. I didn’t make those routinized; I would just announce them a few days in advance, but now I have rethought that idea. Routinize that “I’ll be here to ask questions” idea so that your students don’t feel as alone in those last few hours, when many of them are focusing on the assessment. While I didn’t want my students to do that kind of procrastination, it happened and if most of their courses will be online in the fall, it will likely happen more, not less. So lean into it.

I also decided that each week, I would spontaneously interact with ten percent of my students each week. In a fifteen week term, that meant that every student got an unplanned, encouraging private communication from me. Sometimes it was after a great assessment or a brilliant comment in a discussion board, etc., and each week I worked through the class list. Don’t just go alphabetically though—they figure that out quickly!

Tone of communication

I believe that the best communication reflects the person doing it. So be yourself. When adding voice to a presentation, talk as you would in class or in your office. Don’t make your language more complicated than it needs to be – the content might be complicated, but your explanations don’t have to be.

One thing I know about myself is that I have an “auctioneer mode.” Students say that I could cram a lot into, say, the last five minutes of class, if I felt that I was behind. Since you are teaching online, time is of less concern, so slow down. I made a sticky note and taped it to my monitor when I was making voice-overs for slides to remind myself that slowing down is good pedagogy.

What about you? Do you have any habits like that, which might impact how students perceive you as they listen to you? Something else that people sometimes do when they first begin teaching online is to exaggerate their voice. I did this at first, because I was trying to “make up” for the loss of my hands. Yup, I gesture a lot. I think I have written previously about how students told me that if I pounded the podium, that was a “tell” that that content would definitely be on the next test. I thought that having my hands be invisible to students meant that my voice had to do all the work. But I learned that using my hands—gesturing in my office, to myself—helped me to pace myself and helped me to mix intonation in more interesting ways. Using other software, like Zoom, which allows students to see you as you teach, can allow a more natural communication pattern. But still—practice, practice, practice so that you are happy with how others might be hearing you. Ask a few friends to listen/watch your first presentations and take their feedback to heart.

Another aspect of tone is how you communicate when you are frustrated. Trust me, there will be those times! But sending off a quick notification/announcement when that is your emotional “temperature” probably will backfire on you. So pause, walk away, wait a few hours before you hit “send.” If you feel the need to say something, send a “give me a few hours and I’ll get back to you” message. Your goal is to support your students’ learning.

Quote about supporting studentsI think it’s important to be sure that I start and end communications with students—be it audio or audiovisual presentations, written messages, etc.—with a “check-in.” I’d do it in a face-to-face class (e.g., I’d chat with many students individually as they came in and I’d start off with a “how’s it going?” kind of comment). Many of my large classes were part of learning communities and I knew the calendars of those other classes, so I’d ask how the chemistry test went, and so on. If I had a cold, I might apologize for a hoarse voice, etc. And I’d try to end class with a similar “human-to-human” interaction. Just because you are teaching online, doesn’t mean students don’t need this kind of interaction. In fact, I might argue they will need it more—so will you.

Honesty in communication

I hope this is a given for you, but let me talk a bit about why I think this is important. Lots of people on my campus thought I was a “techie”—which my husband thought was hilarious. I’m not. Yes, I was willing to be a pedagogical tech pioneer (about some software, about “clickers”/audience response systems, etc.) but I definitely do not know much of the science and mathematics of the software I used. And I can become frustrated, very easily, when software doesn’t work as it is intended.

So one of the things I tried to do is tell students that about myself. I’d ask a couple of students who self-identified as “tech-savvy” in their introductory discussion posts, if I could ask them for assistance if I got stuck. I wasn’t saying they had to solve the problem, but would they be willing to brainstorm with (and for!) me about what I might want to try. They loved being asked. In an online environment, I think I would create some “Assistance Points.” Students could earn them by answering another student’s question about the class on a discussion board and how it works or help me if I needed this kind of tech assistance. Make it be for just a few points, but it routinizes that helping each other is a value embedded in the class’ interactions with each other.

Graphic: Communicate clearly, respectfully, & honestlyHonesty can be hard, but it’s a value I want to have embedded in my classes. That flash mob (mentioned above) involved one of the most difficult moments in my teaching career. Campus videographers were to record it, including from the tops of nearby buildings (one of our hypotheses was about the size of groups who stopped to watch, so we needed to see the event from a higher elevation) and give the class access to all camera angles, for our analysis. Five minutes before the dance started, they told me they decided to film only at ground level. That decision meant that we lost most of the data we had wanted. Students were on such a high after the flash mob ended. Four hours later, I had to write to them and tell them—after all their extra work to learn the dance, etc.—that it was for naught.

They were mad and disappointed, but they worked through it faster than I did. Within two hours, a large segment of the class started a discussion board/petition to let them write a different paper than we had planned (testing hypotheses). Instead, they wanted to write about how the campus was congratulating them for a job well done (campus administrators, the local paper—lots of people were doing this) when they knew it was a pedagogical failure. It was a perfect example of the social construction of reality. It wasn’t what I’d planned and several learning outcomes had to be reworked on the fly, but they made lemonade out of lemons…faster than I did. I was and am proud of them, to this day. The discussion board that day was not the easiest to read—there was a lot of honest emotions, some using language I didn’t completely endorse—but students poured out their hearts and then figured out what to do next. I was on the board for hours, commenting when I thought necessary but mostly supporting students’ honest emotions with my own. We all learned a lot about each other, sociology, and learning that evening.

The pandemic, the economic freefall, social injustices laid bare–these will be “students” in your class too this fall. They will be impacting your students’ lives, their work (or their non-work)–and yours as well. Creating a culture where a student can share their truth with you privately, or for some or all of the class to process these feelings will be something you need to plan for, prepare for, and be ready to be an honest communication partner. How trauma should impact grading, I’ll be talking about in another post. But honesty involves accepting and valuing the human(s) on the other screens. And right now, they and you, are hurting.

