Unexpected circumstances can strike at any time, taking faculty away from their teaching duties before the end of a semester. Often, other faculty to have to step in to finish the course with little to no preparation. When this occurred this past summer with just 10 days left in the semester, there was very little time to prepare. Internet searches for guidance on how to successfully navigate this type of situation were unfruitful. Surely these situations occur with some frequency, but little has been written about it. This is probably because those of us who have had this experience are so busy trying to get students to the finish line that we don’t have time to reflect on how we were able to do it.
This past summer, I stepped in to take over a fully online graduate course in psychopharmacology, a keystone course and prerequisite for clinical internships. After the course ended, I met with our senior institutional instructional designer to process the experience. In an effort to help others who may find themselves in a similar situation, we decided to put together some tips that we can share on how to approach taking over a course midway.
Tip #1: Put the students first
Take a step back and think about the impact this has on the students. Depending on the circumstances, students may be very anxious about the sudden change and it is important to keep this in mind. Listen to student concerns and consider these concerns as you make decisions to change pieces of the course.
In our case, many students indicated they had been under tremendous pressure and felt lost and confused within the course. These students needed the knowledge from this course to ensure success in their clinical experiences that they were to start in the next semester.
Tip #2: Provide clear communication
Clearly communicate the next steps to the students. Explain how you plan to help them to meet the course objectives within the remaining time together. Convey that this is a partnership between you and them and that you’re here to help.
In our case, the professor taking over the course developed an ‘action plan’ to share with students and stated clearly that the goal was to work together to meet course objectives, and to evaluate each student’s work so that they could earn the grade that was congruent with their knowledge. Students deserve to know that, despite limited time, the professor is there to ensure they understand the material and are evaluated fairly.
Tip #3: Be present
These students are going to need some extra support. Be clear on how students should communicate with you and welcome them to do so. Do your best to reply within 24 hours if at all possible.
In our case, students could expect to receive a reply within 24 hours/7 days per week. This required an intensive investment of time to be present in the course every day, including weekends, but this decision yielded very strong positive working relationships with the students. Students shared that they felt ‘relieved’ and ‘supported’ to have this level of responsiveness at such a stressful time. The students worked hard and knew the professor was also working hard alongside them.
Tip #4: Stick to the objectives, but be flexible
With the little time you have, this is not the time to be rethinking the entire design of the course. Hopefully, you are walking into a course that was thoughtfully designed with clear learning objectives. Use those objectives as your guide and work with students in whatever ways you can to help them to meet those objectives in the time you have together. Sticking with the objectives allows you to clearly communicate the rationale for any changes that you do make.
In our case, the following changes were made to adapt to the timeline and earlier issues:
- One assignment was adapted to provide students two choices to demonstrate their ability to critique industry-sponsored educational content: they could write a paper on content they found or answer a set of questions about a consumer education video the professor provided.
- Two assignments were eliminated, and the content was assessed on the final exam by maintaining alignment with module learning objectives. If students had ‘worked ahead’ and already done one or both of the assignments, they were instructed to send this work to the professor for evaluation, and they were offered credit for the corresponding question(s) on the final exam.
- The final exam was originally entirely multiple choice but was converted to multiple choice and five short answer case study-based questions that aligned with course objectives. The short answer questions were posted by the end of day one so that students could start to plan their work and self-assess areas that needed extra attention.
Learning objectives can help you make thoughtful and successful course changes. However, it is equally important to be flexible. Do not be afraid to make changes when necessary. Give choices where possible.
In summary, all faculty members should be prepared for the possibility of taking over a course midway. Based on our success, we recommend a written and transparent ‘action plan’ shared with students on day one, with the focus on partnering with students to help them meet the learning objectives.
Shari Harding is a doctor of nursing practice and an assistant professor and psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner course coordinator at Regis College in Weston, MA.
Kara Wasnewsky is a senior instructional designer in the Center for Instructional Innovation at Regis College.