We’ve blocked off time on our calendars on weekdays through Dec. 30 to hold drop-in sessions dedicated to supporting instructors at the end of the semester, so please stop in via Collaborate Ultra (you can also request a one-on-one consultation if you aren’t able to make these times).View Accessible Version
By the time this post is published, we’ll be past the halfway mark of the fall semester. Adding the spring semester to this fall, that’s around a full semester of mostly online, virtual synchronous, and blended/hybrid instruction. These are instructional modalities that some instructors and students are disinclined to use. But here we are, nonetheless, making the best of things. Students are continuing their educational journey in what are for many new and uncomfortable environments, while instructors are wrestling with providing an equitable learning experience through technology and perseverance.
It is perhaps because of the focus on providing remote students all of the same information and activities that we can sometimes forget to include “us.” Online education can often devolve into a series of tasks that one checks off. We meander into holding virtual correspondence courses, silently reviewing student homework, assessments, and discussion posts and assigning scores.
When we’re teaching in-person, having a side conversation with students before or after class or an informal chat during group worktime can be a trivial task to complete and also be rewarding for students and instructors at the same time. Office hours, although perhaps underutilized, provide another opportunity for ad-hoc in-person engagement with students. But what happens when we don’t actually see our students? Where do ad-hoc and interpersonal conversations go? Some people may argue the lack of that type of engagement with our students and them with us is part and parcel of online instruction.
“Online students choose this environment.”
—Made-up instructor used for narrative purposes
Even if one does subscribe to that approach, the nature of our current educational environment includes many remote students who did not choose their current learning environment. They prefer in-person education, talking with their peers and instructors, and a structured educational experience. Online students prefer personal interactions with their instructors as well! In fact, it’s been shown to positively relate to student grades (Jaggars, S. & Xu, D., 2013)
So how does one recreate the feeling of connectedness, ad-hoc conversations, and interpersonal engagement with remote students? We’ve provided some examples of how instructors can do this while increasing their “there-ness” in courses, below.
Provide timely feedback on student work
Assignment and assessment feedback can serve double duty for instructors. First, feedback allows students to correct misconceptions, assess the amount of effort they’re putting into the course and perhaps increase it, and be better prepared for subsequent assessments. Second, feedback allows instructors to form an interpersonal connection with students. Depending on the subject matter and the course, feedback may be the only personal connection instructors form with students. Feedback can provide an opportunity to provide personalized instruction to students that may not be available through other means.
Consider including the student’s name when providing feedback, even if the feedback is somewhat canned. It personalizes the feedback, lets students know they’re “seen,” and communicates nonverbally that the student is “part of the community of people…” (Willemsen, 1995, p. 15). As Kent Syverud (1993) points out, “who is the one teacher in your entire life who made the biggest difference for you — who taught you so well that you still think about him or her as your best teacher. I bet that for almost all of us, that best teacher was someone who knew you by name” (p. 247).
Put a bird face (or voice) on it
Although not for everyone, instructors can add presence to their course through the incorporation of brief videos. We’re not referring to hour-long PowerPoint presentations, but rather short webcam recordings. These recordings can be used to introduce units, particularly challenging topics, or to serve as a way to deliver announcements to the class. In an example below, Prof. Matt Mooney (History at Santa Barbara Community College) uses videos at the start of a new modules to help students through sticky topics. Mooney visually communicates a historical phenomenon included in an upcoming module that students are known to struggle with.
An additional or alternative way to reinforce your course presence is through “video postcards.” The example below is from Fabiola Torres, Ethnic Studies professor at Glendale College, who uses video postcards to communicate with her students when she’s not readily available. In the example provided, Dr. Torres is at a conference and using her smartphone to record a brief message to her students.
Recordings like Dr. Torres’s reinforce to their students that their professor is in fact a real person and their course is not led by a robot. This process of “humanization” is shown to increase positive traits like trust and psychological safety in student-instructor relationships, which can help keep your students engage with the course long-term (Gehlbach et al., 2016).
For those disinclined to recording video of themselves, recording just audio may provide a happy middle-ground. Besides providing a human connection that written text cannot, audio recordings can also help prevent misinterpretations in tone that reading text can lead to. Because of this, audio recordings are often paired with feedback to students on their work. However, audio recordings don’t need to be restricted to feedback. Some experienced online instructors choose to use audio recordings throughout their courses to introduce topics, explain difficult concepts, and provide and additional way learners can engage with content.
