Keeping Students on Track

Regardless of how well our autumn checklists prepared us for autumn teaching, there is a good chance the unexpected will introduce the need for change. Or, to paraphrase a philosopher, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. A few tips on how to minimize the pain:

Build an asynchronous component into a synchronous course. If your campus is evacuated, technology fails, or you have to shelter in place, there is at least one part of the course that continues to operate. You can use it as a foundation upon which to construct substitutes for the other parts that are no longer working.

Create routine using repeated cycles of the same activities. For example, I have one undergraduate course meeting twice per week. On Tuesdays, class begins with students discussing an assignment in small groups. A randomly chosen group then reports its findings to the whole class. Then I give a brief lecture. On Thursdays, students take a quiz, work on team projects, and meet with me individually. That’s the pattern for almost the entire semester.

Narrow each class session to teaching a single big idea, preferably one directly related to a course learning outcome. Get rid of the peripheral “it would be nice if students also knew about . . .” content, because it confuses students — they aren’t as good as you are at identifying what they should focus on. If the unexpected disrupts class, the clarity of the lesson will make it easier for you to quickly develop an alternative method of delivery.

Regularly remind students what is headed their way. I’m now sending out “agenda for the coming week” announcements. My intent is simply to reinforce the messages in the syllabus and in the schedule of assignments in the LMS/VLE. Again, if there is an unplanned interruption in any particular week, I can conveniently refer back to that week’s agenda to inform students what is changing and how.