As posted earlier, the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS) conducted a series of short surveys of students engaged in remote learning after Spring break at Georgetown. We conducted a final survey after the last classes, asking the students to reflect on the entire experience, with the hindsight that comes with the completion of the semester.
A close reader will recall that the students had earlier pointed out that the most positive attribute of the experience was the instructor’s devotion to the class. The reflections of students at the end of the semester embellished that observation in several meaningful ways.
The messages reinforced the earlier reports that there was great variation in students’ home circumstances. Some had noisy, crowded households. Some had very shaky internet support or weak computing equipment. Many report the “screen fatigue” that almost all faculty and staff report. Students in different time zones faced issues of sleep deprivation and being out of synch with their families waking schedule.
CNDLS summarized some of the final messages of students. They asked that faculty be flexible, making accommodations for the kinds of problems above that vary across students. They especially valued the instructors who listened to their needs and empathized with difficulties they were facing. They felt that the online mode required more direct communication about expectations in the course and a transparency of class activities that was above that typical of face to face classes. They treasured the instructors who involved the students in the planning and teaching of the class in new and imaginative ways. That energize them and create deeper engagement.
Another message was students appreciated instructors who broke the class sessions up into smaller chunks, with diverse types of activities, prompting more active learning. Similarly, a mix of synchronous experiences mated with asynchronous experiences served to keep the class more engaged, especially when the two modes built upon one another.
Some instructors earned the praise of students when they had some assignments completed off-line, through podcasts or at-home experiential learning projects. Similarly, students appreciated classes where the assignment was not a single large project, due at the end of the term, but many smaller projects, especially when the separate projects built upon one another.
Looking back over the experience, they realized that both instructor and students needed to learn a new set of norms of how best to interact totally online. Over time, some groups successfully integrated peer-to-peer conversations in breakout rooms of Zoom, with informal chats during breaks in classes, and honest discussions about expectations.
There was great appreciation of courses in which students collaborated with one another on their own, sharing documents or chatting in various ways. Further, those classes that captured the synchronous sessions for later viewing gained wider acceptance than those that failed to do that.
Finally, the role of contact and feedback with the instructor seemed to be judged as more important in the new medium than in the face-to-face mode. Office hours, especially those that were one-on-one with the instructor, were highly valued. Frequent feedback from the instructor on how students were performing in the class was deeply appreciated. Online assessments seem to work best when the examination uses “open-book” or “take-home” formats than synchronous online timed tests.
It was comforting that the students didn’t want a reduction in the rigor of the courses, merely an adaptation to the new medium.
So many of these features valued by students come naturally when instructors care deeply for the progress that each individual student makes in their courses. Caring for the whole person of the student motivates using many of the pedagogical techniques above.