What the Pandemic Should Have Taught Us About Effective Teaching
What the Pandemic Should Have Taught Us About Effective Teaching

Now that we’ve spent a year teaching remotely, it is high time to reflect on the lessons that we should have learned.   Here are a few:

Teaching online is tough work.
Creating an engaging, interactive course is hard enough in-person.  It’s all the tougher online.

There’s the upfront work of instructional design: Making sure that the class’s structure is transparent, well-organized, and appropriately sequenced.

Then there’s the pedagogical challenge:  Making sure that students have multiple ways to grasp the material.  You need to supplement lectures with detailed PowerPoint slides and tutorials, create activities to help students acquire essential knowledge and skills, and develop frequent low-stakes assessments to track students’ learning and confusions.

Of equal importance is the assessment challenge.  Relying primarily on high-stakes exams or term papers is a recipe for disaster, which will only encourage academic dishonesty.  But assigning too many low-stakes quizzes and writing assignments can easily become overwhelming. Fortunately, some solutions are obvious: A mixture of ungraded requirements, auto-graded multiple-choice questions, and peer responses to their classmates’ written work.

Multi-modal instruction will be a big part of the future of higher education.  The rapid shift to remote learning hopefully taught us lessons about pedagogy and instructional, activity, and assessment design we need to retain post-pandemic.

It’s extremely easy for online students to disengage, self-isolate, and fall off-track.
It’s not just in K12 schools that students disappear.  The same thing happens in online college courses.  If you genuinely care about your students’ well-being and learning, it’s essential to communicate with them frequently, monitor their engagement and performance regularly, and provide timely feedback.

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are even more important in an online than in a face-to-face class, and it is essential to use every trick in your toolkit to keep students engaged.

But don’t delude yourself: Even in in-person classes, students withdraw and disengage. Hopefully, we’ve discovered the importance of keeping students engaged and motivated and ensuring that they participate actively in their own learning.

In online courses, social and emotional issues are as important as course content.
Many of our students are struggling with anxiety, stress, depression, social isolation, and competing demands on their time.  We can’t expect them to learn effectively unless we address those challenges head-on, and that requires, at a minimum, regular check-ins.

We can hope that the strains and stresses that our students experience will fade a bit as the pandemic ends.  But let’s not forget the importance of social and emotional learning, of promoting relationship skills, social, emotional, and self-awareness, a growth mindset, and a sense of self-efficacy.  These social and emotional skills are among the most important capabilities we can cultivate.

Coverage and pacing pose a big challenge.
Teaching successfully online takes more time.  In part, that’s because it harder to check on whether students have grasped the material, and partly because you must provide more time for students to undertake various in-class activities and assignments.

But issues of coverage and pacing aren’t confined to online instruction.  We need to recognize that some students need more time to master essential skills and knowledge than do others. In the future, we need to design our classes to allow for more personalization of pace.

In addition to the challenges I’ve just mentioned, online courses pose ethical issues that we shouldn’t evade.  Here are eight ethical issues that will certainly persist post-pandemic as we adopt more multi-modal forms of instruction.

1. Equity: How to ensure that every student has an equal opportunity to learn and to fully participate in our online courses.  
Equity demands equal access to technology and bandwidth,  But it also requires an instructor to respect the circumstances under which students participate.  Support, structure, reminders, nudges, and frequent interaction with the instructor are essential.

2. Learner Diversity: How to address the special challenges that e-learning poses.
Among the challenges:  Engaging and motivating students, sustaining persistence, combating social isolation, and helping students manage their time and cope with competing demands.

Then there’s an even bigger challenge:  Many students find it difficult to learn in a wholly online environment.  They remain passive during class, experience high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression, and find it difficult to keep up with the course’ pace or to remember assignment due dates. Some fail to participate in collaborative assignments, and are unable to learn as much as when a class is in-person.

3. Support: How to ensure that students have the ready access to the academic, technological, mental health, and other supports that they need to succeed.
The pandemic has intensified the challenge of responding appropriately, fairly, and quickly to all kinds of support issues, whether these are technical, academic, emotional, psychological, or related to illnesses and disabilities.  We have a legal and moral obligation to ensure that all students’ needs are met and that all students have an equal opportunity to participate fully in the course.

