Shifting course expectations as well as the mode of delivery during the spring 2020 COVID-19 pandemic
Kristen L.W. Walton, PhD
Biology Department
Missouri Western State University

COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019) is caused by infection with SARS-CoV-2 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome-Coronavirus-2).  Current evidence suggests that this zoonotic coronavirus originated in China in late 20191, and it subsequently spread rapidly across the globe, causing significant morbidity and mortality.  To help contain the spread of this virus, many countries have implemented policies and orders aimed at reducing contact between people.  The terms “social distancing” and “flatten the curve” have been rapidly imbued in our culture. Indeed, a Google Trends search shows a significant surge in searches for “social distancing” between the week of March 1-7, 2020 and the week of March 29-April 4, 20202.  In the United States, to help mitigate the rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2, a few colleges and universities began to announce in early March that they would be suspending face-to-face classes and shifting to all-online instruction, and soon most postgraduate institutions in the USA followed suit, including my institution.

In early March, as the situation became recognized as increasingly urgent by the higher education institutions in our region, the administration at my institution, Missouri Western State University (MWSU), made a decision to extend spring break by one week, through March 22.  Then, in the middle of that second week of spring break, the university administration announced that MWSU would cancel all face-to-face classes for the rest of the semester, and students would have several options regarding their grades for the spring 2020 semester3.  Higher education institutions across the USA have grappled with how to handle grades in this unprecedented time.  Students who did not sign up for online classes are finishing their face-to-face courses, in many if not most cases, as hastily-constructed online versions.  Many institutions have chosen to make all classes pass/fail, others have opted to keep letter grades as the only option, and still others, including MWSU, have given students flexible options to choose a pass/fail option or a letter grade.  The MWSU administration also gave faculty flexibility in determining whether to create a “culminating experience” for students who elected to complete their courses. This could mean anything from reducing the amount of content and/or assessments, changing the format of assessments (for example, a final paper in lieu of a final exam), or essentially continuing as originally planned but with online course delivery and assessments.  This flexibility for faculty was intended to recognize that some types of classes are more amenable than others to a shift to online delivery.  Students whose midterm grade was a C or higher could elect to choose the “credit” (pass) grade option for the course if they chose not to complete the culminating experience; students who chose to complete the culminating experience earned a letter grade based on their course grade at the end of the semester.  To increase flexibility for students, this option was available to students up until the last day of classes, April 24.  The deadline for a withdrawal from the class was also extended to April 24.

For me, as a biology faculty member, the flexibility allowed by our administration in how to structure the last five weeks of my classes led to a lot of thought about my courses and how to best achieve the course objectives for each of them.  I spent many hours considering this, discussing options with my colleagues in a socially distant manner, through emails and our first Zoom department meeting, a somewhat difficult transition for our close-knit group of faculty used to frequent in-person conversations.  I also spent time reading a flurry of articles and blog posts about the importance of being understanding of the major disruption to our students’ lives and college experience4; the importance of recognizing the difficulty in creating a high-quality online course experience with a few days’ notice5; and, not to be overlooked, the importance of tending to one’s own needs, both professional and personal, in this high-stress time.  

Depending on one’s personal situation, a faculty member could also be dealing with changes in family schedules and responsibilities due to children who were suddenly not attending school or day care.  Illness could strike any of us or our friends and family members, certainly adding to the stress and anxiety experiences.  Partners could be furloughed as businesses shuttered their doors due to the pandemic.  While some academics touted their ability to be highly productive during the quarantine and even cited the invention of calculus by Sir Isaac Newton during the black plague as inspiration, others pointed out that quarantine is not universally a time when one can focus solely on work and scientific discovery.  This is true for me, on a personal level.  I have two elementary school-aged children whose school closed a week after my university suspended face-to-face classes.  I have had sole responsibility for child care and helping them with their school work at home, while also moving my classes online and maintaining other work responsibilities.  Many of the students in my classes are non-traditional and have similar child care and “home school” responsibilities.  Others have financial stress due to job layoffs, or, conversely, increased work stress and time demands for those working in the health care field.  Another concern is that many of our students have poor access to broadband internet and technology to access class materials online.  Several of my students emailed me during the transition stating that they were using only a smartphone to access course materials and had no access to a laptop or desktop computer, printer, or other technology, and no high-speed internet.

