Virtual spring term wrap up

With all non-senior grades due yesterday morning (senior grades were due last week), spring term is finally and officially in the books!

Given that my research students started this week, and looking ahead to my schedule for the week (so! many! meetings!), I completed and submitted all of my grades at the senior grade deadline. I’ve now had a week to regroup and reflect on the term, and figure out what lessons I’ll take away from it.

In this post I’ll talk a bit about what went (surprisingly) well, what fell flat, and what I’d do differently next time, whether we’re in person, online, or some combination of the two.

What went well

Specificity. I tend to be very specific in my assignment prompts and in my assignment rubrics. Over time I’ve recognized that this is good and inclusive pedagogical practice, but honestly it was born out of necessity — as junior faculty in a male-dominated department, it was a defensive mechanism against students who questioned my pedagogy and right to be in the classroom, and/or felt I wasn’t qualified to “appropriately” assess their work. Specificity, it turns out, really helps students focus on what’s expected of them, particularly when they’re already feeling overwhelmed in an unfamiliar learning environment.

Organization. When most of your course delivery is asynchronous, Moodle gets unwieldy quickly. Even in non-virtual terms, Moodle gets unwieldy quickly. I’ve developed a template of sorts over the years for organizing my course weeks on Moodle with judicious use of labels and the assignment module, and I modified that to fit the flow of our virtual class. I also discovered that Google Calendar, when you embed it in Moodle, provides a much easier interface for students to figure out what’s due when than the built-in Moodle calendar, so I relied on that quite heavily. Finally, I’d never used Activity Completion before, but I leaned heavily on that to both control access to material (“complete this to unlock that”) and to give the students a way to keep track of what they’d completed and what they had left to do.

Consistent, stable teams. I decided early on to make the term-long project teams “collaboration teams” for the entire term. While a few teams struggled to connect with each other, the majority of teams connected effectively and formed mini-communities within the course, and these teams worked pretty much how I intended them to work. I suspect this “saved” a few students who might otherwise have gotten lost from completely falling off the wagon. (Unfortunately, it did not save all of these students.) For the most part, teams provided much-needed community within the larger course, and helped replicate some of the “table culture” that emerges in the face-to-face version of this course.

Team meetings. Boy, I wish I had done this earlier in the term! I met with each team over Zoom in the second-to-last week of the term, after peer and self evals came in and around the time the penultimate deliverable was due. I spend about half a class period doing this during in-person terms, and use it as a way to help teams figure out what to focus on for the final version of their project (are there features to jettison? are they focusing on user goals? what will get them closest to the vision they had at the start of the term?). This also provides a way for me to talk with students about team dynamics that emerged in the peer and self evaluations. I think the students were relieved to get some one-on-one focused time with me, something more personal than the weekly Zoom class meetings. And I made sure to do a quick non-course check-in with the students during this time, to focus on their well-being. This was a huge success.

Class discussions. It took me a while to figure out how to conduct these in a more authentic and engaged way. I used stable breakout rooms so that students were always paired up with the same students (their project teams), with some minor shuffling if only one student on a team showed up to class. I quickly realized that me jumping from room to room to check in did not work at all — it was clunky and immediately halted conversation. I started using Google Docs, placing all of the discussion prompts and spaces for notes there. (Sometimes I used a single document for the whole class; other times, each team had their own Google Doc.) Instead of room-hopping, I monitored the Google Doc(s), jumping in with comments in the Doc to redirect discussion or elevate a point, and popping into breakout rooms when it appeared a group was heading off-track or clearly lost. As an added bonus, the Google Docs provide a record of the discussion, so that students who could not participate in real time could still reference the notes and take-away points — and even students who participated could go back and review the take-away points. I definitely plan to use this strategy much more in the future, even in face-to-face courses! (And this might be the only effective way to conduct discussion in a socially-distanced, mask-wearing classroom.)

