Better learning, better access and a better student experience—for instructors, keeping flexibility top of mind means putting students first, regardless of teaching modality. Below, we share tips and strategies educators can implement flexible teaching to accommodate changes in course delivery, while still providing students with the same high-quality learning they expect from their higher ed experience. We also share a flexible teaching and learning checklist and hybrid teaching webinar with Top Hat to help you pivot from face-to-face teaching to remote instruction at a moment’s notice.

Flexible learning is a method of learning where students are given freedom in how, what, when and where they learn. Flexible learning environments address how physical space is used, how students are grouped during learning and how time is used throughout teaching. Learning can take place in a variety of settings, including online, in the physical classroom or while commuting or as part of a work-study program. Institutions may restructure learning schedules to provide opportunities for students to collaborate with their peers and engage in other learning activities, such as guest speakers or performances to assist their understanding of a topic. 

1. Consider backward design

Backward design is a strategy instructors can use to create learning experiences and leverage instructional techniques to meet specific goals. Backward design curriculum usually involves three stages:

  • First, educators identify their desired results from the backward education process. This stage focuses on broader ideas and skills that students should learn, considering both goals and curriculum expectations. 
  • The second step focuses on determining suitable evidence that confirms the desired results identified in the first stage have occurred. 
  • The third and final step of backward designfocuses on designing activities to achieve learning goals.

There are many benefits to backward design. Starting with the end goal in mind helps educators design a sequence of assessments, readings, course materials and group activities that are more likely to result in learners achieving the academic goals of a given course or unit—that is, actually learning what they were expected to learn. Backward design centralizes the idea of teaching towards an “end point” or a set of learning goals, to ensure that course content is focused and organized. For students, this means a better understanding of what course expectations are. This ways, educators can focus on addressing where students might be struggling, when student data will be collected, and when they are expected to meet certain goal posts.

2. Make your activities and assessments resilient and mitigate disruption

This is an excerpt of our Guest Lecture Interview with Josh Eyler. Keep reading to learn more about “Resilient Pedagogy,” Eyler’s approach to flexible teaching and learning. 

Resilient pedagogy is a course design strategy that helps make your classes, assignments, and assessments as resistant to disruption as possible. Regardless of which modality you’re teaching in—online, in-person, or blended—you’re designing one time and one time only. This ensures that teaching and learning is flexible.

Resilient pedagogy can be broken down into three areas of focus: 

  • Course design: Consider what is most important to you as an instructor. If it’s collaboration or group problem solving, a simple strategy like organizing students into groups for the duration of the semester can build in some resiliency from the get-go. 
  • Tools and platforms: Find an intuitive way for students to communicate with you and each other that won’t change. This can be office hours, a general questions discussion forum that stays open for the duration of the term or a buddy system that pairs students into small study groups that you can check in on.
  • Engagement methods: How are you going to ensure students remain engaged in course material? Options like polling and quizzes, discussion forums, interactive readings and creative assignments ensure that students are able to approach learning material in a way that works for them.

You can also check out the Resilient Pedagogy Twitter community, with plenty more strategies to overcome distance, disruption and distraction. 

3. Think about when to use synchronous vs. asynchronous learning methods

The reality is, effective remote teaching requires a combination of both synchronous and asynchronous learning. Synchronous instruction delivers information and presentations virtually to create a sense of speed and intimacy. This is particularly effective for student engagement. To ensure students are moving in the right direction, instructors can also respond directly to questions and discussions, provide feedback and use interactive click-on-target questions to gauge comprehension.

Synchronous learning occurs live and in real-time supported by video conferencing solutions like Zoom, Go-to-Meeting and YouTube Live. When used in tandem with a remote teaching platform or learning management system (LMS), synchronous learning allows educators to replicate many of the experiences found in an in-person classroom. This includes the ability for attendees to access lecture slides, respond to interactive questions and engage with their classmates in discussion threads.

Asynchronous learning provides students with a greater level of flexbility. Readings, assignments, take-home quizzes and lecture recordings are all asynchronous learning examples that let students engage in learning at their own pace. This way, they can explore topics independently. To introduce students to self-apced asynchronous learning, consider using online discussion forums.

