In the wake of COVID-19, as faculty made the transition to remote teaching, they had to find new ways to deliver quality instruction and mentorship to graduate students.  Since working with graduate students is fundamental to the mission of SAS no matter what the circumstances, the Graduate Division has created a set of guidelines to assist faculty in transitioning to remote teaching and mentorship.

Many of these practices are essential to successful graduate training at any time, but even more so when in-person contact is limited.

Individual graduate groups may choose to tailor or amend these practices to fit the needs of their particular programs. While every graduate group in SAS is organized differently and possesses distinct characteristics, these guidelines are designed as a reference took to help faculty members navigate the challenges of the 2020–21 academic year—and beyond.

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.

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. 

You should:

  • 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.

1. Establish more frequent one-on-one meetings and make clear arrangements for regular communication.

More than at other times, advisors must keep in regular contact with advisees. The best practice during this time of social distancing is to schedule regular Zoom or other meetings. These meetings can be brief but ongoing contact and checking in with graduate student at all stages is crucial now. You will have to weigh the particular circumstances and working habits of each of your advisees, so discuss with each student what will work best for both of you in the coming months.

One-on-one meeting should be the standard in many fields, though those working with laboratory or other research groups, may find that team meetings are more effective. In all fields, small group meetings can be combined with other means of connecting with individual graduate students.

This is a moment when faculty can and should model engaged mentorship for their graduate students.

2. Listen to student concerns.

Students are anxious about completing their work, about finances, about family issues, about the job market, and about a wide range of other issues right now. You are an advisor—not a therapist—but you should express concern about their overall well-being. If you feel it is warranted, please send students to the appropriate office for help. See: Wellness at Penn.

3. For research concerns, establish both long-and short-term plans.

Advisors must encourage students to move forward in ways specific and tailored to their individual needs and situations. You need to help them devise a doable plan with reasonable expectations.

4. Ask for regular updates and progress reports.

These could be written or oral, and should not create more stress. Rather, set reasonable goals between scheduled meetings and check-in on the progress that students have made. This should be done in a way that helps and encourages students to stay on track.

5. Create working groups among students, whether among your advisees or more broadly.

As stated above, working groups for exam preparation, reading, writing, etc. are extremely useful at every stage of a graduate career, and faculty should be working to encourage them. At the same time, these groups can and should also work as peer-to-peer networks of mutual support.

Consider seminars and events that address job market concerns and provide guidance about alternative career paths.

Faculty may also wish to consult the University’s Guidelines for Advising & Mentoring PhD Students.

1. Addressing research agendas.

Students whose work requires time spent in labs, archives, rare book rooms, museums or in fieldwork face enormous challenges. You must acknowledge them and then begin making tentative plans to move forward.

2. Consider alteration of research strategies.

In some cases, students may be able to tweak their sources—use different kinds of data, rely upon published materials or ask new sets of questions. This will vary on a case-bycase basis, but should be an integral part of discussions between faculty, particularly advisors, and graduate students. In some fields, students may be able to become part of team conducting an ongoing research project, though this will vary by discipline and nature of research. You should offer advice; ask the student to devise a plan in the short term, and review it together.

3. Find ways to make progress in other ways.

If it is impossible for a student to move forward without access to materials or the ability to conduct experiments or fieldwork, design other plans that will be valuable in the course of graduate training. Are their language or other skills to acquire? Is there existing research that can be turned into a published paper or part of a dissertation chapter? Could useful progress be made using published primary or second sources? Could some interviews with human subjects be conducted remotely? As above, work with the student to outline a plan to move forward successfully in the next few months rather than getting distracted by long term concerns that may not have immediate solutions.

Be supportive of career diversity. In this climate, students may want to consider nonacademic career paths. Create an environment that allows for those possibilities as both legitimate and attainable in the path to the Ph.D.

4. Encourage working groups of all kinds.

This is an especially useful time to create working groups. Students should be strongly encouraged to create reading, writing and research groups. These could be peer-to-peer activities. They could also involve faculty participating regularly or occasionally, This is in addition to regular departmental events and seminars, and can provide a source of community as well as a way for students to have structure as they prepare to move forward in their respective fields.