We must make sure that students know where to turn when inevitable problems occur.  It’s not enough to ensure that contact information for technical support, tutoring, and psychological and disabilities services needs to be easily available.  We need to do whatever we can to encourage students to make use of these services.

4. Feedback and Responsiveness: Making sure that students receive the guidance and feedback they need to succeed academically.
Especially in an online environment, timely responses to student questions and provision of timely feedback are essential.  Otherwise, it’s very easy for a student to feel lost and disengage.

5. Privacy: How to ensure that students’ right to privacy is protected.
Online learning poses difficult issues relating to personal privacy, surveillance, and data privacy.  Can we require students to keep their camera on?  Can we legitimately use software that collects student data?  How closely should we monitor students’ online behavior?

Then there a privacy problem unique to the shift to online office hours: How to organize these hours without infringing on students’ privacy or impinging upon frank discussions.  The use of digital waiting rooms and recordings of conversations pose challenges that demand more attention than they have received.

6. Netiquette: How to ensure that all participants in the class behave in a civil, respectful manner.
Students have different forms of self-presentation and argumentation that can lead to misunderstandings and conflicts and are sometimes experienced as bullying and harassment.  Also, in an online environment it is difficult to ensure that all students have an equal opportunity to speak or ask questions and, as a result, there can be a perception (or reality) that some students dominate discussions.

Given the difficulty of detecting nuance or body language online, and given the impossibility of holding the kinds of casual after-class conversations that can defuse tensions, we need to be very attentive to issues of civility. To avoid or minimize classroom tensions and conflicts, netiquette needs to be the subject of explicit discussion.

7. Assessment: How to maintain academic integrity in an online environment.
Ensuring academic honesty is among the most serious challenges posed by online learning.  Online instruction aggravates the factors that contribute to cheating and plagiarism such as students’ difficulty managing their time or their perception of the class as impersonal.

In addition, many the techniques we typically use to deter cheating, like proctoring or creating varied question types or restricting the testing window, or varying the question sequence work less well online.

8. Intellectual Property: What rules should govern respect for copyright in online classes.
In addition to the obvious issue of who owns the course and content you place online, remote learning raises a host of other legal and ethical issues.  These involve recording of student questions and comments, the use of copyrighted material that students could potentially download and distribute, and the proper attribution of content created by others.

Here are some strategies for addressing these ethical issues.

  • Get to know your students, check in regularly with them, monitor their engagement, respond rapidly to their questions, and intervene when they are off-track.
  • Make sure your students have reliable access to technology and feel comfortable using it.
  • Only use technology tools that work effectively for all of your students, some of whom are relying on cellphone or Chromebooks.
  • Make sure that your course’s structure, requirements, and due dates are clear; remind students repeatedly about deadlines.
  • Forge a sense of community by connecting students to one another, encouraging formation of study groups, using breakout rooms, and providing opportunities for collaboration and interaction.
  • Facilitate inclusive participation by prompting all students to take part in discussions, make class presentations, or report the outcomes of inside and outside of class activities.
  • Make appropriate adjustments when students encounter difficulties.  Be willing to slow the pace, grant extensions and extend deadlines, and allow for alternative ways of demonstrating mastery of essential course material and skills.
  • Create assignments and assessments that do not invite cheating or plagiarism or impermissible collaboration.

Some solutions are straightforward: 

  • Give students frequent low-stakes quizzes, including quizzes during the online class sessions, to reduce the temptation to cheat.
  • Ask questions that require subjective answers.
  • Make use of authentic assessments that require students to apply concepts and skills to a prompt or problem.
  • Make classroom presentations, discussion (including contributions to a discussion board), and collaborative problem-solving activities bigger parts of the course grade.
  • Substitute projects that must be completed through a series of sequential steps for exams.

9. Educate your students about issues relating to copyright and intellectual property rights.

We’ve been through quite a year, one that has left us exhausted, anxious, isolated, grief-stricken, and uncertain about the future.  But without succumbing to the so-called Pollyanna syndrome, it’s important to learn from the challenges and struggles we’ve experienced.

The sudden, unexpected, and unwelcomed pandemic shift to online learning taught us a great deal about effective teaching.  It would only add to the pandemic-wrought tragedy of the past year if we were to forget those lessons.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin



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