Humor in communication

I’m not the funniest person (my husband makes really bad puns frequently in class); alas, humor takes a lot of work for me to do. But I believe that it is crucial, especially in an online course. So I make the deliberate choice to add humor into many of my presentations. Trust me—I didn’t say it was good humor, but it’s humor!

What do I mean? When I am defining “status” and “role” for the first time, before I show the definition of “role” I have a slide that just has a cinnamon roll on it. And I’ll say, “No, not this kind of roll, but this kind…” and the slide forwards to the definition of “role.” In my face-to-face class, there are usually one or two students who get it during the “pastry slide” and snicker. If I wait, a few more will groan or laugh. Finally, after about a minute, I’ll say something like, “Come on, that was one of my better jokes!” and nearly everyone would laugh. There were two reasons that I wanted some humor built into that presentation. First, it was an easy one to pull off for me! But even more importantly, the differences between statuses and roles are what I call a “course tripwire.” Many students lose points on tests and other assessments about these concepts. Having humor that they can recall has helped many of them to cement the differences in their minds.

Much of my humor is planned—I work hard to find appropriate places in my online presentations where humor will fit. Others will have the interactional skills to have humor happen spontaneously (I envy you!).

A caveat though: we are in a time where social values, cultures, and norms are rightfully being examined. Humor is rooted in culture and so often can be perceived as “edgy.” Be sure planned moments of humor build unity and not create emotional or pedagogical barriers between individual students, groups of students, and yourself. Be even more aware of this if you use spontaneous humor.

Teaching a large class online requires you to routinize much of your communication so that you can spend more time focusing on those wonderful, unplanned moments that will occur between students, between groups of students and you, and in one-on-one interaction with a student and you. Knowing when and how often you’ll communicate the mechanics of the class minimizes their stress. Knowing that they can trust your communication to be honest and focused on their learning and success builds a sense of trust crucial to online pedagogy.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual pedagogical consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.

*Note: I realize that good pedagogy, let alone good online pedagogy, requires that content should be “chunked” into smaller amounts. I had to balance that versus trying to get all my thoughts about teaching a large class online completed before the start of Fall 2020 begins–which is why this post is not chunked. I still have 3 more posts in the series (software; testing and grading; and pedagogical failures).


COVID-19, Transitioning to Online Learning, and Emotions: Yours and Your Students’

I had planned on this week’s post being about how a leader can help build a community of teaching practice. But current events have made me rethink that topic and I’ll shift it to a future post. Sorry for the length – I hope these thoughts can help.

Image of COVID-19 virus; image from CDCThe coronavirus is shaping—at least for the near future—higher education. Many schools are canceling face-to-face classes and shifting them online. For those faculty who have taught online before, this can be stressful, but for those who never have, it must be unnerving, frightening, and overwhelming. There are lots of resources if you are in that situation (I’ll put some of them at the end of this post) but what I want to talk about is the emotions of shifting classes online—for you, the faculty member, and for your students.

Your Own Emotional Work

Text: Be scared and do it anywayIt is okay to feel overwhelmed with teaching online. It can feel that way when one chooses to shift to online classes; being forced to might only amplify the emotion. This suddenness only complicates the situation. Recognize that you are not alone in feeling overwhelmed. I also understand that at this moment, knowing others are feeling the same way doesn’t help all that much, necessarily. What you likely feel you need right now is a technological elf who will come and set up your classes, not just solidarity with others who are feeling stressed! So know yourself—what do you need to minimize feeling overwhelmed and begin to shift to making forward progress on the transition? Within reason, give yourself what you need to begin to work through this.

If you are wondering if your students’ learning experience will be different now, the answer is “yes.” But different does not necessarily mean “worse.” You might end up liking the fact that students will have to do more “conversing” in online discussion groups than they would have done in class (where conversations are often dominated by a few individuals). So don’t deny your concerns but also don’t let them get in the way of brainstorming creative ways to finish the academic term.

LMS imageIf you have not taught online before nor played around in your institution’s learning management system (LMS), it’s time to start. If you need to create an account, do so immediately. Most schools are ramping up IT support, so call if you need help. Remember, you will not be the only person asking for help and it’s okay to seek out experts. Your goal is to get online quickly and “correctly” (i.e., in ways that students who have used the LMS before will be expecting), so don’t be worried about bothering them. And by the way—write down your institution’s IT numbers and your LMS’ help hotline numbers, so that you have them handy.

For me, feeling comfortable would entail making several “to do” lists (one for each class and a master list). While not everyone feels the same way, I feel less overwhelmed when I write down tasks that need to be done. What might be on the master list? All tasks that I will need to double-check for every class (e.g., did I create dates for the beginning and ending of all assessments?; did I post the revised syllabus in several places online for each class?, did I post a notice about how grading might change due to the coronavirus, etc.).

Everyone will be different—are you someone who would like to do the same task for every class before you move on to the next task? Or do you want to finish one class before moving on to the next one you have to get online? You might have to redefine what “finish” means, however, depending on your particular institution’s timeline for shifting to online classes. “Finish” might mean setting short-term goals (e.g., have content for the next two weeks of classes for all classes posted) versus working on one class’ content, when that class may extend for six or eight more weeks.

Everyone will be stressed—your students, university staff tasked with helping make these transitions to online teaching and learning, university administration, and you. So be kind. Rethink the pedagogical necessity of every assignment. Give yourself permission to eliminate some, given how the virus has changed the social context of learning.


Communication Anxieties

Three thought bubbles with words, "Frequently Asked Questions"Consider writing your class a letter and “pin” it to the opening of your class. The tone of the letter should be “we’re in this and we’ll get through it, together.” Let them know you understand that many are worried about their own families, their economic status, their health and that of their loved ones, and how this shift to online learning will impact their grades. Let them know that you’ll be around more—answering questions, reading discussion threads, and so on. If you want to create a “Frequently Asked Questions” discussion board (something I would encourage you to do now and which I did in every hybrid classes I taught), link directly to it in your letter. Tell the class that you will try to log into that FAQ at least twice a day and you’ll respond to questions and clarify any misinformation which might have been posted. Let students ask anything they want and let other students respond—but once a day, post your answers/clarifications. That way you don’t have to respond to each student’s posting. But I would encourage you to reply directly to any post which does have incorrect information, either about institutional responses to the coronavirus or to your specific class. Be gentle as you correct information, don’t be overly aggressive with the student.

