The Gift

We’ve talked about self-care for faculty (here and here), but how are your students doing? You have likely arrived at the first major assessment or test of this new academic term. How did they do? How did they do compared to how you thought they would do? How did they do compared to how they thought they would do?

Hourglass with red sandGive them the gift of time…to think about how they studied/prepared for the assessment. Perhaps prepare a metacognition form they could fill out (anonymously if you think that would be best), where they can think about their behaviors and see if there are places they might need to alter their studying and learning habits. Perhaps take some time—“in class” if you have that or on a discussion board or using some online tool where they can share their thoughts with each other about what they would like to do differently and why. Support their ideas and encourage tweaking study habits. Perhaps take a few minutes to share a few ways of taking notes if that is something with which some seem to be struggling. Post some links about these subjects for them to explore in more depth. Then send a few reminders about where those links can be found—especially in the run-up to the next major assessment/test.

But during this time of pandemic teaching and learning, don’t forget the gift of flexibility. Some schools have canceled fall break in order to complete most of the semester before Thanksgiving—some had always planned to do this, others have been forced to do it due to the rise in COVID-19 cases. Hopefully, you built in allowances for “whatever might happen” as you constructed your syllabi.

But I want to argue for the gift of spontaneous “time off” this academic term. Maybe it’s the day after a test and your students look and sound exhausted. Or maybe it’s when you log on and you see more gazing off into the distance than focus on the content you are covering. You’ll know when they’ll need this gift.

Silver whistle on red cordCall an audible. Let class out early and urge them to take a nap or do something fun. Maybe even cancel an entire class session.

I know, I know—“but what about the amount of class time required by institutional rules?” It’s easy for me to say “Ignore that” – but really, ignore it. The emotional health of each student and the class’ as a whole (as well as your own) in the middle (we hope!) of a pandemic, matters more.

I realize a very few students might come to expect such a gift far more than you might want to offer it, but they are likely outliers. Be humane…it’s the best gift you can give to your students right now.

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

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.

Are You Ready? Self-Care in the Age of COVID-19

It’s mid-August. That means colleges and universities are beginning the fall academic term—whether the delivery will be completely online, only face-to-face, or some Hyflex option.

So how are you doing, as you gear up for the return?

Let’s talk about how you might prepare for the educational, health, and stress-related challenges to come.

-Have you figured out your best—healthy—ways for you to destress? Will it be yoga? Running? Other exercise? Baking? Binge-watching your favorite TV show? Journaling? Reading a certain type of book? Turning off electronics for a while? Drawing/coloring? Talking with a loved one? Try to find one or more de-stressor. You might need a few on rotation for the weeks ahead.

Clear plastic bottle with label that says "Sanitizing Spray Bottle"-For those going back to campus, have you created a “health kit?” Do you have several clean masks (that you have practiced wearing and are comfortable), each in its own protective bag? Might want to label the bags. What about alcohol or sanitizing wipes? Sanitizing spray and paper towels? Will you bring some sort of gloves to use when you wipe things down? Some hand cream and sanitizer? Breath mints?

Whiteboard markers, arranged in a circle-Do you have your own whiteboard markers and erasers (or chalk if that’s what you will need)? These are things we used to leave in the classroom and shared unthinkingly—but times have changed. Your own stylus, electronic pointer, and flash drive? What about spare pens? Students might need some, but you’ll want more than you think because you probably won’t want it back once offered. Way before the virus, when I was teaching a class of nearly 300 students, I would carry 50 pens with me. There were days when I would need nearly all of them!

Open laptop, coffee, cell phone-Will you need your own tablet/laptop computer in order to manage more software in the classroom? If so, check with your Instructional Technology staff about what cables you might need and get them well in advance of the first week. You might also want a small notebook to jot down reflections at the end of class or to write down student questions. The stress of pandemic teaching might make it just a bit harder to remember everything, every day. So make it easier on yourself by being prepared to take some notes.

-I suggest that you label all your materials—pens, markers, and so on. Just in case you forget to grab them after class one day. Don’t forget to disinfect them once you get them back—safety first!

