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Shifting to Virtual Teaching in Higher Ed Mathematics – Part 3

April 2, 2020|By Erica Winterer

This is the final in a three-part series of blog posts discussing faculty and student experiences in making the transition to virtual teaching and learning during the COVID-19 crisis.

Part 1: "Accounting for student needs as we redesign the way we teach"
Part 2: “Student voices in the transition to virtual learning”

Recommendations for meeting student needs in virtual classes

In exploring how we, as higher education instructors, begin redesigning our courses for online delivery, I’ve shared in Part 1 of this blog series some questions on how we can keep our students’ needs at the forefront. In Part 2, students speak for themselves to describe what they’re feeling in our current, unprecedented situation.

Now in this final post, I share a set of suggestions that are meant to be a starting point in our work as we consider some factors. These recommendations are not perfect; they were written after reading my students’ responses. Based on my teaching experience and knowledge of evidence-based best practices, the recommendations offer concrete ways that instructors might support students during this time.

Many students have limited access to privacy, technology, and reliable Wi-Fi.

  • Erica WInterer
    Erica Winterer
    Go asynchronous when possible. This type of instruction allows students to organize their study time in a way that makes the most sense based on their personal situations. For example, if many family members are sharing the same space and internet connection, students might need to arrange their study time to accommodate everyone in the household.
  • For synchronous meetings, be flexible about where students can connect from and allow them to turn their video off. Students’ access to completely private spaces might be limited.
  • Establish norms for synchronous meetings (e.g., muting microphones). Adjust and reiterate the norms at the beginning of each meeting. Consider having a practice meeting for students to learn new platforms and routines.
  • Assume the best about students’ actions and intentions.
  • Give larger windows of time in which assessments can be completed. Don’t expect students to be able to complete daily assignments or assignments with little notice or short time frames.
  • Notify students of opportunities for low-cost Wi-Fi or technology loans available through your institution, private sources, or government programs.

Students will be isolated.

  • Consider organizing virtual study groups, and post links and times on a centralized calendar. If one is available, have a TA or student representative sit in on one or more of these study groups to monitor effectiveness of the meetings. Co-construct potential protocols for students to follow during these sessions.
  • Create a discussion board for students’ questions. Encourage students to answer one another’s questions. Assign specific times for you or TAs to answer questions throughout the week. Do not attempt to be available 24/7.
  • Don’t forget to post exemplar problems (instructor-generated or student-generated) and/or rubrics so expectations of work are clear.
  • Schedule virtual office hours and have students sign up for specific time slots. Set the expectation that all students should see you at least once. Keep track of who attends and send email invites to students you haven’t been able to chat with yet.

These courses were not designed for virtual learning.

  • Faculty at each institution can be valuable resources for one another. Department chairs should consider developing centralized structures where faculty can easily share best practices, and ask for and offer support to one another. Developing a culture of continuous improvement in our courses will support positive student outcomes. This shift in how we teach will create new demands on faculty time. Consider restructuring tenure calendars or incentive systems.
  • A female professor appears on a student's laptop screen during a lesson.Co-construct the course with participants. Students are good sources for monitoring what works and what does not, and they are often more proficient with technology than we are. Consider simple weekly or biweekly surveys to collect student input. A “keep, change, trash” format could be a starting point. It’s an easy way for students to identify things that are working, minor tweaks that could make the course more efficient, and structures that might need to be completely revamped or tossed. If you have many students in your course, or you have limited capacity, consider electing course representatives to survey their classmates and report back to you. This type of flexible, collaborative approach is extremely important as we certainly will not design the perfect virtual course on the first attempt. Most assuredly, a redesigned course requires thoughtful reflection and revision, and students should be a part of that process.
  • Rethink grading schemes and assessments. Prioritize students’ well-being and learning over deadlines and performance during this crisis.
  • Use some key features in your chosen platform to ensure privacy and minimize disruptions.

Students are in an ever-evolving and potentially unstable situation.

  • Many students are sad about leaving campus, their friends, and support systems. Communicate often with students. Be as clear, transparent, and consistent as possible. We can play a part in helping students feel safe by providing clear structure and stability in our courses. Students appreciate explanations of why decisions are made.
  • Keep things organized. For example, create one calendar (we use Canvas, but many options are available) with all meeting dates/times, assessments, study groups, and so on. Update the calendar with fidelity.
  • Create a centrally housed online folder with information about services available to students. Organize by need (academic help, advising, financial aid, counseling), reference its location regularly so students are reminded it exists, and update the folder as new services become available. Consider coordinating this as a department, so that every instructor does not have to do it individually.
  • Develop a systematic way of checking in with students. Let them know they can reach out to you when problems arise, and you can at least try to connect them to the appropriate institutional service or staff (e.g., academic advisors, campus mental health services). Students can feel overwhelmed with large institutions and often don’t know whom to ask for help. Follow up with students in distress to make sure they receive adequate support.
  • Realize your own locus of control. Do your best to support students but don’t extend yourself beyond your own capacity. There will be limits in which problems you can help solve. Lean on other faculty, departments, and institutional services when appropriate.

As we all work together to navigate these challenging times, remember to stay flexible, stay creative, and remind yourself that this crisis will not last forever. In many ways, the challenges we face also present opportunities to learn new ways of teaching, new ways of working with and supporting our students. Don't let the opportunities pass you by.

More in the blog series “Shifting to Virtual Teaching in Higher Ed Mathematics”:

Part 1: "Accounting for student needs as we redesign the way we teach"
Part 2: “Student voices in the transition to virtual learning”

Are you a higher ed mathematics faculty member shifting to online teaching?

Be sure to join us in our free webinar series: "Transitioning Higher Education Mathematics Courses to Virtual Teaching" – weekly on Thursday afternoons April 2-April 16. Discuss your questions and share strategies for success in transitioning your teaching to the virtual environment.


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Categories: Blog, Higher Education, Math

About the Author

Erica Winterer

I taught high school in New Orleans and learned how to survive day to day by working with diverse sets of resilient educators, administrators, and students. I learned that regardless of teaching expertise, we can always make students feel like their learning and future trajectories are a priority. As a doctoral student at The University of Texas at Austin, I’m grateful to have the opportunity to teach freshman calculus students with my advisor, Professor Uri Treisman.