Many students might worry about how to communicate with you privately. While it will be easier on you if you ask them to contact you only within the learning management system (LMS), recognize that many will not, either because they forgot or that they may not know how to send an email within the LMS. So check your campus email frequently as well as the email within the LMS. Be gentle in your replies to those using your campus email—don’t snap at them (even if you might feel it every now and then). You might consider adding an email signature that explains how to write an email in the LMS or add an attached slide showing how to do it.

Chalkboard-like image that says, "Announcements"Some students will want to know everything about the changes to the course—right now, if not yesterday. And while you might share their concerns, you might well not have all the answers. I suggest you be transparent—share what you know officially as soon as you know it. That might mean that you use the “Announcement” tool which most LMSs have as your mechanism to share “official updates.” If it is easier, just copy and paste all news that is meant to be shared with students right there. The tool will send it out to all students or will show it when the students next log on to the LMS. Be sure to include the date and maybe even the time when you posted the content—things are moving fast in terms of the virus and how institutions are coping with it, so it will help to identify when the information was posted.

Recognize that some students will struggle with your answering their questions with “I don’t know that yet either.” They might feel the need to have firm answers to their process questions in order to be able to settle in, concentrate, and learn. So expect a few students to keep reaching out to you. Again, be kind with your replies—they are trying to cope in ways that make sense to them about an event where there are so many unknowns.

Stay in touch with students, more than you might otherwise. Let them know that you are “out there” and are wanting to know how they are feeling and how things are going. Open that communicative “door” often. Those who reach back are many of those who need you the most, at that moment. Be there for them.

Desk with computer and phone on it; text says "Online office hours"Consider having more online office hours than you might have had in-person ones, not fewer ones. I used my LMS’ Chat tool for a ‘live” experience or tell students you will be in an “online office hour discussion board” during the following hours. Tell them any question is okay—that you’ll answer what you can and crowdsource some tech questions which you might not know how to answer. Then send those questions to your IT staff for answers! Know that you might sometimes be alone, but having the hours will mean a lot to students, even if they don’t use them.

Technology Anxieties

Expect that students—especially those who have not enrolled in hybrid or online classes before—might struggle with understanding the in’s and out’s of your institution’s LMS. Hopefully your institution will offer a “quick introduction” for these students. But have the URL ready to send to any student who might need it. You might even consider adding it as a part of your email signature. Or consider creating a few “pertinent links” which you include at the start of every communication you have with students. That way students can easily find what they need to locate, thanks to you.

Be generous with your deadlines and your procedures for students turning in assessments. Yes, students should upload a written document via the Assessment tool, but many might not understand how to do that. Please, this is not a time to believe all the hype that this generation is hyper-connected and therefore should know everything about technology. Take the time to explain each step (PowerPoint or other presentation slides can be a lifesaver for this kind of knowledge-sharing). But in case someone doesn’t do it correctly, give students an “out.” Perhaps tell them that you require them to upload assessments via the assessment tool but you will also allow for a grace period (determine how long you want it to be and put it in the directions of the assessment) where a student could send the assessment to you via LMS email. Yes, it will likely mean that some students send it to you twice, but if it calms their anxiety, it will be worth it.

Consider what content you decide to “open” to students and when. Students new to the software may not think to look for due dates, so consider guiding them by only opening the content which is only needed during the first week of online teaching and learning. As students get more comfortable with the software, you could always open more content for those who might want to work ahead.

Consider a “technology bonus.” What do I mean? Think about giving all students in the class bonus points (maybe even a substantial one) for coping with new technological ways of having to learn. Yes, this could be an artificial ‘bump’ in grades, but so what? These are unusual times and offering this makes you seem humane and understanding of their concerns.

A few additional technological pieces of advice: 1) Think in small bites of information. What might have worked for your 75 minute in-class slide presentation/talk will need to be posted in sections, once you start adding in audio and text. Best practices say to think in 5-15 minute sections, with 10 minutes being ideal; 2) Caption everything. It’s the law. But especially if you are having to create content at home, with a less-than-stellar microphone, you will want to caption the content in case the audio is not that great. And realize that students who might be stuck in dorms or their homes might have to listen to your content when others are around, so they might need the volume to be lower than they’d like. Having content captioned will help everyone to master the content you want them to learn. Be sure you explain to students or show them how to turn on the captioning though – different technologies do it differently.

Learning Anxieties

Stressed studentMany students will be worried about how their learning (and your teaching) will be impacted by the shift to online teaching. Talk with them about this in your letter to them and your posts. Some students who are very verbal in class might be worried that they are not strong writers and therefore might do less well on discussion board assessments which you might be creating. One way to minimize their worries is to post a few examples of strong, good, and weak discussion posts written by you, so that all students can see exactly what level of detail, engagement with texts, and length of response will earn what kind of grade. Be encouraging with all students, especially on the first discussion assessment you create. Gently guide but let them know you are proud that they made the transition and are trying to show their learning in this (potentially) new way.

Conversely, other students might be excited to be able to write their thoughts versus having to talk in class. So expect that some students will blossom in online discussions. One tip: don’t say to such a student, “Why didn’t you share these kinds of insights in class?” You’ll be exhausted during this transition and these kinds of comments may come to you—so set your internal filter a bit higher, so that you don’t post them. Don’t beat yourself up for having such thoughts, if you do, but please police your public comments to students.

