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.

Failing…Get Used To It, Use It, and It’ll Be Ok

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); 6 (Software: Friend or Foe in Online Larger Classes); and 7 (Online Testing in Large Classes—Tips to Help). Again, apologies for a longer-than-usual post.

Whether it will be a pedagogical mess-up, a live slip of the tongue, a tech mistake, or something worse—at least once you will fail in front of/with your class. In fact—expect it, be ready for it, and use it to show your students that failure isn’t the end—but can be the beginning of real learning. I previously cataloged a list of teaching failures which can happen to any teacher, any time. Most if not all of these have happened to me!

Common Teaching Failures*

Kind of Error Possible Contexts When Error Might Occur Examples of Errors
Content mistake -Lectures


-Presentation slides



-During office hours

-Mistakenly list the types of suicide, according to Durkheim

-Incorrectly perform mathematical operation while teaching a statistical formula


Linguistic mistakes -In class

-Typos in written communication

-Saying “Marx” when you meant “Max” (as in Max Weber

-Saying “conflict theory” when you meant to say “control theory”

Procedural mistake -In class

-In email

-During office hours

-Tell students that the test is over Chapters 5-8 when it is over 4-7 instead

-Tell class wrong date for next test

Technology mistake -In class

-In cyberspace

-Send private email to entire class

-Respond with incorrect information to student’s email

-Forget electronic file needed for class

-Forget USB stick

Emotion Management -In class

-In office

-During office hours

-Over email

-Humorous remark to student (in person or in writing) that is interpreted by student as hurtful

-Displaying anger about something in one or more students’ work

-Expressing frustration when a student asks a question which you just answered several times

Technology fails -In class

-In classroom management system

-Computer will not turn on, so cannot show presentation slides

-Not having a backup plan sans technology

-“Clicker” software did not gather data from students

Classroom management -In class


-Not enforcing classroom norms consistently

-Not containing an angry student’s in-class tirade and others become involved

-Real or seeming favoritism of some students over others

 P. 130 in In the Trenches: Teaching and Learning Sociology by Maxine P. Atkinson and Kathleen S. Lowney (W. W. Norton 2016).

Teaching in an online environment can increase the likelihood of moments of failure, but let’s be honest, they happen all the time, no matter the type of environment in which the learning is occurring. Let me own some of my worst moments, both in face-to-face classes and in online ones, and give some advice about how to process them—for you and for your students.

Word bubble that says "Oops!"You might have changed your syllabus for teaching and learning in this pandemic moment. Perhaps you changed the order of learning modules or changed point totals for assessments, etc., from what you have done before. Be careful—old habits can be hard to break. In a moment of exhaustion or when responding to a slew of questions, you might answer and the “old answer” just flows out of you and onto the screen. Then you “send”—and it all hits the fan! This happened to me when, one semester, I changed the point total for each test from 75 points to 60 points, for a variety of pedagogical reasons. I was tired after a long week; I sketched out the test in my head and then typed the “test announcement” post, breaking down the structure of the 75 point test. I posted it and went to bed for a while. I came back on a few hours later to well over 100+ comments on the class discussion board, many of them quite hostile. Why? Because I forgot that I made that 75 to 60 point change in the tests and wrote 75. They thought I was changing the structure of the course on them in an underhanded manner and many were NOT happy!

I messed up in two ways. First, I shouldn’t have posted that important an announcement while that tired. It never goes well. And second, I should have checked the syllabus before posting to verify that I was following it exactly (or else explained it if I was not). We often complain about students not reading the syllabus, but I think one common faculty mistake can be not double-checking the syllabus before we say something to our students. In particular, in the middle of a pandemic, when nerves can already be frayed and everyone is exhausted—print out a copy of your syllabus and have it right in front of you whenever you reply to students. Do the same thing for each assessment and its directions. It will save you lots of heartaches. This might mean that for certain questions, you have to write the student and say something like, “I want to get you the right answer to your question, so I need a while until I can access my folder at home (or the LMS copy of the syllabus, or whatever it might be).” Try to give the student a good-faith estimate of when you will get back to the student—then live up to it, to the best that you can.

I apologized to my students the moment I understood what happened—via a class email in the LMS, an announcement in the LMS, and on our class’ Facebook page. I explained what had happened (I was supported by a student who had enrolled the semester before but who withdrew, who was now re-enrolled, who spoke up and said, “Yup, her tests were 75 points last semester!”) and what I had learned by my error.