-Have you thought about if you will take course materials with you into your classroom? If so—what will they be? Remember whatever you bring in, you will need to sanitize and perhaps set aside for a day or so. Are there books that you can access online so that you can keep the hard copy at home with you? Will you need notebook paper? Just think through what you’ll likely need each day.

-Do you make a seating chart? You might need two or three, depending on if you see only a portion of your class each day. But you might want to get the chart (or charts) laminated so that you can sanitize them each day.

-Do you have a “working from school” bag where you can keep all these materials? Actually, do you have two of them? Preferably that are washable? Might want to leave one in the car overnight and use the “clean” one for day 2, and so on.

-Are you planning on taking off your “school clothes” right away and washing them? Consider thinking about the amount of clothes-in-rotation you might need and amount of laundry detergent you’ll be needing. It can be hard to find, so start your search now!

-Have you thought about food? Snack machines might not be refilled (at all or on the same regular basis), so if you need a pick-me-up in the afternoon, you might think about bringing some nuts, cheese, etc., with you. Think about getting a small refrigerator or a cooler. Unfortunately, this is not the time for sharing, so just pack what you like! The same goes for drinks. And remember, you probably will want to shut your office door to have privacy while you eat and drink (assuming you can have privacy). If you can’t, consider going outside and eating on a bench (at least while the weather cooperates).

-If you are teaching primarily online, you probably have decided on the “background” that communicates best for your pedagogical persona. Books? Just a room in your home? A “canned” background? What have you selected? Again, you might want a rotating set of backgrounds, so as not to be too predictable!

-But if you are working from home a lot (e.g., grading, online office hours, and so on), think about your environment. What gives you a sense of focus? A sense of calm? Is it the sounds of nature (can you open a window?) or listen to some on the Internet. Are you like me and listen a lot to Broadway musicals? If that’s not your thing—what kind of music helps you? Create your playlist. Are you a candle person? Scented or unscented? Try to find a space that you can make “yours” (or yours for when you need it, if you are like so many and are sharing workspace/living space at home with partners and children).

-Think about little things that can help. I’ve learned to increase the size of the text to at least 135% — it just makes it easier to read emails, Word documents, etc. Same for the font—a Sans Serif font is easier to read than a Serif one. What’s the difference, you ask?

Comparison of Serif and Sans Serif fonts

Serifs are those little “tags” on the capital “T, N, and R” and the small “s” and so on. They can be visually difficult to read compared to a Sans Serif font which does not contain them. Consider changing the “default font” for your browser and your writing software (i.e., Word, Google Documents, etc.). Maybe even increase the font size too while you are at it! You might never think that fonts could be de-stressors, but they can be. Give it a try!

pomodoro timer-Have you thought about using a Pomodoro Timer as a de-stressor? You can purchase one but I use an online one (see end of the post for links to some). It lets you work for 25 minutes and then take a 5-minute break or you can set it for the amounts you would like. I’ll turn off email notifications for the longer amount of time so that I can concentrate intensely. You could take a short walk or do some stretching/yoga, go to an Internet site for jokes, or read poetry—just something that gives your head and heart a break from the intensity of this academic term. I find that the timer going off makes me respond to it, where as just saying “I’ll take a break in 25 minutes”—well that never really worked for me.

Person walking on road; text says "Sometimes you just need to vent and not be judged"-Have you found your “venting partner” (or partners)? Someone who you can share the lows and the highs of teaching during a pandemic. Someone you can talk about fears, anxieties, and sorrow that might occur but also the joys of learning how to “not-hug but console” your students, and so on? That may be your romantic partner but if you are both so stressed, perhaps that’s not the best choice. But find someone who you feel comfortable with being honest with and who you are willing to listen to them as well. See if your institution is offering such groups (perhaps a teaching circle or a counseling center support group) and if you feel that would give you a safer place to vent.

It won’t be a “typical” academic term—don’t let anyone tell you it will. But teaching and learning can occur. Don’t go it alone—ask for pedagogical help from your institution’s Teaching and Learning Center, your Instructional Technology Center’s staff, talk with colleagues, your department head, look at Academic Twitter, etc. Can’t find anyone? Email me—I’ll help (

I am thinking and praying for each of you, for your colleagues—faculty and staff and administrators—and for your students. May you and they all act safely and not recklessly. May you all be healthy.