Beware of the Emotional Rollercoaster:  The Invisibles, the Not There So Much Students, and Other Worries

One of the worries shared by every faculty member who teaches online is that some students just never log on or others start well but then over time their engagement falls off precipitously. When you also see that same student in a face-to-face class, it’s easy to pull him or her aside and say “Hey, what’s happening?” But that’s nearly impossible online, for one specific reason—no matter how many check-up messages you send the student, if the student isn’t logging on, then the disconnect will continue. Here’s where you might want to ask your institution a strategic question about pedagogy: Will they have anyone (working remotely) whose job will be to contact students in other ways (likely via phone or text messaging) to assess what is happening with the student and perhaps coach the student through whatever technological or personal blocks might be happening to keep the student from doing better in the course? And if your institution does have this as part of its plan, how should you as a faculty member share information about a student who is concerning you?

Don’t assume these students “don’t care” about your class. That is usually not even true in a normal academic term, but this is far from a normal term. A student might have deliberately chosen face-to-face classes because of limited internet access, only to now have every class moved online. There might be economic or health or family pressures (or some combination) that have overwhelmed the student. Remember, some work-study students or those with campus jobs might now be scrambling to find work, while campuses are closed. They may not be able to prioritize online learning right now.

Female student, sitting on bed, looking morose, surrounded by books, notebooks, and phoneFor other students, the loneliness of having no social interaction with peers might engulf them and they might not have coping skills to manage the transition to online courses in addition to everything else going on in their lives. [An aside: you might want to find out if your institution will be offering online counseling services during the campus shutdown. If it is, always include the information on how to access that in all communication with your students.] If or when (hopefully, it is when!) a student returns to your online environment, again, be gentle and see if there are ways to adjust the schedule to help the student to succeed in learning your course content. Normally I am pretty firm about deadlines, but these are not normal times and kindness needs to outweigh steadfastness to norms.

If you can, check-in with seniors who are about to graduate whom you know, whether they are in your classes or not. They most of all might be on edge—worried about if the term might be canceled and they won’t be graduating, and/or worried about the worsening economy as the virus not only decimates people’s lives but our economy as well. Take the minute or two to write an e-mail, if you can—they will appreciate it. If you have advisees, try a mass e-mail to all and more detailed emails to those who have particular curricular issues that may be impacted by this health/educational situation. Let them know that you are thinking about them and that you will be ready to help once the coronavirus situation has been resolved.

Text: Be kind to others, be kind to yourselfMy overall guidance—be kind, be gentle…to yourself, to your students, to teaching and learning staff and instructional technology staff, and to your support system. While in one way you are figuring all this out for your classes, there are thousands of faculty just like you, making the same decisions, dealing with the same “What now?” feelings. Reach out–help is close by. Don’t go it alone. I am happy to help anyone, either sharing what I know or helping to connect you to others who know more than I do. Just reach out in the comments. Good luck.

Here are some resources which might help you. Thanks to all the scholars who are sharing, not hoarding, information.

Google Document put together by Teaching and Learning Centers across the country. Links can be accessed for help.

Google Document on Teaching in the context of COVID-19 (lots of useful links)

Google Document: Resources for Online Meetings, Classes, and Events by Facilitators for Pandemic Response Group and other collaborators

Barbara Smith’s Twitter thread:

Mapping Access’ Accessible Teaching in the Time of Covid-19 by Aimi Hamraie

Online Learning’s article by Saltz and Heckman on “Using Structured Pair Activities in a Distributed Online Breakout Room”

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Going Online in a Hurry: What to Do and Where to Start” by Michelle D. Miller

Dr. Paige Harden’s Twitter thread:

The Teaching Professor article by Molly Barnet and Linda A, PhD on YouTube and Creating Videos

Katie Linder’s free online community, “Keep Teaching: Resources for Higher Ed” to share knowledge about academic continuity (will require registration)

Online Teaching with the Most Basic of Tools—Email” – post on the Explorations in The Ed Tech World blog by Dr. Tannis Morgan

Sean Michael Morris’ Twitter thread:

Some Resources for Online Teaching from the Wabash Center Resource Collection

InsideHigherEd article: So You Want to Temporarily Teach Online by Stephanie Moore and Charles B. Hodges

Some video captioning links:

University of Washington accessibility tips on captioning

Social Media Examiner blog

Google on how to caption YouTube videos

TechSmith blog on how to caption

How To Find Teaching Colleagues

So, you are still struggling to find a community of teaching practice. Now what? In this post I’ll offer some ideas about what to do and in next week’s post I’ll suggest what departmental leaders—chairs or heads—might do to create such a community.

If you followed my advice from last week, you might have found a few individuals who seem to care about pedagogy and using the scholarship of teaching and learning in their classes. First, a few suggestions about how not to communicate with these colleagues:

Text says "Snobs" with the red circle over it which symbolizes "No"-Don’t say “No one seems interested in pedagogy and teaching on this campus, except me. But I’m hoping I could persuade you to start caring about your teaching. Want to get together?” I don’t think most of us would say that, but I have seen someone come pretty close to it once. What you don’t want to seem is elitist or a better teacher just wanting to show up everyone else.

Two Caucasian females, whispering-Don’t badmouth your institution. What do I mean? Don’t start off your email with: “I can’t believe this place doesn’t have a Teaching and Learning Center—what is wrong with it?” Your goal is to find faculty who care about teaching. Those faculty may or may not agree with administrative funding decisions. Focus on what you want—finding people who want to talk about teaching—and only that.

-Don’t assume that they don’t care about their students. I think it’s better to assume that every faculty member does care about the success of their students. But people could well be overwhelmed with their teaching load, their advising load, work/life balance, health issues, family life, life on the road as an adjunct, their research, politics in the US right now, sleep deprivation, and so on. Also remember you are likely unaware of most of the ways they are helping students (because few of us know about how we help students because we don’t share our ideas), and you don’t want to alienate an ally. So be kind when you craft your message to colleagues.

If so, it’s time to see if you can pull them together. I’d suggest sending a group email (with addresses public) like this:

Black and white image of outline of human body; text says "Let me introduce myself"“[Sentence or two to introduce yourself.] Want to get together to share ideas about teaching? Let’s find a time when many of us can get together at (insert name of a good  place for relaxing conversations on or near campus). I know we’re all busy, but I hope that you can join us for exchanging ideas about teaching. I look forward to seeing you.”