Mobile phone, flashlight app turned onAnother fail—this one is embarrassing to share. It happened in my large face-to-face class just three years ago, but the lesson learned translates easily to the online environment. Due to a leaking AC system, my class had to shift quickly to a new classroom, the theatre in the Student Union. While I had attended many events in that theatre, I had never taught there. The day we had to move, I was uncomfortable with some of the technology and where it was located. I also just had purchased a new iPhone (my first non-flip phone!). The room was far darker than I expected and I was trying to figure out how to turn up the lights a bit (they were controlled somewhere near the floor but on the podium). As someone with a mobility issue, I was also worried about all the technology cords taped to the floor, in a terrain I was not used to—and I was trying not to trip and fall. I could not figure out how to turn up the screen lights. I scrambled around in the darkness and finally asked if anyone had a flashlight on their phone. There were gasps—then one brave voice, about 4 rows back said, “Dr. L, there’s an app for that on the phone in your hand.” Oops—did I feel stupid! That student came up and showed me how to turn it on. Problem solved and we went on with class and I didn’t trip!

When teaching online, it might be how to share the screen with a student or how to mute someone momentarily due to background noise, etc.—but there will be something you either forgot how or don’t know how to do.** It’s okay. Ask your students for help! Someone will know or be willing to Google it for you. Use it as a teaching moment, about how we all have things to learn.

Another thing that teaching online can give you is the gift of double-checking. So please—use it. Don’t put something out there for your students without listening to what you have said, without proofing your text. This story is explained in more detail in the chapter in the book (see reference) but it illustrates a common linguistic error, where faculty say something that is not quite what we mean. Again, while this happened in a face-to-face class, it could easily have happened while recording a presentation for an online course.

I was talking about Herbert Spencer in a 5 hour, one night a week, sociological theory course. His writings often used the phrase “social organism,” often shorted to “organism” to refer to social collectives and groups. I had probably said the term about 20 times when it happened. I said “orgasm” instead. Yup—out loud. Different members of the class reacted at different speeds to my slip of the tongue—some looked down and away, others turned beet red, etc. I knew everyone had noticed it—so I made the decision to just correct myself and move on.

So far, so good. Until it happened again. And then I would stop, take a long pause before I had to say the word “organism” so that it didn’t happen again. Students caught on, and laughing, they’d shout out “organism” for me. My slip of the tongue happened once more and the entire class just collapsed, laughing hysterically. There were some tears too, mostly mine—from laughter and also embarrassment.

Typed paper and fountain pen. Lots of red ink editing on paper.But if I were recording a similar presentation, I would have the possibility to hear and fix that kind of error before posting it. Do you have a word which you often misspell? Make sure you add it to your writing software’s auto-correct function. And have someone else proof your slides, the transcript of the audio you create, etc. You should want to model for your students that double-check everything is a good strategy.

But when you do make an error, admit it, fix it, and talk about what you’ve learned from it. Students need to know that it is acceptable to fail in your classes, that it is a safe environment to practice picking themselves up and keep learning. So please be thoughtful when responding to a student who has failed–use language which focuses on the assessment not going well versus on the student themselves as a failure. That might necessitate you (or the student) taking a few hours to process emotionally what happened so that the joint brainstorming can be focused on strategies for the student’s success rather than justifications for what happened.

Text: "Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. -- Denis WaitleyFailure is part of being human. So is learning. Let your students see you fail and learn from it, so that they know it is okay when they fail. So they know they can rise above failure, if they are willing to put in the work to learn.

I hope that this 8-part series on how to take a large class online has been helpful. Much of what I’ve said is not “new” or “earthshaking”–I wanted to gather my thoughts and experiences with teaching a large class, which was partially online, for over a decade, to help those who are having to find their way for this fall. Happy to help–send me an email at

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.


Online Testing in Large Classes–Tips to Help

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); and 6 (Software: Friend or Foe in Online Larger Classes). Again, apologies for a longer-than-usual post. Next week wraps up the series, with a post on my pedagogical failures!

Computer screen graphic, with words "Online Test" and 2 of 3 boxes checkedIt’s time…to talk about testing in an online large class. It’s important to remember that testing is about assessing student learning versus simply student memorization of facts. So think about assessment strategies that ask students to apply course content to real-world problems versus simply solving formulaic test questions.

