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.


What Moving Has Taught Me about Teaching…And Myself

Several empty cardboard moving boxesI have moved 4 times in my adult life. First, from one room in a house redesigned for graduate students, where I lived for 5 years to our first apartment as a married couple. That involved a transition from New Jersey to Georgia. Then we moved to a bigger apartment across town, for a few years. My third move was from that bigger apartment to our house, where we lived for 29 years. And a few weeks ago, we sold our house and moved again. We’d planned to move directly to the house that we’re building on top of a mountain, but alas, it isn’t done. So we’re in one cabin for 10 days and then a 2nd cabin for probably 6 weeks, until the house is completed.

So what has the “moving a house and 2 adults” process taught me?

Several moving boxes, each with different label: kitchen, dishes, bedroom, and booksOrganizing can reduce stress, at least for me. For the last six months, we’d go out to breakfast on Sundays and plan out our week—our goals for packing; what companies we needed to update addresses (mailing and email) and phone numbers; and other goals for the week. Sometimes I’d bring some paper, other times we’d write the list on napkins. Inevitably many lists got lost (we’ll probably find them when we finally unpack!). I finally realized we needed a “book of lists.” So I bought a notebook and created sections for different types of lists: a week by week section; the “week before we move” section; the “day of the move” section; “two weeks after the move” section, and so on. We’d add or expand each list as needed, dating the change so that we knew which was the latest version. We took “the book” with us every Sunday, or when we drove across states to meet with our contractor or other skilled tradespersons, etc. We noticed that being able to find our lists easily made life less stressful.

We also coded every box: a number for the floor; a 2 letter code for the room; and a box number. We created one spreadsheet with a tab for each room. We entered each box number and a brief description of what was included. Our mover wanted an approximate number of boxes and we wanted to be sure we didn’t lose any, since the move took three days and it would be weeks before we’d be unpacking. Our movers joked that I was the most organized client he’d ever seen–not sure if that was supposed to be a compliment, but I took it as one!

For me, having my courses planned out in advance, via the syllabus helped me to meet the learning goals and learning outcomes that I and others expected that my students and I would meet. I knew, within reason, what we should be doing when and why.

Many students feel syllabi are documents which can help them to stay organized. They less often realize that syllabi also help keep faculty organized and on track. Knowing what we needed to cover helps all of us from going off on a tangent.

Be flexible, because something always happens. No matter how organized one is, prepare for something to happen that you hadn’t planned on occurring. A Monday was day 1 of our move. We were up at 5; the movers were coming at 8, and I had plans to be on the road by 6 AM. About 5:30 my husband and I took the last few armfuls of items to fill up my car—and the battery was dead, the doors wouldn’t open. We jumped the car just enough to get it to the Subaru dealership. I get there about 6:30 AM, but they don’t open until 8:30. So I sat there, reading an e-book, just waiting. I went there because this very thing had happened 3 times the week of July 4th, and it took 11 days to get the parts needed (the entire computer system had to be replaced). I wasn’t about to drive 7 hours when it looked like the problem had reappeared. Luckily they found that this time, it was a fuse not completely situated, that had drained the battery and I was on my way to our new life, just 3 hours delayed.

TText says: "Expect the unexpected." Image of what appears to be a green apple, but actually has orange slices insideeaching means being prepared for the unexpected, be it an illness (family member or ourselves), or in the South, a hurricane or tornado, or in the Midwest or Northeast, a snow storm, and so on. As professors, most of the structure of our class is shaped by us. That means we need to plan for the unexpected. After the 2nd hurricane interrupted fall classes one year in Valdosta, I learned that for each section of my Introduction to Sociology class, I had to identify 2 topics/days which, if needed, I could either cut or shift the content primarily to online without significantly impacting student success. Do you plan for the unexpected as you construct your syllabi? If you do, when things happen—and they will—you and your students will be less stressed and more able to pick up and keep on learning.

Identify how you can destress in healthy ways. Moving and teaching can both be stressful activities. While one (moving) is more short-term than the other, both can create physical and emotional stress. So do you have healthy ways to let go of the stress and relax? This summer my husband and I have found one way to destress—we watch BattleBots, a show on the Discovery Channel about robots fighting. We enjoy the technical skills of the crews, the creativity in designing the robots, and the personalities of the owners and drivers. It was a gift of 2 hours a week where we could get outside of ourselves and enjoy the battles and each other, without thinking of the stresses of building a house, construction delays, and moving.

Teaching is a profession I love, but it too could be stressful. It can be more difficult to understand the amount of stress one is under though – many others would wonder how teaching “just a few hours a week” (ha ha!) could create stress. So I tried to destress at least once a week. Often that meant going to a movie on Friday afternoon. I liked to go alone (and sometimes I would be the only person watching a particular movie!) as a way to unwind and destress. I also like to knit; it allows me to focus on something else other than preparing for classes and grading in a way that would relax me. For others it might be yoga, exercise, meditation, or time out with friends.

So here we are, at the second cabin on a Sunday afternoon. It’s been almost a month since we moved from Valdosta and we don’t know when we’ll move into our house. All we can do is go along for this wild ride of building a house and moving. For those of you about to start another academic year—be ready. You don’t know what might shake up your carefully constructed plans for your classes. Figure out what you need to do to cope with the profession we love, but which also can stress us out. Be healthy!

How do you destress from teaching, grading and all that goes with the academic life? Share in the comments. Your idea might just help someone else out.

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