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

Some Pomodoro Timers

TimeDoser (for Chrome):


Tomato One (for Apple):

Tomato Timer:

COVID Flexibility – How Much? When? For Whom?

Text: "Be stubborn about your goals, and flexible about your methods."Fall’s coming fast. Many schools will start back—be it face-to-face, Hyflex, or doing completely remote learning—in just a few weeks. This means many faculty are caught up in syllabus creation and trying to figure out how to construct classes when a pandemic is raging. In the spring, most faculty were “caught” unaware and had to shift pedagogical delivery systems in mid-term. But fall will be different. We know more about the virus, how it is spreading in the US, and in our local regions, about human behavior in a pandemic (e.g., at least a fair number of us are not wearing masks, wearing them incorrectly, or not often enough). And we know that it is likely that however you begin the academic term, you might not end it teaching in the same way.

Text: Plan A (crossed out); Plan B (crossed out); Plan CEvents will happen: one student or more than one student might get sick; you might get sick; your campus might have to shift to remote learning again due to a COVID-19 outbreak (on or off campus); a loved one might get sick and force you to change where you teach, etc. These events will require you to have pedagogical flexibility. So let’s talk about that.

I think there are several types of flexibility to consider as you draft your course plans.

Flexibility about You

Have you considered how you might “hand off” your course if you might have to quarantine (for a face-to-face course) or get sick (any delivery method)? How easy would it be to add another faculty member to your course? It might be time to ask your institution’s IT department what it might recommend.

Consider talking with colleagues. Some of us know who might be asked to step in to cover a class for us because the course content is their specialty also. But consider that the virus might have other ideas, and anyone of us might have to step into any other course in our department. The more you can offer your colleague a “road map” for how you constructed your course and why, the easier a transition might be.

I had to step in for a faculty member once. It was a spring semester and the colleague initially just disappeared and then we found out about a health issue. The colleague’s classes were a mess—though it was late March, he had only given one test (his syllabus said there should have been 3 tests by then), and so on. I came in, revamped the syllabus the best that I could with the time we had left, and off we went. I have never been so disrespected as that five weeks of the semester. Students were not expecting to have to work and let me know that over and over, in quite colorful language. When I figured out how difficult it would be, I went to my department head and dean and said that, while some students didn’t seem to be wanting to step up now, etc., that I didn’t feel it was completely their fault and that I felt the lowest grade I could ethically give was a “C.” I was supported in that—but even that created lots of student hostility. Many expected to receive an “A” no matter how little work they had done (a legacy from my colleague).

back of beige envelope; it is closed and sealed with red waxI beg you: Write a letter to the potential colleague who might have to take over for you once you have constructed your class and leave it perhaps in a private section of your LMS or with your department head. Update it if something major changed in your course (so the colleague can figure out if the class is telling the truth about the change or not, etc.). That would be the greatest gift you could give to another faculty member during this pandemic term. It is hard to write this, but something could happen so quickly to you that you might not have time to write such a letter after becoming ill.

Picture of pretzelsAnd if you are the colleague who steps in—you might have to be so flexible that you will feel like a pretzel. And that’s okay too. Develop a thick skin—fast—because you might get hit by all kinds of upset students. They will be likely worried about how you grade versus your colleague, about how you write tests versus your colleague, who will be assigning their final grade—you or the other faculty member, if you re-configure the course and the grading structure—how will that impact their final grade. Then add in the pandemic fears on top of those other worries, and you can see why you might be in for a rocky time. Pack your patience. I learned to write the class a memo and then leave it for 24 hours before I sent it, because I was so frustrated and sometimes angry and I wanted to be able to edit those emotions out, as much as I could, before I sent it.