Online Low Stakes Quizzes

I believe in using online quizzes (versus tests) as “in the moment” assessments of students both before and after class/presentation where you ask to show students if they are understanding its content. These are low stakes, often can be easily created online (or use software from texts to create them) and give students rapid feedback. Such low stakes quizzes did not require significant security; I would create a bank of 50-80 questions (each student would see 5 questions) and randomize them so that it would be unlikely if students in the same room (I often had roommates taking my class) would see the same exact questions. I encourage you to create two types of questions; the first would be more about vocabulary, precise facts students need to learn while the second type would be application questions. For example, after we covered theories of social change (especially Durkheim, Marx, and Weber), I’d ask some questions to assess if students could differentiate between each of these men’s theories. Those might be two-thirds of the test bank questions for that quiz. But the other third would be application questions. Even though they might still be written as multiple choice or true/false questions, students needed to apply sociological knowledge in order to get the correct answer. I might ask a question—before the pandemic came–like “Think like Marx. Would he support social welfare programs, given by the state or federal government to poorer citizens of a country? Then there might be three or four possible answers, each would have a “yes” or “no” component but then also an explanation, which gets at the student’s deeper learning of Marx’s theory. The correct answer would be “No, because while Marx would not want people to be economically destitute, he realized that such welfare programs keep the poor just ‘not destitute enough’ to begin to organize and create the socialist revolution.” These kinds of application questions require more time to write—and rarely come with the text, so you will have to spend time creating them. Each section of the quiz would have its questions randomized (you want to be sure that each student has to do both kinds of questions).

Group Testing

group using phones (not socially distanced, I realize)Group testing works best if students have already been in small groups for some course activities (such as discussion boards) and have built up some trust. There are several possible ways to test:

-Have each student take a quiz (I suggest it count for points so that students take it seriously) about the content. Then a more application-based test is opened and the group submits one set of answers. The easiest way to approach grading the group test could be that it too is created/submitted online, so that you don’t have to get involved in the grading. Another way would be for the group to write a paragraph that explains their answer. Obviously, this is a more time-consuming grading event for you. It also creates opportunities for one or two students to “take control” and do all the work while others do not. To combat that, you could time the group and ask them to video their working to find answers and upload the video with their answers. I scan the video to look for the free-rider dilemma.

-Another option would be for the group to take a collective quiz first, giving them perhaps a day to do it, for a small set of points. While the same social phenomenon could occur, here it would be lessened because of the next step. After the group quiz is done, then each student must take an individual “follow up” test, after a day or two for students to do more learning.

-Have students write questions. I don’t suggest having this kind of test as the first one in an academic term—I would give one or two which you have written first so that they understand the level of complexity you are expecting of them. I have them submit several types of questions—from true/false to application questions—and the answers. This could be done individually or in groups. Points can be awarded for each question and also for each answer (in case there is a great question but the student or students answered it incorrectly—it has happened). Then post these questions as the test. When I did this, I reserved the right to create up to 15 percent of the test, so that I could “fill in” knowledge gaps. This kind of testing has to be a multi-stage process, because you will have to take their questions and copy them/recreate them in the testing software your institution uses. NOTE: I give content points for the questions/answers AND spelling/grammar points for this kind of test. I will correct grammar as I make the test (I don’t know how not to do so!) but I expect students to turn in their questions written correctly or else lose (some) points.

-Another way to consider testing in a large class is to give a “baseline” test after the end of a unit or section of the course. Have it be machine graded. Then students who fall below a certain grading standard have a certain amount of time for a ‘redo’ assessment. Have online hours to help students to relearn the material and to answer questions. Then only those students take another assessment. It might be a different version of the test; it might be an application of key concepts, etc. This allows you to zero in on students who are struggling with the content, help them, and give them opportunities to show you their learning. I suggest that a percentage of the 2nd score be added to their first score, versus just replacing the scores. I found that helped students who were not required to do the 2nd kind of assessment were often upset if the 2nd score was just swapped out for the 1st score of other students. This 2nd assessment (for far fewer students, I might add) might have to be hand graded.

Project-based Testing

Give a group of students a case study and ask them to use a specific set of theories/concepts to analyze the case study or to propose multiple solutions (depending on what case study is about). Part of the project might be a required page of definitions used/explanations in their words. Grade for those specific theories/concepts and then give them points for creative use of a certain number of theories/concepts that the group chooses. This way the group can feel some autonomy and control over their final product. See part 4 of this series (linked above) for more ideas on group projects.

