Teaching Through the Coronavirus, Together: Time to Check In, Revisiting Your Grading Structure, plus Teaching and Learning Updates

Friday, April 3, 2020 – 6 p.m.

A Message from Wendi Dew, Assistant Vice President, Teaching and Learning and Isis Artze-Vega, Vice President, Academic Affairs

Today marks the end of our second full week of having moved many courses online, and there are about three weeks left in the term. As such, it’s an important time to check in with your students, while there’s still time to make small adjustments. This communication suggests a couple of ways you might go about gathering student feedback. It also invites you to take another look at your course grading structure, given that grading is such a powerful lever for student motivation and learning, and that — regardless of the original course modality — our grading systems were designed long before we began teaching through the coronavirus.

How are your students doing?

In general, the practice of asking students for their input on the course signals that you consider them valuable members of the learning community and promotes open dialogue. It also “models for students the kind of behavior that we as teachers want to see in them: a drive for continual improvement with several opportunities to hear from experts, make adjustments and consider the choices we make” (Marx, 2019).

In light of our current circumstances and, in many cases, an abrupt modality shift, checking in with students soon and communicating your willingness to adjust will convey that you recognize the change in all of our lives, and it will demonstrate your care and commitment to their success. This check-in will also give you the opportunity to provide students with guidance on how to maximize their learning in the coming weeks.

Here are two approaches to checking in:

  1. Create a short check-in quiz using Canvas quizzes.
  2. Ask check-in questions directly during engagement hours over the phone or using the polling feature in Zoom. This would work with individual students, pairs of students or small groups. (Note: The limitation of the latter option is that you’ll only hear from students who participate).

In general, you’ll want to keep your check-ins brief and informal. It’s helpful to ask about what’s working and what adjustments students suggest. Here are a few sample questions for each:

What’s working?

  • What’s helping you learn?
  • What has helped you learn the most?
  • What would you like to see more of?

What adjustments do you suggest?

  • What would you change about the course if you could?
  • What would you like to see adjusted or done differently?
  • What improvements or changes would you suggest for our last few weeks together?

Alternatively, you could ask about individual learning opportunities or course elements, like formative quizzes, videos, engagement hours, etc. by asking, “How much did _______ (learning opportunity) help your learning?” Classic classroom assessment techniques like “minute papers” and “muddiest point” can also help you gather feedback about specific modules, recent topics, the last assignment or assigned reading, by asking, “What is the muddiest point?” and “What was the clearest point?”

Whichever approach you choose, you’ll want to introduce the check-in by letting students know why you’re asking and how you will respond to their input. Then, after gathering student feedback, it’s crucial that you review it, reflect on it and respond to it promptly. Your goal is not to comment on all of their feedback or make all of the changes they suggest; rather, to communicate that you read their responses and describe what changes you’ll make this term, and why. You might also thank them for the great ideas they shared that you plan to incorporate in future terms.

Does your grading structure still work as-is?

Learning has, of course, been our primary focus in these communications. Yet we want to call attention to grades, which represent powerful levers for motivation and learning, and affect students in both tangible (i.e., financial aid) and intangible ways (as in course failure interpreted as personal failure).

You may be wondering, “Can I really adjust the grading for this course so close to the end?” It is certainly advisable to maintain your grading structure for your students when it’s working as designed. However, our grading systems were constructed in and for a fundamentally different learning experience — regardless of the original modality of your course(s). Accepting that your original intentions have been disrupted, give yourself permission to re-evaluate your measures. Take this opportunity to discover the other ways in which students have learned and demonstrated their learning.

In our very first communication regarding the move to online, we recommended that you revisit your learning outcomes, take stock and prioritize. Another reason to revisit your grading structure is that your reprioritization may not yet be reflected. Your grading system may no longer be aligned with the updated elements of your course, and this alignment is central to the validity of course grades; that is, the extent to which students’ grades represent their levels of attainment of your course learning outcomes.

You’ll want to look over two aspects of your grading system: the individual items included and the relative weighting of each. With respect to the individual items, are they each still represented in your online course? Have you added other learning activities that are missing?

As to the relative weight of each item, a general, measurement-based tenet is that the weight of each assignment (or assignment type) should reflect its relative importance. The ones tied to your primary learning outcomes, or items that measure a greater number of learning outcomes, should carry more weight. Re-consider how much weight your grading structure allocates to each course activity: Does it encourage students to devote sufficient time to the crucial activities? Where might you reallocate points or percentages to encourage students to devote more time to the ones you consider critical to their success in the course?

It’s common to weigh items more heavily toward the end of the course — a great strategy that can help students build confidence early in the term. This term, the approach may be a challenge for students who showcased early mastery of the material yet are struggling to connect at the end of the course. The higher stakes may also elevate levels of student anxiety during our already-taxing times. How might you redistribute some of the points or weights, guided by your learning-based reprioritization?

Finally, if you’re considering offering extra credit, we would echo Erickson and colleagues’ (2006) sentiment that, if used properly to promote learning, “extra-credit opportunities offered to all students can build some flexibility (‘forgiveness,’ in a sense) into grading schemes that are rarely perfect and often uncomfortably rigid.” Assignments that advance important course goals through authentic tasks, perhaps related to our current crisis, may be especially appropriate.

After you refine your grading structure for the course, promptly communicate any changes to students and provide a clear rationale, especially how the main assignments and their weights reflect your commitment to their learning, and how you encourage them to use their time.

Teaching and Learning Updates 

As you consider how to bring these ideas to life in a way that reflects your own teaching approaches, we are here to help you. Remember to reach out to your identified Faculty Development support or faculty mentor, and for those of you not partnered, please use this link to request support: https://tinyurl.com/FDIDsupport.

We encourage you to engage in new faculty development offerings focused on just-in-time online teaching and learning topics led by experienced colleagues. The first three courses in this new series are listed below.

  • Using Zoom to Supplement Your Online Course provides an introduction to Zoom and how you might use settings/features to increase student engagement. Join this 2 PD-hour course by enrolling in this Canvas space (1) for a self-paced exploration of Zoom resources and (2) to participate in a synchronous faculty-to-faculty engagement hour with hands-on practice using features such as the whiteboard, polling and managing the participant experience.
  • Academic Integrity for Final Projects and Exams is a 2 PD-hour course, conducted online over four days, that provides just-in-time resources that will help maintain academic integrity in your online courses. Register using the following links: Tuesday, April 7, 2020, and Friday, April 10, 2020.
  • Online Feedback: Making the Transition is a 3 PD-hour course, conducted online over three days, that supports faculty members who are new to providing feedback through Canvas. Register using the following links: Wednesday, April 8, Thursday, April 9, or Saturday, April 11, 2020.

Do you have innovative ideas to share? Are you interested in hosting a faculty-to-faculty engagement hour or reading circle with colleagues over Zoom? Do you have a need we could address? Please share your ideas in this short survey, and we’ll be in touch.

As you pause to check in with students and re-evaluate your grading systems, you might take comfort in the reminders shared by Mays Imad, coordinator of the Teaching & Learning Center and pathophysiology and biomedical ethics faculty at Pima Community College: “Most important, ask each of your students how you can help them,” she suggests. “The Persian poet Rumi says, ‘Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.’ Likewise, in times of uncertainty and unknowing, we can create a space where our students’ voice and insights can illuminate the path we are carving out for them — and us.”

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