On this page, we’re distilling our current thinking in response to questions from faculty about preparing to return to in-person classes in fall 2021 after a long period of remote learning.
We are mindful that post-pandemic higher education will never be quite the same as it was. We’ve therefore focused on two guiding goals around in-person courses in fall:
These two goals foreground kindness toward, and empathy for, ourselves, our students, and our colleagues.
Here, you’ll find suggestions on the following:
... for promoting equity (Transparency in Learning and Teaching) and acknowledging these unique times (Trauma-Informed Pedagogy)
Comfort levels, connection and belonging, attention levels, and classroom norms
Attendance, participation, late work, and in-class technology use
These resources are intended to be helpful suggestions and are not requirements. They represent research-based options that may support you in your teaching and in your students’ learning.
Many of the ideas we’re sharing here will be ones you are already implementing in your courses; a few may be new to you, and we encourage you to get in touch if you’d like to discuss them further with us. All consultations (whether individual or group) are voluntary, formative, and confidential.
Transparency in learning and teaching (TILT) involves making explicit to students how and why they are learning course content and how and why we are calling them to do so in a particular way. Large-scale pedagogical research into TILT has found that transparent approaches to course design (especially assignments) boost students’ sense of belonging, academic confidence, and awareness of their own skill development; long-term gains have been tracked for all students, and especially for first-generation and low-income students (e.g., Winkelmas, Boye, & Tapp, 2019). While these outcomes are beneficial at any time, increasing a sense of belonging, confidence, and personal awareness among our students may be especially critical as they reintegrate into the classroom following the disruptive year they have experienced.
The TILT research also found benefits in the form of reduced faculty workload: less student procrastination, fewer last-minute requests for help, reduced grading time, and fewer questions or challenges around grading mean that TILT can help us with our own life/work balance.
Finally, while it may not be immediately apparent, at its heart, TILT is about building equitable practices in teaching that increase the chances that all students will have equitable access to learning. A TILT-related question that we find especially helpful when creating assignments and activities is: “By writing the assignment/structuring the activity in this way, who am I disadvantaging?”
The TILT model is non-prescriptive in how assignments or activities are presented, and simply requires that we are transparent about three elements in our assignment design, activity briefings, and so forth:
We know that rates of trauma in college students are notably high (American College Health Association, 2018; Auerbach et al., 2019) and that this past academic year saw a rise in rates of anxiety and depression among college students (e.g., Lee et al., 2021; Zimmerman et al., 2020). We also know that students living with trauma, anxiety, or myriad other mental wellness challenges experience unique barriers to learning. Trauma-informed (T-I) pedagogy is founded on an awareness of the trauma that has always existed in our classrooms. Its relevance is even more pronounced now that many students have experienced the trauma of living with COVID-19 and, for many, in isolation this past year. The principles that undergird T-I pedagogy, listed below, happen to also benefit the learning of all students.
Trauma-informed pedagogy combines multiple areas of education research into an overarching framework and includes focusing on the following basic principles:
You will find that many of the practices that we suggest for this upcoming fall quarter align with these principles. The Center will also be running a series on this topic in fall 2021.
Finally, we suggest approaching T-I teaching with a focus on inclusion and equity. As with Transparency in Teaching and Learning (TILT) we suggest regularly asking ourselves the question, “Who is advantaged and who is disadvantaged?” as we make decisions about our courses.
If you would like to be in conversation about T-I pedagogy, please contact the Center for Faculty Development (CETL/CFD) and/or read a recent article by Mays Imad, a leader in Trauma-Informed Pedagogy.
Anxiety levels among students in HE were already high before COVID-19 (American College Health Association, 2018; Auerbach et al., 2019), and the pandemic itself can be categorized as a traumatic stressor (e.g., Bridgland et al.), 2021), so we should expect anxiety to be more prevalent than before.
Despite vaccinations, individuals are showing varying levels of comfort around being in close proximity, being indoors, removing masks, and so on.
We expect that some of our students will need time to readjust after being out of the physical classroom for so long. So many things will be new to them:
We expect the return to class for most students to be bumpy – the in-class equivalent of airplane turbulence or driving on a cobbled street. Let your students know to expect that turbulence, too.
