Each semester, I receive student evaluations from the courses I have taught the previous semester. Similar to most professors, I’m sure, I open the document with excitement and a bit of nervousness. I want to see what resonated and what I need to improve upon for the semester. This year, instead of teaching in-person, I taught all of my courses from home. Now don’t get me wrong, I love technology and teaching from home had some benefits, mainly avoiding an hour commute each way to school; however, it was also a disorienting experience. I had to reimagine all of my lessons for the online environment and find a way to engage students in the content for 2.5 hours. As I waited for my evaluations to load, I wondered if I had done enough to forge connections with and among my students. The depth of those connections through the organic, in-person experience, along with informal meetings around campus, seemed difficult to imagine in this screen-to-screen world.
Reading through my most recent course evaluations, students zeroed in on what was most important to them, beyond the content of the course itself. Five themes emerged as I read the qualitative comments.
Finding ways to encourage your students is essential. Knowing that someone believes in them and their abilities often is the difference between students who just show up and students who strive to learn and improve. Look for and respond to the little successes, logging in on-time, asking a good question, making connections to prior classes, or assigned reading. This will help students feel they are valued members of the class—that their thoughts, insights, and questions are important. Acknowledging their contributions will help the student feel comfortable and welcomed in your class which often results in more effort being put toward your class.
Understand students are struggling
We are all living through an experience that is counter to the general nature and flow of our lives. We are spending more time at home, some with many others and some alone. The coping strategies people use during this process are varied and may change as the experience drags on. Some are making great use of the time while confined to our homes while others are paralyzed by that time. We need to find ways to support our students and their families. This isn’t meant to excuse students from the requirements. Instead, it’s an opportunity to teach our students to ask for help, to advocate for themselves, to acknowledge the realities for our students and to find creative ways (one-on-one meetings, alternate assignments, flexibility with deadlines) to help them to make it through.
Take time to do check-ins on the students themselves each class
At the start of each class, using something like a simple poll to check in on student well-being can provide valuable information about those who are ready to learn and those who are struggling. Taking the time to do this creates an environment of respect and recognition that the times are not normal. These polls also require responses from everyone. Following that with an opportunity to share why students selected the response they did can open up lines of communications and connections between students, knowing they are not alone in how they are feeling. Many of the stresses I heard about in the fall had nothing to do with my class. Nevertheless, it was weighing on my students and was impacting their focus. Thus, taking the time to answer their questions, acknowledge their struggles, and to provide helpful tips or solutions was important.
Integrate different technologies
Utilizing technology that you and the students know can make class easier. Pushing yourself and your students to try new technology is a bit more daring. Providing these opportunities, however, is essential. You, and especially your students, don’t want to get stuck in the monotony of the same format and tools each week across a semester. Explore the options out there and often you’ll find new ways to engage and connect with and among students.
Provide time for the students to talk with each other
All students are missing the time they previously had with their friends and peers. Providing time for students to talk with each other similar to the moments during in-person classes when we are transitioning between activities or just taking a break is important. While we as teachers sometimes don’t even notice these interactions, they are invaluable to our students. For some, it is their only opportunity to interact with peers all day.
I’ve also noticed that there are many students who aren’t comfortable sharing with the whole class, however, when I put them in breakout rooms and pop into those rooms, those same students often lead the conversation in the smaller groups. Providing opportunities for all students to participate and to shine is priceless.
Preparing for the next semester, I’m grateful for my students, for their honesty, and their feedback. It allows me to continue to grow and evolve as a professor. It reminds me of what is really important as I teach: my students themselves—they are most important. Each class I am inspired by and learn from my students just as I hope they are inspired by and learn from me.
As an associate professor in the College of Education at Seton Hall University, Dr. Lauren Bosworth McFadden’s true passion lies in teaching. Thus, she strives each day to create engaging lessons, to instill a love of learning in her students, and to model best practices while taking the time to personally connect with each student. She wants to inspire her students to be the best teachers they can be, arming them with the skills necessary to positively impact the lives of every one of their students.