Another way to engage and build rapport with remote students is through regular communication and announcements. This messaging can help students not accustomed to being in a less structured learning environment to stay on track, and also allow for ad-hoc responses from students that may be silently struggling. Irregular communication was identified as a large problem by students following the spring semester and is often over-looked as a simple way to address student disengagement and feelings of disconnection.
Some areas that can lend themselves well to regular communication are introducing new units or topics, shining light on a difficult concept or something that came up in discussion or through private communication, kudos to share with the class to call out quality student work and call out what quality work looks like for those that aren’t quite there yet, and recapping units that the class is finishing up to reinforce critical concepts.
Message students who…
When working with students in-person, it can be fairly trivial to let students know it would be in their best interest to contact you regarding their graded work. However, when teaching remotely this can seem much more challenging. Did they read the feedback that was provided? Who knows?
Regardless of whether they read your feedback, you can still make it clear they really ought to get in touch. This can be accomplished through the Message Students Who feature in Canvas. This feature allows instructors to message any students in their classes that meet certain criteria for a particular graded activity. Options include students that have not submitted anything for the graded activity, those that haven’t been graded yet, and those with scores lower or higher than a specified threshold. More information is available here.
Although instructors aren’t likely to be offering office hours in-person this year, it’s still possible to hold “live” office hours through virtual meetings. Consider providing a recurring virtual meeting to your students during your scheduled office hours. This can allow your students to take advantage of the focused help that office hours provide, along with the non-verbal cues a video call can provide and include the tone missing from textual communication.
The meeting could be set up as a Collaborate Ultra meeting in Canvas, an open Teams or Zoom meeting link provided in your course, an Outlook Calendar invite to your students containing the room link, or through some other method.
If Discussions are used, use Discussions
The discussions area of Canvas can be another place where instructors can engage with their students. If you’re already using Discussions in your course but don’t participate, consider how you could. This provides another opportunity for students to connect with you as sage or guide and gives you an opportunity to turn the discussion in the proper direction when needed and correct misconceptions.
Sound like more work than you’d like to take on? It can be. That’s why it’s important to manage the time spent in discussions. Set aside twenty or thirty minutes a couple times per week with the intent of replying to discussion posts. In the time you’ve set aside, post where you feel you’ll have the greatest impact, not in response to every student.
Make a schedule
Veteran online instructors often integrate a to-do list for their classes into their own weekly schedules. This can help in keeping oneself accountable and on task and help segregate class-time from other responsibilities. A schedule might include things like, ready/post in weekly discussion, make weekly announcement, contact at-risk students, send encouraging email, etc.
How do you “connect” with your students?
The information above is far from an exhaustive coverage of methods to make oneself visibly available and connected with one’s course. What methods do you implement? What has and hasn’t worked well? Questions about implementing something above or seen elsewhere? Drop by the Solidarity Café and share.
We want to hear from you…
How have you collected feedback from students at mid-semester? Do you have some advice to share about how to increase student engagement with the process? What has been effective when you do make changes? Have you found students are responsive to those changes you are able to implement?
For those of you who’ve done self-reflective work with students—have you found certain techniques (like those below) particularly effective? Are there others we’re missing? We’re sure of it—please share!
Feel free to drop a public comment below, or, if you’d prefer a closed conversation with colleagues (on this topic or any other), UW-Green Bay instructors and staff can join us in the Solidarity Café.
… and we’re here to help!
Have you been wondering if the ways you’re engaging your students in the first half of the semester have been effective from the student perspective? Collecting feedback from your students is a great way to find out! To do this we have a few models that may provide useful insight into how you can help students meet the course learning outcomes.
Why might you wish to collect feedback now?
This semester is unique, so you may find that what you’ve done in the past isn’t hitting its mark—gathering feedback at mid-semester allows instructors to:
- make sure that course lessons connected with students
- find out where students need support
- discover the impact of instructional changes you’ve made this semester before summative course evaluations
- uncover changes that you may yet want to make for this semester
- avoid surprises in end-of-semester evaluations
What are some of the best practices for collecting feedback from students, mid-semester?
CATL interviewed Kris Vespia, Associate Professor in the Psychology department to answer this question. Additionally, Todd Dresser reviews how to create a survey within Canvas.
How should I ask students for this kind of feedback?
We have a few models and sample surveys you can download and import into your Canvas courses. Surveys in Canvas are a special kind of “quiz” that has unique options available. If you’re unsure how to import Canvas resources into your class, see these instructions. For information on how to retrieve survey results in Canvas, see this resource.