Asynchronous learning also provides opportunities for peer collaboration between students. Instructors can create assignments that require students to work together or review each other’s work. Instructors should be sure to set clear deadlines and share guidance to keep students accountable for their work.

Ultimately, the key is to play to the strengths of each approach and what you’re most comfortable with.

Consider using synchronous teaching methods for: 

  • Creating speed and intimacy, and fostering a sense of belonging, particularly in online and hybrid environments
  • Running interactive activities, like polling, quizzes and discussions

Consider using asynchronous teaching methods for: 

  • Helping students collaborate with peers through online group work.
  • Assigning prep work before any synchronous lessons, in-person or online. 
  • Providing students with an added level of flexibility in assessments, readings and lecture modules. By allowing students to learn on their own schedule, they get the flexibility they need to find a time and place where they can engage with course materials.

Each course and each educator are different. Let your learning objectives, your students, and your personal teaching style guide you in determining the right balance between using synchronous and asynchronous teaching methods.

4. Keep student engagement front and center

1. Bring who you are into the classroom: Some components of your course will be delivered through written communications. However, it’s a good opportunity to tailor assignment instructions, emails to students and weekly course-wide announcements to your unique voice and style. You might even consider creating an interactive syllabus with a short video to introduce yourself. View the recording below to learn how to create your syllabus in Top Hat.

2. Be present and responsive: Encourage bonding as the class evolves as a group and develops intellectual and personal connections. Here are a few tips:

  • Hold live office hours or virtual ‘coffee chats’ to get to know your students and help them interact with one another—even in a fully asynchronous course
  • Answer questions regularly in your course’s discussion forum.
  • Post a weekly announcement to recap the previous week’s learnings or introduce the coming week’s content.

Helen Betya Rubinstein, a writing coach at The New School’s Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts, encourages fellow educators to make students a part of the learning process to help them feel a sense of ownership over their learning experience and encourage community building in the classroom.

3. Ask for informal feedback on your teaching: Pose open-ended questions to solicit feedback on how they feel the course could be improved. Try Top Hat’s anonymous discussion or polling feature to facilitate this activity. Here are a few examples:

  • What’s working so far?
  • How could your learning experience be improved?
  • What would you like help with?

4. Think like a student: @DrDanielGillis, an Associate Professor and Statistician at the University of Guelph, reminds educators of the accessibility and financial challenges some students may face this year. Gillis suggests creating both face-to-face and online course components where possible and leaving quizzes open throughout the end of the semester to reduce barriers to learning.

For more strategies on how Top Hat helps maintain engagement in a hybrid classroom, watch our webinar on-demand today.

5. Use flexible learning activities and assessments

Open-book examsAsynchronous assessmentsResearch projects
What it is: This assessment style is the same duration as a proctored exam but allows your students to have their course notes with them. 
Best practices: Including images, video and audio clips into your assessments allows for more freedom and creativity.
What it is: The structure is similar to a take-home exam but with a longer window to complete the work. 
Best practices: Think of creating questions that encourage students to apply knowledge and analyze content, rather than just demonstrate understanding through memorization. Consider referring to the Bloom’s taxonomy framework for a breakdown of how to maximize higher-order thinking.
What it is: Students work to answer a research question or solve a problem. They often apply their observations and results using a visual aid.
Best practices: Let students choose their own topics for their project to make sure students are motivated throughout the duration of the assignment. Encourage students to present their project in multiple ways, such as via slideshow, a poster, a case study or an essay.

Dr. Shoshanah Jacobs, Associate Professor in the Department of Integrative Biology and Department of Management at the University of Guelph, started a thread on Twitter asking other educators how they plan to incorporate flexibility into their classrooms, to accommodate students who may be sick throughout the term or others who may be wary of coming to class. View the crowdsourced suggestions below.

6. Stay organized

To help streamline the learning experience, consider a few ways you can design your course site to allow students to move through material intuitively and logically. Here, we share a few suggestions to get you started:

  • Use modules and folders (such as “Week 1: Synchronous (lectures, poll questions)” and “Week 1: Asynchronous (readings, quizzes)” consistently to introduce topics, clarify student deadlines and responsibilities, and organize the lesson content 
  • Add checklists so students can monitor their own progress
  • Consider adding suggested times to complete tasks 
  • Create a course “rhythm” by using a smaller number of tools and tasks and using them consistently across modules and units
  • Break course content down into smaller sections by using collaborative activities, videos and reflection exercises between lessons

Nicole McNichols, lecturer in the Psychology Department at the University of Washington, recommends organizing your course in a methodical way to ensure that it is intuitive to navigate. Students should be able to progress through course content easily so that their attention remains focused on learning the material, rather than searching for specific content. McNichols personally stores all recorded lectures, discussions and homework assignments on the Top Hat platform.

