Throughout the past 18 months, educators worldwide rose to the challenge of teaching during a pandemic, re-designing their courses to engage and accommodate every student. During our latest #ProfChats panel, three innovative instructors shared what teaching practices they plan to continue using in future semesters in order to maintain flexibility, empathy and connection. We share their guidance below.

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1. When it comes to course design, less is more

Hybrid and online forms of learning are a possibility for the foreseeable future. As a result, it’s essential to take an original approach to your virtual classroom. “Three hours feels like six hours online,” says Cheryl Thompson, Assistant Professor in the School of Creative Industries at Ryerson University. “I construct my courses in segments and use three-minute breaks to help students come back feeling refreshed.” Asynchronous discussion boards or voice note apps can help students continue engaging with their peers and with material that you weren’t able to cover in class.

2. It’s okay to ditch traditional assessment formats and due dates

Traditional exams aren’t always the most conducive to information retention and understanding—and that can hold even more true online. Technological or socio-economic barriers may prevent students from being able to access an online assessment at the right time. No matter where you plan to teach, meet students where they’re at, like Jooyoung Lee, Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. “Instead of essays, I asked students to submit video essays where they practiced uprocking along with a reflective account of the embodied learning experience and their ‘aha’ moments,” he says. Using media (beyond word processing documents) can help students apply their understanding of concepts in a way that’s novel and exciting.

With online learning especially, students place greater value on collaborative learning experiences. Your assessments can be an opportunity for learners to get to know one another. Take notes from Shoshanah Jacobs, Associate Professor in the Department of Integrative Biology and Department of Management at the University of Guelph. “In my class of up to 1,200 students, we do asynchronous study sessions. I populate a Google Sheet with a biology-related artifact and then ask students to write relevant true or false statements in one column. The rest of the class can vote in the second column—they really enjoy this process compared to traditional test taking,” Jacobs says. Giving students opportunities to learn from one another further reduces some of the pressure and stress that comes with formal test taking.

3. Use your own background and interests to form connections with students

Students have embraced additional humanity and empathy with welcoming arms this past year. While students have opportunities to check in with you one-on-one, you can help them get to know each other. Curating playlists is one such way to do that. “Before the term starts, I ask students to add to a class playlist. I’ll play a song in class and ask the student who added it to explain why they chose that song. You immediately see students engaging with their peers in the chat, helping them get to know one another as well,” Thompson says. No matter your discipline, create levity from the moment students enter class and see the difference it makes in maintaining a sense of belonging and motivation.

There’s no better way to create an empathetic learning environment than by putting yourself in your students’ shoes. Use your own background or experiences as a student to shape the type of support you provide learners, like Lee does. “I always try to share the cultural capital I’ve acquired through the years: learning how to navigate the system, asking for help and how to write emails, for example. I share my own mistakes and that takes a lot of pressure off students.” Remind students that you’re a figure for them to turn to for academic and non-academic support, no matter what this term has in store.

→ Get instructional strategies to maintain flexibility and empathy in #ProfChats

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