Promoting Student Success During a Pandemic and Beyond

When an international public health crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic strikes, what does it mean for teaching and for promoting student success? The COVID-19 pandemic has led many instructors to try out different pedagogical strategies that not only accommodate students’ varied learning circumstances but also support students’ learning experience. We can learn from instructors’ narratives, so I’ve been asking instructors to share their stories of teaching remotely during the pandemic and the potential impact on their teaching going forward. In this post, Prof. Jonathan Sterne, who teaches Introduction to Communication Studies (COMS 210), a course with 200 students, shares some of his strategies from his Fall 2020 course.

Who are the students in this course? 

I get a lot of first year students, U0 or U1, and while McGill undergrads tend to be “good at school,” they often don’t know much about how to “do university.” They have to learn about things like juggling assignments and requirements, especially when taking five courses at once. Sometimes, the students are confused about what to do. In Fall 2020, during the pandemic, I was surprised because I felt like I had the same proportion of confused students as any other semester (I thought there would be more). But these students were doing the course on top of all the cognitive dissonance around the pandemic.

Given the extraordinary circumstances, including the cognitive dissonance brought on by the pandemic, over the course of the term, how did you support students with addressing challenges and learning the course content? What strategies might you draw on for the future?  

I podcasted my lectures. Most students loved it. For those who had trouble with the podcasts, I gave them transcripts. Some students who are ADHD by their own description like to be able to listen again to the lectures. It’s also good for ESL speakers. I’m not sure I see podcasting my lectures in a live situation. However, I do a fair amount of travel for research and giving talks—at least in the past I did; we’ll see what the future holds, and I could see, like, once a semester, dropping a lecture as a podcast. For the students, that could be a refreshing change. 

In an effort to give students a good excuse to interact, I gave an assignment that involved a lot of student collaboration and peer feedback. Some very vocal students were unhappy because it involved more logistics than a regular paper assignment. So, for the second project, I made it more of a regular short paper assignment. From my perspective, pedagogically, the more involved assignment worked as planned: student submissions were in fact better overall,  because they were working together and commenting on one another’s work. I’m not sure what to do next year. I want an assignment where students are forced to engage with one another because it was clear their work got to me in a better state. At the same, I don’t want students to get bogged down in the logistics of the course; I want them thinking about the ideas. 

I gave fake and real due dates for assignments. I didn’t call them fake and real. I said, “Here’s the due date, but you get an automatic extension to [this day].” Everybody loved that and I had far fewer late papers. I had experimented with this strategy before and am definitely going to use it again. 

I also gave students flexibility with assignment due dates. I had the class credos in the syllabus, among them: No bullshit, no doctor notes, no letters from the OSD. Just tell me what you need. Students say things like, “My paper is six hours late; I’m going to accept the penalty.” I’m thinking, six hours? Who cares? A lot of deadlines aren’t set in stone. I won’t penalize them for that if they let me know what they need ahead of time; after all, a six hour delay wouldn’t typically be a deal-breaker beyond the classroom. Of course, there are hard deadlines in life, like, for a grant, where the system shuts down, and students do have to be ready for that. But for this course, the strategy of having them tell me what they need and then giving them some flexibility with deadlines worked amazingly well.

I also had a “disability forward” approach to my teaching to support my students while they were studying during a pandemic. I told them to let me know if they needed an accommodation and said we’d figure out a way to accommodate them. Students seemed to appreciate that I was forthcoming.  

I had a good system for office hours: instead of a waiting room, students came into the main Zoom room, and I created one breakout room called “Prof office.” I moved back and forth between “Prof office” and the main room. When a student wanted to talk to me individually because they were shy or for some other reason, we went into the “Prof office.” Everybody else stayed in the main room talking to each other. Students loved that. As much as possible, I tried to do group office hours because students need to hear what their peers think. For example, when a paper was coming up and students asked for feedback on something specific, students gave each other ideas, as well as me. This office hour system was also a chance for students to interact with each other, which was maybe especially important during the pandemic. 

Has reading this post piqued your interest in other instructors’ experiences with remote teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic? Read on!  

A living library of teaching strategies: Check out a video volume! 

Remote delivery experiences and advice: Lessons learned from Winter 2020 

Teaching and learning remotely: A year in review 

When Pandemic Teaching Goes Well 

Image credit:  Will Francis on Unsplash

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Associate Director, Faculty and Teaching Development, and Senior Academic Associate, at McGill's Teaching and Learning Services; former Senior Faculty Lecturer at the McGill Writing Centre; area of specialization: Second Language Education; loves teaching and learning!

(Photo credit: Owen Egan)

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