Teaching Tuesday: What I’ve Learned

This semester as I have frantically shifted my classes from face-to-face to online, I’ve been trying too keep track of things that I’ve learned and things that I need to learn. While I appreciate folks who point out that our current situation may not be an accurate model for how online teaching should and can work, my experience teaching online for the last 15 years or so have convinced me that the patterns that appear over this strange and interrupted semester are not all that different from those that happen regularly in online classes.

For example, it’s challenging to stress particular things in an online course because it’s much more difficult to ascertain whether a student understand what you’re saying or what they’ve read.

Also, certain very basic technical aspects of online learning become threshold concepts. If students can’t figure out how to submit an assignment or are intimidated by a threaded discussion or using wiki, there’s a tendency to disengage. Once a student disengages, however, it is very difficult to bring them back.

In any event, I think I’ve learned five things so far this semester:   

1. Repetition is the mother of learning. With students taking a full schedule of suddenly online classes, it’s hardly surprising that they are struggling to keep track of competing priorities. One thing that I’ve learned is that regularly scheduled reminders have helped students keep on top of my classes. 

2. Little Steps. I’ve been thinking a good bit about process lately and how to divide complex (and often recursive tasks) into more clearly organized and communicated processes. This is very much a work in progress as I try to figure out how to break tasks like starting a research project into easily digested steps.

3. Less is more. Along similar lines, I’m discovering that asking students to complete a simple task successfully offers more opportunities for teaching that expecting students to navigate a more complex network of tasks. In other words, having students prepare a single citation is worth more than having them compile a bibliography which involves not only navigating a range of different citations, but also discovering them and organizing them.

4. Model more, teach a bit less. In general, I like to explain things. I find explaining things gives me a chance to unpack the assumptions surrounding a particular situation. I also probably talk to much to my students and not enough with my students. Now that I’m teaching online, I’m taking more time to model things to my students and allow them to learn by seeing me do things and asking me how and why things are done rather than listening to my longwinded explanations.

5. Contract grading has a place. I’ve never really used contract grading in part because I tend to see each assignment in my classes as distinctly significant toward the learning outcomes of the class. As I’m confronting the current, COVID inflecting teaching landscape, however, I’m coming to realize that allowing students to prioritize their work and the outcomes of their classes might be a better and fairer system than pushing students to deal with the courses as they are and letting the chips fall as they may.

I suspect that if I have to teach my classroom based classes online in the fall, I will move toward a contract grading system built on smaller tasks that culminate in more complex assignments that are increasingly optional. 

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