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Mar. 20, 2020 - Message from the Provost

March 20, 2020

As we make this adjustment to an online and distance environment for the Spring 2020, I wanted to underscore some ideas and resources for you and your students. 

Asynchronous delivery and a little compassion. ECTL’s Instructional Design Team has a wealth of resources posted to help you make this shift.  I’d like to highlight this one, Teaching with Compassion and Focus Amidst Disruption, which is a compendium of ideas from the University of Vermont.  I also found this piece on how to think through designing asynchronous course delivery very useful.  Asynchronous delivery will help students (and you) when data bandwidth is overburdened or when many time zones are between you and your students, so this is especially important for international students who may have gone home and students in rural areas. If you want to record a demonstration, lab technique, or lecture, at this time you can use campus facilities and technology, to do so.

Redesigning Exams. Exams can pose a particular challenge in a situation where everyone is on their own. Using HonorLock and Respondus will be useful, but there is no perfect solution.  In order to minimize incidents of academic integrity violations for online exams while still ensuring they accurately reflect student learning, consider the following principles in creating and modifying exams:

  • Allowing exams to be open-book/source: Try a new approach: let your students use research resources when taking an exam. Design questions that probe deeper levels of knowledge and understanding, enabling students to apply, assess, and evaluate concepts and facts in meaningful ways. Have students to share and cite where they get information from and what resources they use.

  • Encourage students to collaborate/share questions and ideas: Students will likely work together when they are stuck or confused. You can encourage working in small teams and ask them to include who they work with and in what ways.

  • Focus on solving problems while showing work and explanations: In many cases, students may get the same answer, but showing their work reveals meaningful differences in understanding. Sometimes there may only be a few ways to show work, so you may ask for brief prose explanations, or have students record a video of them talking through the process to solve a question.

  • Use student-generated questions with explanations: Instead of trying to ensure everyone answers your limited number of questions on their own, ask every student to create their own question with an explanation of how it would assess a certain topic or skill in a meaningful way. You can also assign students to answer each other's questions and state whether those questions actually do assess these skills in appropriate ways.

  • Ensure clarity in questions and prompts: Especially if your test is timed, your students may not have a chance to ask a question and get a response. It is vital that questions and prompts are clear to novices so your assessment measures what you want it to. Even if not timed, you do not want to be spending your limited time answering clarifying questions.

  • Consider question formats leading to essays, videos, pictures, and other personal responses: If your class lends itself to it, having students express their learning through essays, videos, pictures, or other personalized forms of writing/speaking/communicating means that everyone needs to create their own. You can also have students post their responses for each other and assess each other's work through peer grading. Rubrics can help guide students as they develop such work, give each other feedback, and, of course, allow your teaching assistants and you a consistent method of assessment.

  • Respect your own time: Most of these ideas take time to grade. Try to determine what is feasible in your situation, and use feedback-based or hand-grading intensive assessments sparingly.. Many times feedback can be created for the whole group based on common challenges or problems, as opposed to individual responses.

Resources for students to help them succeed in this environment. As you are adjusting to this change, so are your students.  For some, it may be the first time they’ve had a fully-online educational experience, so providing them with some structure and compassion will be key to helping them manage through this time.  Some great resources include this short post and this set of principles to help them get structure back into their lives. I encourage you to reach out as soon as you can to your students to help them – and you – in redesigning your course to achieve your learning objectives and help them succeed.

What if my students don’t want to finish my course this way? If a student asks for an incomplete, you and they should make an explicit agreement about what still needs to be completed, by when. You will enter the grade of incomplete at final grade submission time, and you and the student will have 120 days from the date of assignment to complete the work and evaluate it. If this deadline needs to be extended by mutual agreement between you and the student, it can be done so easily. The incomplete grade will not affect their full-time status.

If a student seeks to drop your course, please work with Scholarships and Financial Aid to help the student understand the financial aid implications if it impacts their full-time status.  International students should consult with the International Students and Scholars office prior to dropping a class, as that may affect their immigration status.

Our faculty are used to balancing an enormous number of things. Now, we are asking you to take a leap into online and distance modalities in a short period of time in the interest of our community’s public health.  We understand that it isn’t going to be perfect, and that is ok.  You are the touchstone to normalcy and a little bit of structure that our students need.  Thank you for all your creative and good thinking as we work through this situation together.


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