Faculty may also wish to consult the University’s Guidelines for Students, Faculty and Administrators.

1. General Principles for Faculty Working with Teaching Assistants.

  • Reach out to your TA/s at the earliest possible date. As soon as you know who your teaching assistant/s will be, make contact immediately. Even if you have not fully planned the syllabus and assignments for the course, begin discussions with your TA about your thoughts and expectations. Collaboration is a fundamental key to creating a successful course and fostering a strong faculty-TA working relationship.
  •  Check-in with your TA/s. Ask about their well-being. How are they managing academic and other challenges? What particular family, medical or living situations are they facing? Do they have access to WIFI, necessary technology, and other resources? Faculty and graduate students should use this information to plan most effectively for the semester and to respond to changing conditions throughout the term.
  • Understand your pedagogical and mentoring responsibilities. While faculty rely upon teaching assistants to provide instruction, grading, and delivery of course material, they must also remember that they are mentors to graduate students. Whether teaching is remote or in-person, faculty are expected both to model best pedagogical practices and to train graduate students to become effective teachers.
  • Be prepared to adjust your course policies. Students working in different time zones or in certain living situations may experience particular challenges. Work with your TAs to set flexible policies about participation and assignments. Make sure that you and your TAs have established practices to address these issues and to maintain equal access to course materials, activities, and assignments for students in different situations. Keep in mind that factors such as illness, lacking power or internet connections, or caring for family members may impact your students during the semester. These challenges may be shared by students and TAs alike.
  • Communicate regularly with TA/s. Set up regular meeting times, at least on a weekly basis, and be ready to discuss issues as they arise. In scheduling meetings, be considerate of family and other obligations, as you would ask your TAs to do for you. The more that faculty can work together with TAs to create mechanisms for consistent communication, the better the experience will be for faculty, teaching assistants, and students.
  •  Establish clear policies for grading, discussions, student meeting and office hours. Identify duties such as posting materials; make a detailed plan for who is responsible for e-mail and Canvas communications. Be certain to have a clear understanding of distribution of responsibilities for you and your TA. If you have multiple TAs, make sure that responsibilities are equitably distributed among them. Be cognizant of the time that graduate students are able to spend on teaching duties and their need to balance teaching with coursework and other responsibilities.

2. Faculty Guidelines for Clear Communication with Teaching Assistants.

The guidelines below have been incorporated in two sets of inventories—one for faculty responsibilities and one for TA responsibilities. Use of these interactive forms is strongly recommended to facilitate clear communication and meet basic standards for instruction and mentorship.

  • Discuss TA remote working situation: online and computer access, living conditions, time zone, and any other issues that affect instruction.
  • Outline broad learning objectives and course goals.
  • Discuss modes of instruction: synchronous / asynchronous components, discussion boards, group work.
  • Indicate adaptation to changing conditions of remote teaching.
  • Discuss required / recommended books, articles, and other resources.
  • Be clear about what responsibilities TAs have to update Canvas materials, assignments, or other duties.
  • Detail the nature and modes of assessment (e.g. nature of and expectations for exams, papers, final project, individual or group projects, participation). Provide clear information about TA responsibilities concerning creating / grading exams and assignments. Faculty should take primary responsibility for crafting assignments.
  • Be explicit about grading policies as well as policies on late work or extensions.
  • Provide clear instruction to TAs about assessment and offer models for grading, preferably by sharing some of those duties.
  • Create equitable work distribution, with your TA.
  • If you are working with more than one TA, make sure that their responsibilities are equitable and equal.
  • Provide specific expectations for how often TAs should be communicating with the students and the instructor through e-mail, discussion boards, and online or in-person meetings. Detail online platforms to be used. Set clear boundaries for availability of both instructor and TA.
  • Plan TA office hours: timing, platform used, and modes of meeting with students, (e.g., group and individual meetings).
  • Specify standards for lecture or section attendance and participation by TAs.
  • Review syllabus with TAs and discuss any topics not covered above.
  • Schedule regular meeting times with TAs throughout the semester; weekly meetings recommended to discuss course progress, TA concerns, student feedback, and problems or issues.