Students have chosen to take in-person classes, and those classes will only go online after Thanksgiving; students can’t decide earlier in the quarter/semester that they want to take the class remotely. At the same time, if their anxiety levels are high, refer them on to our colleagues at:
We should all expect strong emotional reactions after so long apart. We suggest you are transparent with your students about this and that you seek to build connection and mutual support for the entire class community (see the section on “connection and belonging”). As we have seen throughout the pandemic, a focus on care and belonging can go a long way.
As mentioned at the start of this page, we suggest you consider using Trauma-Informed Pedagogy for designing and implementing your courses.
Recent research by Felten and Lambert (2020) identifies relationships as a cornerstone to a successful higher education experience. Relationships boost a sense of belonging and inspire students to learn. These relationships can be student-to-student, student-to-faculty, and student-to-staff.
Earlier longitudinal studies of online teaching by Salmon (2011) also found that faculty most frequently rush through the socialization element of their courses in a bid to move to constructing knowledge, yet that students were less successful in working with the new concepts in their courses because they hadn’t properly built up trusting relationships with one another in class.
Having taught and learned remotely since spring 2020, we and our students may experience a degree of social awkwardness to begin with – in addition to any nervousness we may be experiencing being back in person.
Putting connection and belonging at the heart of your class from the very beginning can help get those “social muscles” working again and can remind students that they belong and that they matter to us. In your early classes – and even before the course starts – think about activities that can help students get to know one another, to feel like a team, and to find kindred spirits among their peers. Below are three suggestions to consider.
Longstanding research found that after 20 minutes of teaching, five minutes of silently doing nothing leads to learning gains and better student concentration than when we continue with class material (Bligh, 2000). Students have been taking these breaks for themselves while learning remotely during the pandemic; we can now consider building breaks in proactively.
As parents of schoolchildren are already noticing, being back in class after so long on Zoom can be exhausting for learners. On Zoom, students have been able to switch off their cameras, stretch, take a short break, do breathing exercises – without being noticed – so that they can “return” to class and be fully present. Those individual opportunities disappear when we are in person together.
In response, we can consider taking more frequent breaks than we are used to, as well as considering longer breaks for longer classes. These could be structured breaks, e.g., doing breathing exercises with students or stretching for those who are physically able, or playing music or a video that may be related to the topic under discussion, or may simply be a pleasant distraction to rest students’ minds. The priority is to give their minds a short break so that they can be more present again afterwards.
Agreements (also referred to as ground rules, guidelines, or norms) can help share responsibility for a constructive class environment, can contribute to trust, and promote belonging and inclusion (Addy et al., 2021; Ambrose et al., 2010; Brookfield & Preskill, 2005).
Depending on the types of learning activities in our courses and on the topics we discuss, we can develop context-specific sets of agreements for class interaction.
Many of us at SU are doing this by co-constructing agreements with students in the first class, which can take 15-20 minutes. Sometimes, the subjects of our courses – particularly some social justice topics – may mean that it makes more sense for us to provide predetermined agreements to our students (University of Michigan CRLT, n.d.).
Two things to bear in mind are: (1) that agreements need to be ones that both students and faculty can follow (meaning that sometimes students will suggest agreements that we cannot support, so we can simply explain why that’s the case); and (2) the agreements need revisiting regularly (say, once a week) so that they stay fresh in students’ minds as they continue learning.
The University of Michigan’s CRLT provides example agreements as well as questions to consider as we decide which approach is going to work best for our courses.
Class attendance is one of the best predictors of grades (e.g., Credé, Roch, & Kieszczynska, 2010) – independent of assigning grades for attendance. Lowering grades due to absence is therefore a double penalty, rather than an incentive, and is also busy-work for faculty. Provided your program’s accreditation does not have attendance requirements, we suggest you use the research on attendance as your motivator, give students the agency to make their own decisions, and include a statement about attendance in your syllabus so that responsibilities are clear (see commentary below).
