Feminist Pedagogy Online: Lessons from Fall 2020 and Practices for Winter 2021 — Anne Marie Butler

From a pedagogical perspective, I am primarily influenced by practices of feminist pedagogy such as knowledge co-creation, empowerment, and community building. These three tenets each serve to deconstruct the professor/student hierarchy and have also become particularly important for my online teaching. In my classes, we begin with the recognition that each person, including the professor, experiences different privileges and oppressions and that these positionalities shape our perspectives on the world, and what we bring into the classroom. On the first day of class, I have the students break into groups to chat about engaging in respectful discussions surrounding difficult topics, and while online. We develop our guidelines as a class, thereby setting a tone of a less hierarchical classroom. Allowing the students to set guidelines on the first day signals to them that their voices are important and influential in the classroom. It also allows them to meet their classmates and to feel more comfortable speaking. Since enacting this practice, I have observed that students are much more confident speaking in class, and they are ready to speak immediately following the first day of class, whether in large or small groups. This first day exercise effectively removes the “awkward” period that a class sometimes needs before the students can trust one another and the professor enough to feel comfortable contributing. Particularly in the online setting, I have found that this exercise encourages them to recognize that they are all in the same “online boat,” so to speak, and that they share the experience of adapting to being online. This immediate commonality gives them a shared experience from which to build relationships and community.

Another way that I build community and empowerment, particularly across physical separation, is “check-ins.” I began these check-ins in the Fall 2020 quarter. At the beginning of each class, five minutes is set aside for students to check-in about how they are feeling. They can ask questions, talk about successes or challenges, or share something about their lives. Sometimes I leave it open to them, and sometimes I present a prompt, such as, “think of one thing you are proud of yourself for doing in the past week. It can be large or small, it could be as small as completing that household task you’ve been putting off, it could be as big as finishing that paper or having a difficult conversation with someone.” Then I ask if anyone would like to share their thoughts. I chose this example to write about specifically because the “thing you are proud of” check-in serves a purpose in addition to building community: it requires the students to actively think positively about themselves and to engage in a self-reflection that increases their self-esteem. It allows them to practice an exercise that has an immediate, positive effect on their mood. I felt that this empowerment was particularly significant in an online format in which students experience challenges beyond those of an in-person quarter, namely separation from peers and community, plus additional stresses, all of which may impact mental health.

I also use different models of experiential learning to allow students to direct their own learning. One such activity is group work. My pedagogical goals for group work are 1. To have the students teach each other and work through problems together, thereby enacting knowledge co-creation, and 2. To enable the students to build communities. Due to running classes online, I had to be more thoughtful when constructing group work activities and assessments. I’ve found that this has actually given me the opportunity to develop more specific goals and assessments for group work. In my classes, students are assigned to groups of four to five students for three-week sessions. Students work in their small groups typically every other class meeting. During small group, they complete a variety of guided exercises that I have developed related to the materials. I frequently pop-in to their breakout sessions to observe them and to offer myself as a resource to answer any questions that have come up in their discussion. They are also able to call me in to their breakout session by chatting me. After every three-week rotation, students must submit an evaluation sheet on which they are given a rubric for evaluating their peers and themselves (sample below). A recent change I have made for the Winter 2021 quarter is that providing thoughtful comments as well as a score is tied to each student’s own final score for that period (sample below). This should assure that I receive more evaluation sheets with comments and without having to remind students to submit them. You may notice that my own observations and score are weighted less than their peer scores in terms of their overall grade. I am again signaling a move away from the hierarchy of the professor-centered classroom and towards a recognition that myself and the students are partners in their education and assessment.

One final aspect of Fall 2020 that I will carry into Winter 2021 is something I learned from my students. About halfway through the fall quarter, I became concerned that three synchronous meetings each week, effectively the same schedule as in-person class meetings, was too taxing for the students given the virtual circumstances. I didn’t know if this was helping them, or too much for them. I asked them. They overwhelmingly expressed something that surprised me: they loved synchronous meetings. They said that because their lives are so restricted right now, in terms of where they can go, who they can see, what they can experience, that their days blend together. They could sleep until the afternoon, or they could get up and feel lost because they are undirected about where to start. They explained that synchronous class meetings give them a purpose to the day, a commitment of a place and time to show up, and a schedule for which they feel responsible. They told me that they need this structure, and that they were so happy my class provided it.

The best lesson I have learned is to continuously react, rethink, and adapt. Best wishes to everyone in the Winter 2021 quarter.

Sample Group Work Peer Evaluation Sheet

Instructions: Complete this form and turn it in to the assignment upload on Moodle by the Monday after groups switch (Mondays Week 4, Week 7, Friday Week 10). Your peer feedback is anonymous.

Give a score and comments for each group member, including yourself. Score as objectively as possible. Remember that your points for group work are factored in part by completing this sheet and giving reflective comments on how your peers and group worked together.

