When we cannot see our students face to face (and I would include here the mask to mask teaching that is likely for many of us in the semester to come), it can be difficult to gauge student understanding and engagement. How do we get the feedback that we need from our students to run an effective class? This challenge is highlighted in a number of the DigPINS readings for this week, especially Manya Whitaker’s piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education and the Teaching in Higher Ed Podcast episode with Laura Gibbs. Part of being a good teacher is being adaptable and altering your plans to address student needs. However, pandemic teaching has me wondering: How can I better figure out what students need in the age of COVID19 and even more importantly, what if what students need is something that I am unable to provide?
As this past semester wore on, student engagement in my newly online courses gradually tapered off. Fewer and fewer participated in the range of synchronous and asynchronous activities that I offered them. The reasons for this drop-off in engagement differed from student to student: one was having trouble getting sufficient internet access, another was struggling to schedule study time around her work schedule, a third was suffering from severe anxiety, and the list goes on and on. There is only so much that I, as a professor and not an IT tech or mental health professional, can do to help in such situations.
My strategy was to be as flexible and accommodating as possible. In the end though, it made me feel like I was teaching different individual courses for each of my students, as opposed to one course with universal design where everyone was given the resources that they needed for success. My hope for the Fall is that I can find a way to bring us all along together.
It is certain that our students were never on so-called equal footing, even before this pandemic. For several years now I have been a part of a group seeking to address some of these inequities in my own field and I have grown increasingly aware of what an uphill battle equity in the classroom truly is. These problems predate this time of crisis and will likely persist after it. That being said, what can we do to try to repair some of these damaged feedback loops in the upcoming semester? How can we get back to being able to better assess what our students need in real time, at least in terms of their education?
It would be naïve to assume that our students will return to campus (if indeed that is your institution’s plan) the same people that they were in March. It is naïve to think that simply being on campus will be enough to smooth out the difficult emotional labor that went into guiding our students through the end of last semester. Many of the articles we read for this week emphasized ways to seek out students’ feedback about how any course, but particularly courses taught online, are progressing. Their suggestions for surveys and ungrading are a great start, but I think we need to also add time into our courses for students to process their emotions in light of what they are learning and experiencing both inside and outside of the classroom. In this pandemic era, we should try to balance our interest in what students are learning with questions about how students are doing, particularly when we ourselves are facing some of the same personal challenges. I don’t really have a clear idea yet about what this will look like on a practical level, but posing these questions feels like an essential first step as we anticipate a semester unlike any other.