As a potential motivator for students in our courses, assigning grades for attendance may surprisingly backfire. In higher education settings, motivation is found to be a combination of (1) seeing value in the subject area, (2) the expectation that students can succeed, and (3) a positive learning environment (Ambrose et al., 2010). Somewhat counterintuitively, then, attendance grades may stymie motivation by undermining factors (1) and (3): we may inadvertently create the impression that our subjects are not relevant or meaningful, and students may view the environment as coercive.
Assigning grades for attendance can create “presenteeism,” where students drag themselves to class even if they are sick. After these past months of the pandemic, the presence of students who are coughing and sneezing will create anxiety – both for us and among other students in the class – distracting everyone from class material and slowing down the course. And those sick students’ concentration levels will be sub-par, so they would be better staying home to recover more quickly and get back into the classroom to engage and to learn.
We suggest including a statement in your syllabus that when students are absent, it is their responsibility to get notes from a peer. Then after reviewing those notes, students can book an appointment with you in office hours if they have specific questions that need clarifying (see the current syllabus template for example wording).
We know that some faculty feel pressured to re-teach the class one-on-one to absent students, so a syllabus statement can make responsibilities transparent: we, as faculty, have responsibility to create opportunities for students to learn, while students have responsibility and agency to take us up on those opportunities, including seeking clarification from us where needed.
For those of us whose courses are accredited by a professional organization, there may also be exceptions for student sickness or for emergencies.
Pandemic teaching has highlighted for many of us that students can contribute to the quality of a class through multiple means beyond speaking up. Additionally, students’ socialization and prior learning influence the extent to which they feel able or entitled to contribute in class (Gillis, 2019).
Expanding “participation” beyond speaking up in class can be viewed as a matter of equity: it means we aren’t inadvertently privileging students who are more extrovert, who process ideas verbally, and who speak English more fluently. A range of options present themselves.
Gillis (2019, p. 13) reframes participation as “skill-building” for her students and takes a more expansive view to include such components as “coming to class prepared, discussing course material with friends outside of class, peer editing with a partner, attending office hours, paying attention in class, and listening respectfully to peers during discussions.” She notes that each of these factors can make it easier for students to feel ready to join in during class time, too.
Further means of demonstrating participation include engagement in small-group discussions in class, raising good questions or making pertinent comments in online discussions or via backchannels (e.g., the chat function in Zoom or on Microsoft Teams; Bruff, 2021).
If you award grades for participation, we therefore suggest developing a more holistic rubric to suit your own course context, enabling students to demonstrate their engagement in class through varied means. And so that this doesn’t become a time-consuming tracking process for you, we suggest using self- and peer-evaluation.
For courses where in-class participation makes up a large part of the grade (such as performance classes or seminars), consider whether students who miss class due to illness might be able to make up for it with an alternative assignment. For example, you might ask them to produce a video, audiocast, or write-up of a relevant source or sources connected with that day’s learning. Setting out these kinds of options for students in the syllabus or in specific assignment briefings will also help reduce your workload, as well as presenting students a narrowed list of avenues that you know will be manageable for you to assess.
Recent research from South Africa has also found that if you have a number of students sharing a language other than English, allowing them to be in groups together to discuss the content in their first language helps them learn better and stay on track (Madiba & Winkelmas, 2019; students were found to be on-topic and switched to English to use the new disciplinary jargon they were learning.) Consider offering this kind of group work as an option – and be transparent with students about your pedagogical rationale for doing so.
Please also remember that the English Language Learning Center (ELLC) is open to all students who are non-native speakers of English, not just those who are classified as “international.”
As Crocker (2021, p. 2) notes, “students are not universally empowered to reach out for assistance,” so firm late work policies may have unintended consequences that lead to uneven or inequitable outcomes for our students. For example, if our students are caregivers, they may experience unexpected disruptions to their work if a dependent falls ill or if their child’s school is closed. Equally, our students from underrepresented backgrounds may not even reach out to us when struggling because of stereotype threat (Steele, 2011; the concern that you might fulfill a negative stereotype about a social identity group you belong to).
