Teaching Today

Creating Compassionate Video-On and Attendance Policies

In his online courses, Zachary Nowak found that such policies helped keep attendance and student engagement in both lecture and discussion sections high.

March 3, 2021
 
 
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While planning my fall lecture course this past summer, I read horror stories about ski jump-shaped attendance curves, with huge falloffs just weeks into the summer session. I also heard about students being present insofar as their names were in the middle of little Zoom boxes but absent from class in every other way.

Some instructors proposed even stricter attendance policies than they would have adopted pre-COVID, but those seemed not to acknowledge the difficult situations students are dealing with while learning remotely. Ultimately, along with my head teaching assistant Sarah Bramao-Ramos, I developed Zoom camera and attendance policies that set the tone early but were also compassionate. Those policies helped us keep attendance and student engagement in both lecture and discussion sections high.

Our Zoom and attendance policies were complementary and built on a simple principle: to learn, you have to be present and attentive, just like in the regular classroom. We laid out a classwide Zoom policy, letting students know at the beginning of the semester that the default, for both lectures and seminars, was for their cameras to be on the entire time, although they were free to use backgrounds if they wanted to do so. We reminded them of the policy both at the beginning of lecture and through nudge questions in LMS quizzes.

During every online lecture, one teaching assistant would periodically scroll through the entire 98-person Zoom classroom (four blue arrows' worth) and jot down the names of anyone who didn’t have their camera on. They then sent the following email to each of those students after every meeting for the first four weeks:

Hi [student],

I noticed that you didn’t have your camera on during the lecture for HIST 1852 on Tuesday (Sept. 8). I’d like to remind you that we would like you to turn your camera on during the lecture. This is laid out in the course Zoom guidelines here.

There is no need to respond, and I want to make it clear that we are not penalizing you. But please make sure that your camera is turned on during the lectures. If you are unable to do this because of IT reasons please contact HUIT (or let us know, and we will see what we can do). If there is some other reason why you are unable to turn your camera on, please let me know.

My best,

[TA]

In all cases, this was enough to elicit one of two responses from students: 1) “Oh, sorry, I’ll leave it on …” or 2) “Actually, I wanted to ask your permission to leave it off, because …” We did not say no to a single student who asked to leave the camera off. This early setting of the tone paid off: after the fifth week of the semester, we decided to discontinue sending the emails, as almost all of the students kept their cameras on the whole time.

The attendance policy was much the same mixture of tone-setting and compassion. We told students that they could miss three lecture meetings and two section meetings with no penalty, and without any need to give us a reason. The flip side was that, from the very first lecture, we took attendance (using a semicomplicated process to compare the Zoom report to the digital roster). If a student had missed the lecture completely, their discussion section TAs sent them the email below:

Dear [student],

I noticed you weren’t in lecture/section yesterday. Don’t worry, this time counts as one of your "free passes" (excused absences), but I just want to remind you that attendance in lecture/section is an important part of this course.

Let me know if you need anything, or if you just want to talk.

My best,

[TA]

We thought of these as compassionate notes from Foucault: “We’re understanding about you missing class, but we’re keeping track of when you’re missing.” We also allowed students who missed additional lectures or who could never attend the lecture for a variety of reasons (including the challenge of navigating time zones) to make up lecture meetings by watching the recording and writing a short reaction paper. We were prepared to link any students who missed more than three classes to the IT department (for bandwidth issues).

We were hoping to help students overcome their differential access to the internet depending on their location and their access to technology. We also thought that a reason for students to keep their cameras off might be related to mental health, so we were prepared to connect them with mental health services, but we didn’t need to. Of 98 students, none at all missed more than three classes. Over all, attendance was phenomenal: only a handful of students missed the lecture every week.

Incentivizing Engagement

On the final evaluations, we added a special question about these policies. Students were generally more enthusiastic about them than I had expected -- much like the surprising responses to my laptop policy for pre-COVID, in-person meetings. Many wrote responses similar to this one: “I liked these policies. They certainly helped me stay engaged. I would recommend implementing them into any semester where Zoom is in use.” Another student wrote, “I really liked these two policies and I used them whenever I was overwhelmed with school or an unexpected commitment came up. I felt that it was fair to have our cameras on because it is respectful.”

Some students seemed to have missed the fact that anyone could make a request at any time to turn off their camera and that backgrounds were fine: “The camera-on Zoom policy was a low of the course. There shouldn't be a situation in which adults are being penalized for not wanting to show either themselves or their environment on camera.”

I saw from this that I needed to reiterate the camera-on policy more often. Several other students liked the camera-on policy but also suggested a few short, cameras-off breaks, something I’ve implemented this semester.

Of course, not everyone found the policies productive. Although more than 80 percent of the comments on the evaluations were positive, we received a few very negative comments, almost exclusively about the camera-on policy. To give one example: “The camera-on Zoom policy is BS. It’s invasive and inconsiderate. Let people make their own decision. I feel very, very strongly that you have no right at all to say that we must have our cameras on.”

I recognize, of course, that this policy might not work everywhere -- although I would add that Harvard University students are not uniformly affluent, given the university’s financial aid packages. Harvard also has the sort of resources that many smaller institutions might lack. One weakness of relying on an anonymous evaluation question is that we don’t know how the policy affected students along race, class and gender lines.

Setting Zoom and attendance policies for the class as a whole also benefited teaching assistants, a crucial part of a large class like this. It is, as any section leader will tell you, remarkably difficult to lead conversation from a handful of black boxes -- but it can be equally challenging, as an individual TA, to entice students to turn their cameras on. Having clear expectations across the course removed the burden of regulation setting from the TAs. A constant cameras-on policy came with a different set of challenges -- Zoom fatigue being the main one -- but TAs could spend their time more productively planning camera-off breaks and other ways to allow students to temporarily disengage, rather than frantically trying to get them to engage in the first place.

I’m hoping that this coming fall I won’t need a camera-on policy, but the attendance policy is one I might keep. Over all, this experience has made me think more about how to incentivize students being in class and being engaged.

Bio

Zachary Nowak is a lecturer in the history department at Harvard University. He is also the associate director of the Center for Food & Sustainability Studies at the Umbra Institute in Perugia, Italy. Sarah Bramao-Ramos, a Ph.D. candidate in history and East Asian languages at Harvard University and one of the hosts of the New Books in East Asian Studies podcast, also contributed to this article.

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