Downloadable worksheets for faculty, instructors, and teaching assistants:



Use of these interactive worksheets is strongly recommended to facilitate clear communication and meet basic standards for instruction and mentorship.

1. Milestones and Exams

Studying for exams is challenging under the best of circumstances, but especially so when students are working remotely.

  • Graduate groups should be flexible. Groups should consider extended deadlines for meeting benchmarks. For example, students may be allowed to postpone (for a designated time) the completion of required exams, coursework, qualifying papers, comprehensive exams, and dissertation requirements. Graduate groups may also want to alter the form and/or method of administering exams to accommodate current conditions (e.g. allowing take-home exams or projects in lieu of in-person exams).
  • Requirements and expectations should by no means be abandoned, and it will be crucial for graduate group faculty to work together to decide which criteria must be met and on what terms. (Please also consult University guidelines on these issues). Extensions of time-to-degree and other requirements stipulated by the University will be considered in light of disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic. Such extensions will require a formal request to the Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and the Vice Provost for Education.
  • All accommodations instituted as a result of the pandemic should be transparent and equitable. They should be available to all students in a given cohort. Graduate groups should communicate to cohorts at earlier stages in the program if altered requirements are intended to be temporary. (If they are not temporary, then the Group must formally change its stated requirements.) While exceptions are regularly made on a case-by-case basis in consultation with advisors and graduate chairs, it is imperative to make sure that students and faculty share common standards.
  • Advisors and committees must set clear expectations and make themselves available. Faculty members must work with graduate students to determine the content of exam materials. In fields where books might not be available, committee members should be flexible and may want to eliminate some materials. Consider shortening reading lists to focus on what a student has already read and what can reasonably be accomplished. Be aware of which books, ebooks, and journal articles are on hand or can be accessed online—and which cannot. Remember that a list of readings considered important can be generated to be read at a later date.
  • Faculty members administering exams should meet regularly with graduate students to check in on their progress. Advisors, in particular, ought to establish scheduled times to discuss materials, answer questions, and review expectations. Talk with students about whether they might want to establish timetables, create intermediate deadlines, or prepare questions about or summaries of materials. Most of all, be available to listen to students’ concerns and to help them succeed.
  • Fellow graduate students should be encouraged to help one another. In the spring of 2020, many students worked together to share reading and other materials and to help one another prepare for exams. Faculty should strongly urge students to cooperate and collaborate as they study for exams. They might create reading and study groups, discuss theory and practice, establish regular accountability groups, and offer mutual support. These kinds of activities are always helpful but all the more so when students cannot be physically together.

2. Dissertation preparation and defense.

Writing a dissertation is the most challenging and rewarding part of graduation education. Dissertation research generally determines the course of an early scholarly career. As we cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, faculty owe it to graduate students to help them navigate completion of the dissertation as effectively as possible.

