5 Lessons from Fall Term

Winter Term is underway (more on that next week)! Yet I still find myself processing and attempting to make sense of Fall Term. To be honest, I find myself dealing with what I can only describe as lingering and persistent trauma — not just over Fall Term, but over the state of the world more generally. It’s hard to process and analyze when everything feels so uncertain and impossibly hard.

On balance, Fall Term went…surprisingly well, given the circumstances. I had a small, engaged class of 15 students. No one unexpectedly disappeared, and everyone passed the course. My course revisions mostly worked, save for a project that went off the rails due to undocumented conflicts in different minor versions of Python. And I managed to make some forward progress on research and various other projects.

In thinking about the term, I found myself returning to five lessons I learned, or re-learned, over the course of the term.

Lesson 1: Everyone is struggling. And it’s ok to acknowledge that publicly.

Fall Term was hard for lots of us, for a variety of reasons. Time zone differences. Health, including mental health, issues. Worries over the election. Concern over the risk-taking behavior of other students. Racial trauma. Isolation and loneliness. Caregiving responsibilities. And while Carleton was not fully online, many of its courses were at least partially online, which meant everyone (students, faculty, and staff) spent much of their days interacting online — difficult even in the best of circumstances. In short, no one’s at their best.

I made checking in with my students a priority. I borrowed an idea from a staff colleague and started each synchronous class meeting with the same anonymous poll, asking them how they were doing. Originally I just summarized the responses, but as the term went on I started displaying the results as a percentage of respondents. I commented briefly, adding (truthfully) where I fell among the options, acknowledging the mindspace we collectively occupied that day, and reminded those who were struggling of various ways to reach out and seek help. Students indicated that they found this helpful — both to see that they were not alone wherever they fell on the continuum that week, and that I was honest about my own struggles. This is definitely something I will continue, including whenever we return to in-person instruction.

Poll window asking "how are you doing today?" with multiple choice options
Zoom editor view of the check-in poll I used at each synchronous class meeting.

Lesson 2: Teaching online is easier the second time around

Don’t get me wrong: Teaching online still feels unnatural, weird, and hard. But it felt way less so than it did in the spring. I was able to tap into the lessons I learned about organizing a week, a lesson, a class meeting, an explanation, and apply them to a very different course. Everything seemed to flow much better — even the project that went off the rails. It also helped that students had a term of online learning under their belts, and knew what to expect — from the modality, from each other, and from me.

I also appreciated even more all of the pedagogical work I put in this summer, and the pedagogical workshops I attended. It was time very much well spent and definitely made a huge difference in how the class ran, and worked.

Lesson 3: Specifications grading helped…a lot

Based on my reading of Specifications Grading and Grading for Equity, I completely revamped my course grading. Did it work? Hell yes!

I found this new-to-me style of grading freeing. Rather than agonizing over “is this exam answer worth 4 points or 5 points?”, I only had to ask “does this answer meet the expectations for the learning objective or concept?” Turns out, in most cases that’s a much easier question to answer. And knowing that students could revise and resubmit any summative work, I found it easier to make these judgment calls. Weirdly, I actually kind of enjoyed grading!

Most students took advantage of the revision opportunities — some multiple times. I found that a subset of the students were really invested in improving their learning through the revision process — and that this freed up some of them to take risks they might not have normally taken. Which, of course, is exactly what I want to happen in my courses! That said, from a grading management perspective, in the future I will likely limit the number of revisions, probably through some kind of token system, to prevent my workload from spiraling out of control.

I never quite figured out how to get Moodle to play nicely with this grading system. I ended up converting the expectations scale to a 4.0 scale and averaging things within categories to calculate the course grades. It was hard for students to figure out their own course grades because the averaging was somewhat opaque and was done outside of Moodle. In the future, I will invest the time to bake this into Moodle so that students have a better sense of how they’re doing in the course.

Lesson 4: Online pedagogy allows for some new collaborative learning opportunities

Computer Networks (the course I taught this fall) is conceptually tricky and often dense. In an in-person class, I make heavy use of office hours and class time to help students extract the important points of a concept, technique, protocol specification, or algorithm from the seemingly overwhelming details. After some success using Hypothes.is, an online annotation tool, in the spring, I experimented with Hypothes.is for some of the denser readings in the course. For a few of the daily targeted readings, I had students answer the reading questions in their small groups by annotating the reading with their answers. For a few others, I pre-annotated the reading to focus their attention on the main points, and had students comment on the annotations and/or add their own. I really liked how this worked out overall, and I think the students got more out of those readings. I plan to continue this practice in the spring and likely beyond. I could see it working really effectively for Intro CS and for Data Structures (our CS 2), where it’s really easy for students to get lost in the details of a reading.

Moving things online wasn’t always neat and contained, but sometimes that’s ok. I usually run an in-class simulation of Internet routing, where students act as autonomous systems in small teams: creating routing tables, entering into peering agreements with each other, and ultimately attempting to “route” data. What normally takes one class period in person spread over several days online. It was messy, and chaotic — and probably taught students about the messiness of real-world Internet routing more effectively and deeply than anything else I have attempted in my 17 years of teaching this topic.

Lesson 5: It’s really, really hard to troubleshoot virtually

When I can’t figure something out, I need to sit down and play around with it. When teaching in person, I spend a lot of time running to the computer lab so that I can see what the students see, in their coding environment, with the same tools and version of Python and all that good stuff.

When the rogue project went off the rails, I found myself flying blind. What version of Python were the students using? Were they all using the same version of Python? Is it the same as mine? Why does the code sometimes work when we ssh in to one of the servers, but not consistently? How do I help Windows users — most of my students — when I have a Mac? Ultimately, I was limited in how much troubleshooting I could do. I’m still not sure what I could have done better, other than perhaps requiring the students to run and develop the code within a virtual machine of some sort. But it’s something I continue to reflect upon how to improve — and particularly, how to better support Windows users in my courses.


I have a lighter teaching load this term — just our capstone, to make room for the heavier workload of my administrative role this term. But I’m already thinking ahead to how I can capture, consolidate, and integrate these lessons into my spring term course — the same course I taught last spring. I look forward to seeing how much better and more effective I can make that course based on what I learned this term.