Your name: _____________________________ Group: __________

Between 15 and 17 points. Give this score if your peer went above and beyond your expectations for contribution to group work.
Between 12-14 points. Give this score if your peer did what was expected of them in contributing to the group.
Between 9-11 points. Give this score if your peer did more or less what was expected but required some management from other group members and/or did not exactly meet expectations in that or other ways.
Between 6-8 points. Give this score if your peer under-contributed to the group, did not meet expectations, or otherwise prevented the rest of the team members and the overall group from achieving their best work.
0-5 points. Give this score if your peer was entirely absent, non-communicative, or for other circumstances that warrant a poor score. 

Peer name: ____________________________________

Points: ______





Sample Group Work Rubric for Individual Scoring

***Although I have to give points in order to grade your assignments because I must give you a letter grade at the end of the quarter, I encourage you to think of these scores not as concrete evaluations of your abilities, but as opportunities for learning and growth.

Submit peer feedback sheet with scores and written feedback for all group members and self (6 points possible)   
Average peer evaluation (17 points possible)   
Instructor evaluation based on observation, peer comments, and student self-assessment (10 points possible) 

I’m digging many parts of remote learning — Brittany Liu

Building community

  • I had 26 students in class, and I split up ice-breaker intros over week 1.  A surprise blessing of Teams was that I could use the stream to post stories, pics of my cats, pics of my kids’ Halloween costumes, articles and funny memes relevant to class.  It felt  like a relaxed way to keep in touch with everyone in between class.

I don’t regret doing away with late penalties and being flexible. 

This also went along with building community, creating a place where we could support each other’s ultimate goal of learning during a worsening global pandemic and contentious election season.

  • I had due dates but no late penalties.  Part of my reasoning was if students got sick or had emergencies, but another part was based on some readings Regina and Dwight got me on to about grading.  One take-away for me was: What are your assignments assessing?  Are they reflecting your learning goals? Or might they be partially assessing a behavior, like turning in something by a certain date?  This can discourage students already feeling like outsiders in the discipline.  I realized that late penalties were rewarding students for behaviors that ultimately were unrelated to my goals. 
  • With in-person teaching, I used penalties to deter late work because I hated having to track where everything was.  But with virtual, I always know where to find student work, and it eliminated that burden of keeping track of students’ work. 
  • I’d estimate about 95% of the assignments were in by the due dates, and late work wasn’t more than a week or so behind, and I think the flexibility eased student stress.
  • It was freeing to be able to say, no matter the personal emergency, “Oh no, that sounds scary and stressful!  Don’t worry about the assignment, turn it in when things settle down.  Take care of yourself, do you have everything you need?”
  • For post-election class, I set up an alternative low-key activity ahead of time students could do if they weren’t up for the synchronous meeting.

Shorter assignments for faster feedback. 

  • I took Alyce Brady’s excellent suggestion for structured reflections instead of homework.  Before covid, I actually didn’t have homework in my 200-level psychology class because we did work in class.  I added the reflections this term so that I could get a temperature reading on students early on and regularly.  I think I’ll keep them for always.  I’ve gotten to know students much better through these reflections than I ever did during in-person discussion and activities, especially the quiet ones.  I’m also getting more thoughtful, deeper responses than I ever did in class (duh! They have more time to think through responses).  The prompts were based topics I had used in my in-person class.  Example:  Structured Reflection prompts.docx
  • Grading was not as terrible as I feared because I made a cheat sheet for all my feedback that I could re-use for multiple students.  Plus, I dropped the 2 lowest scores – this was great in hindsight because I had students with covid, mental health issues, dying grandparents and it was such a relief to say “don’t worry about last week’s reflection, let’s start fresh this week”.  Also the last 2 weeks of the quarter had fewer assignments to grade. 

I liked having 1-hour synchronous meetings at a time. 

  • We met Tuesdays and Thursdays for 1 hour.  I think that was everyone’s threshold, and it kept students fresh.  Students watched ~35 min video lectures in the days leading up to class so that we could spend the hour on discussion, activities, group work, demonstrations, etc.
  • Because I had to record re-vamped lectures for video, I’ve never felt more free to cut old material that I was hanging on to for too long.  Cutting old stuff allowed for more time with newer material, rather than rushing through to cram it all in.

Designing for Connection and Belonging: Productive Discomfort — Oliver Baez Bendorf

This is the third of a three-part series

Productive Discomfort 

There were certain poems that I did not understand… but going on the discussion forums really helped me understand [those texts]. I liked the element of responding to two different responses from students each week because it was the closest thing we can do to make it seem (almost) like we were back in class again

(Advanced Poetry Workshop)

Boler (1999) introduced the idea of a pedagogy of discomfort in her book Feeling Power: Education and Emotions. This principle is one around which I design my classes; I believe learning happens best in a zone of productive discomfort, and aim to enlist my students in embracing and engaging such discomforts as challenged assumptions, self-doubt, perfectionism, confronting a “shitty first draft” (Lamott 1994), fear of receiving feedback, interrogating one’s relationship to language, etc. Yet I had not prepared for teaching amid the profound discomfort of a global pandemic. When in spring 2020 the details of what we were facing crystallized, magnifying existing precarities and generating new ones to worry about, the baseline teaching condition changed. Discomfort, yes. But productive? How? How to recalibrate the writing workshop? I have tried to describe some possible approaches, and because the pandemic conditions continue, I continue to tinker.