  • Faculty should be flexible in working with students attempting to finish dissertations. If, for example, a significant amount of research has been conducted, advisors should work with students to find alternative paths to complete the last parts of their dissertations. This will vary from field to field, but the general principle is to help graduate students finish dissertations successfully while retaining standards of quality and excellence.
  • Advisors should schedule regular meetings with students completing dissertations. This is an axiom that applies at all times, but is especially important when in-person meetings are limited or not possible. Collaborate with graduate students to create a schedule for chapter drafts with clear timelines and deadlines along the way. Be responsive in offering written comments but also in scheduling consistent appointments to check-in and monitor progress. It is useful to create a schedule by working backwards from the proposed defense date and crafting a chapter by chapter deadline accordingly.
  • Be explicit about your expectations for chapter drafts and about how much time you need to respond. At the same time, try to accommodate the unexpected ups and downs likely to come in the near future. 
  • Encourage collaboration with other students. Dissertation writing groups and writing accountability check-in groups are enormously helpful. Especially when graduate students cannot meet in person, creating mutual support is of the utmost importance. Bring students together in the same or different fields, within or across graduate groups. They can help one another tremendously.
  • Dissertation Defenses: Defenses conducted online should include the same basic components normally required by the graduate group for in-person defenses. But changes in format, taking frequent breaks, and making other accommodations should be discussed.
  • The committee chair should take primary responsibility for organizing the defense and if needed, work together with the LSP staff member and/or the graduate chair to arrange the video conference. This includes making sure that the candidate has the proper technology and WIFI access. The candidate should not be the one responsible for hosting the online defense.
  • In the event of a technical failure, the defense should be paused until any technical issues are resolved. Postponement should be a last recourse but will be required if technical problems cannot be solved.
  • Public Components. Graduate groups should continue to follow their regular practices for allowing individuals beyond the committee members and the Penn community to attend defenses. For online defenses, this could be facilitated through public distribution of the zoom link once the defense has been formally scheduled. Some graduate groups prefer that the graduate coordinator gather RSVPs and distribute the link only to those who reply. The key is to establish and follow a set practice for conducting remote defenses. In spring 2020, many graduate groups found that defenses conducted online were much better attended and made for a more rewarding experience.
  • Following the public part of the defense, the meeting should be restricted to the committee only and the candidate should be place in a waiting room. After the committee has concluded its deliberations, there must be ample time for committee members to discuss the outcome of the defense with the candidate.
  • After the committee has met privately with the candidate, please invite all participants back to the conversation. A dissertation defense represents a key milestone in a graduate student’s career. Even in cyberspace, try to create some sort of ritual or celebration to mark the occasion.

One of the genuine pleasures of academic life is the sense of intellectual community. For faculty and graduate students, these communities take shape in classrooms, in colloquia and seminars, in faculty and graduate lounges, in the hallways, and at social events.

In the wake of COVID-19, we are faced with challenge of how to construct community when in-person contact is limited or perhaps non-existent. Under these circumstances, graduate groups, faculty, and students must be intentional in putting in place activities, strategies, and structures that consciously create interaction and exchange of ideas.

The spring of 2020 taught us that both faculty and students participated in large numbers in remote discussions that they had often not attended on campus. Many graduate groups reported that interest in programming surged as faculty and students alike felt the need for connection. This is a time to capitalize and expand upon the successes of last spring and to continue to innovate.

1. Seminars and colloquia

Departments and Graduate Groups are strongly encouraged to continue and perhaps diversify their schedule of events. These might include:

  • Presentations of research by Penn and non-Penn faculty and students.
  • Seminars that connect students and faculty in multiple institutions.
  • Workshops on pedagogy (especially useful to teach new skills at this time).
  • Roundtables that connect scholarship to contemporary issues, particularly subjectsabout race that are vital to our community at this moment and that our students (and faculty) want and need to address.

Workshops targeted specifically for graduate students

Graduate students need a range of support from faculty in this period. Particularly useful might be discussions that focus on:

  • Research strategies in a time of limited access.
  • Aspects of professionalization tailored to individual fields.
  • Coping with an uncertain job market.
  • Career diversity and opportunities outside the academy.

Graduate sponsored/ Graduate only events.

Students should be strongly encouraged to create their own reading, writing and research groups, and to run their own seminars and colloquia. These could be peer-to-peer activities. They could also involve faculty participating by invitation. Such activities can provide a source of community and cohort among graduate students that is so crucial to scholarly development. They also offer ways for students to have structure and to mitigate the threat of social isolation. Possible ideas include:

  • Reading groups, journal clubs, exam preparation subgroups.
  • Research methods and theory discussions.
  • Writing groups—from research papers to dissertation preparation.
  • Accountability groups via zoom or Canvas discussion boards.

Social interactions.

For most graduate students, informal contact with faculty and fellow students is one of the most valuable parts of academic life. Schedule departmental and/or graduate student-only happy hours or meals on a regular basis. Consider doing this for both large and small groups, breaking out occasionally by areas or interest, or perhaps intentionally bringing graduate students and faculty into contact with those in different subfields.

These are only a few of many ideas that faculty and graduate groups might consider when planning activities for 2020–21. Think creatively and learn from your graduate students what works best for them.

Additional Resources for Faculty:

Thank you for your dedication to serving our talented graduate student community. For further questions, please consult