Teaching during the pandemic required a major overhaul of the logistics of the college course, as everything from attendance policies to technology bans were adapted to fit the constraints of pandemic teaching. As instructors were revising the operations of their course, many decisions were focused on providing 1.) more structure to help everyone stay organized and on-track during a period of more self-directed learning, and 2.) more flexibility to lower as many barriers to learning as possible during a period of intense distraction.
Research shows that increasing structure and increasing flexibility supports student learning, and many instructors found that to be true as they taught through the pandemic. This semester, as instructors decide what course policies and protocols to bring back from their pre-pandemic practices and what changes to maintain or further adapt, the calculation often reflects the desire to balance structure and flexibility without taking on an undue administrative burden.
This section reviews a few of the significant policy and protocol shifts that occurred over the past 18 months and considers some possibilities for adapting them into the Fall 2021 pedagogical context, with an eye towards structure and flexibility, including:
- Participation & Engagement
- Masking & Social Distancing
- Class Recordings
- Course Technology Policies
During the 20-21 school year, traditional attendance policies were set aside to encourage students who were experiencing any symptoms to stay home. During Fall 2021, instructors may continue to see higher absence rates than were common pre-pandemic, both due to the continued possibility of quarantining and because students with non-COVID illnesses are more likely to stay home than risk passing on illness, even if it’s a more benign variety.
Massachusetts does not currently require vaccinated individuals who were in close contact with someone who tested positive to quarantine if they do not have any symptoms, so it is unlikely that BC students who feel healthy will be absent from classes this semester. (State and institutional guidance is subject to change. Check the BCForward website for the most up-to-date guidance.) Given those protocols, the mechanisms used to accommodate absences last year (e.g. Zooming in, completing regularly posted alternative assignments, etc.) will likely be less relevant in the coming semester.
Depending on how much you value flexibility as a pedagogical value, your use of class time, and how much energy you can devote to anticipating and/or tracking absences in your class, here are some attendance policy options for the upcoming semester:
- Requiring students to communicate with you for an “approved absence” and setting the expectation that they are responsible for getting notes from a peer, reviewing a recording and/or speaking with you during office hours to develop a plan for catching up.
- Finalizing attendance policies with students: Give individual students a choice between a suite of attendance policies that you would be comfortable implementing. Gerald & Brady talk about allowing students to choose between an attendance policy that incentivized regular attendance with extra credit points and a mandatory policy that included grade penalties for absences. (In their course, more students selected the mandatory policy than the incentivized policy and found that class attendance improved for students in both groups.)
- Limiting the scope of required attendance: If different class periods feature different activity types, some of which require students to be more actively involved than others, only require attendance for those sessions that require active engagement from students. For example, course sessions focused on reviewing assigned material might be optional while activity- or discussion-based sessions are required, or lecture classes might be recorded and posted online while periods featuring small group work are required.
- Getting rid of mandatory attendance and instead holding students accountable over the course of the semester with low-stakes assessments that can only be submitted in-class or through an arranged alternative.
Participation & Engagement
With COVID protocols in place, many instructors moved away from general participation policies and instead focused on artifacts of student engagement. For example, many instructors assigned more small assignments, including things like discussion board postings, quizzes, journal entries, and exit tickets, all of which gave instructors more information about what students (mis)understood and provided a chance to provide feedback ahead of major assignments.
These kinds of engagement checks can continue to support student learning in the coming semester and provide you with the information you need to get ahead of misunderstandings that can be more difficult to identify during Q&A or discussion, especially when confused students might be hesitant to speak up or when students don’t realize that they’ve misunderstood something. While you may want to have assignments and course information available in Canvas for students who have to quarantine, the increased freedom to move about the classroom and be in closer proximity to one another means that many of the engagement checks that happened asynchronously last year can happen in the classroom moving forward. That might look like
- Students completing small group work that results in a small artifact (completing a problem set, brainstorming a list together, notes outlining their initial response to a discussion prompt)
- Students sharing one thing they contributed and one thing they learned from a peer in the class in a Google Form, Canvas Assignment, or notecard.
- Students taking collaborative notes that can be a resource to those present as well as to absent students and can give you, as the instructor, some insight into students’ learning.
Given the return to more traditional in-person teaching, it may be possible to bring back an assessment of participation that gauges student contributions to the course and their peers’ learning. Some of what we learned last year—especially about the benefits of flexibility and structure for more equitable participation—can be built into participation policies by:
- Defining multiple pathways for participation, such as verbal contributions to the whole class, small group or paired discussion, engagement via email or office hours, poll everywhere contributions, etc.
- Providing a rubric for participation and offering students feedback on their performance once or twice over the semester.
- Asking students to self-assess their participation mid-way through the semester, highlighting what they are doing well and what they could improve. Offer feedback on their assessment, indicating where their self-assessment is accurate and where it might be skewed. Download a sample self-assessment form.
Masking & Social Distancing
BC is not currently requiring anyone to mask, though policies could change at any time in response to public health guidance. You can find BC’s most up-to-date guidance on the BC Forward webpage.
While official policies may signal a return to normal, individual community members will likely still be figuring out their comfort with being unmasked in more densely populated spaces. And, of course, those with suppressed immune systems who are less protected by the vaccine may need to take additional precautions.
You have a couple of options for how to navigate the varying priorities and comfort levels in your classroom, including:
- Wearing a mask yourself to normalize it in the classroom. Maybe consider having a box of disposable masks in the room in case someone forgets theirs or decides they’d like to wear one.
