What we've learned from teaching during the pandemic

The pandemic has forced instructors and students to adapt in innumerable ways, from shifting more work online to meeting via video to viewing one another with more empathy and understanding. We recommend that you reflect on your own experiences and continue approaches that have engaged students and helped them learn in new ways. Here are some things we at CTE have learned from our own teaching, from the work of colleagues, and from students. Many of these were important before the pandemic but have become even more important over the last year.

  1. Create routine and structure (but also surprises). Giving students a sense of stability and predictability helps them plan and complete their academic work. Routine can be helpful in class, too, but too much routine can lead to boredom and complacency. So break up that routine occasionally and offer the unexpected. Bring in guests. Have students change groups for a day. Share an offbeat video. Those types of small changes can help keep you and your students fresher.
  2. Balance structure and flexibility. Structure can help improve learning, but students also need flexibility in the timing of deadlines and in the types of assignments they complete. Many are still struggling from the isolation of the pandemic, and many have jobs or care for families in addition to working on their degrees. So treat students with empathy and humanity, build flexibility into the class schedule, and draw on universal design for learning to give students choices when they complete assignments.    
  3. Use class time for the most important activities. Time with students provides opportunities for interaction, discussion, problem-solving, community building, and deeper understanding. So make sure to use class time as a way to engage students, not just deliver information. Always ask: What can I provide in class that students can’t get any other way?
  4. Check in with students more often. Burnout is high among students, and mental health is shaky. So check in with students often and watch for signs that they may need help. You shouldn’t try to become a counselor for your students, but you can refer them to the many resources available through the university. Creating a sense of community is more important than ever as students return to campus after what many consider a lost year.
  5. Give students options for meeting with you. Office hours and individual meetings on Zoom or Teams saved students trips to campus and made it easier to fit meetings into their schedules. So even if you resume physical office hours, give students the option of meeting with you virtually.
  6. Don’t overwhelm students with technology. The number of education technology tools continues to grow, and many offer helpful ways of engaging students. Before you add more technology to your class, though, consider what options existing tools offer. If you use new digital tools in your classes, make sure you give students time to learn the technology. Spend time in class explaining how to use the technology and how it will help students. Also point students toward guides or help sites. And keep in mind that other instructors may be using new digital tools, too. Some students had to learn a different technology in every class during the pandemic. So coordinate with other instructors whenever possible and don’t let the technology get in the way of learning.
  7. Avoid video feeds from in-person classes. We learned that early in the pandemic as we tested interacting with an in-person class while also trying to engage students in a Zoom feed. We found that that approach isolated and frustrated either the in-person or the online students. Some instructors have made that approach work, though, by having someone else handle the technology or interact with students online. On a contradictory note, some students have said they appreciated being able to view class recordings if they needed to review.
  8. Authentic assignments are more important than ever. Too often, we use disposable assignments, which only the instructor and the student see. Those often end up stuffed in a notebook or in the trash. Authentic assignments allow students to address real-world problems and create material they can use in portfolios. That approach improves motivation, helps students connect class concepts to their lives, and helps them engage with communities they might otherwise encounter.
  9. Take time for yourself. The pandemic has taken a psychological and emotional toll on all of us. So monitor your own feelings and frustrations. Take breaks when you can. Be kind to yourself. And don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. We all need a hand at times, and we all need a sense of belonging.