Pandemic Teaching Memo to Myself

Here is another CFI Teaching Toolbox that I wrote for the start of the fall semester. Follow the link to subscribe to the teaching toolbox email newsletter.

As another pandemic semester comes around and wreaks havoc with our teaching routines, I’ve found that I have to set some reminders for myself to go back to when the whirlwind of work makes it seem that nothing matters than the next immediate urgency. I didn’t have time to embroider these insights on pillowcases (so much for summer plans). A listicle will have to do:

  1. I’m overworked, overwhelmed, and freaked out. My students are likely to be more overworked, overwhelmed, and freaked out. Or maybe they’re just doing fine. Who knows? I’ll have to reach out and check in with them—in person, by email, through anonymous surveys, whatever works. Let them know that I care about their well-being.
  2. I’ll have to focus on the essentials in my course: What is most important for students to learn? What are the central, inspiring, compelling questions that I want students to think about? What knowledge and skills should students definitely take away from the class? What things do I cover only because they’re in the textbook? Everybody’s bandwidth is limited this semester!
  3. As Cara Meixner reminded me two weeks ago, I need to keep affective learning goals and practices in mind. Practice care for myself and my students. We’ll all need it! And intellectual growth has to come along (and is often the result of) affective growth. 
  4. I love to geek out over new teaching tools and methods, but I’ll have to focus on a few simple, reliable, and effective teaching methods and tools. It is tempting to try out all the Shiny New Things that I come across, but doing so will only overwhelm me and confuse students.
  5. There is so much to read about teaching during a pandemic, and my reading list keeps growing faster than my reading time. Good news: I don’t have to read it all. Or most of it. [Or any of it! adds Emily Gravett]
  6. There is so much advice out there! Not everything works for me: Video lectures are supposed to be up to 10 minutes long, but I noticed that, if I follow this advice, the production process takes much too long. Longer, fewer videos (and less lecturing) may be good enough. More lower-stakes assignments followed by in-depth feedback are better than a few high-stakes assignments, but, with my other professional responsibilities, I simply may not have the time for too much grading or commenting. 
  7. Even though I just promised not to overwork, I am still committed to following principles ofinclusive and anti-racist teaching. This is something that I’ll have to go back to again and again, reflect on, journal about, work on.
  8. This semester will be chaotic. How will we adapt to physically distanced in-person teaching? Will livestreaming lectures through a doc cam work? Will there be an online pivot 2.0? Will we get sick? I need to be prepared to improvise; focus on what’s essential (second point above) and what’s simple and reliable (fourth point above); take a deep breath; and adopt, adapt, and improve.
  9. I need to give students input and agency. What questions and topics do they find essential? What are their preferred ways of interacting? What tools do they use to stay in contact with family and friends? In the past, I’ve found that they can tell me what works for them.
  10. In a rush, I often end up lecturing too much. Reminder: I’ll have to find ways to make my classes interactive, even if it’s only in simple ways: brief surveys or polls, two-sentence “papers,” reflective paragraphs, and other Classroom Assessment TechniquesCanvas discussion boards are my friend(and can be set up for small groups), Zoom (I hope we’ll soon have a campus license) breakout rooms are my friends. I’ll plan on combining individual activities (reflection, writing) with small-group work (pairs of students, for example) and large-group interaction. 
  11. I don’t have to grade to provide feedback. In fact, I don’t always have to provide feedback; student peer feedback can be part of activities, for example, in small-group discussions. I don’t have to respond to every single discussion board post (I’ll post this right above my monitor); instead, I’ll provide summary take-home points or observations afterwards in a short video or email.
  12. Maybe the most important point for me to remember: I need to stay in touch with friends, colleagues, frolleagues. Just because, but also to get feedback, advice, and new ideas. And I’ll have to sneak into some of the (free! can you believe it?) programs offered by my colleagues at CFI andLibraries.

What does your own beginning-of-semester listicle look like?

The wild ride that’s this year continues. Let’s hang in there and make the best of it. Best (of all possible) wishes for fall 2020!

Examining Exams

Here is a CFI Teaching Toolbox email on final exams in these COVIDious times, co-authored by my colleague Emily Gravett and me.

Special Edition Teaching Toolbox:

Examining Final Exams

by Andreas Broscheid and Emily O. Gravett

One of the main concerns we’ve heard from colleagues about online teaching is connected to the integrity of grades. Online exams and other assignments give new opportunities for cheating: Students can use Google to look up answers without actually having learned the material; they can email and text each other during exams; they can take photos of test questions and distribute them widely; they can outsource their work to others who are more knowledgeable and more than happy to be paid. After all, on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.

Common responses to such concerns include timed tests that make it difficult for students to cheat, as cheating takes time, and various forms of online proctoring, for example, through video conferencing systems monitored by professional services. Yet these approaches can be problematic. Timed tests are not only a barrier for some students with disabilities (who theoretically can get extended time through an ODS access plan, though not all students have the economic resources to get the required medical tests to receive such accommodations in the first place), but also for students who do not have the economic resources for fast or reliable internet connections. (Try taking a timed exam from a McDonalds parking lot!) And forced video proctoring violates student privacy, as we—or the proctoring services—spy into their living spaces that now double as work spaces, and data security, as their movements are tracked and sold to third parties. (For more about problems with video proctoring, see this recent Washington Post article.)

Some disciplines and programs may nevertheless force instructors to use such “brute force” strategies against cheating, even if these strategies discriminate against otherwise already disadvantaged students and do not fully prevent the problem. We hope that the current crisis leads to a reconsideration of such policies, but faculty may have no choice but to follow suit in such circumstances. For those who have the academic freedom to avoid timed and proctored exams, we offer the following suggestions and considerations, in addition to those from JMU Libraries:

Continue reading Examining Exams

Going Online

The following is a preliminary version of an article (or advice email, or whatever it’ll be) that in a couple of days will probably go out through JMU’s Center for Faculty Innovation, my employer. But until then it’ll go through a couple of checks and revisions, and I thought I should circulate this draft a bit sooner, in case people who are currently working on transitioning their in-person classes to online formats. This means I should add the following disclaimer: this version represents my own viewpoint and not that of James Madison University. In particular, the introduction will probably be replaced with something more, ahem, sober. I hope you’ll enjoy it nevertheless.

Oh, and I should mention the amazing and intrepid work of the JMU Libraries, who are creating the backbones support structure to get JMU faculty up to speed about online learning, particularly Christie Liu, Eric Stauffer, and Elaine Kaye. Elaine and my colleague Emily Gravett provided valuable feedback on the piece, (though all errors and foolishnesses are my own fault).

All comments will be appreciated!


So you’ve bought all the toilet paper, hand sanitizer, wet wipes, rice, cheesy novels, and gummy bears that you could find and afford and are ready to face any hurricane, snow storm, campaign rally, Justin Bieber concert, or space invasion that may come your way. Oh, and that pandemic.

Gulp. I know. Nothing like reading the news from Italy to get a reminder of your own mortality. A quick check of the calendar and, yup, you are now in the age range in which COVID-19 may create some actual damage.

And like at other institutions, your employer moved basically all classes online. Within one week. That’s the right decision, but also a major stress on top of an already stressful situation. What should you do? Here are some suggestions:

Continue reading Going Online