For some of us, the past year has given us a fresh perspective on our students’ complex lives. Many of us have relaxed previously non-negotiable policies on late work. In some cases, this has been feasible for us; in others, a steady train of late work has led to an unmanageable and inefficient use of time for us, as well as potential academic roadblocks for students if they are unable to proceed to the next assignment without feedback on their previous work.
Crocker’s (2021) own solution is to provide all students one “Life Happens Waiver,” giving them a no-questions-asked 48-hour extension.
Whatever your decisions around deadlines, we suggest that you clarify your reasoning to your students by including a statement in your syllabus about the challenges of late work. For instance, if you have a series of scaffolded assignments, where each builds on the last, then students will need timely feedback to be able to succeed on the next assignment. Similarly, if you block out protected grading time in your calendars so that you can return work swiftly, an explanation can help students see your intentions.
If students request extra time to complete assignments due to disability accommodations, it’s important to note that we are not obligated to provide accommodations that have not previously been assessed and approved by Disability Services (DS); under university policy, accommodations can’t be applied retroactively. Ideally, students will provide us with DS documentation at the start of the term; we suggest prompting students to do this both in any pre-class welcome message and also in the first class; it’s helpful, too, to remind them again when we assign the first graded homework task.
As with attendance policies, creating ways to meet students’ needs while also caring for ourselves and other students requires a combination of student agency and faculty grace, along with good two-way communication and transparency.
Research on technology use in class is mixed. Studies have shown, for instance, that technology use that is off-topic can impact neighboring students’ learning (e.g., Neiterman & Zaza, 2019), that there can be benefits to having “screen-free zones” in class (e.g., Rhinehart et al., 2021), and that using specific technologies in class can aid students’ learning (e.g., Jensen & Scharff, 2019). Students with disabilities can also feel stigmatized by being “outed” when using technology as an accommodation (Galanek et al., 2018), thereby creating barriers to inclusion.
Pre-pandemic, many of us had firm policies about not using technology in class and keeping cell phones out of view so as to remain present for one another. Yet we have also been moving toward assigning more freely available electronic library sources for class and uploading useful information of our own to Canvas. A one-size-fits-all policy around technology looks less tenable than it may have 15 years ago.
In Distracted (2020), James M Lang recommends developing a context-specific technology policy, where we are transparent with our students about when they should be using technology (e.g., being able to refer to an online article) or shouldn’t (e.g., in a whole-class discussion for which they don’t need to be taking notes). Alternatively, we can co-construct a technology policy with students. If you choose to take this route, Lang suggests presenting a series of options to students, rather than starting from a blank sheet, and provides an example on his blog.
Research has found that too much content leads students to take a surface approach to their learning, meaning that they focus on memorizing information to complete the course, rather than grappling with the concepts enough to be able to create new knowledge on which to build (Ramsden, 2003). To quote Howard Gardner (1993), “the greatest enemy of understanding is coverage.”
Many of us have found that group work when teaching online takes longer and so we reduced the level of coverage in our classes to enable students to engage with the material better. We suggest that when we return to in-person classes, we aim to keep our current levels of coverage, rather than returning to covering more ground. The research tells us that less content leads to deeper learning.
If debating how to best do this, then we suggest dividing content firstly into topics or skills that students “must know,” “should know,” and “could know” to help prioritize (Thomas, et al., 1963/2007). (The “could knows” typically do not belong in class, but might make an interesting supplementary activity for students who want to explore further.) Then consider transferability: of the “must knows” and “should knows,” see which ones involve the same kinds of thought processes, procedures, or calculations, and remove any duplication. When we get to the end of a topic, we can then let students know that what they have been practicing with Topic A transfers to Topics B, C, and D. Putting this information on Canvas, too, allows our students to go back to it to refresh.
We expect the university will be providing more updated wording on in-class health and safety protocols later in the summer and will update the template further at that point.
Finally, syllabi are another place we can build equity into our teaching practice. The question, “Who is advantaged and who is disadvantaged?” can also be asked as we make decisions about the design of our syllabi.
Connect to the syllabus template here.