One issue with project-based testing/assessment is trying to ensure that the case studies require approximately the same level of skills and application of knowledge. Read through each case study and list skills, theories, and concepts. Be sure that one doesn’t require more advanced statistical analysis than the others, etc.

Security of Testing

proctored testI start from a certain perspective: I trust my students, but I also verify. In face-to-face large classes, I sometimes would hear of students going into the classroom the night before (the room was open) and writing notes on the back of the seats. I didn’t care who it was who might be doing it—I learned to arrive early on test days and I cleaned the backs of every chair which had notes (sociological in content or otherwise). I didn’t note who later sat in those chairs, I just frustrated any possible cheating attempts.

Concerning online testing, I made two choices which impacted security:

-First, for tests (as opposed to quizzes which I used more as assessing reading comprehension before content was covered), I always wrote my own test questions.  And I wrote a lot of test questions. In face-to-face classes of 300+ students, I usually made 8 versions of the test and ran each of them off on different color paper and then mixed them up before passing them out. I used those questions and created more each time I created a test, so that I had lots to choose from; and

-Second, I randomized everything (quizzes and tests). So the chance of any two students, who, for example, might be roommates both working on sociology at the same time, would see the same questions, was low.

I did not use a security system like Respondus or ProctorU. Seek help from your institution’s instructional technology unit or your center for teaching and learning (if you have one) about what test security software is available on your campus and how to use it. Such software takes a bit of preparation, so try it out now while you are not being bombarded with questions confused students, feeling pressure because of a timed deadline (from your perspective as a professor and also see if you can get a few students to show you from their perspective so that you can see any difficult steps and can highlight them on your directions). Consider making a video that shows how to log in to the security software and your test as well as a handout. Attach it to the test link in your learning management system AND send it out in advance to the entire class (via email, LMS announcement, etc.). Both should be placed in the FAQ section of your class’ LMS.

If your institution requires students to pay for their test security, be sure that you let them know that early (hopefully it is flagged when they register for the course) but definitely put it in the syllabus and talk about it more than one week in advance of the first test. Remember that some students might need time to raise that money!

Testing for a large online class requires more preparation. I tended to write 5-10 questions every workday, so that I would have new questions to add to the test bank. Adding them usually took another day or so of my time. So any of those tasks which you can do in advance of the term starting—it’s worth it! At least try to get the first major test set up soon, and then start working on the next one once the term starts. Again, it helped that I had nearly a decade’s worth of questions to use in my test creation. I remember the frustrations as I began that process, but you can do it!

I’m here to answer any questions you might have—please let me know how I can help.

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 1 more post in the series – on pedagogical failures.

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.

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


I distinctly recall the first time someone told me to “SWAT”—sit, write, and think. I thought, how crazy. Who writes before thinking? That seemed just backwards. I was wrong. Very wrong. Very, very wrong. Oh so wrong.

I’ve learned that—contrary to what I used to believe—doing the writing can help me to overcome writer’s block. Writing frees me, letting me map out an argument I want to make or plot out the story which I want to tell. Even more importantly, writing helps me to overcome the fear of writing.

Woman, head down on blank notebook, holding pen--writer's blockNow don’t get me wrong, when I am in the midst of a writer’s block (better labeled, at least for me, a ‘procrastination binge’), the writing that I do isn’t usually my best—but I have come to respect it. The writing is often raw, jumbled, confused—but they are words on paper and that’s infinitely better than no words on paper. SWAT writing shows me where I have competing trains of thought that need some attention in order for me to sort which is the better one to follow.

SWAT-ting takes away one other excuse I make for not writing-that I need blocks of time in order to do any productive writing. I can SWAT in a coffee shop waiting for my order to arrive or while sitting in a physician’s office waiting my turn to speak with the receptionist. As long as I have a notebook and pen, I have everything I need to write something.

So what kinds of things have I written-in-order-think?

-Chapter outlines of monograph I am starting

-Section headings within a chapter

-Chapter “descriptions” which briefly summarize what the chapter will be and key examples I want to use in it

-Draft of section of report due to the administration

-Bullet points for a new class presentation

-Thoughts toward a professional presentation later in the year

-Emotions about writing projects—fear, exhilaration, uncertainty

-A wish list—what I’d love to write, “if only…”

For many, a new academic term is about to start (or already has). How can you utilize SWAT-ting over the next few months? Be sure that you have the tools which work best for your lifestyle. Are you someone who, perhaps because of teaching at several schools or doing a lot of waiting in line with your children, could use a recording app on your phone to capture your thoughts?

