Candace Receno, PhD
Assistant Professor, Exercise Science & Athletic Training
As a first year Assistant Professor, making the shift to remote learning during COVID-19 was certainly a gamechanger. As many previous blog posts have highlighted, the way we needed to look at instruction changed and forced both students and faculty to rapidly adapt. There were so many things that needed to be considered when making the transition. How flexible can our students be, now that some have become primary caretakers or have fallen ill or need to seek employment? How do instructors tackle making significant changes to their course, now that they are also dealing with similar issues? How do both groups create and participate in a high-quality course experience with fewer resources and a very short amount of time to adjust? Many of the insightful blogs posted have really highlighted how to keep these considerations in mind in order to create online courses that still meet course objectives and foster a high-quality learning experience. I have learned so much through reading these posts, in addition to numerous resources provided to our community. Through integration of these resources into my own courses, I found myself also trying to think of ways that I could keep the courses inherently “me”. Engaging and connecting with students on a personal level has always been something that I found helpful to my own teaching, but becomes hard when the mode of communication has shifted. This can also be difficult when some classes must be delivered asynchronously, in an effort to accommodate the changing lifestyles of our students. Perhaps just as important to a high-quality learning experience as shifting our instruction methods, is finding new ways to create the human connection that is much easier developed with on-campus learning. Here, I highlight some of the methods I found to be successful in making sure that I was able to keep my students engaged in the course while miles apart. While these may sound like really simple ideas, I’ll admit that I didn’t realize how important they were to the student experience until I had reflective conversations with many students after the Spring semester. With times of uncertainty still ahead, I plan to continue using these methods in the future.
1. Staying online after the class has ended.
This is probably the simplest of the suggestions to integrate, but really seemed to make a difference in getting the students more comfortable opening up over the computer screen. For my synchronous courses, I always ended class time by reminding the students I would stay in the virtual classroom to answer any questions or just to chat. I found that once students realized I would be sticking around for a few minutes regardless of if anyone else stayed, they were more willing to hang around and ask questions they might not have felt comfortable asking in front of other students or e-mailing me about. This also gave me another opportunity to reflect on how I was constructing my online course materials. Hearing what points students needed extra clarification on forced me to consider how topics that were ordinarily well understood in the physical classroom needed to be shifted with remote instruction.
2. Integrating video/audio into online discussion boards.
I needed to teach asynchronously for a particular course where students had concerns about internet availability and meeting other personal obligations, which came with completely different issues from my synchronous course. Posting notes in addition to pre-recorded lectures allowed me to successfully get course material across, but it was still missing the personal component that is fostered via in class discussion. The use of discussion boards where both the students and I posed questions to one another helped with that. Importantly, I asked students to record their questions/answers for the discussion board via video or audio whenever possible. Students continually reported that it was nice to actually hear and see one another even though live sessions were not possible. Moreover, they described how it was nice to laugh and share with one another, as responses did not have to be rehearsed and could closely mimic what might have happened in the physical classroom.
3. Holding several office hours, varying in day and time.
Disclaimer: This may be harder to implement for some individuals because with COVID-19 comes a host of additional responsibilities and stresses that need to be attended to. But, if possible even for one day, I highly recommend it. The traditional times for which we hold office hours may not be feasible when we take into account the added responsibilities of needing to stay at home. So, why not hold office hours at different times that lend themselves to our new schedules? I found that holding office hours much later than I normally would resulted in many more students coming to them. Moreover, similar to my first suggestion, I made sure that students knew I’d be in the meeting room for my virtual hours regardless of if students signed up or not. Previously, I had always had an “open door policy” where students knew they could stop by my office without prior notice as long as my door was physically open. The new virtual office hours I held helped to mimic that. By having drastically different hours on different days, I tried to make sure that students could stop in whenever suited them. An important memory that stuck with me about this particular method was an instance when I was available at 7 pm on a Tuesday night. I had a student who showed up just wanting to talk, and stated, “I figured I wasn’t bothering you since you were on here anyway.” Prior to COVID-19, she often stopped in to talk about how things were going. Through our virtual conversation, I learned that this student wasn’t seeking any help related to the class, but just wanted to talk because it helped things feel “normal” again. Even if you can’t hold a large variety of office hours, I truly think that doing something that helps mimic the ways you previously interacted with your students is so helpful during this time.
4. Holding “unofficial” hours.
This was a tip that I originally learned from a colleague, and adapted to fit my own subject matter. This colleague would host “unofficial” hours, where she would sporadically e-mail students to let them know she would be in an online meeting room partaking in some fun activity. For example, on a random weeknight, she e-mailed students and said they could join in on her quest to make enchiladas. Several students took her up on that offer, and she used it as a time for the class to come together without any defined learning expectations. This gave her students the opportunity to connect as they would have previously, in a class that was now asynchronous during remote learning. She began to take sessions one step further, and would ask her students to describe ingredients in her cooking sessions in the context of her speech language pathology lectures. In an effort to take her advice and put my own spin on it, I began asking students to join me when I would participate in online workouts. It became a great way to have students connect with their classmates using an activity that we all had some interest in. With students in my pathophysiology course, I’d sneak in questions about how students felt after participating in a particular exercise and how this might impact the clinical populations they work with, giving me a way to reiterate what they had learned in a real-world context.
In my experience, a large part in keeping students engaged was understanding that the human component to a course has the potential to impact student learning irrespective of how well we can pivot our course formats to meet remote instruction needs. No matter how it’s done, showing the students that you are still on the other side of that WiFi signal is an important consideration for all of us. I hope that my experience helps to identify other ways you might do this, and I’d appreciate you sharing your own ways to cultivate the student-instructor relationships via online methods.
Candace Receno is an assistant professor in the Exercise Science & Athletic Training department at Ithaca College in Ithaca, NY. She earned her PhD in Science Education from Syracuse University and served as a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Biological Sciences department at Le Moyne College for two years. Candace just completed her first year as an Assistant Professor at Ithaca College, where her undergraduate and graduate courses include Advanced Exercise Physiology, Cardiopulmonary Assessment for Exercise, Pathophysiology, and Foundations of Human Performance and Wellness. She also hopes to continue engaging undergraduates in research related to exercise performance in special populations.