What is Going Right?
Victoria Hightower is an associate professor of history.
The middle of October is a terrible time to reflect on teaching. For many professors, there is a moment at mid-semester when we hypothesize or fear our ineffectiveness. It is the time when everyone’s patience is worn quite thin and the pressures of the semester begin to creep in. Semester’s end is accompanied by a solid dose of anxiety: Have the students achieved my learning goals? Did my students benefit from my class? Did they learn anything? In this Fall of 2020, a COVID semester, the intensity of this fear is amplified by the out-of-class and out-of-work circumstances. While we can always catastrophize about what is not working, I want to spend some time asking you to reflect on what is going right. It is a question we do not often ask ourselves as professors. We are trained to find the cracks, weaknesses, and gaps in others’ and our own work, rather than to celebrate the triumphs, flashes of brilliance, and moments of effectiveness. As we near the end of the first full COVID semester, I would like to share a few reflections on what I have done right. I do so not to brag, but rather hopefully to help you find a place from which to celebrate your own achievements this semester.
My first success in this semester came with incorporating flexibility and adaptability into my syllabus. I had a plan for when students got sick and was able to put that into effect pretty quickly—if they missed class, they had to do an assignment on the discussion board. It took a while for students to really understand the dual system, and I received a lot of emails expressing frustration and confusion. I myself became frustrated in response due to the many ways in which I had tried to communicate—videos, emails, the syllabus text itself. As the semester’s novelty wore off and everyone settled into a rhythm, however, the system worked more fluidly. It helped me account for absences without having to devise a new solution on the spot for each student. As silly as this sounds, it is something I had never thought to do, but it is a system I will never again teach without.
My second success was in asking my students for feedback and allowing my system to adapt when things went wrong. And I mean, they went wrong. Sixty of my 67 students failed their first test. The median grade was a 50/100. I have never encountered this result in my career. I knew the students were struggling with reading and understanding, but I thought that through repeated practice they would pull it together for the test. That is something that happens every year. I have taught my classes, both upper and lower division, with a flipped classroom model before. The students grumbled, but none ever did so poorly. This semester was different.
After some teeth gnashing and admittedly uncharitable thoughts about myself, my students, this world, and the universe, I formulated a plan. I asked each class cohort directly in person what I could do better. I also sent around an electronic survey. In that survey, I asked them not only what was difficult, but also how they studied and how they could improve. I also asked for ideas on how I could help them build the necessary skills for the class. A colleague pointed out that having one day a week to reinforce the lessons of the flipped model versus having two or three days a week to do it makes it rather challenging for students to retain the lessons, particularly in this era of cognitive dissonance.
I looked hard at my own pedagogical and content-related goals for the class. I adjusted my teaching to better model my expectations and give them in-class practice with the skills and information I wanted them to use. I adjusted, but did not completely overturn, my use of in-class time and activities. I became more transparent about my methodologies in terms of puzzling out questions, reading the textbook, and taking notes. I talked more about the process of studying and explained the relationship between out-of-class assignments and in-class performance in very explicit ways. The second test’s pass rate increased from 11% to 30%, with an additional 20% being on the cusp with a score of 68-69. I have also given students the opportunity to “fail up” and correct their mistakes to earn back points. They will meet with me to talk about what they did, reflect on what worked or did not, and re-do the written portions of the exam, and we will formulate a study plan for the final part of the semester.
My third success was in building strong relationships with some students. I believe firmly in mentorship and think it is important to act as a mentor to all of my students. While I do not reach them all, I work hard to be available for mentoring at times that are convenient for students. I use a scheduler app (Calendly.com) so that my students can make appointments from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. almost every day of the week; I have done this for years. In a COVID semester, mentorship has become more important, and also more challenging. I struggled initially to build those relationships with my students because everything felt so indirect. We all struggled to interact appropriately with each other. The distance in the classroom, use of masks, and inability to have quiet conversations hindered communication between students and between my students and me. However, we all adjusted. I encouraged group conversations and socially-distanced group work. I showed them that I heard their frustrations and was willing to give them a social outlet, albeit one that required them to talk about history in order to socialize. My small mid-semester course correction helped them feel supported, empowered, and heard in ways that they do not feel outside of my classroom. Further, when I acknowledged the challenges that I was facing, it helped me normalize the abnormal conditions of this semester.
My focusing on what went right does not minimize the challenges I faced. I did not anticipate the level of panic or cognitive dissonance my students experienced. I did not appreciate the level of chaos my students experienced as they navigated the multiplicity of communication plans, coursework, and new technologies. The common problems of a new semester were compounded by COVID stress, a lack of social outlets, and the echo chamber of fear. I did not adequately support my students in the first few weeks. However, in shifting my pedagogy I am helping my students achieve the learning goals I set for them in August.
In a semester when we can all focus on the tragedies of our lives, the insufficient preparation of our students, or the general chaos of global events, taking a moment to honestly reflect on the positives can provide us with the resolve needed for the last month of the semester. So I pose to you all this question: What is going right?