But also know your limits. I learned more swear words during those five weeks than in the entirety of my life. There was one day when I just broke down and posted something to Facebook about being sworn at so much. Some friend—to this day I don’t know who—emailed my department head. He came by that next Monday and I showed him some of the emails I was receiving. We drafted a letter that morning that we both signed and sent to the class. It talked about professionalism, ethical behavior, the tough situation this was, how everyone was trying, and that everyone needed to try to care more. It helped. And to that anonymous colleague who did what I couldn’t, on my behalf—thank you.

Flexibility for An Individual Student

Think about how you will address this likely scenario: you are told by your campus administration that one student will be out of class for at least 10-14 days. This likely means the student tested positive for COVID-19. What will you do? This scenario (and I think it is the best option of what might happen) is not that new—students become ill ever academic term and faculty have to make adjustments.

I suggest a very short email to the student via the campus learning management system (LMS) (if you are using it), checking in, telling the student you are thinking of them, and asking the student to contact you when they are feeling well enough to think about your class. Be encouraging, etc. We’ve all done those kinds of emails. We all know that means that deadlines might need to be adjusted for that one student for at least a segment of the course. Most LMSs allow such assessments to be reopened for one student.

Flexibility for a Larger Number of Students

Perhaps a segment of your class needs to be quarantined—they might live on the same floor as a student, not in your class, but had close enough contact to require isolation, for example. Let’s say that this is a substantial number of your students. Can you continue with your active learning activities if a fair number of students are not “attending” for the same two-week time period? Or will you have to change the kinds of learning activities you had planned? How will group work continue if over half of a group “disappears” for a period of time?

Picture of head of giraffe, flexing sidewaysWill you consider members of two groups still “present” combining to form a new group and progressing with the class? Perhaps the sick students who return can also form a new group and pick up where they left off? How flexible is your LMS and creating/disassembling groups? Might want to learn that in advance of the start of class.

Flexibility for the Class

Black background, white text that says: "At some point you just have to let go of what you thought should happen and live in what is happening"What will you do, in a face-to-face or Hyflex class, if so many of you either become ill or are forced to quarantine, such that most learning grinds to a halt? Are you prepared to pivot to a completely remote learning environment? It might make the academic term easier if you begin planning for that possibility now. Consider starting to create videos/presentations of course material for the last half of the term now (my rationale is that the likelihood of the virus shutting down more of campus will build as the term unfolds). Do what you can, with the normal stresses of prepping for fall term and the additional stresses of COVID-19.

Think about the essential elements of your course—which learning objectives, content, and assessments must be accomplished?  If worse comes to pass, focus on those, and help your students to do the same.

Flexibility in Course Structure

Think about scheduling some “catch our breath” events built into the course structure. It might be a long weekend at the end of every major section of the course or it might be offering a “drop one assessment” option (even if you have never done that before). The week of the presidential election will likely be a week where many of us–faculty, students, and staff–will be glued to the national and local news. Maybe have less/no assessments due that week? Or try to front-load your class as much as you can, because many colleagues’ classes will have a lot of work due near the end of the semester.

Yellow stickers with emotional faces: smiling, sad, unemotional, angryAnd take the emotional temperature of your class often. There might be a time when it is just clear most are exhausted, scared, and not up to the mental energy that learning takes. Be flexible enough to call it a day. Do the same for yourself, too!

Remember—like Spring 2020, Fall 2020 will be a term unlike others. So give the gift of flexibility to your students, your colleagues, your family, and yourself.

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.


Software: Friend and Foe in Online Larger Classes

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); 5 (Communicating with Your Large Online Class). Again, apologies for a longer-than-usual post.

So you are doing an online large class this fall! Congratulations!! That means you will be using/trying to use/fighting to use/fighting with…several kinds of software. So let’s talk about what you might want to consider using. A confession—I have not used some of these as pedagogical software but I have been keeping up with stories about software on Academic Twitter, blogs, and educational websites during the pandemic. I also urge you to check with your institution’s Instructional Technology staff to ensure that using any of these software packages would not violate local IT policies, FERPA, or other laws about privacy, etc. Some of these would require a license (either for your course to use it or for the institution). I won’t keep posting URLs for Adobe, Cisco Webex, Google Suite, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom, but they often have products which will help. For some, I have given links to “how to do it” help videos or information.