- Including optional question(s) about COVID protocols on your pre-course survey. Share anonymized results with the class on the first day to surface differing experiences and articulate any steps you’re going to take to try to make everyone feel more comfortable (e.g. explicitly stating that students are welcome to mask if that feels more comfortable, allowing students to go outside when closely collaborating in small groups, agreeing to meet outside or over Zoom for office hours if that’s more comfortable).
Some COVID-related questions include:
- What are you excited about with the return to more traditional in-person learning environments?
- What are you anxious about with the return to more traditional in-person learning environments?
- What could I or your peers do to help you feel safe in this course?
- Please rate how comfortable you are attending classes where everyone is unmasked (comfortable, sort of comfortable, uncomfortable, very uncomfortable).
- Normalizing a range of responses and inviting student feedback: As we return to more collective, in-person activities, people are having a wide range of affective responses. While reopening anxiety is common, some faculty and students will be relieved and overjoyed to return to a full classroom, and many more will have mixed feelings. Recognizing the range of responses and inviting students to share how they’re feeling with you can help you get the information you need to plan for in-class interactions.
- Making students’ options visible. Can they go outside or into a hallway to do group work with a little more space? Can they meet you outside or on Zoom for office hours?
Course policies around assignments shifted dramatically during the past year, with many instructors offering more flexible assignments (e.g. offering more than one way for students to complete their work) and more flexible deadlines. Assignments were also often more structured; students completed more small assignments on a regular basis. While many instructors found such shifts to their assignment policies and protocols were supportive of student learning, they also often required additional administrative work.
When revisiting your assignments for the coming semester, some options you have for increasing structure and flexibility include:
- Having students collaboratively annotate with a tool like Perusall, providing some structure to their engagement with a text while giving them freedom to comment on whatever sparks their interest. Grading can happen on a complete/incomplete basis or can make use of Perusall’s automatic grading feature.
- Maintaining a regular weekly schedule with a regular name for a smaller assignment that can vary in type and/or give students options (e.g. weekly “reflection activities” that could involve a short journal, a brief conversation with a peer, or a metacognitive exercise.)
- Experimenting with flexible assignment deadlines.
- Identifying one additional option for students to choose from that still aligns with your core learning goals (e.g. choosing between an oral and written exam, between a group and individual project, etc.). Providing these kinds of options can be especially helpful at points in the course where students tend to struggle.
As with last year, classes that take place in classrooms that are lecture capture equipped will automatically be recorded. Recordings will appear in the Panopto area of the associated Canvas course and will be unpublished by default, meaning that students will not be able to see the recordings unless you change the availability settings.
While recordings can support student learning by enabling students to review material (for instance, to return directly to a particularly helpful instructional example or explanation), it can also be a pedagogical complication in some contexts. For instance, students might feel hesitant to make mistakes or take intellectual risks when they know recordings will be available for their peers to review. If you would like to opt out of automatic classroom recordings, contact email@example.com.
Whether or not recordings are made visible, per the Faculty Handbook, if you are in a classroom that is lecture capture equipped or are otherwise recording your class sessions, you “must notify students in advance of such action via email, on [your] syllabus, and/or verbally in class.”
Here are your options for managing lecture capture recordings:
- Making recordings available by default is a convenient choice if you would like all students to be able to review lectures (rewatching, slowing down, and pausing as necessary). Having recordings available can also help incentivize students who are sick to make the responsible choice to stay home without further burdening the instructor.
- Publishing select recordings or making recordings available to select students: You can also have more granular control over access to Panopto recordings. While it is more time-intensive to exercise that control, it does allow you to publish only particular recordings (e.g. recordings of lectures, but not discussion-based class sessions) or make recordings available only to particular students (e.g. students who would especially benefit from the chance to review material, like ELL students or students who are absent for a longer period of time due to extenuating circumstances).
- Keep recordings unpublished: If you would not like any students to have access to your video recordings, you can simply leave your Panopto availability settings as they are.
For more information on institutional protocols and responsibilities regarding class recordings (e.g. information about your intellectual property rights and protocols for sharing recordings outside of the class), see the classroom recording guidance in the Faculty Handbook.
Course Technology Norms
New technologies were fundamental to teaching and learning in the past year and a half, in and out of the physical classroom. Some instructors found that technologies like Persuall, Zoom chat, and Jamboards, amongst others, enabled students to participate more equitably in class and take more ownership over their learning. Other instructors found the increased technology contributed to distraction and curtailed the sense of intimacy that can grow in learning environments.
In the coming year, students and instructors may have to recalibrate their expectations of how technology interacts with learning. Some instructors will be glad to return to technology bans in the classroom. Others are revisiting when, why, and how they integrate technology in a way that supports student learning and relationship-building. Depending on your course goals and pedagogical commitments, you may choose to pursue one of a number of strategies:
- Taking a big step back from new technologies, relying again on paper to be the vehicle for almost all of course interaction.
- Using technology outside of the classroom to help students prepare for class time and structure their learning. That might look like having students complete Perusall annotations or answer Poll Everywhere questions, etc.
- Using technology strategically in the classroom so that students pull out devices at particular moments to respond to a poll, collaborate on a document together, or look for examples of something online, etc.
- Embracing technology as the medium through which learning takes place and have students use technology to collaboratively take notes, maintain a back channel conversation in Canvas chat, Google Chat room, pinned questions in Poll Everywhere, etc., and/or create assignments that require digital engagement (podcasts, wikipedia editing, digital portfolio, etc.).