Teaching Today

Show Them You Care

Michel Estefan suggests four ways to help build supportive in-person or online classrooms that generate equity among students.

February 3, 2021
 
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If the pandemic has taught us anything about teaching, it’s that effective pedagogy takes the form of a caring relationship. Students do their best work when they feel empowered, supported and connected in the classroom. As the pandemic rages on and students continue to struggle with isolation, stress and uncertainty, the human dimension of instruction bears more significance than ever -- especially for first-generation, low-income and racially minoritized students who often find themselves alienated, even in normal times, in institutions of higher education.

How can faculty members support their students in this moment of crisis when they are also stretched thin and facing risks, challenges and barriers to their careers that parallel those confronting their students? This situation calls for creative approaches to pedagogy that afford faculty manageable ways of making large classrooms feel small and providing historically minoritized students with the support they deserve and need to succeed.

In this piece, I suggest four methods for achieving this: student design, structured flexibility, support pods and proactive mentoring. These methods can help build meaningful, supportive in-person or online classrooms that generate equity among students during these trying times.

Student design. The syllabus, assignments and grading rubrics are the core artifacts that structure the learning process in a classroom. But for historically minoritized students, they can often feel more like gatekeepers to academic success than sources of information that promote fairness and transparency. One straightforward way to solve that problem is to involve students in creating those artifacts.

As a first assignment, ask students to annotate the syllabus collectively. Upload the syllabus as an open digital document and ask students to read it, note what they found useful, pose any questions about things that remain unclear and react to each other’s comments. Then use their observations to revise the syllabus and produce a final draft. Instructors have found this to be an effective way to build rapport with students and encourage collaborative learning among them.

You can apply the same approach to any grading rubric or assignment prompt. For example, have students read the rubric and comment on it collectively before they complete the corresponding assignment. This will provide you with valuable information about what’s working well with the grading criteria and what you may need to revise. And the students will understand the rubric better and use it with a more discerning lens to complete the assignment.

By imprinting their views on the core items that organize the learning process, students will relate to the course in an entirely different way. They will feel more committed to produce high-quality work and more invested in each other’s success.

Structured flexibility. Over the course of teaching during the pandemic, we have learned that students appreciate and benefit from a thoughtful balance between flexibility and structure. Students have been forthright about how much they value flexibility through asynchronous course components and longer time frames to complete assignments, as well as their instructors’ awareness that everyone’s lives could be suddenly upended. But given that COVID-19 has disrupted many of the routines of in-person campus life, students have also expressed how much they value aspects of teaching that introduce regularity and consistency in their courses -- including synchronous components, a well-planned assignment schedule, clear deadlines and transparent grading guidelines.

One useful way to create student-centered structured flexibility is a variation on contract grading that offers multiple paths to achieve the course’s learning objectives. You provide students with several assignment schedules to complete the course requirements and ask them to select one. Path A may involve two quizzes, two short papers and a final group project. Path B could consist of a quiz, class presentation, podcast and final paper. This method gives students more control over their coursework, allowing them to choose the assignment schedule that best suits their circumstances and interests while preserving a clear path to classroom success.

Students know their circumstances best, so giving them the freedom to decide how to achieve the course learning goals reduces the chances of having to continuously make unexpected, last-minute changes to assignments or grading policies while the pandemic persists.

Support pods. The value of community for student learning is well documented and so is its specific importance for historically marginalized students. At its simplest, community rests on providing opportunities for students to support and help each other learn. Support pods are a useful way of connecting students that also allows you to scale mentoring for large classes. Place students in groups at the beginning of the term, have them share their contact information and ask them to check in with each other periodically to see how things are going. Request that someone in each pod communicate with you to let you know how the pod members are doing. By having students support each other, you can focus your mentoring efforts on those that may need your help most.

Proactive mentoring. Studies have shown that mentoring is one of the most effective methods to help people in minoritized groups succeed -- and that mentoring online can be just as effective as doing it in person. But we do need to adjust our mind-set about mentoring.

In our interactions with students, we should strive to make sure they always feel safe, respected and empowered in our conversations, but we should also provide unsolicited support. Anthony Jack’s research has shown that low-income students are often reluctant to ask their professors for help. As a result, a welcoming but passive disposition on our behalf isn’t enough. For instance, instead of waiting for students to ask about research opportunities, share any information you have, express confidence in their ability to conduct research and offer to help if they think research is something they would like to try out.

As we continue to face the challenges posed by the pandemic, it is worth remembering that the relationships and interactions in the context of which learning takes place have a direct impact on student motivation and academic performance. We all learn best when we are treated as distinct, complete individuals and feel involved in, empowered by and connected to the work we’re doing. The methods I propose here are designed to achieve this by placing teaching as a caring relationship at the forefront of our pedagogy.

Bio

Michel Estefan (@michel_estefan) is assistant teaching professor in the sociology department at the University of California, San Diego.

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