As a poet myself, I was eager to engage my students about what changes they noticed to their writing practices under the conditions of pandemic, quarantine, social movements, etc. Many of them lamented the absence of unexpected sensory stimuli on campus. They missed being able to write a poem inspired by intriguing snippets of conversations in the dining hall, or a few bars of a song from the window of a car passing down our red brick hill. They missed writing quietly in the same room as other writers. They were tired of the view out their window. I shared their longings and laments. So I held some optional synchronous sessions just for writing alone/together (and plan to do even more of that this fall). We discussed how to find the muse on YouTube, and we read Pablo Neruda’s poem “Horses,” a poem full of figurative language, based on observations looking out a window. “I was in Berlin, in winter. The light/ had no light, the sky had no heaven.// The air was white like wet bread.” Reading that poem and writing our own “window poems,” students found solace and connection with a writer from across time and space. Who doesn’t love the feeling of “being together” with characters on a page when reading details so vividly rendered? In a writing workshop, connection and learning are intertwined; there is hardly continuity of one without the other. In the profound discomfort and dis-ease we continue to face, I hope to offer my students co-presence in this long winter.

There, in silence, at mid-day,
in that dirty, disordered winter,
those intense horses were the blood
the rhythm, the inciting treasure of life.

I looked. I looked and was reborn:
for there, unknowing, was the fountain,
the dance of gold, heaven
and the fire that lives in beauty.

(Pablo Neruda, “Horses”)

Resources for Further Reading

“A pedagogy of belonging” by Mitchell Beck and James Malley (CYC-Online)

“How to teach online so all students feel like they belong” (Berkeley) by Becki Cohn-Vargas and Kathe Gogolewski (Berkeley)

“Cultivating belonging online during Covid-19” by Carey Borkoski and Brianne Roos (American Consortium for Equity in Education)

“A place of remote belonging” by Emily Boudreau (Harvard)

“Designing for care: Building inclusive learning communities online.” by Jesse Stommel (Hybrid Pedagogy)

“Unsilencing the Writing Workshop”  by Beth Nguyen (Lithub)

“Camera on/Camera off?” by @FirstGenLatinxEducator

“Critical Response Process Resources” by Liz Lerman

Designing for Connection and Belonging: Small Group Workshops — Oliver Baez Bendorf

This is the second of a three-part series

Small Group Workshops

The exchange of feedback is at the core of a writing workshop, yet there is never any guarantee that conventional frameworks for group critique will transform into conversation. The typical MFA workshop method (which has also trickled down into undergraduate settings) mandates that the writer stays silent while the full class offers oral critique. Yet simply being in physical proximity to one another does not alone create the conditions for connection, belonging, or learning. In her essay “Unsilencing the Writing Workshop,” Nguyen (2019) discusses some ways the above method has failed writers, particularly writers of color and other marginalized experience, and offers an alternate model for the creative writing workshop as a conversation, one which includes the writer. Lerman (2003) outlines a multi-step group process for constructive dialogues about works-in-progress, in her book Critical Response Process.

I needed to figure out how to facilitate this conversational workshop model not only over the internet, but also basically asynchronous. In one approach, I decided to invite students to add a note/message to their drafts when they uploaded them to their small group workshops; they could pose a specific question to their readers, or otherwise communicate what kinds of feedback they were most after. (My one caveat is they can never use this note to apologize for their work.) Students almost always chose to add such a note, and often the note was about their draft, but just as often it included other pleasantries, updates, or greetings to each other. In this simple act of writers uploading a file to their small groups, and being encouraged to add a note to the file, the interaction between reader and writer became a tangible and social one that helped them relate to and reference one another, even in our virtual environment.

Menon and Phillips (2011) found that small groups of even-numbered size (for example, 6 or 8) experience lower group cohesion than groups of odd-numbered size. Of course, group sizes are determined by overall enrollment combined with attendance on any given day. “Workshop math,” or trying to determine a workshop rotation schedule, is notorious among creative writing instructors for being a fraught task full of unknowns, broken printers, and, well, math. Yet it can be an opportunity to design for connection and belonging. Typically, I have found the ideal small group workshop size to be five. As we pivoted to suddenly-virtual instruction, I pondered even more factors. I wanted groups that could carry on even if several members faced simultaneous challenges to participation, yet small enough to make in-depth conversation possible.

