Reflections before Re-Entry
My top three takeaways after two years of virtual instruction
Today we bring you a guest post written by Dr. Kate Owens from the College of Charleston mathematics department. In addition to being a leader in using standards-based grading and a co-organizer of both The Grading Conference and the Talk Math With Your Friends virtual math colloquium, Kate is one of the most thoughtful and reflective teachers we know. — David & Robert
I have a confession to make: I have not taught students in a classroom since early March 2020, nearly 650 days ago. While my college has returned to in-person instruction, I have been teaching fully online since the start of the pandemic. Now I find I’m reflecting on what I’ve learned during two years of remote instruction My calendar shows that I’ll be back in classrooms with students in just four weeks! Here are my top three takeaways of lessons I’ve learned — and that I don’t want to forget as I work through the transition.
1. Simplify: Less can be more
As Robert pointed out in a recent blog post, “KEEP IT SIMPLE.” Since I began using standards-based grading in my courses nearly seven years ago, I have been working to simplify my courses whenever possible. This became especially important during our unexpected shift to virtual instruction, but it’s solid advice for anyone considering a course design that includes alternative grading.
One way I’ve simplified is in the rubric I use to assess student work. When I began using standards-based grading, when I graded student work, I would assign one of four numeric levels. After a few semesters, I realized that students associate numbers with points and percentages — precisely the thing I was trying to get away from! — so then I moved to four letter-based designations using a modified EMRF system (see: EMRF: Everyday Rubric Grading by Rodney Stutzman and Kimberly Race). I found it difficult to distinguish between E: Excellent Work, and M: Meets Expectations. (After all, isn’t it excellent if a student meets the expectations of an assignment?) Now I am essentially using two possible grade outcomes. Students earn either full credit (S: Satisfactory) for a solution that is [almost] entirely correct, or they earn half credit (G: Growing) for a solution that is still lacking in some way. Assignments that haven’t yet been completed are displayed in my gradebook as N: Not Yet.
Although this system condenses student work into two categories — acceptable or still in progress — students are given multiple opportunities to demonstrate understanding of each course standard. Additionally, students are not penalized for poor scores early on because I only track their two most recent scores. By simplifying my grading rubric, it’s allowed me to spend less time assessing (what grade do I give this solution?) and to spend more time giving feedback to students. Instead of worrying about how many points, how much partial credit, or what letter to write, I have been able to give more detailed feedback to students.
Another place I’ve simplified is in the learning targets and topics within my courses. One thing I learned early on about teaching over Zoom is that things take much longer than they do in person! I consistently felt “behind schedule” while teaching online because I was always a day or two off from my in-person schedule of topics. When I built my Fall 2021 courses, one thing I worked toward was condensing the topics in our course into just those that are most essential. By giving students more time to focus on fewer topics, the overall level of understanding has increased when I compare performance to previous semesters with similar students. As David wrote recently as he reflected on his own semester, “It’s ok not to cram that one last topic or assessment into your class.”
In writing this post, I went to look at my Linear Algebra course standards for Fall 2020 (online semester) to compare with Fall 2021 (online semester). I thought I would be able to tell you how my simplifying had resulted in fewer course standards, but it didn’t! Somehow the number of standards actually increased through my simplification process. While this initially surprised me, I realize now that by simplifying my list of topics I was able to focus on fewer things — but do those things more deeply because we were able to spend more time on them. The lesson here is that simplifying doesn’t have to mean less — instead, you could use it as a reprioritization and then be able to do more of the important stuff.
2. Being in a community is essential
None of us could have gotten through the myriad of challenges over the past several years without relying on the support of others. For me, being away from campus during this time resulted in a loss of informal engagements with my local colleagues. As a replacement for informal, unplanned hallway chats, I’ve found engaging with others about ways to improve teaching and learning requires an acknowledgement of its importance on my priority list -- and a place in my already busy schedule. Here are some ways that I’ve leveraged digital platforms to exchange ideas about teaching, learning, and mathematics:
I have met with colleagues over Zoom in regularly scheduled “check in” meetings about our Team-Based Inquiry Learning Linear Algebra courses. We’ve been working to add new content to Steven Clontz’s CheckIt problem platform. This platform generates problems (and answers) aligned to course standards, and currently has problem databases including calculus, differential equations, and linear algebra. Conversations about the question prompts and how best to evoke quality responses have been very helpful in thinking about my course standards and content.
The Alternative Grading Slack workspace is an online community with hundreds of users. Although I haven’t had much time to engage in discussions this semester, reviewing conversations there and seeing the ideas being shared has made me consider what I think is going well in my own classes and places I might consider changes in the future.
Since March 2020, together with a coordination team I have helped run the Talk Math with Your Friends (#TMWYF) online math colloquium. Although this isn’t directly related to assessment, course design, or grading, it’s important that we recognize that none of us would be in this job if it weren’t for fun non-grading parts of our job, too. Additionally, I think it’s important that we all make regular attempts to learn new things from each other, and the #TMWYF series has given us one place to continue that practice.
3. Focus on what’s important
I have to keep reminding myself that we only have finitely many minutes. Many times I have wanted to try so many different things -- Ungrading! Problem portfolios! Team-based learning! Specs-based grading! Online discussion boards! -- and invariably I end up feeling overwhelmed. I get stuck thinking about how much work doing all this at once would be, I think about the increased workload when my schedule feels already full, and then I decide to do nothing.
Instead, I need to remind myself regularly that I can choose to focus my attention on the things I believe are most important. For example, I have decided not to spend time searching Chegg or other online sites for problems or solutions uploaded by my students. Instead, I’ve used time to offer more support to struggling students whenever possible, in the form of additional online office hours, email help with math topics, or mentorship about their degree programs and remaining requirements.
Given that I only have finitely many minutes, there have been some things I have decided are lowest in my priority queue. Instead of live proctoring online assessments during class time, I made them asynchronous so we would have more time during class for team activities and discussions. Instead of trying to implement every idea I’ve found compelling, I’ve aimed to pick one new thing to try each year.
This academic year, my top goal has been to implement team-based inquiry learning in my Linear Algebra courses. While I am still considering other ideas for future iterations -- like requiring an end-of-course reflection or problem portfolio assignment -- I have learned that I do better when I focus on making one change at a time. As I start to build my courses for Spring 2021, my biggest challenge will be to take my team-based Linear Algebra course and move it from my online/Zoom implementation to a physical classroom space. I am still trying to sort out how to piece together all of the logistics. Knowing this will take a large bit of planning time, I have decided to temporarily set aside some of the other things I would like to add to my courses. If you are feeling like there’s so much you’d like to try in your courses, start small by picking just one thing. Big changes can come from small changes building together over time.
With only 28 days until I
waltz stumble back into a classroom, I have all kinds of feelings of excitement and anxiety and nerves and relief, just to list a few! My immediate goals include reminding myself to simplify where possible; rely on my professional learning community when I get stuck; and focus on one change at a time. Lastly, in thinking about my course structures for Spring 2022, I’m reminded of what David wrote recently: “Whatever you choose, err on the side of giving yourself and your students that extra bit of grace this semester.” This is great advice and it feels especially appropriate as I log off to go assess final examinations and determine course grades. Good luck to everyone as we finish this year!
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