Successful teaching, even in the pandemic

Years ago I designed a course that I intended to be cutting edge and built on best practices. It’s a CURE, an affectionate if braggadocious acronym for classroom-based undergraduate research experiences. By adopting this approach, all of the students in the class have the opportunity to complete their own research on a question that they develop.Fossil of bird in sandstone.

My background is in paleontology, so I can best support students who are doing research about fossils. The Paleobiology Database contains fossils from all over the world and all through time, and it’s available on the internet. By structuring students’ research projects around data from this database, we can minimize the time we spend collecting data, instead focusing on how to analyze data with simple statistical tests and how to contextualize both the research question and the research findings with data from the primary literature. The course culminates in students writing a scientific paper. I’m so pleased that a number of the students have published their papers in the UWB student research journal, The CROW (e.g., Beaumont 2018, Brooks 2018, Weldon 2018, Zubair 2018, Kirk 2019).

What’s been more frustrating, however, is the number of students who disengage from the course at around week 8 (we’re on 10-week quarters). I hoped to address this concern by changing the format of the course to hybrid, with one in-person meeting each week, more individual work for people to do on their own, and more time for me to have individual meetings with students to support each of them in their research journey. However, the switch to hybrid didn’t change the distribution of grades. I still had about 20% of the students disengaging and failing. This was unacceptable to me.

Another challenge in the course has been that it is exhausting to teach. Whenever I had a course release (e.g., sabbatical, additional service), I would give up this course. I found myself avoiding it because of its intensity. The writing on the wall was clear: the course was a burden for the students and for me.

I knew the course had to change, and I’m pleased to share that it went exceedingly well in fall 2021, despite the additional, covid-related stresses impacting everyone. Shout out to Todd Conaway, who has helped brainstorm on improvements throughout this journey.

Here are the changes I made:

1. Being compassionate

We are in the midst of a pandemic, and that’s hit our students hard. Many are front line workers, many are dealing with housing and food insecurity, others are or live with people who are immunocompromised. It has been essential to me to acknowledge my students as people with complex, changing, and unpredictable needs. Consequently, I built flexibility into the course. For example, students automatically received a two-day extension for every assignment. Naturally, some folks interpreted the due date as the extended date. But my impression is that it helped others. Those who tended to honor the due date took advantage of the extension on occasion.

I dropped some of the assignments, too. I include participation in my grading scheme, but I dropped the two lowest participation grades. I have a number of short assignments to scaffold building the whole paper, but I dropped the two lowest small assignment grades. It’s the accumulation of these small projects that’s important to me rather than each one individually.

I’ve also been incorporating mindfulness into my classes. I’ve been puzzled about how to do that in a class about conducting scientific research. But mindfulness is an increasingly important aspect of my own approach to research, for example in how I process peer reviews, receive rejections to grant proposals, and think through disappointing results. And I remember that it is day dreaming about fossils that inspired me to pursue a PhD in paleobiology.

In this course, I incorporated three specific moments of mindfulness. First, I would turn off the light to allow us to focus on a slide being projected—on the first day of class, this was Archaeopteryx. We talked about the dinosaur-like skeleton with the feather impressions. We then took a couple of deep breaths, and I turned the light back on to get started with the day’s work. The second mindfulness moment would occur half way through our 2-hour class. We would take a ten-minute break, and students typically take breaks by pulling out their phones and texting, playing games, etc. That isn’t the mental or physical break that they need, nor does it relax their eyes. So, at the end of the break, we would stretch as able, reaching hands above our heads and then reaching for the floor. The last moment of mindfulness in our daily routine was for students to share something that they appreciated about day’s class in Padlet (Hats off to Anida Y Ali for teaching me this trick—she uses it in her performance arts classes.). My favorite part of this activity was that it became an intentional moment for me to share with students something I appreciated about them.

2. Adopting a hyflex format

Hyflex teaching is becoming more common. UW doesn’t formally offer hyflex courses (in which some students attend in person and others attend online), and our admin has gone out of its way to assure faculty that we do not need to teach in multiple formats simultaneously. That said, I find that hyflex teaching is quite consistent with my overall philosophy: we use apps to track in class notes (both individuals’ notes and classroom notes) and balance small group discussions with whole class conversations—all of this is relatively easy to do both online and in person.

Fall 2021 was the first quarter in which students were coming to class in-person after more than a year of remote learning. I wanted to give my students the flexibility to decide whether to come in person or to attend class remotely. I also wanted to make it clear to students that they should not come to class if they were sick—whether a cold, flu, covid or something else. That meant ensuring that they didn’t feel like they’d be penalized for attending the class remotely. I also wanted to apply that compassion to myself: I knew I might get sick.

The remote option ended up being quite popular. By the end of the quarter, only one-third of the students showed up in person, but I still had complete attendance because the rest of the class joined online. The online students indicated that they felt fully integrated into the class. Their reasons for joining remotely were varied: some were sick, some didn’t want to commute, some adjusted their work schedules to work right up to the start of class, some preferred online learning. Students who attended in person didn’t find it distracting to have most of the class online.

3. Implementing ungrading

I’ve been experimenting with different forms of ungrading, specifications grading, and mastery grading, with support from a 2020-2021 faculty learning community and a 2021 summer book club (sponsored by SABER). In this course, I decided to implement two aspects of Nilson’s specification grading (Nilson, 2014): tiered content and grading as complete/incomplete.

Applying different tiers of content resonated with me because I was constantly grading, and because some students would complain about busy work in the course. I realized that comments about busy work were actually complaints about assignments that felt peripheral to students who wanted to only focus on writing their papers. Assignments about the nature of peer review or about statistical tests that students didn’t end up using in their own study felt unnecessary. Since the major learning goal of the course is for students to write a scientific paper based on their novel research, I created one required tier for all assignments related to that goal. Completing all of these assignments would lead to a 3.0 (UW grades on a 4.0 scale, instead of a letter scale). Two optional tiers each added 0.5 to the final grade. One of these focused on the nature and process of science, and the other went deeper into the process of research by learning more statistical analysis and reading more primary literature.

The old version of this course was so all-consuming for me because I would make incredibly detailed rubrics and grade each assignment in painstaking detail. I’d use these rubrics to assign close but different grades. Ultimately, though, I found it a waste of time to consider what the difference is between, say, an 84% and an 85%. It’s impossible to test the validity of a 1% difference in scores for each course I teach. The differences in grades weren’t telling me about differences in mastery of content. This quarter, I graded all assignments as either complete/incomplete. When students did not pass an assignment that was particularly important, such as the draft of the whole scientific paper, I provided extensive feedback—both in writing and by video—for them to improve their work and then asked them to resubmit it. This differs from the approach that Nilson uses in which students are responsible for asking the professor when they can redo an assignment. While I certainly welcomed that discourse, I wanted to be very upfront with students about my expectation that they could improve their work.

Summary

I’m pleased to say that all of the students did well. To protect students’ privacy, I won’t go into too much detail about how they performed, but I will share that I’m totally jazzed about how they did. Instead of feeling burned out at the end of the term, at least around this course, I feel incredibly excited to be teaching it again next year. I will continue to implement all of these new components.

I think that hyflex is the way of the future. My students have such complex lives with caregiving responsibilities and 20 + hours of work, facing housing and food insecurities, and of course colds, flus, and covid. Any bit of flexibility helps.

2 Comments

  1. David Goldstein

    This is terrific, Becca. I am grateful for your willingness to share your experiences so we all can learn from them.

    • Becca Price

      David, thanks to you and Charity for leading a community where I could learn more about ungrading! Best, bp

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