In the end, I split my intermediate poetry workshop into two groups of 7 for workshop, and advanced poetry workshop into two groups of 9. If that sounds big for any given week, read on. I also wanted to figure out how to design some flexibility so that the inevitable unknowns wouldn’t torpedo an entire workshop rotation. So I asked students to turn in a poem draft in at least 6 weeks of the term in order to receive credit for that portion of the course. That gave them the flexibility to step back back some weeks for any reason. In addition, I asked them to provide feedback to 2 group members’ poems for at least each week that they themselves posted a draft, draft, and to help me ensure that each draft received feedback from at least 2 group members. I had no idea in advance how this “workshop math” was going to work out, but for the most part, it really did. They were attentive to each other’s drafts, and each group stayed in motion. One intriguing result of this structure was that the small group workshops on any given week took on a “fishbowl conversation” quality, where members in each group took turns participating or observing the conversation. I learned even more about this accidental fishbowl from Teaching Tolerance, a project from the Southern Poverty Law Center:

Fishbowl can be used to explore the ideas of membership, identity, belonging and shared experiences. The structure lends itself well to discussions of complex texts and to challenging topics of cross-cultural significance. By providing all students both a speaking and listening role and a stake in the discussion, fishbowl can help build an inclusive and supportive learning environment. The observation aspect of the activity allows students to identify appropriate ways to participate in discussions. If used on a consistent basis, fishbowl discussions can establish boundaries and norms critical to anti-bias communication.

While the fishbowl effect was unintentional in my Spring 2020 poetry workshops, I will now approach it on purpose, as part of designing for connection and belonging.

Continue to part 3: Productive Discomfort

Designing for Connection and Belonging: Writing as a Social Practice — Oliver Baez Bendorf

This is the first of a three-part series

Writing as a Social Practice

I was fascinated with the earliest poems I read and heard that gave insight into all the secret territories of the human spirit, our relationships with one another. Somehow those glimpses felt comforting, like looking through the lit windows of other people’s homes at dusk, before they closed the curtains. How did other people live their lives? Just a sense of so many other worlds out there, beginning with the next house on my own street, gave me a great energy. How could anyone ever feel lonely?

Naomi Shihab Nye, “Lights in the Window”

When you picture a writer, what comes to mind? Likely some version of a writer toiling away in isolation, an iconic image of a solitary genius. Yet for most of us, writing happens in context and community, in response and reference to others— like the way I felt compelled to bring the above Nye passage into this post for you, reader. I often refer to writing as “this solitary thing we do together.” Even Emily Dickinson, often imagined as a lonely spinster in an attic, circulated her poems among family and friends and wrote copious letters.[1] Louise Rosenblatt (1978) describes texts as being made up of not only the words on the page, but of a mutual interaction between the writer’s words and the reader, with the response of the reader actively co-creating the meaning. This interdependence between writer and reader underpins a writing workshop. I have been thinking a lot about how to design for connection and belonging in a virtual setting.

One of my immediate goals, then, in the emergency spring pivot to online, was to set up a virtual platform that offered a strong sense of being together, or what some in online learning call “co-presence.” And to do that really quickly. Gunawardena & Zittle (1997) found a sense of social presence to be a predictor of student satisfaction. Biocca, Harms, and Gregg (2001) define co-presence as “the degree to which the observer believes he/she is not alone and secluded.” In an online learning context, it’s about interaction and how real people feel on the other side. For our discussion forums and small group workshops, I chose a collaboration hub called Slack. Having previously used Slack in a remote working context, I felt comfortable with how to navigate its features on such short notice. My students reported stress-free adoption and seamless mobile access, and appreciated its intuitive, connected user experience. The platform is just a platform, though; there is still the question of how to build interaction. Here are some reflections from my students that I believe describes a sense of co-presence:

Poetry is a class that I feel like you can’t just slack off for. Being engaged with one another and your own work is really crucial to understanding the content and really engaging with the course as a whole. The way this course was established using Slack helped to create an environment where you were held accountable without being judged. Seeing one another’s comments every single week helped encourage you to read more in depth, read again, write in a different way, and challenge yourself. The opportunity to reply to the poems of my classmates made my own poetry stronger because I could take an objective view some days. I really loved this class

(Intermediate Poetry Workshop)

Even though this class has been under less than normal circumstances since we are online, I feel like this class maintained workshop atmosphere to the best of its abilities. It’s hard to connect with people when you don’t see them every week, but Slack helped a lot with connecting to one another’s poetry and reading discussions. We saw a wide variety of different kinds of poetry and prompts and in working in smaller groups, we also saw how individuals interpret all of them differently.

(Intermediate Poetry Workshop)

In the “before” times, my workshops at K had an entire sensorium grounded in social and physical proximity. Chair legs rattling against carpet. Shuffling and swapping of papers as group members huddled up around annotated drafts. Caramel syrup in someone’s coffee. Black-capped chickadees darting around in the evergreens outside the classroom windows. That buzz of conversation. In some ways, the conditions of pandemic are antagonistic to co-presence. Yet it is possible to design for a feeling of being together in a virtual setting.