What fell flat

Building community. I had modest hopes at the start of the term that Slack could provide an acceptable way to build community asynchronously. I seriously underestimated the amount of work that building community online takes. Despite my best efforts (which were pretty lousy, I’ll admit!), interactions on Slack were pretty much one way between the students and me. My attempt to wrangle together a virtual project demonstration/feedback session (as several smaller combination showcase/office hours during Reading Days and Finals) failed to yield a single participant. I delve a little more deeply into the issues (and how I attempted to use badges to salvage the community) in this post on Carleton’s Learning and Teaching Center blog.

Office hours. Try as I might, I could not get students to utilize office hours on any sort of regular basis. I had both drop-in hours (no advance appointment necessary) and office hours by appointment, and both went over like lead balloons. I am not sure why students did not utilize these — fear? lack of a pre-existing relationship? (although even students I knew before this course failed to take advantage of office hours.) branding? I wonder if requiring students to make an office hours appointment with me in the first couple of weeks in the term would help fix this. At least it would remove the barrier to setting up the meeting and then showing up to the meeting.

Timing of deliverables. There was a mismatch in my head, over how I thought each week would flow, and how this matched up with when I had readings and reading activities due. Often this meant that our Wednesday synchronous class meetings hit on things that technically weren’t due until Friday. Luckily, this is easily fixable moving forward, particularly since now I have a slightly better sense of how to manage flexibility with keeping everyone roughly on the same track.

Flexibility in deadlines. Let me preface this by saying that flexibility was absolutely the right call, given all of the things students faced this spring and continue to face. For many, this flexibility allowed them to successfully complete and pass my course. Every major deliverable in the course had a de-facto 48 hour no-fault extension built in. Once students realized this, however, many of them treated that 48 hour buffer as the actual deadline. This made it more difficult for my grader and me to keep up with assessments, and to manage deliverables that built upon other deliverables. When most work revolves around team deliverables, there’s also the tricky balancing act of handling a student who needs some flexibility with the needs of the other students on the team — how does everyone navigate this minefield while meeting everyone’s individual learning goals and needs? I don’t have any great answers, but I did learn a lot this term and will use those lessons to craft better ways of handling this in the future.

Concrete takeaways and homework for the summer

I realized as I compiled my thoughts for this section that all of the takeaways revolve around one theme: providing students more autonomy and independence over their learning. Moving online forced us more into that mode, but continuing this mode offline is a good idea pedagogically anyway. So, what can I do to help students become more independent learners?

First, I want to explore the ideas of specifications and/or contract grading. I sort of did specifications grading-light this past term, with my rubrics following a “does not meet expectations”/”meets expectations”/”exceeds expectations” format, but I want to expand this idea out further. I also want to look into working with students on what they want to get out of a course and how to structure the pieces of the course to help them craft that for themselves.

Second, I want to continue integrating activity completion into my courses, to help students keep better track of expectations and due dates, and to control the release of information better (“do this before you can unlock that”). Ideally, this will also help students connect the dots of how all of the pieces relate and inter-relate.

Third, I suspect we’ll be in pandemic mode for quite some time, and that things may never quite get back to “normal”. Students may continue to engage in courses in multiple ways: in person, completely virtually, some fluid combination of these. How accessible are my courses, really? I learned a lot this term about the barriers to learning in my own materials — unclear labs, dense readings, opaque tool documentation, etc. I want students to grapple with the course concepts, not the how-tos.

Finally, I want to empower students to seek help and form connections with me and others in the course. How can I be more explicit in how I connect students to each other, and ensure that all students feel like they belong and are valued? How can I foster more back-and-forth interactions in both face-to-face and asynchronous conversations?


While this was not at all the term I was supposed to have, the struggles, the constant adjusting and readjusting on the fly, the dealing with students’ (and my own) trauma, have all made me a more reflective, more compassionate, and more effective educator. I am eager to apply these lessons moving forward, in making my courses more inclusive and accessible to all.