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COVID-19 radically changed many aspects of higher education teaching and learning. Faculty and students were forced to transition to remote teaching and learning virtually overnight, and many are still working to catch up with the new reality. Despite the disruptions, students continue to apply for graduate education and jobs. That’s especially the case now, as the academic year ends and students are seeking positions after graduation. Students need strong letters of recommendation and references from their instructors, despite sometimes massive changes in the way that they have interacted.

Many students have been struggling to request and secure letters of recommendation during the pandemic. They may be unsure how to ask for letters at the best of times, and with COVID and less face-to-face contact, they have faced even more barriers. This situation will only become more difficult when the faculty members whom students feel they know best refuse to provide letters and/or recommend they reach out to someone else.

Speaking with our colleagues, we’ve heard three reasons why faculty may be more reluctant to provide letters for their students from remote courses.

  • Faculty feel they do not know the personality, work ethic and goals of students they taught in a remote modality as well as they know students from in-person classes.
  • Faculty feel less confident about how their assessment of students in remote courses translates into the qualities graduate programs and employers are seeking.
  • Faculty have been overworked during pandemic remote teaching and feel unable to take on the work of writing a letter of recommendation.

Just as faculty members have updated their practices to become effective remote teachers, they can rethink how to approach letters of recommendation and references for remote students. Letter writing often creates additional labor, because it requires faculty members to remember each student’s performance on numerous assignments—many they haven’t recently scrutinized. By re-envisioning their remote courses and assessments, faculty can more efficiently recall and describe the strengths of their students.

In this essay, we will identify ways in which faculty can feel more confident in their assessment of students using course design and communication strategies to reduce the burden of letter writing.

Designing Social Presence and Engagement

Several of the faculty members whom we’ve talked with have told us that they felt they just don’t “know” the students in their remote classes the way they do their in-person students. As many faculty are discovering, however, as the pandemic drags on, they can create some ways to have students share their personal and academic strengths in a remote setting.

Effective remote teaching assessments are linked to social, teaching and cognitive presence pedagogies in communities of inquiry. Online teaching expert Tina Stavredes argues social presence “establishes learners as individuals and … allows learners to engage in a community of inquiry.” To create that presence, Stavredes recommends:

  • Collaborative assignments—such as interactive discussion boards, team or group projects, and peer reviews.
  • Assignments that promote critical thinking, reflection, problem-based learning and debate.

Social presence and engagement depend on teaching presence—instructors must design their courses to encourage student-to-student interaction and model social presence for their students. Consistent instructor engagement with students via discussion boards, email and virtual office hours not only benefits student learning but is also how remote instructors make social and cognitive connections with their remote learners.

The structure and clear communication of instructions, objectives and expectations that are required for successful remote courses can be translated into a rubric or template for recommendation letters. For example, those assignments with “critical thinking” identified as an objective can be drawn upon to comment on a student’s performance in that regard. A review of student discussion posts and emails helps provide a clear record of professional and written communication skills.

A Chance to Reduce Bias in Student Assessment

Writing letters for students whom faculty may have only interacted with in remote settings may present challenges, but it can also provide opportunities. It may reduce both subconscious biases and an overemphasis on culturally based interpersonal expectations that create a hidden curriculum.

Jonathan van Belle and John Kaag define the hidden curriculum as “a set of complicated social and cultural expectations that are reflexive for those in the dominant culture but that [some students] must quickly learn in addition to their official learning objectives.” In the remote classroom, they argue, students may be able to avoid “many signals of difference” leading to more inclusive assessments. In the shift from in-person to remote classrooms, faculty have learned to write explicit expectations of student work such as responses to discussion prompts. These expectations not only assist students in meeting those expectations but help faculty avoid assessing cultural behavior instead of academic achievement.

Moreover, faculty can take advantage of the relative anonymity and digital record of their remote interactions with students to write unbiased letters more confidently. For example, impressions of student performance during in-person discussions can be biased by other aspects of student performance or personality. In contrast, digital discussions archived in a learning management system provide an opportunity for instructors to review records of student enthusiasm and brilliance years later—and in isolation from fuzzy impressions about late work or a poor performance on a multiple-choice test.

Faculty will assess students from their remote classes in ways that are different from how they assess in-person students. But different does not mean less effective, and we are hopeful that the digital record of well-designed remote courses will provide faculty a more equitable impression of their students and increase their confidence in their assessment of many aspects of student performance. And that can benefit both faculty members and students.

Helping Students Request Recommendations

Faculty members can also encourage students to successfully solicit recommendations. Providing tips in the course syllabus or learning management system early in the term can help streamline the process for both faculty and students. Further, having information that can be shared with students via an LMS or email can help set expectations for students who are requesting a letter of recommendation.

Faculty should give students seeking letters or references advice in advance. They can offer students taking remote courses some specific guidance, such as:

  • Create a connection with instructors while enrolled in their remote classes.
  • Turn on both camera and audio (if possible) and keep chat focused on course materials and discussions.
  • Actively participate in discussion boards and use professional language.
  • Communicate with instructors outside class: for example, visit instructors during their office hours or request a time to meet with them.
  • Engage in extracurricular time with instructors: attend faculty-sponsored remote events, including presentations and clubs.

Sharing this advice with students, as well as other tips on requesting letters of recommendation or references, can help faculty members give students timely and effective letters and references—and ultimately contribute to their academic success.

Pandemic remote teaching has left many of us feeling burned out, and that can impact our memories of past students and complicate our efforts to write letters of recommendation. But the work and thought we have put into designing our remote classes has the potential to pay off in reducing the labor of letter writing.

Even if you are facing an immediate letter request, there are steps faculty can take to ease their workload. Online courses are typically archived, which means you have the student’s record at your fingertips. Rather than reviewing all the student’s work, ask them to point out the work that they are proud of completing in your course. Request that students send you their CV/résumé, letter of intent/personal statement and detailed information about what they are applying for, when the due date is and why they are asking you for a recommendation—in other words, how you can speak to their qualifications.

Both faculty and students have a role to play. When faculty design their remote courses to maximize student engagement and provide clear assessments, they improve the learning environment for all students, strengthen their teaching effectiveness and create an accessible archive of student work. When students are proactive and take ownership of their learning and connections with faculty, they can be more successful both in the course and seeking strong recommendations from faculty.

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