Continue to part 2: Small Group Workshops


Biocca, F., Harms, C., & Gregg, J. “The networked minds measure of social presence: Pilot test of the factor structure and concurrent validity.” Paper presented at the 4th International Workshop on Presence, Philadelphia, PA. May 2001.

Boler, Megan. Feeling Power: Emotions and Education. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Gunawardena, C.N., & Zittle, F.J. “Social presence as a predictor of satisfaction within a computer-mediated conferencing environment.” The American Journal of Distance Education, 11(3), 1997. 8-26.

Lamott, Anne. “Shitty First Drafts.” Bird by Bird. New York: Anchor Books, 1994. 1-2. 

Lerman, Liz, and John Borstel. Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process: A Method for Getting Useful Feedback on Anything You Make, from Dance to Dessert. Takoma Park, MD: Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, 2003. Print.

Menon, Tanya, and Phillips, Katherine W. “Getting Even or Being at Odds? Cohesion in Even- and Odd-Sized Small Groups.” Organization Science, Volume 22, Issue 3, May-June 2011.

Neruda, Pablo, and Stephen Mitchell. Full Woman, Fleshy Apple, Hot Moon: Selected Poems of Pablo Neruda. New York: Harper Flamingo, 1997. Print.

Nye, Naomi Shihab. “Lights in the Window.” Lofty Dogmas: Poets on Poetics. Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press. 2005.

Rosenblatt, Louise M. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994. Print.

[1] If you’re looking for a good movie to stream online at home, try Wild Nights with Emily.

Leading with grace and reprioritizing with distance learning in a global pandemic — Brittany Liu & Kyla Day Fletcher

Too long, didn’t read: In this post, we reflect on some of the course design choices we made for our large, Psychology research methods course. A lot of things we’ll keep, some we’ll change. Knowing we couldn’t simply teach the course the same as previous iterations, we used these guiding principles and focused on 1) how to make the class accessible and inclusive to all students, 2) embracing flexibility, 3) following up with students quickly, and 4) extending compassion to ourselves and the students.
Some elements seemed to work really well, and were mentioned by students as particularly helpful while learning in a global pandemic.

  1. Accessible & flexible. We asked students to complete a survey before the first day of class. From the results, we saw that students’ home lives looked very different than when they were physically at K. Some were now working full-time jobs, some were working night shifts, some had to share a single computer with siblings also doing distance learning, some had childcare duties. We welcomed the students with a video addressing their concerns and anxieties, and shared our guiding principles for the course. Before covering content, we posted tips and resources not just for how to do their best work via distance learning, but also how to take care of themselves during a time of upheaval and uncertainty (e.g., link 1, link 2, link 3).
    • Deadlines? We set due dates in the syllabus, but told students they were guideposts to keep them on track. There were not late deductions. When a student did not turn in assignments, we followed up with an email asking the student to check in with us (example of email wording). When a student reached out asking for an extension, we first wanted to respond to their emotional need, expressing our sympathy and understanding of the toll they’re under, reminding them that it’s good to take care of their well-being , and offering to follow-up one-on-one on assignments when they were ready.
    • Synchronous contact: we put the students in groups and encouraged them to work with one another to study and practice the course content. Some groups took advantage of this, and others did not; next time, we will incorporate specific low-stakes activities to be completed by the groups to encourage socialization. We also were available for (optional) synchronous “office hours” twice a week (at staggered times for students with atypical schedules). We found that we tended to get the same handful of students each week and we really missed seeing students’ faces, chatting in live time with them. For the future, we plan to build-in more synchronous opportunities for Fall 2020 that are still flexible.
  2. We wanted to make sure that students could do their work whenever worked best for their schedule, so the course was asynchronous (recorded video lectures & slides posted to Moodle, and students turned in work via Moodle).  We created short video lectures each week that lead to a short class assignment (goal for videos was 20 min, and in feedback students preferred this to when videos drifted closer to 40 min).  We based assignments on in-class activities we used in the past.  We also provided instructional videos for larger assignments to answer common questions and concerns.  Other choices we made that aimed at giving students a better sense of control were 1) posting class materials on the same day of the week, so students knew when to expect them (you can set Moodle to do this ahead of time), 2) listing in the syllabus due dates for all assignments (big or small), and 3) using the syllabus to give students a color-coded suggested schedule for completing coursework. 
  3. Quick follow-up with students.  We wanted students to have something due every week so that we could monitor if a student stopped engaging with class (Moodle allows you to view which students have visited a page and/or opened a file).  We provided answer keys for small assignments to provide immediate feedback and allow us to  target our feedback more efficiently.
  4. Another big change was that in 2019 we had 2 big class projects; for 2020 we decided to break them down into medium assignments that still met our course learning outcomes.  For instance, in 2019 students wrote a large literature review paper; for 2020 we broke it down into 5 medium assignments: a theoretical framework; article analysis; detailed outline of the paper; references page; and then formally writing-up 1 section of their outline.  We really liked this change because we could get students feedback sooner on their big ideas, and hopefully students were more confident to start writing after getting feedback on their idea and outline.    

