The Fall of 2020 and the shift to remote learning required a number of changes to my courses, both structurally and content-wise. I shifted grading for individual assignments to pass/fail, I removed my attendance policy, I had both synchronous and asynchronous class meetings, I adjusted learning outcomes, I nixed late penalties, I embraced my Blackboard site to upload class notes and lecture recordings – all of which and more I believe will be covered by the many incredible contributors to this collection, and all of which and more I will be adapting to my curriculum as we head back into the classroom in Fall 2021. But an additional element to the success of my remote classes were periodic check-ins and surveys, designed to ask my students for honest, direct feedback about the class and their varying personal obstacles. These check-ins allowed me to adapt the course as necessary and to empathize with their anxieties, struggles, and perspectives. They occurred in several modes, ranging in scale in their formality and allowing for a combination of both anonymous and personal responses. I believe the variation amongst modalities and candidness provided an opportunity for students of differing learning styles, dispositions, and comfort levels to be open and honest about their needs as learners.
The Check-In which differed most from a typical semester was a short survey of five questions that I administered within the first month of the course. In it, I asked students to respond anonymously and openly about their thoughts on the class up until that point. The questions were:
- So far, does the coursework seem manageable? Is it too difficult or too simple?
- Have the video lectures been helpful? If not, what might make them more helpful?
- How is the pacing of the class? Have the lessons been moving too quickly or too slowly?
- Would you like our synchronous meetings to offer anything other than what we have been doing (lectures with opportunities for discussion/questions)?
- Is there anything else that you would like to suggest or recommend?
The surveys were completely optional, created and administered through SurveyMonkey, and assigned in the third week of class. Over that weekend I was able to quickly analyze the results and enact suggestions the class had made.
In addition to these anonymous surveys, I had students complete a Participation Argument at the midpoint of the semester. In the past these have been opportunities for my students to reflect on and justify how they enhance our class community in and out of the classroom. They have also asked students to provide rationale for what their participation grade should be as a result of these efforts (what I don’t tell them is that this is always a pass/fail assignment, and everyone who completes it has always received full credit). The guidelines for this assignment challenge students to embrace the spectrum of participation; both in class and in the prompt, I make clear that raising your hand or speaking up is just one of the many ways to meaningfully participate in class. I stress that participation can include asking questions, completing assignments, dedicating time to thinking about the course, applying concepts from the course to the outside world, speaking to classmates, or any other justification they see as valid. This assignment was largely the same in the Fall 2020 semester, with the added line: “I know that we have had a strange semester, and so please feel free to comment on any challenges that you faced with remote learning and the ways that you feel it may or may not have impacted your participation.” In 250-350 words, I asked students to reflect on their own practices and to consider the mitigating factors that impact their efforts in the classroom.
Finally, the least formal of these check-ins were low-stakes class discussions, which allowed me to collect real-time feedback from my students and alter classes as we saw fit. This typically took the form of student preference for class readings or assignment structure. Our course is rooted in developing digital literacy and close reading skills, and as a result, I as an instructor am privileged with relative flexibility in what content I can present to students. The important thing is not necessarily what students are reading, but rather how they are reading. And so, I passed that flexibility on to my students, giving them the option to select topics that they were interested in pursuing. When they shared their interests and preferences, I went out and found relevant articles that fit our daily class learning outcomes.
In Fall 2018, I taught my most challenging, and perhaps most fulfilling, course—a First Year English section of College Now, an alternate enrollment program that provides tentative acceptance and university support primarily to non-traditional students (first generation, low-income, English language learners). The course challenged my established understanding of what was required of me as an instructor—my laid-back, discussion-driven approach to classes no longer seemed to work with a group of students who did not actively participate. I internalized these issues, believing I was failing as an instructor. Each day I dreaded the class meetings more and more—the blank stares, side conversations, students texting or watching videos during class. It all culminated in a breaking point. One day I stopped class entirely and asked my students directly what I was doing wrong as their teacher, and what I needed to do to help them learn. They stared at me blank-faced, I assume never having been asked a question like that before. And then they answered honestly. They were not unable to complete the work, they simply wanted meetings to be more structured and objective oriented. They were not ignoring me in class, they were just nervous to speak up because they never had before. They were not looking at me as a peer, but as a teacher in a more traditional sense, and they needed me to exert a bit more control over the classroom and our conversations. And so, I adapted to their needs.
