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For most of us, the shift to remote instruction was a harsh but unmatched learning experience. The most obvious lesson: how easy it is for students to become disengaged or fall off track or feel lost and unsupported.

This experience underscored the importance of learning-centered course design: of organizing a course around well-defined learning objectives and ensuring that the class activities and assessments tightly aligned with those learning goals.

This shift to online delivery also highlighted the value of:

  • Clarity: Ensuring that expectations are transparent, that presentations are easy to follow, that the course’s ground rules are well understood and that explanations are lucid.
  • Organization: Making sure that the course as a whole, as well as individual class sessions, are structured logically and coherently.
  • Engagement: Revealing the importance of stimulating students’ curiosity, maintaining their attention and maximizing student motivation by highlighting the value and relevance of topics, concepts and readings.
  • Participation: Doing everything we can to encourage all students to take an active role in the class, asking and answering questions, contributing to class discussions, and partaking in class activities.
  • Support: Paying close attention to signs of student confusion or disengagement and then proactively intervening to address misunderstandings or other barriers to learning and to ensure that the students feel a sense of connection and belonging.
  • Flexibility: Being willing to meet students’ needs by modifying due dates and offering alternate ways to demonstrate mastery of essential course material.

Want to make your fall classes better? Here are 10 ideas that I can assure you will work and that grow out of our experience over the past academic year.

  1. Check in with your students frequently. Regularly survey your students to get a sense of their concerns, interests and state of mind. Don’t limit this check-in to academic matters.
  2. Cede authority and give students responsibility for the class’s success. Let students introduce each class session. Let them explain why the session’s topics are important. Ask them to identify the session’s themes and animating questions. Also, consider using students as co-moderators or facilitators.
  3. Use a round robin approach to ensure that all students participate. I often ask every student to read aloud and comment upon a brief excerpt from a primary source. In other courses, students might be asked to build on a previous student’s argument or explain a concept in their own words. The goal is to have every student, not just the most extroverted, take an active role in the class.
  4. Embed inquiry and problem solving into the class sessions. Nothing stirs students’ curiosity than a mystery, a contradiction or a compelling problem. You might consider asking your students to undertake a research scavenger hunt, in which they must track down the answers to questions that you pose. Or consider hosting a brief brainstorming session.
  5. Encourage in-class chat -- and ask a student to monitor the chat. During classes, a lot of backstage conversation occurs, as students express confusion or react to a comment made by a professor or classmate. Consider using a tool (e.g. Teams, Slack or even a Google Doc) to capture those informal conversations.
  6. Use a low-stakes quiz, a survey or a learning response tool to monitor student learning. Retrieval practice through frequent, low-stakes quizzing is an evidence-based way to embed key concepts and information into long-term memory.
  7. Use images, statistics, video clips, music and objects to prompt discussion. By presenting students with a painting or photograph, a music or video clip, an object or artifact, or a graph or statistic, I can give them a chance to painlessly practice and hone their interpretive skills.
  8. Have students process and apply information. Students learn best when they have opportunities to process and apply course content. Create in-class occasions for students to visualize or explain key concepts, and to apply skills, methods and content to a compelling problem.
  9. Have students present projects. A three-minute student-created digital story or PowerPoint presentation can really enliven a class and make students feel like creators of knowledge. You’ll be astounded by how creative your students can be. In a course on museums, past, present and future, I had students design a museum exhibition; in a relatively small section of an introductory U.S. history class, students drew upon their own family’s experience to create a visual montage on migration or the experience of war or participation in a civil rights movement.
  10. Work on the grading rubric together prior to the assignment due date. Precisely because a grading rubric makes the criteria for evaluating student work explicit, developing a rubric collectively offers a powerful way of making your expectations and achievement measures clear. This also has the added advantage of helping students understand that grading isn’t an utterly arbitrary and subjective process but, rather, rests on carefully considered standards and benchmarks. This process also allows you to provide students with models or examples.

The notion that even bad experiences can be the best growth opportunities is a staple of popular self-help literature. But that doesn’t mean that the belief that we can learn from negative experiences is necessarily false. Challenging circumstances can, at times, bring out the best in us.

The pandemic was a learning opportunity. It revealed that higher education was far more adaptable, agile and resilient than many had assumed.

In the end, of course, it’s up to us to transform negative experiences into positive lessons. Let’s build on what we’ve learned and make our classes more interactive, immersive, engaging and participatory.

What did you learn about teaching during the pandemic?

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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