Now, having time to pause and reflect, in some ways we are grateful for the opportunity to drastically rearrange our teaching priorities. We realize that many of the “necessary” components of past course iterations were in fact quite superfluous. By leading with compassion and reframing our approach, the students seem to have learned more, made more real-world connections, and achieved more psychological balance. Come to think of it…so did we.

Connecting at a Distance — Bruce Mills

As the weeks progressed and things got increasingly difficult, I appreciate[d] Dr. Mills giving us the space to speak/write if we needed to and step away if we had to. I don[‘]t think this online transition was perfect, but I think Dr. Mills was consistently thinking about us as people and then as students, and I think that is why I got as much from this class as I did

Even though this class was also asynchronous, I felt a connection to the professor and my classmates that seemed to have been the product of these [weekly MS Team] discussions. It was something I looked forward to every week, because I always left that call feeling as though a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. In times when (emotionally and physically) close contact is nearly extinct, being able to connect with others through serious and relevant texts (and also just have a safe space to discuss personal issues and beliefs) was relieving

I would like to pretend that every student left my spring courses with these same feelings. I am not so naïve. Still, I call them out as both an individual and communal affirmation. In departmental conversations (and across campus) with colleagues, I heard folks imagining and sharing humane and equitable practices —for students and ourselves. We centered on access (to readings and technology), on transparency, and thus on removing barriers that impede learning. Amid this crisis, I was reminded of an essential core to teaching: caring is content.

Let me also offer one final note before the resource link below. As a teacher, I see student motivation and learning as linked to feeling “named” or “seen.” It is about keeping an eye on connecting. Certainly, and this was no small task in the transition to online instruction, the strategies and technologies had to change for this connecting with students. However, the central arc of my pedagogy did not. This centering objective gave me confidence in choosing to select fewer chapters from Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider and, in the case of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, to read only the Prologue, Chapter One, and the Epilogue. It also led me to check in frequently with students and, out of these conversations, standardize days/times for weekly information emails, for weekly Moodle postings, and for group discussions (4-6 people) on Teams.

Alongside this effort to provide a reliable schedule, I instituted a philosophy and practice of reasonable flexibility. The linked article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (“5 Ways to Connect with Online Students”) offers a useful summary of things that mirror my own efforts during the spring.

Note: these suggestions point to additional workload in some areas and, as a result, the need to spend less time in others.

Bruce Mills
Department of English

Online College: General Advice from My Own Experiences — Lars Enden

As someone with a fair amount of experience with teaching in online environments, I’ve been asking myself lately what kind of advice I would like to give to you, my fellow colleagues, that would be both useful, general, and different from what you’ve probably already heard. I have taught over 40 online classes in my career, and I feel like I have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work in an online classroom, but I have had a hard time figuring out exactly what to say to distill that experience into something directly pertinent to professors who have been hurled headlong—against their will—into the world of online teaching. What can I say to you that might be of some help? Well, as a philosopher, I tend to think about these things in a theoretical way. So, I humbly submit my answer in the form of a theory.

The Problem of Online College: A Theory

The problem of online college is simply that when students take online classes, there is no college. If you think about the traditional college experience from the viewpoint of a student, it has a certain “feel.” The student wakes up in a dorm (or at least in housing near the campus); the student eats in the dining hall with other college students; and the student goes to classes at a regularly scheduled time. In other words, there is a college routine—a college culture—a sense of being a part of a college. All of that tends to get lost in the online environment; there is no college, there are only classes. In the world of online education, the typical student wakes up in their house with their parents, siblings, etc.; the student eats in their dining room or on their couch with those same parents, siblings, etc.; and the student doesn’t really go to classes at all. In short, the experience is domestic rather than collegiate.

With this problem in mind, I want to suggest that the best online classes are the ones that have been developed—from the beginning—to feel like college. In my experience, the professors that are the most successful in the online environment are those that put thought and effort into designing their classes to feel like college classes rather than merely classes.

I think that this problem manifests itself in a number of different ways, and I would like to share some ideas about three different manifestations of the problem that I think should be addressed while designing an online course.

