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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.

street art wizard

 

What does it take to be a wizard inside and outside the classroom?

 

1. Respond to student queries ASAP

For good or ill, people increasingly expect (and value) prompt replies to their questions or concerns, especially via email. And students seem to equate an instructor’s response time with instructor engagement and caring. A speedy reply is not always possible, and email communication can be delicate at times, but I try to live by the “24 hour or less” rule and interestingly, students make particular note of how helpful this responsiveness is to them in comments on the course evaluations.

 

2. Overcommunicate

Students’ lives, like ours, are complicated, busy, and sometimes chaotic. People don’t always attend to our verbal communications or instructions, and/or email, and/or written (print) communication, and/or online announcements. Similarly, the more channels that we can mobilize to share information with our students about upcoming assignments, due dates, key information or course resources, the greater the chance that our message will filter through the “white noise” of multiple, competing pressures and priorities.

 

3. Listen carefully

When students express an issue or concern, chances are –  especially if we’ve been teaching for many years – we’ve heard it (or something very much like it) before. And we’ve also responded many times before. It’s sometimes easy to forget that for this student with this issue it might be the very first time, and every person and every situation is unique. Take the time to listen carefully with a goal of understanding.

 

4. Provide the back-story

I’ve found that when students feel like an assignment, an academic decision, a policy, or a course expectation is unfair or unwelcome, it’s usually because they’re not satisfied that there is a good rationale behind it. The trick is, how to communicate this without coming across as defensive, or worse, officious? I’ve found that the elicit-provide-elicit framework in Motivational Interviewing has been helpful in providing information to students: (a) elicit the student’s understanding of why they think I am proceeding in a certain way; (b) provide a brief explanation from my perspective; (c) elicit the student’s response (“What do you make of that? How does this fit for you?”).

 

5. Get excited

Everything in the world is inherently interesting. And everything in the world can be made incredibly boring. If I’m passionate about what I’m teaching, chances are some of that will rub off.

 

6. Don’t work harder than your students

Learning is active. It takes effort, involvement and application. If I’m at the front of the room lecturing and the group is passively listening, who’s working harder? It’s a challenge to create dynamic learning activities that engage students in co-constructing meaning, wrestling with new ideas, and trying out new skills. Admittedly, high quality curriculum design generally takes more work at the front end – so perhaps it’s more accurate to say “Don’t work harder than your students in the classroom”.

 

And yes, highly effective teachers have more than these six habits – but they’re a pretty good place to start.

 

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