Designing with Equity in Mind: Reflections and Assessment of an Online Chemistry Class

Article by Bree Lybbert

With the abrupt transition to online learning in Spring 2020, followed by a summer of reflection guided by CATL’s Pivotal Pedagogies online course, I found myself feeling inspired to design my new online class for the fall with equity in mind. CHEM 108 is an introductory chemistry class that is primarily designed for pre-nursing students. Fall 2020 was the first time the course was designed to be online for the BSN@Home nursing program. It is a very content-heavy course that moves quickly with one or two chapters of content per week. To help students keep up with the class, I needed to give them the proper supports to succeed yet keep the logistics of the course as simple as possible. To this end I focused on four main elements in the design of the course that tend to decrease equity gaps: 1) an organized and consistent course design, 2) multiple methods for students to engage with the course material, 3) scaffolded assessments and 4) timely communication and feedback.

Organization and Consistency in Design

Utilizing a highly organized and consistent course design in Canvas was quite easy thanks to CATL’s Foundations of Teaching with Canvas course, which provided a template for instructors to use and adapt. The course lends itself very well to a repetitive weekly schedule where students engage with the content during the week and then complete a homework assignment and quiz at the end of the week. Wash, rinse, repeat… for 14 weeks. Each weekly module was organized in the same way: Overview page, Learning Materials page, Homework Instructions page, Homework Assignment (as a “quiz”), and finally the Weekly Quiz. Within a week or two, students knew exactly what to expect from week to week, as everything was laid out in a repeating pattern on the course home page.

Multiple Methods of Engagement

The biggest concern I had in designing the course was how to deliver all the content that students needed and how to do so equitably. Rather than expecting students to learn directly from the textbook(s), I incorporated my existing lectures and notes into the course. Similar to a face-to-face class lecture, I recorded myself using a webcam and a document camera talking through and writing out the notes for each week. Students were provided with blank skeletal outline notes as well as the completed lecture notes so they could follow along with the videos. These recordings were then uploaded to Canvas where students could view and download them to learn the material. I did not limit the length of the videos (though I tried to keep them to 15-20 minutes each), but I was cognizant of the total length of the videos for each week. I tried to keep the total amount of “lecture time” close to three hours each week, like a face-to-face class.

In thinking about equity, I also had to realize that not all my students were going to be able to engage with the lecture videos. As such, I made sure that the students had a choice in how they would prefer to learn the material—either by watching videos and filling out the notes or by reviewing the completed lecture notes. Although I preferred and saw value in students learning the material by watching the lecture videos, I could not deny a student the ability to learn the material in other ways, and therefore provided them with multiple methods to learn the content.

Scaffolded Assessments

Assessing my student’s knowledge of the material was going to be challenging in an online class. Unlike my face-to-face classes, students would have access to their notes and other resources for quizzes and exams. To address equity, I chose to make all quizzes and exams open-book and open-notes without the use of proctoring software. The assessment of the students’ knowledge was scaffolded such that homework assignments (set up as an auto-graded quiz in Canvas) were lower stakes with fewer points and had unlimited attempts. The weekly quizzes (also set up to be auto graded) were a bit higher stakes than homework (worth more points and two attempts, rather than unlimited). Exams, which were mostly auto graded, had the highest stakes, and therefore were worth the most points and had only one attempt.

Although I feel students had sufficient practice via the homework and weekly quizzes to know what to expect on the exams and to do well on them, I do wonder how well the quizzes and exams gauged student’s learning versus their ability to look things up quickly. Additionally, without the use of proctoring software (which has raised some equity concerns), I am depending on each student’s own sense of honor to only use the approved materials and complete the assessments themselves.

Timely Communication and Feedback

The simplest (in principle) way to promote equity in the class was to encourage communication and ask for feedback from the students. As an online class without synchronous class meetings, I strived to set the tone in the “Week 0 – Course Orientation” module that I was open to frequent communication with each student. This invitation was reiterated each week in announcements and videos. As the semester progressed and especially when the content got tough, many students took my invitation to heart and reached out for help.

Additionally, rather than only rely on written text for communication, I became adept at recording a quick announcement video or an additional content explanation video so the students could see the instructor behind the course and know that I was keeping track of their progress from week to week. After the first exam, I solicited feedback from each student in the form of a discussion post. I was happy to see that students were very open to sharing what was going well for them, how they were effectively studying, and that they were just as open to sharing what they were struggling with and aspects of the course they didn’t like (such as one question at a time exams!).

Another important part to soliciting student feedback was acting on the feedback. I recorded a short video responding to the class’s feedback, making sure to address their concerns and provide context for certain aspects of the course but also to let them know I would make changes to future quizzes or exams based on their feedback. These videos also allowed to me give encouragement and praise as well.

In Conclusion

Having designed and taught this online class exactly once under stressful, pandemic times, I can’t say for certain that my design choices allowed for full equity for all students in the course, but I hope to at least be able to say that I did address some equity concerns in the course. I will no doubt continue to learn and adapt to my students’ needs and be mindful of equity concerns for the next session of this class as well as all my other classes.


About Bree Lybbert

Bree LybertBreeyawn (Bree) is an Associate Professor of Chemistry with research interests in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). Her SoTL projects have included the use of the Calibrated Peer Review (CPR) program as a writing-to-learn tool to help students develop and assess their critical thinking skills and she is also interested in helping students develop the math skills necessary for their pre-nursing chemistry coursework.

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