Screen capture of a meeting polling software, which shows 4 individuals and what time they can and cannot make meetingIf your school’s email system allows you to add a poll about meeting dates (either via a 3rd party software like Doodle or an internal option), then I suggest you try that. Nothing can annoy individuals more than a protracted email back and forth between several people who are trying to find an acceptable time to meet. One more suggestion: be sure that the times which you suggest parallel your institution’s class schedule. You’ll likely get fewer people to come if your meet-up if it crosses two different class periods. I’d recommend sending one additional email invitation and then a reminder email only to those who said they are coming.

Another idea to consider is to see if your institution has a listserv for faculty and staff where you might post a similar message. These are usually moderated, so expect that it might take up to 24 hours to get posted and build that time into your dissemination schedule. Don’t forget that many staff teach/adjunct for their own institution and care about student success.

You might want to invite all individuals in your department/academic unit. Since they are your “closest neighbors” by inviting all of them, it will be less likely to be perceived as you “picked” only some colleagues and not others. A flyer or a more personalized version of the email would be fine to put in their campus mailbox.

Green couch. Text says "Small groups, because life is better when you're doing it together"Don’t worry if there are only a few individuals who come to your first meet up. Small isn’t bad—just don’t assume that others who couldn’t make it don’t care about teaching. There’s research, service commitments (committee meetings, etc.), and so many other reasons why a faculty member might not be able to make one specific date.

Keep trying…and remember, as I said last week, there are also online colleagues who would welcome conversations about pedagogy. Write to me—I’d love to start a conversation!

Next week I’ll offer some advice for department heads/chairs about how they can build a community of teaching practice in their academic unit. Till then, add a comment about how you have reached out to your institutional colleagues to start teaching conversations.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.


You Mean You Don’t See My Paper Like I Do? . . . That Explains Everything!

Text with two errors circled in red; one is a typo/misspelling and other error is a word repeated twiceDuring the semester, students usually hated getting graded papers back from me (or so they said*). Largely this was because I noticed everything, grammatically-speaking. I would comment on where their writing was strong, to be sure, but I also commented on repetitive errors. I’d use bright colored ink and write with my calligraphy pen (until I started grading online and then I used Word’s comment function to write on their papers). Not infrequently I heard a student comment that “she bled” all over the returned paper (even though I never used red ink).

I know that there is a debate amongst those who teaching writing about how many grammar errors to call attention to, and over time, I found myself making fewer comments on students’ papers. I’d circle consistent errors and then write a note about them at the end of the paper. I also always started with one or two compliments, before talking about how their writing could be improved. After grading all the assignments, I would usually write a letter to the class with links to websites and the style guide manual which could show them how to correct writing errors that were made most frequently.

Students in class, workingI came to rely on “peer writing workshop days,” scheduled into classes where I was requiring a significant writing project from students (individually or as a group project). These workshop days strengthened their papers, pre-grading. I’d require a “polished rough draft” be turned in—without any names—from each student or group, as the case may be. We’d then work to create a “look for these things” list and put them on the whiteboard in one column, so that all students had access to it. We’d put examples of “the error” and “the correction” in two more columns. Many of our examples were about the American Sociological Association’s citation style (ASA), which our program required students to use and with which they often struggled mightily. We’d also make a list of helpful versus less-than-helpful comments to use when they got to reading the other student’s paper. My favorite “less-than-helpful” comment shared by a student was “Never say ‘why in the (expletive) did you choose this topic?—when the paper is due in four days.’” I think that’s good advice, don’t you?

After our list was created, I would redistribute the “polished drafts” to each member of the class. We used an honor code—if students got their own paper or one they’d read before, they were to tell me and I’d give them another. The room would get quiet, as students settled in to read and comment on the paper before them. I would respond to questions, like, “I think this is wrong ASA style but wanted your opinion before I wrote it down—is it?”

It was during one of these workshop days in my Sociological Theory course when I learned that my brain works differently than most other people’s. A student walked up and joined a line of about five other students waiting to talk to me. He was about six feet from me. He held up the paper he was reviewing for me to see. I looked up just for a second and said to him, “Did you notice all the spelling errors on that page?” He just stared at me; then he blurted out, “How do you know there are spelling errors? You’re too far away to read it yet!!!”

The word "synesthesia," with each letter in a different color fontBut the thing is—I could see the typos very easily. They were in a different (red) font versus the rest of the paper being in black font. Only…they weren’t really in red; that’s just how my brain processed the page. When I said to the student, “oh, that’s a typo, it’s in red font” he just looked at me. They all stared at me like I was crazy. I said, “don’t you see the page that way too?” I had just assumed…and was wrong. I went home that night and discovered that I have a neurological condition called synesthesia. It’s not just typos which are in color. Spacing errors (too many or too few) appear to my brain to be highlighted in neon green. Other kinds of errors are highlighted in grey-ish blocks. I have to pay more attention to those to figure out what kind of writing or grammar errors they are, but I know that there’s something wrong.

This was a real learning moment for the class and for me. They were astounded that my brain was wired so differently than theirs were—but only about writing issues. As one student said, “Well, this explains everything about how you grade our papers, Dr. L!” Actually, I was taken aback, too. I had long suspected that there had to be a reason why I was so good at noticing writing errors, but I had never articulated how I see words on paper before to anyone else. Saying the words, “typos are in red font” and seeing that others didn’t perceive the text the same way, made things real for me in a way that they’d not been before.

My synesthesia has been a blessing. I didn’t have a choice—this is how my brain has worked, likely from birth. But my brain’s uniqueness has shaped how I have lived out my status as professor and now, as an editor. I can assure clients that they can be confident that grammar errors will be “caught,” due to my synesthesia. I just can’t return a manuscript until I have fixed all the errors which my brain shows me are there.

