College During Covid // A Better Semester

I learned a lot from my first full semester teaching online last fall. My bar was pretty low too, though. This semester, I stepped it up a notch. I made a variety of changes to class to encourage more participation. I worked on being more clear on how to use Canvas, our learning platform. I worked on developing more complex assigments. I was rockin’ it!

Setting the Stage for Student Success
Most importantly, I took a lot of time to articulate what I thought students needed to be successful in my class. I sent an email the week before the semester started to help students see if they’d be a good fit for our class. If students could reply “yes” to 3 questions, they’d have what they need to be successful. Here’s what I wrote in that email:

  • First, do you have good internet access and a working laptop or iPad (something with a screen larger than your phone)? We meet in a Zoom meeting for an hour and 15 minutes once a week (Mondays 9:30-10:45 am) and missing class will affect your ability to do well. If you’ve been on Zoom meetings and get dropped a lot or if your computer has problems with Zoom, this class isn’t for you.
  • Are you willing to show who you are? During our Zoom meetings, we have our cameras on because body language can help us understand each other and seeing people helps us connect. If you are a really private person and don’t want to have your camera on, another class may work better.
  • Are you all in? In other words, do you have the desire to learn and do you have time set aside to do classwork? That includes the time of our Zoom sessions and time to work outside of class, which all together may be 4-6 hours a week. I know we’re all busy, but if this class isn’t at least a little bit of a priority, you’ll suffer in it.

Student Replies
I don’t know how many students read the email. I had a survey set up to see if students believed they could commit to those things, but I didn’t make it mandatory because we had a lot of other work during the first week. I kind of regret that because it’d be nice to have that info. A few students in each class did the survey though, and affirmed that they could say yes to the 3 questions.

I also tried to make it clear during the first Zoom class that students needed to be able to say yes to the 3 questions in order to succeed. Some students dropped after the first week, but I can’t necessarily connect them to the info in the email because I always have a few that drop for a variety of reasons.

I wish I could say that everyone who stayed is behaving as if they are able to fulfill the 3 requiremetns. Not everyone is, but most are, and that has been awesome.

Internet Issues
Internet connectivity and reliable electronic devices have been a bit hit or miss. Some students have stable internet and great laptops or iPads. Others get knocked off of Zoom or have some other issue with technology. Some students work to get these fixed; others seem to have a different technology issue each week.

Zoom Participation 
The first few class periods, I asked people to turn their cameras on and most did. Once in a while someone told me they had trouble with their camera, and I accpeted that. 

Later on I realized it was most important to me for students to have their cameras on during discussion, so I told them I am comfortable with them turning cameras off while I’m presenting information. I felt like that would give them some relief from being “on” all the time if they struggle with that. Most students keep their cameras on all class.

However, there are a few black boxes with names in white lettering at the bottom of my screen during each Zoom meeting. I’ll continue to ask them to turn the cameras on, but I won’t force it. I’m getting good energy from the amount of students who are showing their faces, so mission accomlished–at least for now. As we move on in the semester, students and I start slacking on a variety of things, and it’s possible the camera issue will be one of them. We shall see. 

I focused my semester planning around the Zoom class period. I ask students to consume some sort of text and take a quiz on it by the night before class. This encourages them to read or view the video. Not all of them complete the quiz on time, so the encouragement isn’t foolproof. But, at least I can hold them accountable. I hope that accountability helps them get on track for the next week. 

Then, during the week, I have students do something that gets them interacting with peers, which has mostly involved them talking on a discussion board.

The Results?
So far I’ve had different results from each of my 5 classes. My larger classes are the most energetic. They talk about the issues in the readings or videos, share their experiences, and in some cases ask each other questions. This may not seem like a big deal, but with quieter classes and during the beginning of the semester, I ask a question, I get one answer, I ask another question, someone else replies, and on and on. We are now, during week 4, having some real interactive conversations, which has been exciting.

As we move into the first paper assignment, I hope that their work during discussion pays off and they’re able to find topics relatively easily. We shall see. 

My smaller classes have been going ok as well. They are a bit more awkward at times. I have a class of 4 students and one of 9 or 10 students. I think they are getting used to each other and how I run class. They’re just a little slower to get conversations going. 

Are they all in? 
Some students are legitmately all in. They attend class, do all the work, and contact me as soon as they are confused about something. 

Other students are definitely not all in.

My biggest disappointment so far is that I feel like I am losing some students. Students slowly do fewer and fewer assignments, don’t show up for Zoom, and though I reach out through text (the most reliable way to reach them), sometimes I get nothing back.

I submitted some “early alerts” to success coaches as my school to get some support in reaching students. In one class, I wrote a note about 6 students out of 18 who are struggling. My goal of keeping students engaged isn’t working with at least 1/3 of the class. I believe this is beyond my control–or at least that there’s not much more I can do. I have reached out in the kindest, most direct and supportive way I know how. Like really, I am kick-ass at developing relationships with students. For example, for each of the notes I wrote to the success coaches, I shared some details about that particualr student’s life that might be effecting their work. I could recall a good amount about each student and these are the students who haven’t even attended everything. I took a step back and thought, man I have been working really hard at develping relationships. Ultimately, the effort I put into building relationships with students will help some through the semester. Other efforts will not be enough to hold students for those 16 weeks. 

Connecting with Content
The best writing so far has been in response to a video. Each class chose to watch a Middle Ground video, where people with a variety of different stances on an issue discuss that issue. Next, I asked them questions such as what was most interesting, who is someone you agree with, who is someone you disagree with, and do you believe the discussion people on the video had was useful? Students’ frustration with some of the arguments shared in the videos really got them going. Without my prompting, students have been quoting lines from the videos, critiquing the speakers’ stances and asking thought-provoking questions.

I was disappoitned that these responses were in a quiz instead of a discussion board because it would have been great for students to read each other’s points. This week’s discussion board is on another Middle Ground video, so we’ll see if students share as much on it. 

In short, my classes are going better than they did last semester. I hope they keep going well. It’ll make class more fun for all of us. Plus, maybe I’ll have fewer changes I need to make to classes next semester. 

Peace Out (and In),





  • Deb S

    Always enjoy your posts! Your students are blessed to have you.

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