The first manifestation of the problem of online college that I want to address is the issue of student motivation. Even students who are ordinarily engaged and excited about their classes can often feel unmotivated when taking online classes. One of the main reasons for this, I suggest, is the lack of a campus, which tends to diminish the feeling of being in college. The gravitas of the campus classroom is replaced by the mundanity of a laptop or a smartphone. From my experience, the best way to combat this problem is to maintain a routine that keeps students on task. I have found that frequent small assignments are great for helping to develop and maintain a routine that mimics the college experience of going to classes regularly. I suggest having something due at least every other day. Make it something educational, small, and, most importantly, required. This not only helps to establish a routine, but it also helps the professor get an early feel for students who are disengaged or struggling. I also suggest being rigid with due dates. I understand the impulse to be flexible with due dates in an online class, but my experience suggests that such a policy just tends to further diminish the feeling of being in college among the students. When professors are firm with due dates, it feels more like college to the students, and they are more likely to take it seriously. For example, the Logic and Reasoning class that I taught in the Spring included homework assignments for every class meeting day (3 times per week). So, students had to keep constantly on top of this work, and I only allowed them to get lower than 70% on two of the assignments and still be able to pass the class. That might sound like a harsh grading criterion, but they all knew that there were consequences for slacking off, which helped to keep them on track and engaged. Of course, students sometimes have issues getting their work done on time for various reasons: I am not suggesting that we should just say “tough luck” to them, but I think that professors who are officially flexible with due dates in the online environment tend to send the message to their students that their classes are just classes rather than that they are college classes.

The second manifestation of the problem of online college that I want to address is the issue of the feedback loop. By feedback, I don’t just mean the comments  that we give on individual student work; that clearly still exists in the online environment. The feedback loop that is missing is the one that exists in the classroom. Students are used to constant feedback in the college campus environment. In a traditional classroom, there is continuous student-teacher and student-student interaction. The feedback loop is almost instantaneous in this environment, and the amount of information exchanged is massive. Even the look on a single student’s face can tell you a lot about their level of understanding, and, on the flip side, the teacher’s tone of voice or body language can convey a lot of information about a topic to the students. In an online class, the feedback loop is much, much, much, slower, especially in classes where the feedback loop is done almost entirely in writing. From my experience, a good way to combat this issue is to get as much face-to-face time with the students as possible. Engaging in a live feedback loop is best, but even recorded videos (from both student and teacher) can go a long way toward developing a sense of engagement that is often missing in online classrooms. Obviously, it is not always practical to hold live meetings, but if you can, I strongly encourage you to try it. This past Spring, I held my sophomore seminar on the Philosophy of Religion as a live, synchronous class, and the students could not stop thanking me for it! However, this was a relatively small class of about 13 students, and none of those students had time-zone issues or major connectivity issues. So, it was a blessing to be able to hold the class in this manner for the entire term. As a counterpoint, my other class in the Spring (Logic and Reasoning) had about 32 registered students. For that class, required live meetings were impractical, but I still wanted a good amount of face-to-face interaction. So, I decided to hold live lectures, but I also recorded them so that those who could not or did not want to attend could view them later. The in-person feedback loop was still there, but in a more limited way. Even if live meetings are out, I still strongly encourage all online professors to put in some live face-to-face time with students on a regular basis. If this not possible, however, then I suggest that you look for other ways to increase the speed of the feedback loop. Whatever you do, though, the feedback should be frequent, and it should be as personal as possible.

The third, and last, manifestation of the problem of online college that I want to address is the issue of workload. Interestingly, I have found that many professors new to online teaching tend to think either that the workload needs to be eased up or that it needs to be piled on. The approach of easing up seems to be based on the (correct) theory that it is harder to learn in the online environment, and the approach of piling on seems to be based on the (also correct) theory that students have more free time when they don’t have to attend regular class meetings. My view, however, is that both of these approaches diminish the feeling of the college experience. On the one hand, the “easing up” approach sends a message like “this is not really college, so let’s just take it easy,” and, on the other hand, the “piling on” approach sends a message like “this is not really college, so you’re all on your own.” My view is that the workload should be more or less the same as it is in a campus classroom. Whatever the workload looks like in your campus classroom, I would suggest that you keep it at about that same place: don’t ease up, but don’t pile on either. Set the bar at a college level.

I hope that these remarks are at least somewhat useful. If any of you need any support, advice, or just a shoulder to cry on, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I’m happy to help any way that I can. Good luck to all of us!

Ideas for Low Stakes, High Engagement Assignments — Alyce Brady

For several years I’ve been interested in shifting my grading practices to focus more on learning than on the kind of content knowledge that frequently rewards prior knowledge and privilege. The move to CR/NC grading in Spring 2020 gave me an opportunity to experiment with this further.  The key concern that I and many other K colleagues had, though, was whether a CR/NC grading system would lead to less motivation and less engagement among students.

My experience this spring convinced me that lower stakes grading does not have to lead to lower levels of student engagement.  In fact, two experiments were so successful that my CS colleagues and I plan to continue these approaches across many of our classes, whether remote or in-person, and whether CR/NC or letter-graded.

The first 6 minute video talks about turning rubrics that awarded points for required criteria into ones that awarded checkmarks, dramatically reducing the number of points per assignment. This approach is essentially a very mild form of gamification. (It is also somewhat similar to specifications grading.)