Or do you need to see your words flow out onto paper in order to feel like you are actually writing? Then figure out what kind of a notebook would work best for you. While I love Circa products, I found that the sheets could too easily come out in the massive book bag which I carry. So I went back to a more traditional, bound notebook. And while I love lined paper, lately I have found that a graphing notebook works best for me, especially when I am  creating lists of ideas.

Don’t get me started on what pen to use! While I am a fountain pen aficionado, I have had too many documents destroyed from leaks while in my book bag, so that I stopped using them anywhere but in my home office. But if you need a gel-type pen while out and about, then I’m your person. Teaching a large class meant that several students (and often more than several) borrowed writing implements before every class. I learned to carry about 30 pens with me at all times. Even now—retired—when I use my book bag, it still contains a fabric case with about 20 gel pens. I want to be ready when free time, strikes. Notice I didn’t say when “inspiration” strikes—just time to write. The thinking and analysis, will come. I promise.

So readers, what projects could benefit from you SWAT-ting this week?


A compilation of voice recording apps (free and paid versions, iOS and Android):

Circa paper/organizational products:

Less expensive alternatives to Circa, reviewed here:

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









So You Heard Back from the Journal Editor: Now What?

I’ve been on both sides of the author-editor relationship. I was an editor of the American Sociological Association’s sole pedagogical journal, Teaching Sociology, from 2010-2014. In those five years, I wrote over a thousand decision letters; I struggled with each one. How to encourage realistically some, let others down gently but honestly, and celebrate with those who were to be published. And while I have had many articles and several books published, I have also felt the sting of what I felt were unfair editorial decisions. I’ve had my share of “Reviewer 2’s” inappropriate or off-topic comments. I want to share some thoughts–especially for newer authors—about how to navigate the next steps after your receive an editor’s decision letter.

Icon of email, with notification of 1 unopened emailYou know that moment—the one when you receive the “decision email” from the editor of a journal where you’ve submitted a manuscript. My congratulations—at least you have heard back! [For purposes of this blog post, I’ll be assuming it was not rejected shortly after submission, but instead was sent out for review.]

Receiving the email does not mean you have to open it immediately. How’s your day going? Are you headed off to class or a meeting or to pick kids up at their schools? Then perhaps this isn’t the best time to open the email. Wait until you have more time and are less stressed to open it—but don’t let it sit for more than 72 hours. If you do that, your anxiety might build so much that you might never open the email!

So read it—no more than three times, I suggest. Feel whatever emotions you feel, for a few days. But then it’s time to get to work.

Decision: Revise and Resubmit

Text, with lots of handwritten notes and fountain penWhile journals may use other nomenclature, the editor is saying to you: “I am not accepting the manuscript now. But if you revised it along the lines I am telling you, I will look at it again.” How much work there is to do will be specified in the editor’s letter to you—or should be.

As an editor, I tried to identify “major concerns” and “less major” ones in my letter, but not all editors will construct the decision letter that way. So how should you—the author—respond to the editor’s and reviewers’ comments? I suggest you open a new document and make a table with three columns. In the first column, I would copy the gist of each and every editorial and reviewer comment. In the second column, I would summarize where in the revised document I responded to the editor’s/reviewer’s comment and, briefly, how I addressed the comment. If I chose to ignore a comment, I would also say that. In the third column, I would briefly write why I made the changes which I did.  (I always created the table in landscape mode, so that I had a bit more room to write.)

I also wrote the editor a cover letter to the revised manuscript. In that letter, I focused on any changes I chose not to make and offered more detail on changes which I did make. Aim to have the cover letter be about 2-3 pages long. The table was where I did most of the work of explaining my revision choices.

I tried to listen to the editor’s and reviewers’ comment but never gave up my own vision of and for the manuscript. Most of my revisions were successful; others, not so much.

Decision: Rejection  [Either by editor alone or after submitted to reviewers]

Stamper and stamp, in red, which says "Rejected"These hurt. I don’t think anyone who’s being truthful will say anything different. Expect it to take a while for the hurt to recede to a point where you can think about and work on the manuscript again. Usually after a few days, I was able to see even a few good ideas, despite the rejection. I could use those points to revise the manuscript a bit or a lot. I’d tried to take no more than a month to make some revisions and to spend time researching new journals for which the revised manuscript would be suitable. The “month as goal” was because of how hectic my schedule was. If yours is less so, try for 2 weeks or even a few days. My goal was to send the revised manuscript out to a new journal within six weeks. Sometimes it didn’t take that long. At least once I sent the original manuscript out the same day that I opened the “reject” email—and the 2nd journal accepted it, with limited edits.