 Do’s and Don’t with Software in Large Classes

Woman sitting at computer screen, with coffee cup When hundreds of eyes will be watching what you prepare—be it pedagogical presentations, how you organize the LMS, the audiovisuals you choose and which you make in order to share content—there are some things to consider.

-Don’t use software if you are not comfortable with it. Practice, practice some more, and then even more. The last thing you want is to so post a presentation whose audio won’t play or you tell them it is captioned and the words don’t make sense, etc. Those kinds of errors will guarantee that you’ll have a lot of emails to read from frazzled students. You might also lose some of their interactional trust.

-Some software (i.e., those which are bundled with texts) often ask you to set up and account and to sign in as a faculty member. Do your best to also set up an account as a student—the software can look very different using the student view. If you can, be sure you have the student account “open” when you write directions about how to use the software, especially for an assessment.

-Use screen captures to illustrate each key step in setting up the software and to show how to use it. I use the snipping tool in Microsoft to take static screen captures. If you want to make a video about how to use the software, there is software which allow you to do this (e.g., Camtasia, Screencast-O-Matic, etc.). Remember to caption the video!

-Check for software updates before you need to use the software, so that you don’t keep synchronous students waiting. Also check with your institution’s IT staff about if you should update, before doing so.

Orange thought bubble that says, "How do I?"-Make a “how do I?” sheet for each software you are using. For some, that might be a set of index cards stapled together. For others of us, it might be online “sticky notes” which stay on one of your screens or a Google/Word form you create and fill out for each software. (I hope you have at least two screens – it will make online teaching so much easier!) What should you note as a reminder

-Your faculty account’s username and password for that software

-Your student account’s username and password (if you created one in this software)

-Your institution’s Instructional Technology helpline phone numbers/email address

-How to start up the software and login

-How to get out of the software if it crashes

-How to turn volume up and down

-How to change whose screen is displayed

-How to call on someone else/share the screen with someone else

-How to display different windows from your computer

-How to admit individuals into a group (and what is the upper limit of number of individuals possible in that software? Might be a different number for free or paid versions.)

-How to turn on captioning

-How to turn on a pen or some other tool to use onscreen

-How to access a chat room in the software and how to select another individual to manage the chat room (if possible)

-How to save the screen/file, including any additions you made while teaching, before exiting the software

 The Learning Management System

You likely will not have a choice about what LMS to use—it will be whatever your institution uses. As I mentioned in week 3’s post on accessibility, ask about the actual level of accessibility that your IT and teaching and learning staff believe the LMS has and don’t believe the company’s PR hype.

A key question is which other pedagogical software will interface well with your institution’s LMS—if you are selecting software that many others have used, for example, this past spring, then there will be many who can help you to avoid issues. But if you are pioneering software to use with your LMS, then expect to have more integration issues and create a policy for what to do if an assessment or group activity doesn’t work.

Polling Software

Graphic: tablet or phone sending information to an online pollIf you want to get a snapshot of your students’ learning, and you are teaching a synchronous online class, you probably want to consider some sort of polling software, either as a standalone or an addition to your presentation slides. (It would work for asynchronous, but you’ll need to set a time for when students must use it, in order for you to have that diagnostic ability to make any content additions/clarifications.) Polling can be especially useful for what I call “content trip wires” – a small set of concepts, theories, or skills that you know have confused many students in previous terms. If this is your first time teaching the class, see if other faculty can provide you a list of this content, so that you can focus on them. Here’s an example of this kind of polling question:

How do you clean your residence when a person is coming to visit for the first time? Do you…

1) Clean only the parts of the residence where the guest could likely go (living room, bathroom, maybe kitchen). Put all the mess in another room and close the door.

2) Clean the entire residence, “just in case” the person visits a room not planned.

I use this question in part because it gets a lot of conversation and laughter going, but it allows me to introduce the concepts of “presentation of self” and “how an object (the door) can symbolize something else (keep out/privacy).” We talk a lot about what the closed door could represent—normally we decide that it means “if you open this door, and violate the social norm about not opening a door in someone’s private space, then you don’t get to judge the mess you might find there.” That is a great segue way into symbolic interactionism as a theoretical perspective, and so on.