- Short Survey
- What is hindering your learning that your instructor should stop doing?
- What should your instructor start doing to improve your learning?
- What is helpful to your learning that your instructor should continue doing?
- Download a sample Start-Stop-Continue survey to import into Canvas
- Open-ended questions Examples:
- What in this class so far has helped your learning the most?
- What in this class so far has hindered your learning?
- What suggestions do you have to improve this course?
- Download a sample open-ended question survey to import into Canvas
- Plus / Delta
- Example Plus/Delta form
- Record Plus (ask students to give you an example of something they liked)
- Record Delta (ask students to give you an example of something they’d like to change)
- Download a sample Plus/Delta survey to import into Canvas
Feedback focus groups
CATL is currently refining a process that allows for instructors to benefit from feedback generated through a small group discussion. This process involves a neutral third party, a CATL staff member, conducting a form of a focus group with students. This would likely take 15-20 minutes. The feedback from the students is then synthesized and communicated to the instructor.
Process adapted from Northeastern University’s Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning Through Research
The steps in this process are:
- The instructor and CATL staff member meet virtually to discuss goals and agree on questions for the session.
- The consultant visits the class or a group of students from the class virtually. The instructor introduces the CATL staff member and explains that they have asked them to gather feedback, then leaves the virtual meeting.
- Students are asked to compile responses to one question. For large classes, students are divided into small groups. The groups then report out while the CATL staff member records responses. This process is repeated for each question.
- The CATL staff member synthesizes the feedback and reports back to the instructor. They may discuss how the data can inform teaching practices at this point.
The benefits of this process include:
- The feedback is being gathered by a neutral third party, which may encourage honesty among students.
- The consultant can help you shape the questions asked of students and interpret results.
If you’re interested in piloting feedback focus groups, or would like more information about designing or implementing mid-semester evaluations, please email CATL@UWGB.EDU.
Helping students self-reflect
Mid-semester is also a time in which you can help your students critically self-reflect on their own actions for their performance at this point in the course. Here are some questions to help frame the ways you’d like students to think metacognitively about their choices throughout the semester:
- What do students have the ability to change going forward in the course?
- Where might students improve their time management?
- Might there be a place for peer-to-peer feedback that could help build community and increase personal responsibility?
- What types of assessments might students need to better prepare in order to be successful in the course?
What are some strategies you can provide to students to help them get back on track? Self-reflection, metacognitive exercises, and exam debriefings are a few of the strategies that other teaching and learning centers have created resources around:
- Here are a few suggestions from Hampshire College about student self and narrative evaluations: https://sites.hampshire.edu/ctl/student-self-evaluations/
- Illinois State University offers some canned application self-assessment questions as well as a few reflection questions: https://ctlt.illinoisstate.edu/downloads/lifts/Lift38StudentSelfAssessment.pdf
- Duquesne University provides a few examples of using exam wrappers, self-evaluation assignments, and assignment resubmission: https://www.duq.edu/about/centers-and-institutes/center-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-and-learning-at-duquesne/student-self-assessment
For any of these methods, you could create an assignment that doesn’t count towards the final grade or could be an opportunity for extra credit. Here’s how to set up extra credit in a Canvas course.
Sometimes a little collegiality is just what the doctor ordered to iron out the kinks in a course.
We can all use some feedback every now and then and teaching in new environments calls upon new skills. A colleague with fresh eyes can help you spot what is going well and what can be improved.
The Center has adapted our regular peer assessment of teaching to suit the new pandemic format. Watch for more information to enlist a colleague (or two!) to be evaluation buddies.
Note that this process is for formative evaluation only and is not intended for summative review for promotion or tenure.
The start of the fall semester typically has a comforting rhythm as we return from the summer to a predictable schedule of activities. This year we will not be able to fall into our regular routines as the typical benchmarks—five-week grades, mid-semester evaluations, ratcheting up for end-of-semester projects—will all be different.
While we can’t put everything back to normal, the Center is working on ways to help you hit these benchmarks in ways that are doable under our present circumstances.
Be on the lookout for the following resources coming your way this fall:
- providing feedback (weeks four and five)
- keeping the core of an activity or assignment when shifting to a new learning environment
- mid-term evaluations
- engaging students who have become unresponsive
- gearing up for culminating projects
- making referrals and accommodations
Stay tuned for posts here on The Cowbell with the tag Pulse2020