The pandemic most likely set students back academically. Despite heroic efforts to sustain courses online, we know that students’ lives were turned upside down. Given the countless challenges, there are widespread concerns that students won’t be able to pick back up, meet course and program requirements, and earn their degree.
To support administrators and faculty in this effort, we’re offering a set of free resources that can be immediately put to use to benefit both faculty and their students.
ACUE’s Back-to-School Toolkit provides practices around three topic areas:
Welcoming Students Back
Helping students feel welcomed to your course before or on the first day sets a positive tone for students, who will then be more likely to seek out help when and if needed.
Welcome students before your course begins—a strategically written email can help set expectations, make the syllabus available, and prepare students for the first day and week of the course.
Whether teaching a face-to-face, online, or hybrid course, creating and sending out a welcome video ahead of the course start date can help calm your students’ fears and let them get to know you and your commitment to their continued success.
Using practices for helping students get to know one another increases their sense of belonging and gives them an opportunity to form a peer network to support and help one another.
Use Community Building Ice-Breakers
Introductory ice-breakers are an excellent way to build a classroom community. Among other benefits, they demonstrate that the instructor is interested in hearing ideas from students, and they begin to create student-to-student and faculty-to-student relationships. If done in an online format these can also help you and your students know, in a low-stakes way, who may need technical support.
Build Peer-to-Peer Relationships
Setting up peer support groups early in the course can encourage peer-to-peer relationships that serve to increase engagement and persistence. Creating intentional opportunities for students to get to know each other can foster a sense of belonging, build community, and create an inclusive learning environment.
Clearly Communicate Expectations
Use your syllabus as more than a tool to communicate information—ensure you also communicate the importance of diversity and inclusion.
Create an Inclusive Syllabus
Your syllabus conveys your priorities as an instructor and sets the tone and expectations for the course. With careful thought about the language used in your syllabus, it can be used as a powerful tool to create an inclusive learning community. An effective student-centered syllabus also gives your students the information they need to be successful.
Engage Students in Syllabus Activities
Ensure student awareness of significant elements of your course using syllabus activities. These activities provide an active learning introduction to the course syllabus and ensure students are thoroughly reviewing the syllabus.
Meeting Students Where They Are
Even though the times have certainly been challenging, both faculty and students have also gained skills that they may never thought they would have to use. Helping them recognize and leverage these assets can help jump start them into the new year.
Teaching From an Asset-Based Mindset
Asset-based teaching views student differences in culture, language, ability, socioeconomic status, gender identity, immigration status, and others as valuable additions to the learning community. By focusing on these assets, strengths, abilities, and possibilities we allow for an equitable environment that enriches the learning experience for all students.
Recognizing Student Assets
Teaching from an asset-based mindset begins with discovering the skills, experiences, and prior knowledge that your students bring to your course. One way to accomplish this is by assigning your students a survey early in the course that asks them questions about their interests, hobbies, skills, and experiences. This will help you develop a clearer idea of your students and what they bring to the course.
Prompt Students to Recognize Their Assets
Since early spring of 2020, there has been rising concern over learning loss due to school closures or unplanned online instruction. While there may have been learning loss, part of the asset-based approach could be helping students recognize the new knowledge and changed perspectives that they have gained because of their new experiences.
Beginning Where Your Students Are
Understanding that your students come with different levels of preparation, background knowledge, motivation, and aspirations is the first step to knowing what they have already mastered and where they are ready to begin.
Identify Students’ Current Level of Understanding
Beginning your course or new module with an early ungraded assignment or preassessment to assess students’ prior knowledge will help you identify areas where students might need some extra support that you or a campus resource might provide. It can also help you and your students identify what they already know and are able to build on.
Survey Students About the Resources They Need to Learn
At the beginning of your course, ask students to respond to a survey that asks about their learning experiences and the resources they typically use to learn new material. Asking questions about their access to and experience with technology will help you determine how much technical support students may need and if technology-heavy assignments without options for other ways to complete them are appropriate.
Targeting Critical Learning Outcomes
Maximize your instructional time by focusing on the most essential standards. Identifying the essential outcomes for your course will give your instruction direction and ensure your students are prepared for the next level of learning.
Getting Better Prepared for Online and Hybrid Learning
Welcoming Students to Online Learning
Effectively welcome students to your online or hybrid course in ways that support them and let them know that you are committed to their continued success, including the usage of specific methods like video and Q&A and social forums, as well as effective online communication techniques.
Organize Course Content
An online or hybrid course can be confusing for students, leading them to become frustrated or disengaged if they find it challenging to simply navigate the learning environment. To avoid this frustration, make the organization of your course as clear and intuitive as possible, ensuring students have more time and cognitive resources to engage with course content and activities (Darby, 2019).
Create a Welcome Video
Create a welcome message designed to calm student fears and let them know that you are “in this together” and ready to fully support their continued learning. If you are transitioning away from online instruction, a welcome video that students receive a few days before the start of class can engage them right away and prepare them for a strong start.
Manage Your Online Presence
Supporting your students and managing expectations as we return from fully online courses to hybrid or face-to-face courses can be a challenge. Begin by establishing clear expectations for your online presence and considering ways to effectively and efficiently providing engaging in online discussions.
Establish Clear Expectations for Your Teaching Presence
One of the most important aspects—if not the most important aspect—of any student’s learning is you, the instructor. Students look for you to be involved in discussions, respond to questions, provide feedback and encouragement, and reach out when you notice they may need additional assistance. This does not mean that you need to be online 24/7. Establishing expectations and routines around your online time can help students feel more supported and engaged in your course.
Provide Strategic Feedback in Discussions
The type and amount of feedback you provide at key points in a discussion should be strategic, to ensure that quality discussions are taking place (Boettcher & Conrad, 2016, p. 167). Your feedback can serve a variety of purposes including encouraging students, prompting deeper engagement and thinking, supporting student-to-student interactions, and providing expertise.
Maintain Powerful Online Practices in Face-to-Face Courses
During the pandemic, you may have found yourself adjusting your face-to-face practices to the meet the demands of remote or online learning. While many of us are returning to face-to-face or hybrid instruction, you may want to consider continuing to use and fine-tune the online practices you found most productive.
Microlectures are short, instructor-produced videos that are designed to provide effective explanations of a single key concept or specific skill set. The format helps focus and maintain student attention, provides students with content they can easily fit into their busy lives, and allows students to reengage with the content when and if needed (Scagnoli, 2012). Recorded microlectures can benefit students in face-to-face courses by providing an additional resource for them.
Online discussion forums are often core component of most online classes. They can also be useful in both hybrid or face-to-face courses, by allowing students to prepare for in-class activities by exploring content or discussing readings. They also provide the opportunity for more student engagement for larger enrollment classes, and some students may feel more comfortable being able to plan their contribution before posting. Providing students with a discussion forum rubric helps them understand and therefore better meet your expectations for thoughtful participation in these important learning opportunities.