Done well, polls can also build student connection and engagement. You could ask a question without one correct answer. It will require each student to wrestle with how to find an answer. This could become the springboard for quick group formation (either those who used the same process or the same answer) or a more detailed discussion board conversation between a small group of students.

I suggest class polls should be low-stakes assessments—if they are even graded. Think of them more as diagnostic tools (and teach students to consider them that way as well) and perhaps make each question 1 point.

Cisco Webex:


Poll Everywhere:



 Breakout Groups and Projects

Again, most LMSs will allow you to create smaller groups. They can be sent emails, use discussion boards, create group chats, etc. However, most LMSs do not allow for simultaneous editing of a document, something groups often want to do. Also, many LMS software will add you to each group. That means you will receive every email from a group member to the group (sometimes you cannot be unselected even if a student wanted to take you off the email chain!). Some software will allow groups to manage their own projects.


Buckets*  (similar to Slack, Kanban, Trello)


-adding captioning  to-a-video.html?fbclid=IwAR3QAHQGh2aoGAKzZTjK4dkOke6M4PvCUW-   rD7zJ27dPTekui4spdf1ulPw


Google Jamboard (white board):

Google Meet: (how to set up video)

Hypothesis for Education (collaborative annotation software):

Excel as Project Management Tool


Padlet :

Slack (project management, group communication, etc.):

Trello (project management – more visual foci): (infographic creation)

Zoom Meetings


Bower, Matt and Jodie Torrington. Typology of Free Web-based Learning Technologies

Carnegie Mellon University’s Pedagogical Considerations for Teaching with Zoom:

Bruff, Derek. Active Learning in Hybrid and Physically Distanced Classrooms (some ideas could translate to online only environments)

Darby, Flower with James M. Lang. 2020. Small Teaching Online. Jossey-Bass. (E-book available)

Davidson, Cathy. The Single Most Essential Requirement in Designing a Fall Online Course (the role of trauma)

Foss, Katherine A. “The Optional Zoom: Connecting with Students (while Reducing Your Grading)

Free Resources for STEM Educators

Georgia Tech’s Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics, and Computing. STEAM from a Distance Education Resources

How to Teach Remotely: The Ultimate Guide

LearnWords: The 22 best training video software


Open Resource Courses about Online Course Design

Pandemic Pedagogy Facebook Group

Sh!ft Disruptive Learning:

Toor, Rachel. Turns Out You Can Build Community in a Zoom Classroom.

Top Take-Home STEM Resources for School Closings

University of British Columbia’s Centre for Teaching, Learning, and Technology’s Online Teaching Program

Whitaker, Manya. What an Ed-Tech Skeptic Learned about Her Own Teaching in the Covid-19 Crisis. 248876?cid= wcontentgrid _hp_9

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).

*My nephew works for this software company. I used it to manage our move from GA to NC and use it to manage my editing business. Larger organizations have used the software to manage projects and connect individuals in a variety of worksites.

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).


Going Big, Online (Pt 1 of series)

Large college classroom, full of studentsSo you taught a large face-to-face class (150+ students) and you now find yourself having to redesign it for an online environment, perhaps permanently. First—I can empathize with you. While I never went completely online with my classes of 275+ (what my institution called a “supersection”), all but the class meetings and some office hours were in an online environment. And I prepared most of my class meetings for online delivery just in case it was every needed.

I taught these supersections of Introduction to Sociology every semester for a decade. I’ve probably made every mistake—interactional, technological, about classroom management—that someone could make. I’ll share some of them in the next few weeks and also some of the techniques that worked well for me and for others I know who have taught large sections online.

Zoom screen with 25 people participatingSo in a series of posts, I will offer some suggestions if you didn’t make the transition during the spring but now find yourself faced with a fall large class. Let’s start the series with some questions:

-How familiar are you with the course management system offered by your institution? Can you get more training now—preferably before the course begins, if you don’t feel very comfortable with it?

-What other software can you use for your course, which is supported by your institution’s IT staff? (You really don’t want to be using software not supported during this kind of transition, with several hundred students, trust me on this. Been there, done it, lots of tears!)

