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Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash

Last week I had the opportunity to meet with student leaders about the student experience through this widespread and radical transition to online learning over the past months. It was a lively and engaged dialogue, and they brought professionalism, constructive feedback, and the student voice front and centre to the conversation.

Students candidly offered their personal experiences as well as the experiences and feedback they are hearing from peers with great respect and recognition of the learning journey that all of us have been engaged in, as we’ve all adapted to teaching, learning and connecting at a distance.

Many of the areas echo considerations and practices for face-to-face teaching, and are probably amplified by the current context where connectedness and community-building are far from easy. We’re now so reliant on Zoom, MS Teams, and other digital platforms for synchronous and asynchronous teaching, learning and meeting; and largely in the absence of being able to come together in the ‘real’ (versus virtual) world.

Through the lens of our students, the overarching theme was one of encouraging us to consider the student experience through the lens of a cluster of program courses, versus as a single course. Coming together as a faculty team to consider and coordinate teaching and learning approaches creates a more cohesive approach for students, especially in an academic year characterized by great uncertainty and anxiety.

Students encouraged us to think about a few concrete suggestions:

  • Coordinating the number and timing of assessments, tests and assignments across all courses, with a holistic look at how they’re distributed and spaced throughout the semester.
  • Considering where and how students access information about readings, assignments, due dates, etc. In some courses, this might be situated within the Course Outline, and in others via dedicated spaces in the institutional Learning Managaement System (LMS), or through emails, course announcements, etc. Some noted that they worry about missing out on key information as it may not be communicated in a similar way across courses.
  • Implementing a mid-term feedback survey or tool for students in every course to provide formative feedback to the professor about how each course is going. They noted that they really appreciated the courses in which this is being done.
  • In courses with multiple sections, students noted the importance of coordinating common/consistent approaches to grading and assessment among teaching faculty.
  • And finally, identifying and agreeing on key technology platforms and applications at a program level (where possible), so that students have some consistency in knowing how they’ll be engaging (for example, will it be via Zoom, MSTeams, etc.), and settling as a team on one or two approaches/platforms.

Students also reinforced their tremendous respect and valuing of the expertise their faculty bring, and that the more we can do to foster “high touch in high tech” (i.e. those feelings of connectedness to one another and to program faculty), the more they are able to actively engage and maximize their learning. This last point speaks to the importance of “instructional immediacy” in online classrooms: the behaviours and approaches (verbal, non-verbal, written, etc.) that invite our students in.

These are not easy times to be a student – and they are not easy times to be a teacher either! What an extraordinary learning journey we are on.

hallway

 

A simple shift in perspective can transform dialogue and engagement

 

Today I got to shake hands with over 300 students. No, it wasn’t convocation – it was kind of the opposite of convocation. It was…the annual College Information Fair.

That’s when hundreds of (mostly) high school students pour into a massive convention centre by the busload, and let loose on aisles of kiosks and pavilions, each promoting specific academic institutions and programs. Some students were 100% clear about their post-secondary journeys, some expressed uncertainty about which school to attend. Others candidly acknowledged that they didn’t have a glimmer of an idea about where they wanted to head after high school. Some were leaning toward a program that wasn’t going to get them to their ultimate career destination, and many were just there to hang out with friends and pick up some free swag.

Last year I approached my role with the primary objective of offering information about the academic programs that I administer. This year, I decided to try a slightly different approach, more in line with motivational interviewing, where the goal is to evoke versus educate. In other words, instead of asking potential students “How can I help you?” / “What would you like to know?”, I opened the conversation with a couple of questions designed to briefly elicit each person’s “big picture” goals before honing in on the specifics of a particular program of study.

Instead of… I asked…
How can I help you? What programs are you interested in?
What would you like to know about Program X? What made you decide that you’re interested in Program X?
What other questions can I help with? Where do you see yourself in terms of your ultimate goal or career?
Here’s some additional information… Can I share how Program X (and/or Y and/or Z) might fit with your goals?

The results were amazing. Because many teenagers aren’t the most voluble conversationalists, our interactions were brief but much more meaningful than the conversations that I held last year. Students were engaged, they felt heard and affirmed, and for many who were unsure about their future, a couple of follow-up questions (“What kinds of courses in high school captured your interest most?” “If you could have any job, what would it be?”) helped them to clarify some possible directions. I also heard some amazing stories and made deeper connections.

And from a purely selfish perspective, at the end of the day I too felt energized. I felt like I contributed more than what’s written in the academic calendar!

 

Neon game

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Follow these 10 tips for good grades…and improved learning

 

1. Read the course syllabus carefully. Keep it handy throughout the term and check it weekly to be sure you’ve completed all of the required readings and assignments.

 

2. Anticipate that there will be stressful periods in the academic term. Put assignment due dates into your calendar, and set interim goals for completing larger projects. If you don’t have or use a personal calendar, now is the time to get started to help you plan ahead.

 

3. Make a point of contributing in every class, even if it’s just to ask (versus answer) a question. This helps the instructor get to know you personally and signals that you’re actively involved and trying hard.

 

4. Take notes, even if the instructor posts slide decks to the course website. Notes help you absorb new information, and they complement slide decks and readings. Note-taking is an important skill and takes practice; the more you do it, the more effective and useful your notes will be for you.

 

5. Check in with the instructor if you aren’t sure of anything. Better to find out ahead of time, than via a low grade due to a misunderstanding on your part about course content or assignments. Don’t be shy – faculty genuinely want their students to succeed and are eager to help.

 

6. If you are emailing your instructor, be sure to communicate like a professional. That means using correct spelling and a somewhat formal tone. (Also, keep in mind that if you send the faculty an email Friday afternoon you might not hear back until the following Monday.)

 

7. Before submitting ANY written work, double (triple) check your spelling, grammar, syntax, formatting. If writing is not your strength, access a tutor to help with editing.

 

8. Keep in mind that if you’re struggling in the course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We all struggle when we’re learning new things. And learning new stuff is why you’re in school.

 

9. If you are REALLY struggling, ask for help. Is it because of the course content? Other things happening in your life? Time management? A health or mental health problem? There are lots of supports available to students through educational institutions and in the community – but they only work if you access them.

 

10. Last but not least, follow three simple steps for success in school (and in life).

 

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