Consideration of my students’ access to technology, stress, and other burdens, as well as the other factors described above led me to make different choices for each of my three classes this spring.  For my honors colloquium, titled, ironically enough, Plagues That Changed the World, my co-instructor and I decided not to try to coordinate the student-led presentations that were scheduled for the last 6 weeks of the semester and instead only required a final paper.  Seven of 13 undergraduates in this course chose the credit grade based on their midterm grade, and did not complete this rather minimal culminating experience. For my upper-division biology majors course, Molecular Basis of Disease, which is a capstone-type elective course that is not a prerequisite for any other classes, I chose to culminate the lab portion by keeping a scheduled lab quiz, but not attempt to recreate the planned five-week group research project.  For the lecture portion of that class, students who elected to complete the culminating experience wrote a literature review article as originally planned and were given one online exam instead of two in-class exams.  Even with this reduced workload, 6 of the 15 undergraduates enrolled in the course chose to take a credit grade and did not complete the course.  My third course this spring, Pathophysiology, is primarily populated by pre-nursing majors and population health majors, with a few pre-health-professions biology majors.  It would not have been appropriate to drop content or assessments of content knowledge from this course, because the overwhelming majority of students in the course needed to learn that content for success in later coursework.  As it happens, I have taught this lecture-only course in an online format in the summer for several years, so transitioning it to an online delivery mode was relatively easy, with a few exceptions: increased modes of accessing the material, and exams.  I have structured the all-online previous version of that class to be asynchronous, based on knowledge of my student population, many of whom work full time while also taking classes.  I felt that was still the best choice in these uncertain times.  However, in addition to posting video lectures, I downloaded the audio-only podcasts and posted them separately for students who did not have regular high-speed internet access or were working solely from a smartphone with a small screen.  I also made additional course notes available.  

As for the exams, I have always required proctored exams in the online version of this course, and structured them similarly to the written exams taken by students in the traditional, face-to-face version of the course.  Proctored online exams would not have been feasible in the COVID-19-induced chaos that ensued in late March and early April, as some of my students were moving home many states away, finding themselves under self-quarantine, caring for family members, etc., and I myself had schedule considerations to juggle with children and their school work and Zoom meetings which competed for our limited bandwidth home internet.  I tried to strike a balance between several considerations:  best practices for online unproctored exams, such as making them open-book and not easily Google-able; the format and level of rigor students were used to from the first two written, face-to-face exams; and being mindful of unequal access to technology among my students.  In this class, 81 of 86 undergraduates completed the culminating experience, a high proportion driven largely by the requirement of their specific majors for a letter grade in this required course.

As I write this, I still have several papers to grade and final course grades to enter.  I can say with certainty, however, that the choices for assessments and content coverage that I made for my Pathophysiology course did not appear to substantially disadvantage the majority of students, and the course grade distribution will be noticeably higher than usual, aside from the small number of students who did not complete the course.  Several of my colleagues have observed similar increases in their course grades this semester.  In that course, I erred on the side of leniency with the exams, but since I could not in good conscience drop content from that course – pre-nursing students still need to have learned about diseases of the digestive tract, even if COVID-19 interrupted their semester! – I am comfortable that they will at least have a reasonable degree of preparation for their subsequent courses.  For my other two courses, grades will not be higher and in some cases students submitted work that was of lower quality than I expected from their work earlier in the semester.  I strongly suspect that many students who chose to complete those courses did not have the focus or the ability to do so as well as they would have in the face-to-face courses.  I do not have survey data to help clarify what the students were thinking, but I suspect the students who needed the letter grade for subsequent coursework approached this altered, online part of the semester differently from those who were only taking an elective where a credit grade would suffice or a GPA issue was not anticipated.  Informal feedback from all three of my classes included several students commenting about how they did not sign up for online classes because they prefer traditional-format classes, comments about family issues (helping children with school work, moving back home because of job loss, stressful quarantine situations), and comments about missing deadlines because of work or other outside responsibilities.