-How familiar are your intended students with the course management system? Other software you want to use? Or are your students likely to be new to all or some of them? I usually taught first-year students, so they were new to our course management system and many had not used anything similar in high school. Some had a steep learning curve.

-Will you have any pedagogical help? A graduate student assistant? An embedded undergraduate peer tutor? Academic coaches? Beg and plead for all the assistance you can.

-Does your institution have an Academic Support Center? An Instructional Technology Support Center? Online Library staff? What hours will they be open during the term you are teaching? How can you and your students interact with these crucial staff members?

-Do you have required pedagogical experiences such as laboratories, service-learning, or observations in the face-to-face class? Will you transition all of those experiences in some way to the online experience?

-To the best that you can know it now, what is your institution’s plan for reopening? Are there policies being created about, for example, you being able to meet with small groups from class, in an open area, or could you reserve a smaller classroom? Will you be allowed to have in-person office hours as well as online office hours, if you wished to do so?

-Is there a chance that you could be told to deliver face-to-face AND online content for the same large section, with students choosing which content delivery they want to have on any given day, based on their health status and other choices?

-What is your institution’s plan if you get sick (and not necessarily just from Covid-19!) and are teaching online (especially important if you have no assistance)?

-What instructional materials will you use?

-Open educational resources? If so, have you read through them all? Do you have the ability to add notes/make changes to any which might conflict with how you teach the material? [I have found that students struggle mightily when what I am sharing is contradicted or even slightly different than what the text says. The last online text I used allowed me to line through any text I didn’t want them to read and insert a “text bubble” with what I wanted instead. It really helped!]

-What online resources do you have available? Does the text have online exercises or applications or visuals which you can assign? Again, have you looked at them all/watched the ones you are likely to assign?

-Are all the visual materials chosen accessible? (This will be the topic of a post in this series, so if you are not sure – I’ll help.)

-Have you looked at your selected resources on screens/monitors of several sizes? Think from a large, gaming monitor, to a standard monitor, to a phone—students should comfortably be able to access your educational materials using any of these technologies.

-How likely is it that most of your students will be enrolled in online-only courses? There can be an increasing amount of “screen fatigue” with more classes taught that way (it can happen to you, too!). Think about that as you contemplate the amount of work you are assigning.

Text says: "Make the plan, execute the plan, expect the plant to go off the rails, throw away the plan"And of course, other than knowing what CV-19 is going to do in your area, the biggest set of questions is: What is your institution’s plan for the fall? When will it be decided? And how flexible is it/will it have to be?

Here’s how I see the series unfolding, but if people suggest other topics, it could change. Some of these might be longer than usual, but to make the series useful, making it be over too many weeks won’t help much. If people would like me to do the series at a faster rate, just let me know in the comments, I can do that too!:

Week 1:  Some questions to think about

Week 2:  Designing for and with accessibility

Week 3:  Backwards designing your class, for its content and the changed circumstances of Fall 2020

Week 4:  Assessments that engage them (and you!)

Week 5:  Communication: tone, honesty, and humor

Week 6:  What classes might look like come fall and building student engagement for different options

Week 7:  I can’t believe I did that–but I did–please learn from my failures  (I might choose to weave these through each post, again, in an effort to share my pedagogical tips out quickly.)

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

Now, it’s your turn

Closeup of typewriter, with the words "The end"You made it. You pivoted to teaching, learning, advising, counseling, teaching labs, and even physical education, online, with little or no time to breathe. You had to do it—and you did. Many of you did it while also becoming teacher to your own little ones, who were home with you.

Pink flower, gently opening; above it, says "It's time to take care of yourself"But as the academic term winds down, I worry about each of you. How will you decompress? What do you need to decompress? How will you heal your body and soul from the stresses of the last two months? All while knowing that the next few months might not be necessarily that different. Staring into a future that is so uncertain brings its own stresses. So before you focus on the future (summer and fall academic terms): Stop. Breathe. Take care of yourself. Take care of your loved ones. Do nothing for a while. Turn off the notifications on your phone(s).

Just be.