Article by Sam Mahoney
It is no secret that COVID-19 profoundly changed the landscape of higher education. At this point, words like “pivot” and “flexibility” have become synonymous with the effects of the pandemic. Though the pandemic’s effects were widespread and hard-hitting, a given semester in any “normal” academic year still has its share of barriers that students may face. We can take some of the lessons we’ve learned about flexibility during COVID-19 and apply them to our pedagogy going forward, creating a more equitable landscape that gives student the support they need to succeed, no matter their unique circumstances.
Why is flexibility important?
Each student brings their own distinct background, experiences, and challenges with them to the classroom. The challenges that students face are wide and varied, and many students refrain from disclosing these barriers, leaving instructors to wonder why an otherwise “good student” may be missing class or have slipping grades.
While by no means a comprehensive list, some frequent barriers students in higher education face include:
- Work. In a 2018 report by Georgetown University, almost 70% of all college students in the U.S. work while in school, and of those, 43% are considered low-income students. That same report also determined low-income students tend to work longer hours and have lower grades than their high-income peers who have the luxury of working more limited hours or not working at all. Black, Latino, female, and first-generation college students make up a disproportionally large part of this low-income working group.
- Family. Many students, both traditional and non, are parents. In fact, a 2014 report released by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that 26% of students enrolled in postsecondary education in the U.S. support dependent children. Female and non-White students once again make up a disproportionally large sector of this group. Add to this that those without children might still be expected to help care for younger siblings, parents, grandparents, or other relatives. For parents and non-parents alike, the responsibilities of caring for family can be physically, mentally, and financially taxing.
- Health. Ongoing physical and mental health concerns as well as unexpected illness or injury can either prevent students from attending class or cause them to under-perform when they do. Mental health problems in particular impact a largely hidden portion of college students. In a 2019 survey conducted by the American College Health Association, almost 11% of college students reported having a medically diagnosed mental health condition and a staggering 45% self-reported having at least one severe depressive episode in a given year. On top of chronic mental health conditions, stress, anxiety, and grief brought on by the loss of a loved one or other traumatic events can negatively impact a student’s ability to learn and succeed.
In order to offer all students the highest chance of success, it is important to maintain a degree of flexibility while still keeping expectations for achievement high. In the next section we’ll take a look at some flexible teaching practices you might have already implemented during COVID that may be worth continuing in future semesters.
What does flexible teaching look like?
Flexible teaching can be manifested in a variety of ways, but for the purposes of this article we’ll be focusing on flexibility as it relates to offering multiple means of engagement (which just so happens to be one of the principles of universal design). Consider the ways in which students can interact with you (their instructor), with their peers, and with the course materials. Are you already offering multiple methods for each of those interactions? Are students given a choice in which methods they use? How might you supplement the existing means for engagement you already use in your course?
Let’s take a look at a few practical examples.
Content delivery through in-class lectures is a quintessential pieces of the higher education experience. However, if this is the only means by which students obtain the course’s content, some students may find themselves unintentionally isolated. If the classroom technology allows, you might consider recording segments during lectures for students to re-access later, recording your lecture audio to provide a transcription, posting annotated PowerPoint slides in Canvas, and/or providing a location for students to share their lecture notes and asking students to sign up to do so each week. Many instructors even choose to record shorter dedicated lectures of particular sticking points for students to (re)engage with the material online. The key is that these techniques provide alternative means of engagement to those students who were absent or unable to fully engage during class. They can also serve as a resource for all students to review if needed.
It’s also common for instructors to use in-class comments and questions to assess students’ participation. While in-class discussion is a very important form of participation, students that need to miss class or have barriers that prevent them from fully engaging in a class discussion may be unfairly penalized. Some instructors have sought to remedy this by creating alternate methods for earning participation points. For example, you could let students post to a Canvas discussion board or ask a question during an online review session via Teams or Canvas Chat as a way of earning participation points. Students then have the option to mix and match how they want to earn credit for their engagement and always have an alternative method of “making up” points if they are unable to meet the quota through traditional in-class participation.
Assessment can also have built-in flexibility if you are thoughtful when designing assignments, quizzes, and exams. One way is to emphasize the role of course outcomes in assessment; this can open you up to offer students choice in which assignments or quizzes they want to engage with if the same learning outcomes are assessed in multiple places across the semester. If you have a number of assignments tied to the same outcome, you might consider dropping the lowest grade among them giving students the option to choose to which they can devote the most attention. If a student is less confident in a particular area, they can also commit to doing all of them; knowing that the lowest will be dropped can reduce some of the pressure and allow them the flexibility to make and grow following mistakes on an early attempt. Our article on using Canvas to be more flexible expands on this idea further, as well as offering up some other tips and tricks in Canvas.
Do you have other ideas?
What pandemic-created strategies would you like to apply or reinterpret for future semesters? Do you have other ideas for applying what you’ve learned about teaching during the pandemic to make your classes more accommodating for students facing barriers? Let us know in the comments below!