Given that the fall semester will require a significant amount of remote teaching, it is important that SAS faculty consider the best ways to teach and mentor graduate students in this new environment.
1. Organize your course effectively.
Create a clear syllabus and a well-designed Canvas (or other) site. Remember that your Canvas site is your syllabus when teaching remotely. Therefore, rather than conceiving the syllabus as a discrete document, construct your Canvas site with greater specificity about each task/reading/assignment. List all readings and necessary resources and include well-defined assignments. Even more than when teaching inperson classes, faculty must set well-defined goals for the course and for what can (and cannot) be accomplished through remote instruction. In the coming year, faculty must be prepared for the possibility of hybrid classes, and potentially moving between online and in-person instruction.
Be forthright at the first meeting about the potential challenges and alterations of the coming semester. Give students access to all course materials at the beginning of the semester, to the extent possible, and communicate any changes to course materials or assignments as early as possible. This will help students plan ahead.
Design assignments that allow students to accomplish regular and consistent work over the semester, and avoid having only one large assignment at the end of the course. For graduate students, a final paper or other assignment is fine; just try not to make that the only assignment. Try to create a greater number of lower stakes projects (compared to just a few high-stakes ones). In remote settings, students need more regular forms of engagement on a smaller scale. Organize course materials in short, digestible segments; consider breaking up each class with different sorts of activities, encourage interaction, and create targeted assignments.
Reactions from last spring suggest that less is more, even when teaching graduate students. Understand that concentration levels are different when learning remotely, so divide courses into segments; take breaks; consider break-out groups or other strategies to vary discussion.
Make use of existing resources for teaching online. See the new Canvas Resource Hub.
Communicate your expectations clearly and consistently.
Consistent, transparent and regular communication about expectations, assignments, and deadlines will help all of your students. This is always the case, but it is especially important when teaching remotely. Review the goals for your course and emphasize key requirements. Identify those goals and expectations that may need to be reprioritized, restructured, and redefined in a remote setting. Your students will appreciate your sharing this with them and may have useful feedback.
- Be sure to maintain regular, virtual, lab, or other meetings. Consider integrating these elements within your course. This might also include using breakout groups, chats, and other forms of communication.
- Decide what you want students to accomplish in terms of research and writing. Will there be multiple options? What degree of flexibility will you allow? If you teach a graduate course that generally requires an exam, consider how you might alter that assignment by assessing through other methods.
- On what schedule do you expect progress to be made? Again, with what modifications and flexibility? When working with graduate students, consider asking for regular, short written or oral progress reports and provide feedback. Create a structure that enables you to set goals to be achieved, e.g., pre-meeting summary of key tasks; pre-meeting report on accomplishments, obstacles, questions for discussion. (These can be very brief.)
- Delineate clear standards for etiquette in remote teaching, (e.g. turning video on/off, muting microphone, using raise hand function, standards for discussion boards). Be responsive to students’ concerns about health, feelings of isolation, housing, family and loved ones both local and far away, travel, food access and insecurity, etc. Graduate students will have heightened concerns about the job market and time to degree, so address them directly. Inform them of campus resources for wellness, as well as where to find the latest information about Penn’s response to COVID-19.
2. Equity: Poll your students about accessibility and other needs.
Your students may have varying degrees of connectivity and/or up-to-date laptops and technology. Take the time at the beginning of the semester to find out what your students possess and lack—and adjust accordingly. In small graduate courses, it may be possible to alter the time of synchronous meetings, but before doing so, be certain that the transition works for all students.
Remember that students may not have private spaces conducive for class, and they may reside in different parts of the world. Graduate students may also have childcare or other family responsibilities. You may need a combination of asynchronous and synchronous teaching even in small graduate classes, depending on time zones of students. You must take into account all of these factors to conduct an effective course. Check in regularly with your students to make sure that they can access course materials and participate effectively.
3. Maintain flexibility.
Following the spring 2020 semester, graduate students indicated that they greatly appreciated instructors who displayed flexibility in shifting course formats, structures, and assignments when needed. This may have been especially salient last spring when the transition to remote teaching occurred so quickly, but it remains crucial to respond nimbly when elements of a class may or may not be working well. Keep your core learning objectives, but be flexible and if possible, build in multiple options for how students can meet them. You may choose to let students know what standards/requirements/assignments you view as critical and must be met, and those areas where options might be available.
Consider having members of a seminar, lab or cohort form sub-groups with 2–3 people to check in on each other every other day or weekly. They could read together, formulate questions, craft brief presentations, or do whatever applies most beneficially to your particular course. Checking in with each other should be about research, but can also offer mutual support, which you should encourage.
4. Establish modes of accessibility and set clear boundaries.
In the absence of faculty office hours, students need to know how and when they can contact you. You should provide detailed instructions about modes of communication, while setting clear boundaries so as to maintain your own time structures.
Consider these questions:
- How do you plan to communicate with students—individually and/or in groups? (Email? Zoom? Slack? Phone? Facetime? Skype?)
- How often can students expect to hear from you? Schedule regular check-in times for one-on-one meetings.
- How often do you want to hear from your students for check-ins and progress updates?
- Will you have open office hours online or a sign-up mechanism? Just inform them of your process and stick to it.
5. Find ways to create a sense of community.
Many faculty reported that the transition to remote teaching was somewhat easier because they had already established a rapport with individual students and that the class had already created a kind of collectivity that happens more easily in-person.
Consider strategies that consciously make this possible, especially at the beginning of the semester. Spend time introducing yourselves in more than a cursory way; plan some early small projects that enable students to get to know one another, and continue those through the semester. There are many other tactics to achieve these goals.