Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, many have wondered whether education will ever be the same again. Here, at the Catholic University of America Center for Teaching Excellence, we found ourselves building new training programs (remotely) and supporting faculty as they navigated constant unpredictability. We helped faculty continue to adjust to a new world of teaching: how to use the Learning Management System to communicate with students scattered across states or even across countries, how to teach on Zoom, and eventually, how to manage a hybrid class with students both in the room and on screen.
Along the way, we have observed our faculty as they continue to create, innovate, and hone their craft under unimaginable pressure. And we’ve found that regardless of chaotic circumstances, the core fundamentals of good teaching have remained the same, whether classes are in-person, online, or hybrid. Throughout the pandemic, our Center has recommended that faculty prioritize four elements of effective pedagogy: Clarity, Organization, Relationships, and Engagement (CORE). When our faculty apply these CORE principles in their courses, we see our students thrive, whether they are gathered in cyberspace or in the lecture hall. Though the end of the pandemic is hopefully in sight, these CORE principles can help you continue to shape a transformational education for your students no matter what changes lie ahead.
Early on in the pandemic, students were seeking clarity and consistency in course communications to support them during a quick transition to remote learning. Instructors depended on the Learning Management System (LMS) and digital communication tools to connect with students remotely and ensure instructional continuity. The last year has demonstrated the necessity of being clear about course components and requirements to keep all students on track for success.
To promote clarity in your courses now and in the future:
- Share and post learning outcomes and be explicit about the purpose of assignments and activities to help students see their value.
- Explain expectations for participation and engagement, including how students will be evaluated so they know how to prepare and succeed.
- Draw attention to key course content and help students make connections between ideas. Clarify how certain topics relate to other topics in the course and to other courses in the program.
- Send regular reminders and announcements through the LMS to note deadlines and requirements. Include clickable links to provide students direct access to relevant materials and assignments.
- Use rubrics in the LMS to share clear grading criteria when assessing student learning, and to promote fair and efficient grading.
Clarity has been particularly important when teaching remotely, but continuing to communicate regularly and be explicit about your expectations will always support student success, regardless of modality.
During the pandemic, organizing information and course activities clearly became even more critical to support students’ learning and address cognitive overload. As instruction required more asynchronous engagement using the LMS, having a consistent path and predictable structure for how students could access and complete their coursework was crucial. While these practices were valuable during the pandemic, thoughtful and consistent organization will continue to remain an important component of supporting students’ learning.
To streamline delivery of course materials and guide student interaction:
- Develop a consistent and logical structure for your course to reduce cognitive load. Consider structuring materials in the LMS chronologically by week or unit, and categorically by the type or timing of the assignment or activity.
- Create a weekly rhythm so students know when assignments are due and when content will be released. Use a weekly outline or agenda to communicate the plan each week and provide guidance for navigating materials and activities in the LMS.
- Share an agenda or outline with students when planning synchronous class sessions. Plan for flexibility, allow extra time for transitions between activities, and prepare for potential technical difficulties.
Employing a consistent and predictable organizational structure allows you to focus more time and energy on developing relationships with students and on supporting engagement with the material.
As we shifted to online and hybrid teaching, in order to reclaim our connections with students we learned to use new techniques and tools to build relationships. Students thrive in classes where instructors plan for purposeful relationship-building. Intentional relationship-building helps to establish a welcoming and inclusive learning environment, which supports increased student engagement, a sense of belonging, and student achievement.
Whatever your teaching modality, to cultivate meaningful relationships with and among your students:
- Build a welcoming community through greetings, warm-up activities, and the use of student names. Consider how to connect your course content to students’ lives.
- Demonstrate interest in your students and model a culture of openness. Allow space for students to share their personal experiences and social and emotional wellbeing.
- Create a supportive climate for learning in both synchronous and asynchronous interactions by adopting a growth mindset, demonstrating empathy, and acknowledging one another.
- Be available to support students through virtual office hours and timely email responses.
- Provide time for informal interactions by starting class early or staying after class.
In any class, developing meaningful relationships with students is the foundation for greater student engagement and success.
During the pandemic, two essential shifts in thinking about engagement have been critical to our instructors’ effectiveness in the online and hybrid classroom. First, moving from a teacher-centered to a student-centered classroom allows students to cultivate ownership over their learning, resulting in greater academic success and richer student engagement.
To promote a student-centered learning experience in the online and hybrid classroom:
- Let students take the lead through student-led presentations or team projects and provide choices about how students want to engage with course content.
- Vary instructional modalities such as shorter lectures, small-group and all-class discussions, case studies, demonstrations, simulations, and group work.
- Provide opportunities for student interaction and collaboration through chat tools (Zoom chat), breakout rooms, and interactive applications (Google Docs, Jam Board, Miro).
Shifting to online teaching also taught us that student engagement can happen both during your synchronous meeting times and outside the class sessions. Instructors find that the more students engage with each other asynchronously, the more they are willing to engage during live class time.
Asynchronous engagement can occur:
- On a discussion board in the LMS.
- Through teamwork assignments to prepare for the next class.
- In study groups that allow students to form connections and hold each other accountable.
- Through collaborative apps (Google Docs, Flipgrid, Miro).
Higher levels of student engagement come from creating a culture in which students want to be involved. By designing opportunities for students to collaborate with one another, and with you as their instructor, they will be more invested and enthusiastic.
The pandemic has forced us to innovate rapidly, plan for the unexpected, and learn how to teach well in any modality. As you design your course for another semester that may include unexpected challenges, keep these CORE fundamentals of teaching in mind. Craft a clear and organized learning experience that will motivate your students to be engaged and will connect them to you and to each other, whether your students are participating through screens or meeting once again in the classroom together.
This article was written by the Catholic University of America Center for Teaching Excellence team. Our Center partners with faculty, staff, and students to promote instructional innovation and teaching excellence. More information can be found at https://centerforteaching.catholic.edu.