“…accessibility has become the bedrock of my pedagogical strategy.”
Since then, accessibility has become the bedrock of my pedagogical strategy. I do not structure every class the way I did for my College Now section, but I take the lesson learned from it to structure every class uniquely according to the needs of my students. I am open and frank with my students, I encourage dialogue, and I try to create a shared vision of success for our class.
Because of this approach, when the pandemic struck, I felt more or less prepared to embrace the accompanying challenges of remote learning. When the classroom dynamic disappeared in late Spring 2020, however, conversations became stilted and awkward, lectures became bare bones, and my typical “think, pair, share” activities became independent writing assignments. In this remote environment, my typical strategy of using the first few weeks of class to develop meaningful relationships with my students was all but impossible behind the awkwardness of Zoom meetings. I realized that I needed to develop a substitute to connect with my students throughout the next year. The check-ins I describe above, however, allowed those relationships to develop in small but meaningful ways. The typical office hour drop-in or post-class conversations had vanished, but these low-stakes check-ins filled some of those gaps in student/teacher relationships.
It is difficult to quantify the results of these check-ins, particularly because of the overwhelming urge to compare them to a “typical” semester. In the wake of a year where so many of us were justifiably focused on simply getting through it with as little trauma as possible, it seems unfair and even impossible to fixate on metrics or results. Still, as educators, we are introspective by nature, seeking to find and implement best practices in our classrooms. With that in mind, I can say with some degree of confidence that the strategies I employed provided a relative benefit to the students who were able to complete them.
The SurveyMonkey survey received about 40% feedback from the 75 students of my three course sections. Though not my intention, the results benefited me, as students provided much-needed words of encouragement. Those comments that offered constructive feedback (clarification on assignment expectations, requests for a grade tab on our Blackboard site, linking assignments directly back to the respective class meetings, etc.) were implemented with little issue, and I referenced them in subsequent class meetings to let the anonymous students know that their concerns were being addressed. The in-class check-ins were helpful in directing readings toward student interest, which I believe tends to increase student engagement. These resulted in small changes to our daily lesson plans, as readings shifted towards the video game Among Us, crypto-currency, or Marvel movies. By and large though, I had the most eye-opening results with the Participation Arguments. The results varied widely, with some students sticking decidedly to the prompt, listing out in detail the various ways that they contributed to our class, while other students bore deep into the obstacles that they faced that year, both academically and otherwise. Here, students recalled trauma of varying degrees: personal illnesses, the loss of loved ones, the challenge of raising a family, the stress of working full time, the inability to keep up with their courses. In these responses I was able to direct students to vital outlets of support on campus—our counseling center, food pantry, rent assistance, human resources. I could never have imagined the struggles that these students underwent, and this experience has allowed me to empathize with them in ways I simply have not been able to in the past.
The problem with these results, however, is the inherent bias toward the surveyed. I do not know the reading topic preferences of the students who did not speak up in class, I cannot fathom the potential technological shortcomings of the students who did not submit a SurveyMonkey response, nor do I know the struggles of those who were unable to submit a Participation Argument. I have spent the summer debating which of these practices will make it into my curriculum in Fall 2021, and in the interest of accessibility, I believe I will keep them all with some modification. It is my hope that by continuing to open my classroom to new modalities and learning styles I can continue to promote a welcoming environment to as many students as possible. All in all, it is minimal effort on my part for the purpose of creating meaningful relationships with my students.
Joshua Botvin, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth
Joshua Botvin is a Lecturer in the First Year English Department and Assistant Director of the Writing and Multiliteracy Center at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. He teaches courses in First Year Writing and Reading, Business Communication, and Technical Writing. His research focuses on the overlap of rhetoric and pop culture, as well as student access in the classroom, digital literacy, and writing center development, analyzed particularly through the lens of contingent faculty.