This has also helped me to re-remember that every one of us is unique. Many students might make errors—in following directions, in submitting assessments on time online, in creating presentations, etc.—because they process information differently than I do, than other students do. Talking with students before grading assessments that seemed very different than what I was expecting often helped me to discover information about the student—if the student chose to share information with me—that helped me better understand why the assessment was the way that it was. That didn’t always mean I would grade it differently, but it did mean that the student and I could strategize to see if there were ways to the student to manage assessments in my class. For example, one student consistently “read” my directions very differently than I meant them. So we made a pledge to meet the day after the student started to work on the assessment, to talk through what she thought I wanted, so that if it was different than what I did want, she had time to adjust her work. When these meetings proved to be successful, I immediately offered them to the entire class: “come talk with me about how you understand the assessment, before you begin it, in order to increase the likelihood of your success.”

Text says, "Your perception may not be my reality."Perceptions matter—be they based on brain functioning or any other reason. Help your students to understand how their perceptions are shaping their behavior and own your perceptions too. Once I knew I “saw” papers differently than my students did, I told them about it during the first few days of the term and shared with them that it meant I was likely to notice all their typos and spacing errors, perhaps more than any other professor had. They better accepted those comments and understood where they came from.

So what’s your “power” (I hesitate to call it a “superpower”—that would be overstating my students’ view of my synesthesia)? Do you share it with your students? How does it impact your teaching? Your professional life as an academic?

*Usually, I received 5 or more emails every semester from graduates thanking me for “making” them learn to write better. Many said that it took several years to realize how much they had grown as writers after taking my courses. Often they’d contact me after a boss congratulated them on how they wrote a report or a judge complimented them on how they wrote up a case.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.













Need to Alter the Energy in Class? Try Changing Things Up

Two rows of college students, all asleep in classIt’s that time of the academic term where the end isn’t quite in sight yet but everyone is exhausted. Students struggle to concentrate, are easily distracted, and everyone seems on edge. This isn’t a good environment for learning to happen, so it’s up to faculty to figure out how to figure out how to change things up.

For me, I find that such a moment happened the second class day after the first test. Many were not happy with their grade, and so the disappointment (and sometimes anger) were palpable on that Thursday. Over time, I learned that one topic in particular re-energized my students and changed the class dynamics. What was the topic?: “How Groups Work.”

I am a firm believer that—while we all have been in many groups during our lives—actually partaking in group activities which we then analyze in class is the best way to learn the sociological insights about group behaviors and group dynamics. So I ask students to get into groups and for about two-thirds of the class, they work in groups, accomplishing the tasks I take them through.

Lifeboat full of people, all wearing safety vestsThe first one is my riff on “The Lifeboat Game.” It went like this: “You and your group are taking a winter cruise to Alaska (it’s all you could afford) and the cruise ship hit an iceberg and is sinking. Your group is safely in a lifeboat and can take just 2 more people into the boat. Then I give the entire class a list of ten individuals, some “real” and some fictive. All ten are swimming in the freezing water and will die from hypothermia soon. I offer a range of people, from a Latina maid, to a physician who has discovered the cure for the common cold but not published it yet, to the richest person in the world (then, it was Bill Gates, now it would be Jeff Bezos); to a movie star, her infant (the baby counts as a full person), and the wet nurse/nanny who cares for the baby. There’s also a stowaway and a bus driver who has saved for this trip for years.

Each student takes a few minutes to decide which two individuals he or she wants to bring into the boat. Then I give the group just two minutes to arrive at consensus on who to save. While they are deliberating, my graduate assistants and I are walking around, gathering data on how the groups are interacting. For example, I deliberately did not use a pronoun to identify the physician and the graduate assistants and I took notes on if groups did use a specific pronoun. I would circle back and discuss this later in the class.

The next group activity was to solve an algebraic equation, first individually and then to arrive at group consensus. After about four minutes, I gave five answers on a PowerPoint slide and a representative of the group had to click in the group’s answer. One of the behaviors that I and the graduate assistants noticed is that is group activity had much less group interaction than the other tasks; usually one student would say “I’m good at math” and solved it and that answer became the group’s answer.

Alligator sunning self on rockAnother group activity was to listen to a fable and decide its best and worst character, first individually and then again, to arrive at group consensus. The fable involved two heterosexual lovers who wanted to see each other but were on opposite sides of a river and the sole connecting bridge had been washed out and there were teeming alligators who lived in the river. Other characters were a river boat captain who offered a free ride across the river in exchange for sex with the female member of the couple; a friend who said “it’s none of my business, I don’t want to get involved;” and another member who beat up the river boat captain. This activity made students analyze their personal values about sexuality, friendship, and fidelity.

After completing five group activities, the students were laughing, enjoying meeting new people, and were very relaxed. The post-test tension was broken. Then I transitioned to analyzing the dynamics of group interaction. I had each group identify the one or two people who they felt were the leaders and then we discussed instrumental and expressive types of leaders. They easily identified who was which in their group and then we discussed how—at least in the US—often these are gendered statuses.

I circled back to the Lifeboat Game and asked why it was that 2 of the 3 people I identified by race or ethnicity, were not saved by any group (in fact, in 12 years of doing this exercise in class, they had never been saved by even 1 group). Only the wealthiest (white) man was ever saved—and often by every group in the class. Many only took him into the lifeboat after negotiating a payout, though. And then I mentioned that only one group out of over twenty in the class did not identify the physician with the cure for the common cold as male. Usually an audible gasp occurred in the room when I said that, and students demanded that I go back to the PowerPoint slide which described the ten individuals in the water–only to be shocked when they read the non-gendered language.

Picture of five rows of wire. On half of each wire are about ten or more birds. On the other side, only on the 2nd wire, is 1 solitary birdWhen I asked how often did each group actually arrive at group consensus, the class erupted in sustained laughter. They mentioned that the time requirements I imposed made it difficult to arrive at consensus. Other times some members talked about feeling pressured to arrive at consensus—and since “it didn’t really matter”—they went along with it. I then teased about the next class’ topic: “How Groups Influence Individuals’ Behavior.” They wanted more information right then, even if it was after when class should have been dismissed. An educational win!