Very rarely, I found trying to revise the manuscript became confusing and I walked away from that writing project. That’s only happened five times in my career, and three of them I ultimately came back to a few years later and started over. The other two times I simply realized that I was not the best author for that project. It hurt to walk away, absolutely, but for whatever reason, I couldn’t communicate what I thought I wanted to say. I kept these projects in my computer and in my filing cabinet for quite a while before I made peace with this decision. One project I gifted to a colleague who expressed interest when I posted on Facebook that I had all these books, notes, and drafts of an article about autobiographies of individuals with multiple personality disorder/dissociative identity disorder and asked if anyone wanted them or they would be recycled, when I was packing up to retire.

Decision: Conditional Accept or An Outright Accept

Computer keys which say "Conditional Acceptance"Congratulations! These rarely happen, if one looks at journal acceptance rates. So celebrate your success. But even these type of decision letters could still include requests for revisions, sometimes even substantial ones. Be careful about this—you will need to make all/most of the changes in order to actually get the manuscript published, in the timeline outlined in the editor’s letter.

Other Tips

-Please follow the timeline suggested by the editor. If possible, resubmit your edited manuscript early—editors love that! If you cannot meet the editor’s timeline, discuss it with the editor ASAP (email or over the phone). This is particularly important with conditional acceptances. Most likely the editor has already slotted it into a future edition, assuming that you can and will make the required edits. If that is not true, contact the editor quickly so that s/he can change the production schedule.

Angry woman holding phone and yelling into it-If you feel that a comment by the editor or a reviewer is unfair, biased, or unprofessional, contact the editor. If the comment is by a reviewer though, take a few minutes to reread what the editor wrote. Did she or he even include the comment in things you must respond to or was that comment ignored completely? Trust me, editors know when a reviewer is a jerk! But I never told an author to do anything with those comments or I told them clearly to ignore such comments and focus their revision on the comments of the other reviewers. Remember, most reviewers get a copy of the decision letter, so that reviewer would see that I either ignored it or told the author to forget about that comment. And I didn’t stop there—I would call or email that reviewer, explaining why I felt the comment was unprofessional or biased, and why I would never use that reviewer again. Not all authors realize that many journals require editors to send all reviewers’ comments to the author—that is to say, many editors do not have the power to withhold an unprofessional review from the author. I only had three reviewers who I decided to never use again; all because they wrote 2-line reviews.

Sign in 4 directions, which say, "Respect," "Ethics," Integrity," and "Honesty"-Depending on your research topic, you might need to include a statements about research ethics involved in your manuscript and perhaps if the Institutional Review Board for the Protection of Human Subjects (IRB) approved of the research methods in advance of data collection. As an editor of a social science journal which also was a pedagogically-oriented journal, where students were often research subjects, all published manuscripts had to address IRB issues (either in manuscript or in a footnote). If you are doing research involving animals, you might have to include a similar ethics statement about the protections used. So don’t forget that section—it might mean the difference between a “revise and resubmit” versus a “conditional acceptance.”

Next week’s blog I’ll answer some of the most common questions I was asked during my time as an editor. If you have some this week, post them in the comments and check back next week.

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

Setting the Tone: Communicating with Your Soon-to be Students Before the First Day of Class

Partial image of stop watch, with text tha says "The Time Is " It’s nearly that time—fall classes will begin soon. So let’s think about ways to communicate with your soon-to-be students. I liked to reach out early, setting the tone for our class and how we’ll interact and challenge each other. So if you’re like me, what do you want to accomplish with this early communication? Here were some of my goals (what follows is primarily how I communicated with my first-year new-to-college Intro Soc students:

Black and white image of outline of human body; text says "Let me introduce myself"-Briefly introduced myself. I shared my full name, the 2 names I wanted them to use when talking or writing me, a bit of my background, and how I fell in love with Sociology.

-Location, day, and time our class met. I embedded a section of the campus map which highlighted the easiest route from the residence halls to the classroom, so that students understood the distance and time it would take them to get there. I did the same from the main parking lot for students who might live off campus.