Although I still need to submit my final course grades for the spring 2020 semester, the summer session is already looming.  My institution chose a few weeks ago to offer only 100% online summer classes, so my usual summer online Pathophysiology class will need to have exam structure revamped away from the written, proctored format that I have previously used.  In addition, many institutions including my own are having discussions about the fall semester.  At this time, we just don’t know what the COVID-19 situation will be in late August.  We have been told to prepare for something unusual, whether it will be a fully online semester, a restructured semester with two or three shorter block sessions, or some other plan.  In preparing for that, I will be considering these questions for each of my classes:

1. How can the course learning objectives best be accomplished in an altered course format?

2. What are the best ways to transition a heavily hands-on lab course to an online or shortened course format?

3. What are the needs of the student population in this course?

4. What is the appropriate balance between flexibility versus maintaining appropriate expectations in the course?

Considering the course goals and learning objectives is a critical component of any course design or transition to a different format, and the course may need to change if the different format is not amenable to the original goals and learning objectives.  In this time of forced transitions to altered course structures and the impacts of COVID-19 mitigation strategies on us and our students, choices might be different from the choices we would otherwise make. It’s also important for faculty, administrators, and students to recognize that different types of courses may be more or less easy to convert to an all-online format.  And while online instruction can be excellent and perhaps this experience will encourage broader use of certain online course components in future face-to-face classes for many faculty, it is not the “college experience” that many students expect and there is speculation among higher education administrators that enrollments will be down this fall, adding to the financial distress that many universities and colleges are already experiencing. Although I have read some opinion pieces that higher education should use this spring as a springboard to shift to more online courses permanently, I would argue that it’s also important to recognize that a large proportion of our students and faculty, myself included, strongly prefer those face-to-face classes and hope to return to them as soon as we can.  I am certain that as a global community of physiology educators we will continue to interact and support each other as we navigate all of the upcoming transitions.

References:

Coronaviridae Study Group of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. The species Severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus: classifying 2019-nCoV and naming it SARS-CoV-2. Nat Microbiol. 2020;5:536–44.

Google Trends, search term “social distancing”. URL  https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?geo=US&q=social%20distancing  , accessed April 30, 2020.

Missouri Western State University COVID-19 information. URL https://www.missouriwestern.edu/covid-19/keep-learning/ , accessed April 30, 2020.

Barrett-Fox, Rebecca. “Please do a bad job of putting your classes online” URL https://anygoodthing.com/2020/03/12/please-do-a-bad-job-of-putting-your-courses-online/ , accessed April 30, 2020. 

Darby, F.  5 Low-tech, time-saving ways to teach online during COVID-19.  The Chronicle of Higher Education  URL  https://www.chronicle.com/article/5-Low-Tech-Time-Saving-Ways/248519  accessed April 30, 2020.

Kristen Walton is a Professor in the Biology Department at Missouri Western State University.  She earned her PhD in Physiology from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 2001 and was a SPIRE (Seeding Postdoctoral Innovators in Research and Education) Postdoctoral Fellow at UNC-Chapel Hill from 2001-2006.   In 2006, she began her current position at Missouri Western State University, a primarily undergraduate institution.  She has taught a variety of undergraduate courses including animal physiology, pathophysiology, immunology, molecular basis of disease, introductory cell biology, public health microbiology, and human anatomy & physiology.  Her research interests are in intestinal inflammation and inflammatory bowel disease, and in discipline-based education research.

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