But the most crucial lesson I learned was how important it was to schedule in some “fun” or “relaxing” activities throughout the semester. This group activities day restored the class’ energy; in fact many students stopped by after class to ask if we could have more days like this (we would) and said that it helped them to refocus on learning sociology.

Faculty need to assess the “temperature” of each class and know when being flexible—perhaps not about the content of the day, but about how that content is delivered—is the best learning strategy. So think about gamifying one or more days or get students up and moving–anything which gets you and your students out of the traditional rhythms of the class–and watch the learning happen.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing or coaching about writing.






When Things Feel Off in Class: What Should You Do?

Male dentist working in patient's mouthHave you had one of these moments? Class went so-so, but it felt harder than it should. I used to call it a “dentist day.” Why? Because I felt like I was pulling teeth, trying to get them to talk, to think critically about the material, instead of having them engage actively with the content. What to do when one of these days happen? I have a checklist for you which can help.

Spiral notebook open to blank page; fountain pen on it, waiting to be used-Write down your thoughts about how the class went—it may not have been all difficult. Were there certain concepts that seemed to go well? Or at least ok? Sometimes when we have one of these days, we forget the good moments and just recall the tough ones. Try to write as factually as you can, for example, “When I asked, only 10 percent admitted to doing the required readings,” or “no one volunteered during discussion time and several students refused to share when I called on them,” or “a third of the class did not turn in the required assessment which was due last night.” Only after you have the facts written down should you turn to how you felt teaching that day. If you are using a Teaching Diary (see earlier blog posts here and here), look back to other terms where you taught the same content. Maybe it is the difficulty of the concepts you are teaching and not you, not your students, nor your interactions. That can be very helpful to know.

Images shows part of a calendar, with one date in red and says "Due Date"-Look at your class calendar and the academic calendar of your institution. Is it the week where most classes are giving midterms? The week before a major break or vacation? Or the first few days back from a long break? Do you have a major assignment due in a few days, which may have captured student attention more than readings or in-class work? These are times when student engagement might dip. Put differently, it might not be “your class” but just the typical ebb and flow of the academic calendar. I’m not saying it makes it “okay” for students to be less engaged, but looking at the calendar might help you diagnose what is occurring.

Cartoon image of woman, almost pulling out her hair; she is stressed-How are you doing? Are you feeling overwhelmed with grading or course preparations? Or committee work? How’s your research going (or not going)? Are you doing a lot of community service? Are you or a loved one sick or not sleeping through the night? What’s happening to each of us as a person inevitably can follow us into the classroom. Again, if you’re running on just a few hours of sleep because of a sick child—it’s okay to have an okay day of teaching. We’re human—be kind to yourself!

-Answer honestly, what percentage of class are you lecturing/talking versus students being directly engaged with the course material? Student engagement will rise with more use of active learning activities. Sometimes when it feels like the class dynamics are tense, taking charge/control feels like a way to turn things around, but actually that pedagogical strategy may backfire. Try giving students more responsibility. Ask a question and wait—for probably what feels like an excruciatingly long time—and students will start to talk.

-Is it time to do an impromptu evaluation by the class to gather (anonymously, of course) their perceptions of class dynamics, workload, etc.? As a few strategic questions and give them time to respond in writing. Some possible questions might be: What are they liking the most about recent classroom content and why? Liking the least and why? Is an upcoming assessment worrying them? If so, what is concerning? What’s the best thing about classroom dynamics and why? What’s the worst thing and why? Braver still, you could ask, “What is the one thing you wish I as the professor would stop doing and why? Would start doing and why?

Handheld microscope; in center of lens is word "Observe"-Bring in fresh eyes to help observe your class. Does your institution have a teaching and learning center? Does it do in-class pedagogical consultations? Or does your department or college have pedagogical mentors you could ask to do a classroom visit? Or if none of those resources are available to you, do you have a colleague you trust and feel is a strong teacher and observer who you could ask?

Typically, an in-class teaching observation typically happens in 5 steps.

Step 1: You and the observer meet to talk. Bring your syllabus with you,  highlighting events to be observed. I suggest that you bring a copy of readings that are being covered (or send them to the observer once you both select a date for the observation. The observer will ask you to talk about how you feel the class is going and  in this case, why you are feeling troubled about the classroom interactions. The goal of    this meeting is to communicate effectively your worries so that the observer can give you feedback  on them. Will he or she use a rubric already constructed? If so, ask to see it and talk about any concerns you might have about it. Be sure to talk about how to explain the             observer’s presence in class—will you introduce the person or not? Say why the observer is there or not? Ask about if the observer things you should tell the class in advance of the day of the observation about the visit. Will the observer want time to talk with the students? You need to know this in order to shorten your activities for the class, for instance. The more specific you are in this step about your concerns, the better the outcome of the observation will be. And remember, the observation is to help you, so make sure you are comfortable during this pre-observation step.

Step 2: The observation. Try your best to have a “normal” classroom experience that  day. Don’t try to be “different” or do different pedagogical strategies than you would normally.

Step 3: The observer will spend time thinking about the classroom visit, the issues you asked for specific feedback, and will write up a summary of observations and possible  recommendations. Often this is sent to you as a written report for you to “digest” in  advance of Step 4.

Step 4: You both meet again to discuss the report of the observer and the recommendations. If the report was sent to you in advance, be sure you have enough time to process it intellectually as well as emotionally before the meeting is scheduled. If  you don’t see the report until the meeting, ask for enough time to read it thoroughly before continuing onto the pedagogical conversation.

Step 5: Begin to implement new pedagogical and classroom management strategies if they were recommended. Ideally, your observer will reach out to you in two or three  weeks just to check how things are going. But remember, you can always contact them,  too!

Note: if you are teaching online, Step 2 will likely change some. Usually the observer asks you to “admit” them to the class for a week or so. The observer should have all the access to assessments, discussion posts, readings, syllabus, etc., that your students have.