-Class requirements. I listed the full name and edition of the text and which text modalities they could use (i.e., e-book only, hardback only, e-book and hardback, or buying it in a spiral notebook). I shared the pro’s and con’s of each modality (e.g., price, ease of highlighting/taking notes, etc.). I also shared that each student would need a “clicker”/audience response system (I talked briefly about what clickers were, including a link to my school’s webpage about clickers and the pedagogy that supports their use, especially in large classes such as mine, which had up to 350 students enrolled), that in most cases, a used one would be fine [though were more likely to need a new battery during the academic term with a used one]. I talked about my institution’s learning management system, and how one could log into the LMS once classes started. I talked about how I can struggle with new technology—and I promised that I, my graduate assistants, and our embedded undergraduate peer tutor would be here to help them master all the technology. In fact, I scheduled a “tech day” (the 2nd Tuesday of the term) for us to go over together all the technology used in the class—the LMS, the e-book (which most purchased), and the online quizzes from the text which students had to take before every class).

-Information about Sociology. I shared that I believe humans are “amateur sociologists” just by living out our daily lives and interacting with others. A large part of the Introduction to Sociology course would be learning the formal vocabulary of the discipline. Our class would take that “lived ability” and test it against sociological concepts and theories. We’d see that what we think we know about people and how they “tick” is not accurate.

-First assignment. I would end my communication by giving each student something to do before our first class meets. Since this class would be all first-time college students, I tried to tailor the assignment to what they might be going through the last few weeks before the term started and the move-in experience. I made sure that we talked about half of these as icebreakers the first day of class and the rest on the second day, because I needed students to know that I could be trusted—that if I asked them to do something, we would discuss it soon after. Here are just a few of the ideas I used:

-Notice if you say “goodbye” differently to friends versus family. If you did, why might that be?

-Were there “elevator courtesy rules” during the move-in process? If so, what were they? Did they change once most students had moved in and classes began? [I knew that many of my students would be living in two residence halls that were 4 and 6 stories tall, so that elevators are crucial to life in the residence hall.]

-Were there dining hall courtesy rules which they noticed? For example, if one went alone versus with a group of people?

-How did you decide on what to wear for the first day of our class? Why did you decide on those clothes?

-What kinds of conversations have you had with your roommates/suitemates? Are there any topics you are trying to avoid in these early days of living together? Why?

-Why did they select the seat they did for each class?

Faculty who teach other disciplines could easily adapt this idea of assigning students a brief task to do before class begins. Each of our disciplines have concepts which fascinates or confounds students—use one of them. Your goal is to get them thinking in the ways needed for your course.

How did I communicate with my class? Some learning management systems allow faculty to set up a “preview page”—this could go there. But that involves one large assumption—that students know how to navigate the learning management system well enough to find your course. I am not sure that is a safe assumption. But my institution did not turn on that tool.

Traditional mailbox, red flag in "up" position; and envelope inside that says "You've Got Mail"I could have sent an email within the learning management system, but there again, it would require students to know how to log into the system and find our class. So I didn’t use that means of communication either.

But there were other available ways to contact students—I could have emailed the class via Banner (registration/registrar software). This was my chosen way of communicating with my soon-to-be student, but again, there was one problem: when to send the email. As we all know, registration ebbs and flows, sometimes considerably, in the few weeks before a term begins. I would keep a copy of the sent email and compare it to the class roster once a week before classes began. I would then send out another email, just to “new adds” from the week before. Even in a class as large as mine was, this took no more than half an hour, once a week. I was lucky though; changing enrollment was less problematic in my fall courses, because normally at least seventy-five percent of the students in my course were in learning communities with three required courses, one of which was Sociology. So these students were less likely to de-enroll in the course, because it would have meant changing 3 classes (or more), not just their Sociology course.

Some faculty share the course syllabus before the class begins. I often do that for upper division courses, but I feel that sharing it with first-year students can simply overwhelm them. I wanted to meet them, let them begin to see me as their cheerleader and a leader they can trust, before they see the complete syllabus. But that’s my choice; follow what you think is best for your incoming students.

What matters most is your tone. You want to communicate that your class will have a culture of inquiry, where questions are welcomed, and where intellectual curiosity is everyone’s responsibility, not just yours. Try not to focus on classroom rules–instead focus on what students will take from the class and why those are important concepts to be carried into their careers. So be open, friendly, and curious–about them and about your academic discipline.

So readers, do you communicate with your students before you actually meet them? If so, what are your goals? Let’s share pedagogical thoughts in the comments.

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