7. Consider creative ways to use classroom discussions

The goal of a class discussion is to get students to practice thinking about the course material. Below are a few elements to consider when planning for a class discussion:

  • Add some structure to your conversations: Come prepared with a clear goal for the discussion, some ideas for how you will prepare your students, and an understanding of how you will guide the discussion to make it more interactive, with activities, videos or guided questions.
  • Allow students to participate asynchronously: Conduct some of your discussions in an online forum. This way, students who may not have been able to be in class in real-time can still participate and benefit from reading their peers’ thoughts and questions.
  • Use small group activities to your advantage: Facilitate smaller activities, like think-pair-share or Socratic seminar, before discussion and questions start. Doing so will give students time and space to compose their thoughts before sharing them with the whole class.
  • Establish the ground rules: In order for a discussion to be effective, students should understand the importance of actively listening to their peers, being open-minded and tolerating different viewpoints. In order for discussions to be productive, participants should also stay focused on the topic and be sure to express themselves clearly. Consider using an online discussion thread before class as a way to brainstorm ideas for proper discussion conduct with students prior to a synchronous class discussion. When students develop the ground rules themselves, they’re more likely to follow them.
  • Pose a controversial issue and organize an informal debate: Group students into breakout rooms according to the position they take on a specific issue and ask the groups to come up with a few arguments or examples to support their position. Write each group’s statements on the virtual whiteboard and use these as a starting point for discussion. A natural next step is to debate the strengths and weaknesses of each argument. 
  • Paraphrasing: To get a quick pulse check of where students are understanding course material and where they may be struggling, you can ask questions like, “How would you put (course concept) into your own words?” This paraphrasing exercise helps students come to a more personal understanding of the course material.

During lectures, Demian Hommel, Senior Instructor of Geography, Environmental Sciences and Marine Resource Management at Oregon State University, leaves a discussion board running in his Top Hat course where students can note any questions or points of clarification required. 

8. Use technology to engage with Gen Z

Educators can use technology to their advantage to ensure learning objectives and teaching goals are still met, even when learning modalities change. Here, we share a number of ways to use technology to make sure students are engaging in course content in a way that is flexible and accommodating.

Teaching goalBest practices
Reduce distractions in class1. Use polls during synchronous or asynchronous lectures to see how students are progressing through course material
2. Begin each class with an icebreaker activity to build collaboration and community into your class
Allow students to learn at their own pace1. Sarah Sletten, Associate Professor of Biomedical Sciences at the University of North Dakota, uses a flipped classroom model to encourage students to complete learning modules in Top Hat before live lectures
2. Supplement live activities with learning exercises that students can complete on their own time such as sharing their thoughts in a discussion forum or completing a reflection exercise
3. Reduce the number of online platforms you use to make it easy for students to access and complete coursework on their own
Motivate students to keep learning outside of class1. Use customizable learning materials with discussions that reflect real-time events and case studies to engage students
2. Facilitate a quick quiz at the start of each lesson and consider reusing questions from digital textbook readings to understand what concepts are landing and which aren’t
Create a classroom environment where students feel comfortable participating1. Use an anonymous discussion board during in-class polls, like Matt Numer, Associate Professor, Health Promotion at Dalhousie University
2. Try to respond to, and acknowledge, students’ contributions in and out of class, through informal feedback. Use this feedback to offer support to struggling students.
Give immediate feedback on student performance1. Consider using regular low-stakes quizzes to get actionable correctness and participation data, which can help you address points of confusion and support struggling learners
2. Grade assignments using a built-in rubric in your LMS and provide personalized feedback upon student request

Eric Davis, sociology professor at Bellevue College, emphasizes the importance of using online platforms to keep learning active and engaging for Gen Z students and uses Top Hat to complete textbook readings, share lecture slides, engage in discussions and distribute quizzes. 

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