So if you are feeling that something’s “off” about how a class is going, and it seems deeper than “midterm week” or that you have a bad cold and have lower energy, etc., you have strategies to help you figure out what might be happening and how to make it better. You are not alone.

[Posted early because we are moving to our newly built home on Wednesday and won’t have Internet for few more days after that.]

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing or coaching about writing.

Surviving the First Test of the Term

Green chalkboard with word "Exam" written on it; paper and pen also visibleThe first test of an academic term can be stressful for students, but we faculty also endure anxiety. I’m sure I was not alone when I would hold my breath as I and my graduate assistants passed out the tests. My mind would be racing: “Did I make enough copies?” I’d worry even though I’d recounted them three times just the night before. But when you have 350 students in class, not having enough tests is the stuff of nightmares—at least for me. The building I taught in was nearly 2 blocks from my departmental xerox machine, so if I had made a mistake, it would be a real mess!

Woman teacher, head in hands, looking very stressedI also think many faculty worry about other mundane issues, like did the copier skip one page of the test or did I make a typo which changed the meaning of the question, or a mathematical mistake which made a problem more difficult than intended.

These are typical “before the test” faculty worries, but for many of us, the day we pass back the first test ratchets up our anxiety. I’m a big believer in showing students the test data, such as what % of the class earned each letter grade, the range of scores, and so on. This information, however can be weaponized by some students, against the faculty member. How many of us have heard comments like, “I’m an A student but I failed your test—you must be a bad teacher” or “You just don’t know how to write a fair test” or “You tricked us,” etc. Trust me, these kind of comments can sting!

Here are some pedagogical tips to get through:

1) Take time to go over the test with students in class. But I encourage you to primarily let students teach other students the correct answers and why. Break students into groups (I suggest getting them up and mixing with other students than those they sit with all the time—they frequently study with those same students and therefore might have made similar mistakes) and give them time to work through the test. I made 5-8 versions of each test and color coded the paper each was on, so I asked students to find others they didn’t know who had the same color test and get together and work through the answers. [I did statistics on each version and knew that no one had worse scores than others, so this felt like a good way to get students to meet each other and focus.] I would let them work together for 15 minutes.

Then I would ask students from each version of the test what were the top 2 questions they still had about why an answer was wrong/what was the correct answer. I answered those with the entire class (this also helped to prove that the versions were different, something many students didn’t believe prior to the first test). But after that, I had my graduate assistants pick up the tests. Letting students who received unexpectedly bad grades “simmer” too long with the test in front of them, I found, was not a good idea. I kept all tests and students were welcome to come at any time of the term to see them again, study from them, etc.

2) Before we picked up the tests, I asked students to write me a note above their name on the 1st page of the test if they had still had questions about what was a correct answer or if they had questions about the mathematical data I had put on the test. I listed their test score (X/75 points, usually) as well as their current class average in class, including all points (not just the test). If they felt a question was misgraded, I asked them to write me a note explaining why. That afternoon, after class, I first alphabetized all the tests and then responded to each student who wrote me a note. I sent e-mails in the learning management system. Even if I was correct, I answered the student with a short message explaining why her or his answer was incorrect. Usually only two percent of the students left notes, so this didn’t take that long, but they knew they had been heard. And if I had made a grading error, I first corrected it in the online gradebook and then wrote the student, so that he or she could see the change had already occurred.

Desk with laptop open, notebook, glasses, pen, and calculator -- someone is studying3) Recognize that how you construct your tests could amplify student anxiety. Ten percent of my 2nd and 3rd tests in a term were cumulative questions. This exacerbated student test anxiety because now they also had to review “older” material, not just material covered since the last test. I believe in the value of these cumulative questions [they were always based on what concepts students had missed the most on the earlier test(s)], because knowledge is cumulative. But trust me, I heard about that ten percent of the test so often on my student evaluations, and rarely were they good comments! I believe that essay tests can also increase anxiety in many students new to college-level writing requirements. In part this is because they feel they are being assessed on both their writing skills and their content knowledge. To help with that anxiety, I didn’t grade on writing skills—but I did make corrections and comments about writing (I don’t know how to stop doing that and I didn’t really want to, anyhow!). For first year college students I defined “essay” broadly—it could be an outline of what an essay would be, so long as every sociological concept was defined and had an original example or it could be incomplete sentences, so long as they focused on the sociological content required. In junior and senior level courses, I expected students to write a more refined answer to an essay test, but again, in those classes, I had weekly in-class essays to assess learning and I helped students to develop the writing, reading, and thinking skills to do well before the first test.

In what looks like handwriting, sign says "Oops! I made a mistake. What can I learn from it?4) Admit if you made errors, either in the construction of the test or in the grading of it. Use that moment to teach students about taking responsibility and fixing our mistakes. Once I misnumbered one version of a test and students who had that version only had 70 instead of 75 questions. I added an additional 5 points to those students’ test scores before they even saw their returned test and before I posted the scores to the online grade book. But I still admitted it to the entire class and apologized. Faculty are, before all else, human, and we make mistakes just as our students can make them. Make mistakes and taking responsibility for them part of the learning process in your classroom.

5) I believe that announcing not just the date of the test, but the structure of the test, in advance, matters. When I was in college, I don’t remember studying differently for a test based on the structure of it, but I have had hundreds of students tell me that they do, so I announce test dates in the syllabus (so they have them from the first day of class) and I announce the structure of the test at least 2 weeks before the date of the test. I say it frequently in class, post it on the learning management system, sent an e-mail in the LMS, and also announced it on our class’ Facebook page. Thanking me for this “early warning” of the test structure was the most repeated, positive comment I received on my Intro to Sociology student evaluations.

Taking that first test, grading it, and returning it will be anxiety-producing for you and for your students. But these tips could help minimize the anxiety in ways that could help you and your students get through this crucial moment in the academic term successfully.

So readers, what are your tips to reduce anxiety (for you or your students) about the first test? Please share in the comments.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing or coaching about writing.