Preparing For Fall With Lessons From The Spring

Eric Loepp, assistant professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

With the spring 2020 term now in the rearview mirror, faculty are (hopefully!) able to take some time to recharge. Yet we will also reflect on our experience, and think about how the spring semester can help us prepare for a still-uncertain fall period ahead of us. To aid in this process, I conducted a survey at the end of the remote learning period at my university (second week of May) to get a better sense of how things went for students.

One of the most important insights from the data concerns the most important features of a successful remote learning experience (RLE). I asked students to rank-order four key items: a good professor, a well-organized LMS course, communication technology, and course materials (e.g., textbooks, worksheets, etc.). By far, students rated the professor and the course design as the most important items.

What exactly does it mean to have a good professor and a well-organized learning management (LMS) course? Here are some of the highlights from the data:

  • Navigation (How do students find what they need?): One of the most frequent references in the student feedback was to our learning management system (Canvas). Roughly one out of three students mentioned the platform in their responses. Specifically, references typically spoke to an appreciation for well-organized Canvas pages, or lamented at ones that were not. One student summarized the collective view well when describing their top professor this spring: “They were [the best] at remote teaching/instruction because everything on Canvas was organized very clearly and there was never anything that was due that I did not know about a very long time in advance. There were no surprises which was also very helpful for my stress levels.” On the flip side, some students grew frustrated at their inability to locate course material. Said one: “It’s annoying when I’m hunting all across a canvas page because I can’t find what I’m looking for.”
  • Communication (How do students stay in touch with professors?) Professors who earned high praise were those who were in regular contact with students and made themselves accessible to students. There are both proactive and reactive elements. Students appreciate when instructors reach out to provide updates, course reminders, or even just to say hello and ask how people are doing. One student noted their appreciation for a professor who “tried to create normalcy by posting optional videos about things other than school where students could still feel connected.” Students also greatly value responsive instructors when they reach out to us. One individual noted that, “if something was confusing we were not able to raise our hand” in an online setting, so making additional time to respond to inquiries is essential. As much as possible, we should also increase the frequency with which we make ourselves available. Students may very well be held up on a relatively minor issue, but cannot proceed until they have a resolution.
  • Understanding (What flexibility can students expect?): Many students referenced the challenging learning environment posed by the remote learning transition. For some, it was logistical: their new schedules did not make it possible for them to “attend” class at the regularly scheduled time period. For others, it was environmental: they were dealing with distractions at home that made it hard to create a space conducive to learning. For others, it was technical: limited or even no Internet access is still common in the U.S.; in addition, some students may not have high-quality cameras or microphones to engage in online activities even if they are wired into the Web. Consequently, students frequently talked about their appreciation for faculty understanding their limitations and anxiety, and adjusting course expectations according. This may mean trimming or dropping some assignments, but it also means diligently thinking through the demands of alternative assessments. For instance, one individuals noted that turning a group presentation into an individual paper resulted in more work than the original assignment would have required.

In addition to these primary themes, here are some other recommendations for faculty moving forward online based on my observations, experiences, and interactions with students:

  • Create a checklist of tasks for students to help them manage their deliverables. Checking a box is extremely satisfying, and helps students stay organized!
  • Context is key; posting power point slides or other “raw” materials without any overview or guidance about how to use them can be confusing, just as it would be if we stood mute in a classroom and simply advanced a slidedeck on the screen.
  • Set up complete courses on the LMS platform as much as possible so students can self-pace. This has the added benefit of possibly easing another online transition this fall, should it occur. True, it is not always possible to do this, especially with new courses, but aim to have as much ungated content as possible based on your preparation schedule and course needs.
  • Bear in mind that not all campus resources (library, tutoring centers, etc.) are (as) available as they are in a residential setting, so adjust assignments/course requirements accordingly. Similarly, other important resources like health and counseling centers, as well support services for students with disabilities, are not necessarily as accessible, and this can severely affect students’ ability to perform.
  • Have some sort of live, synchronous session regularly so students can interact with you in real time. But make it optional, or at least record proceedings for students who want to watch it later.
  • Host meetings online, but stick to one platform as much as possible (many of us have also had to learn to use different platforms in recent months, too – it’s a lot manage, especially figuring out where the all-important “turn off camera” button is located!).
  • Be consistent; as much as possible, do not adjust due dates and parameters once they have been set.

What is really interesting is that outside of concerns and preferences related to flexibility and understanding given the mid-semester transition, comments by students are not really speaking to best practices for emergency online learning per se; they are speaking to best practices about learning, period. Granted, this last semester was unusual: many course particulars—simulations, games, group activities, etc.—had to be revised because the online transitions was unforeseen. Anxiety and stress levels were very likely higher for many individuals than they normally would be. And many students and faculty who simply do not prefer an online experience were required to engage with one. Fair enough. Yet most of the practices related to success in spring 2020—well-designed courses, clear and frequent communication, and flexible, accessible professors—are all hallmarks of an effective course design, whatever the mode and whatever the context. In this way, we do not necessarily need to scramble to fundamentally revise everything about how we teach if we end up taking courses online again in the coming semesters; rather, we should focus on refining and adapting the best practices we already know.

Eric Loepp (Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he teaches courses in American government, political behavior, and research methods. His research focuses on candidate evaluations and electoral decision-making, particularly in primary elections. This work has been published in such journals as Electoral Studies, the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion, & Parties, Research & Politics, American Politics Research, and PS: Political Science & Politics.

Editor’s Note – This blog post is part of Educate’s series, “online learning during Covid-19.” This series features APSA member voices across higher education. If you would like to contribute to this series, please contact 

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