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Learning from Fall; Preparing for Spring

The self-reported class engagement of students markedly declined over the course of the semester. I had earlier noted that the self-reported engagement was much higher than that for Spring semester. It did not continue throughout the term.

In the first survey of the semester, 33% reported being very engaged; in the fourth survey, only 13%. (Admittedly, the reported levels of engagement are still higher than those in Spring, but the trend over time is disappointing.)

There are many hypotheses that drive these findings, some of which are presented in the comments of students in the survey:

1. The asynchronous/synchronous combinations can cause overloads

The notion of a “flipped classroom” moves lecture material to asynchronous experiences outside of class and focuses class experiences on deeper discussions and needed clarifications. Some students report that viewing a recorded lecture, completing normal exercises, finishing readings, and then attending synchronous classes seems to require many more hours of work that was the case with in-person classes. One student writes: “Pay attention to the amount of time put into work outside of class and time in class. Yes, that is similar to a balance of synchronous/asynchronous, but some professors do not understand that asynchronous work should take away from time in class. Sometimes I have asynchronous activities that are very time consuming and then a full 2.5-hour class with just one 5-minute break.”

2. Work takes longer in a remote setting; students perceive classes as requiring more work

Students miss their physical access to libraries and other campus resources. Both faculty and staff can complete their work, but it takes more time. When students are taking many classes, their discretionary time evaporates. One student writes: “A lot of professor seem to have interpreted remote learning as meaning student have more free time, and have therefore assigned more work than they usually would.”

3. Synchronous video sessions via Zoom or other platforms are exhausting

Recent reports make clear that the cognitive load of trying to read multiple faces in a zoom group is fatiguing. Students feel this; faculty feel this.

4. Students feel isolated from each other

One student writes: “The stress comes less from the work and more from the lack of support coming from my fellow students. There are no more sly comments about the lecture with the student next to you, there are no more conversations about our collective stress, and there are no more relationships to be made except through the classroom groupchats…”

So, what to do?

The spring calendar approved by the main campus faculty was heavily guided by public health concerns. We start late because of the large surge of COVID cases being experienced now. We avoid three day weekends to reduce risks of travel to another location. We have a spring break followed by students return to their permanent addresses. With limited breaks for 9 weeks, the risk is that similar stress and fatigue levels will occur in spring.

The school deans, the CNDLS staff, and various faculty groups have been discussing how to make the Spring semester more engaging, with lower stress levels, while achieving all the learning goals of each course.

Deans and faculty are addressing how to reduce student stress in the spring term. One theme is flexibility – to utilize different class formats over the meetings. The main campus faculty will discuss an agreement to avoid assignments on and around President’s Day, February 15. The deans have discussed a lightening of the intensity of classes later in the term, in March.

In addition, CNDLS staff offer a set of ideas for faculty to consider:

• Adapt – adapt your course for a remote environment to considering content, pace, engagement and teaching approaches.
• Communicate – ask for regular feedback from your students to gauge their ability to do the work.
• Adjust – calibrate expectations at various points throughout the semester to keep your students from feeling unreasonably overwhelmed by the workload.
• Design alternating pacing throughout the semester, with periods of shorter synchronous and more substantial asynchronous engagements followed by more intense synchronous activities.
• Balance the synchronous and asynchronous activities you are asking your students to engage in.
• Design around the midterm time frame, a period we know to be when students begin to feel greater exhaustion in any semester.
• Provide frequent and iterative feedback loops to help students know where they are in their learning at all times.
• Explore alternative grading schemes, including contract grading to replace traditional assessment grading and giving students a built-in throw away grade for one assessment.
• Create alternative assessments to timed, closed book exams.
• Avoid long, intense projects, particularly projects that do not offer frequent feedback and opportunities to revise.
• Replace full-class meetings with smaller tutorial sessions.
• Increase the amount of mental health days available to students that they can use for a class at their discretion.
• Connect students to other university support resources related to well-being, including Student Affairs, CAPS, Health Education Services, Campus Ministry, etc.

Our devotion to the Georgetown community must attend to the stress of faculty and students.  We all need to focus on this.

2 thoughts on “Learning from Fall; Preparing for Spring

  1. Dear Provost Groves,

    Thank you for this information and for the teaching tips. Thank you also for your continuing leadership during this difficult year. As a social scientist, I am so happy that we let our teaching strategies be guided by data. I am very motivated by the possibilities of making my pandemic teaching better; however, I see substantial gaps in what we know that makes it this process harder. I do wonder whether we can do even better and be even more intentional and data-driven. Here are some of my thoughts and questions:

    – “Engagement” is not a well-specified construct, it is very vague and can mean very different things for different people. Do we have any sense of what are students are rating when they are rating their engagement, what factors typically drive such ratings? Are we talking about low emotional state, belonging or motivation here? Is engagement about lack of reward or about experiencing negative interactions? Is it about students’ responses to classes and their work or about their generalized beliefs about how things are going? We do know that these dimensions are distinct and are driven by different factors, they also have different outcomes..
    – The post assumes that low engagement is at least partly determined by what happens in the virtual classroom rather than by the way in which our students are impacted by the stress and lack of rewards brought on by the events of 2020. It emphasizes primary control (i.e., this is about us and we can and should change it). Do we have any evidence that this is so, perhaps examples of classes that consistently produce high ratings of global engagement?
    – Do we have any data that would help us situate our students’ reports of disengagement? How engaged are our students during a normal year, how do these reports of engagement change as the semester unfolds? In my own studies, I have measured some variables that were conceptually related to engagement. They were fairly low even before COVID. Low engagement does not sound optimal in any scenario; however, thinking about it during a pandemic without any pre-pandemic benchmark data is not nearly as informative as we would like.
    – Do we see substantial differences between groups of students (classes in different departments, first-year students versus upperclass), how may this inform our hypotheses?
    – Your post focuses on engagement, do we have any sense of how this semester went in terms of other variables that we might care about, such as learning outcomes and mental health? In my own classes, students reported that this semester was very hard for them and they felt it was hard to engage; however, they did very well academically, I would even say exceptionally well. This might suggest that their reports of engagement are not motivational in nature. How do we think about engagement relative to the other “whole person” outcomes?
    – Last summer, you asked faculty to deliver our trademark “high touch” approach to teaching over Zoom. I was very inspired by this goal, I imagine others were as well. I do wonder whether some of the practices identified as problematic in this post were unintended consequences of everyone trying to be high touch in response to this call? If so, it may be helpful to start thinking about potential unintended consequences of the new set of recommendations, so that we are not just reacting, but designing for the outcomes we would like to see. An important consideration here is to design not just for engagement, what are other outcomes that we would need to prioritize, such as learning. For example, frequent testing that is described as stressful is also the best way to improve learning. It would be helpful for us to think about all of our goals and envision them as we plan.
    – Some of the recommendations offered for the spring would likely be effective in reducing work load and stress. However, stress and engagement are not the same. Moreover, neither engagement nor stress are synonymous to the learning outcomes prized by the institution. I worry that reducing incentives and social presence (even if only on Zoom) will reduce stress, but may also dampen rather than increase engagement and learning.
    – Given all of these considerations, I think we desperately need better methodological approaches to understanding how our students are doing, such as a daily diary or a momentary sampling probes that would help us understand what drives engagement and how our students react to different instructional approaches. We do have the expertise to deliver such probes to augment surveys with something better that can potentially help us offer the best learning experiences for our students.

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