Low Stakes, High Engagement:  Part 1 – Many checkmarks, few points (Mild gamification)

The second, 6 minute video discusses a move to replace traditional homework assignments with structured reflection assignments.  My original motivation was to reduce grading time, since the class was significantly over-enrolled.  I feared that some content learning would be lost, but found that the weekly writings encouraged students to develop and articulate greater depth and integration than the older homework assignments.

Low Stakes, High Engagement:  Part 2 – Structured reflection instead of traditional homework assignments

This video is posted at Stream. Click here to learn more about Stream.

COVID-19 Spring – It turns out some of my choices align with recommended practices! — Jeff Bartz

After a week of doomsday scrolling in March 2020, it was time to get to work. But what work? The technology options, activity alternatives, and advice for virtual classes were overwhelming. I made some choices and they ended up aligning well with a list of recommended practices published in July 2020:

RECOMMENDED PRACTICES FOR ONLINE INSTRUCTION from Means, B.; Neisler, J. Suddenly Online: A National Survey of Undergraduates During the COVID-19 Pandemic; Digital Promise: San Mateo, CA, 2020.

  1. Assignments that ask students to express what they have learned and what they still need to learn
  2. Breaking up class activities into shorter pieces than in an in-person course
  3. Frequent quizzes or other assessments
  4. Live sessions in which students can ask questions and participate in discussions
  5. Meeting in “breakout groups” during a live class
  6. Personal messages to individual students about how they are doing in the course or to make sure they can access course materials
  7. Using real world examples to illustrate course content
  8. Work on group projects separately from the course meetings

Without knowing that I was doing it, my class was constructed using aspects of Design Thinking. Our class had five major themes – Energy, Efficiency, Fuels, Climate Change, and the Ozone Hole – I thought the major themes would keep the students (and the instructor) interested. Assignments and activities were geared toward understanding the major themes using the standard physical chemistry that we have done at Kalamazoo College for decades.

Our class had asynchronous components aligned with the MWF schedule, with online assignments due each day. Some of the asynchronous activities in Spring 2020 were the same as if we would have met in-person: recorded flipped lectures linked on Moodle, targeted textbook reading, Moodle quizzes on the flipped lectures, Moodle quizzes on the targeted reading, and electronic homework. Students did one assignment looking at aspects of energy they thought would be interesting for the professor to learn. I collected laboratory data and asked the students to analyze it in the same way we would have done in-person.

The synchronous components were weekly problem solving sessions over Zoom. The students showed up, did a warm-up activity, solved problems in breakout rooms, then came back for a closing activity.

Here is how I implemented the recommended practices for online instruction:

Practice Implementation Needs Work
1. Reflection on Learning
2. Breaking up class activities
  • MWF Flipped Lectures made with Explain Everything on an iPad
  • Lecture uploaded to YouTube; link posted on Moodle
  • Targeted textbook reading
  • Homework through Mastering Chemistry
  • Break lectures into even smaller chunks (12-20 minutes and then 4-7 minutes)
  • Mix quiz questions with smaller lectures
  • First-year students should upload their notes from each flipped lecture for credit.
  • Need comprehensive instructions for all activities
  • 3. Frequent Quizzes
  • Embedded questions in lecture
  • Post-lecture T/F on Moodle
  • Pre-class questions on targeted reading
  • All quizzes were low stakes
  • Add more embedded questions
    4. Live sessions Figure out when to hold sessions
  • Students indicated their availability using a simple scheduling site when2meet
  • Live session times were hosted through Zoom
  • Students indicated which session they would attend by a Doodle Poll each week
  • Sessions involved an ice breaker, some problem-solving in breakouts, announcements, and a low-stakes quiz using Kahoot!
  • Add more accountability to the live sessions.
  • Collect materials from students
  • Add a variety of materials in the live sessions including
    • Applications of the material
    • Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning activities (POGIL))
  • Need comprehensive instructions for all activities
  • 5. Breakout rooms during class
    • Easy to do in Zoom
    • Instructor emailed the problems to discuss before live class started
    When I popped into some breakout rooms all the microphones where muted. I need to assign roles to the groups and have somebody report out the results from the group. A helpful resource for groupwork
    6. Personal messages With lots of online work, professor can see each student’s progress. Students who were falling behind got messages either email or instant messages through Remind or Slack. More students chose Remind than Slack.
  • Remind will allow the instructor to send out a message to everyone, which could be a way to check in with the class
  • A problem even in face-to-face is how to interpret the silences
  • 7. Real-world examples Created a pre-class movie trailer to describe the applications using iMovie that was sent to all of the students. Putting out the applications that we would study made it important to work them into the class.
    8. Group projects Students chose whether they wanted to work in laboratory groups. Should we do more group work?
  • Working online is isolating
  • Students have 168 hours in a week to schedule a meetup
  • Students gave feedback that working in groups was helpful
  • Fewer papers to grade
  • Some students despise group work
  • One more thing to set up and monitor