The first week of the semester is a critical time for setting the tone of the course, motivating and exciting students for learning, beginning to form a community, and establishing your expectations for students. Here are a few tips for accomplishing these goals when you must start the semester remotely, so that you don’t lose that opportunity.
We have also compiled student tips for starting the semester remotely, which you may want to share with your students.
As we begin the new semester, it is important to acknowledge the mental toll the last two years has taken on us. The trauma that we have all experienced due to the pandemic is cumulative, which means it may be harder for you and your students to cope with stress and anxiety now than it was at the outset.
Most importantly, practice patience, tolerance, and forgiveness (in the wise words of Paul Kassel, Dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts) with both students and your colleagues. Set reasonable expectations for yourself and students, and model compassion.
You can refer students to Counseling and Consultation Services if they need assistance, or you can consult with CCS if you are concerned about a student.
The Employee Assistance Program has compiled a list of suggestions for coping with the stress and anxiety you and your students may be experiencing:
Trauma-informed teaching recognizes that students’ emotional and physical wellbeing, sense of security and belonging, and their past and current traumas influence their ability to learn. In other words, it responds to the reality that students are whole people with whole, complicated lives, in and out of the classroom.
Learn more about trauma-informed teaching at the Moving Forward Together website.
Let students know you are excited for the semester ahead, how you are handling the first remote week, and any tasks they should start on (e.g., review syllabus, introductions, purchase textbook). Provide students with clear instructions on how to complete any of the course activities. Specifically, whether they will take place synchronously in a web conferencing session or asynchronously in Blackboard.
Review the Tips for Starting the Semester with Blackboard for help with getting your courses ready. Consider opening your Blackboard course earlier than you might have originally planned to allow students to become familiar with your Blackboard course, course information, and other resources you have posted there. The new Course Availability Tool is a simple and effective utility for verifying and modifying the availability of your Blackboard Courses.
If you usually introduce the Blackboard course in your first in-person session, you could instead create a screen recording of a Blackboard course tour using Kaltura Capture or other screen recording tool and post to Blackboard. This will encourage students to login to your Blackboard course to watch the video, review the course, and begin any activities you’ve prepared for them.
If you open your Blackboard course early, you can distribute information to students about the course and first week activities by creating an announcement and using the options to send announcements as an email at the bottom of the announcement editor in both Original and Ultra views.
If you need to send a message before opening Blackboard, you can use MyNIU to send an email to your students directly.
After the first week of the semester, all courses should be taught in their scheduled modality. If the on-campus surveillance testing positivity rate reaches 8% or higher, however, you can choose to hold courses in person or remotely at your discretion. The positivity rate is calculated over an entire week, and will be available on the campus COVID-19 dashboard by 3 p.m. on the following Sunday. Faculty (including tenured/tenure-track, clinical, and instructional faculty) should inform their department chair of their plans. Graduate teaching assistants should consult with their supervising faculty and the department chair about course modality.
If you know now that you intend to change to remote delivery should the positivity rate exceed 8%, it would be a great idea to communicate that to students at the outset, such as with language in your syllabus. For example, here is a sample statement you can adapt to your own needs:
Your safety and health are of the utmost importance to me. In the event that the campus surveillance testing positivity rate is over 8%, we will temporarily change from in-person to remote delivery for that week. We will meet via Blackboard Collaborate at the same time as our scheduled class meeting. If we are meeting remotely, I will post an announcement Monday morning to let you know.
Or, if you are unable to change modality, you could communicate that, as well:
Your safety and health are of the utmost importance to me. While some of your courses may change to remote delivery in response to the campus surveillance testing positivity rate, the teaching and learning approaches in this course are best suited to in-person delivery. We will meet in person following the first week. Please carefully follow the prevention guidelines outlined on the Protecting the Pack website to promote your health and the safety of your classmates.
Reflect on what you want to accomplish in the first week and identify your top priorities. Try to focus on what students will do as opposed to what you would do (e.g., I want students to understand the course expectations and policies from the syllabus vs. I will review the syllabus). The Flexible Teaching resources on effective course design, course materials, and course delivery that apply to any mode of instruction may be helpful.
Here are some examples of goals you may want to prioritize and some examples for how to do so remotely:
Help students understand the structure of the course, your policies, and your expectations for them.
Instead of jumping directly to telling students what they should know, ask deep questions or present a meaningful problem to spark students’ curiosity in the topic. You could do this in your first synchronous session, via a course introduction video, or as an opening discussion activity.
Students individually read and annotate the syllabus in Word by underlining, highlighting, or otherwise marking key points, important facts, and any questions they have about the content. Students can discuss what they identified in small groups (if you are using web conferencing) or post their questions to a discussion board.
This is best conducted in a synchronous session. Divide students into breakout rooms and provide a list of questions you would like them to discuss, such as their goals for the course, how you can help them achieve their goals, or any ground rules that would be helpful for ensuring the class is successful. Once the groups have discussed their answers, bring the whole class back together and interview them by asking the questions. Then return to breakout rooms and ask groups to identify questions they would like to ask you, providing time as an entire class for students then to interview you. Learn more about reciprocal interviews.
In a web conferencing session, divide the class into small groups and give each group a handout with questions they will need to answer by reviewing the syllabus, such as “What is the attendance policy for this course”, “How can you get in touch with your instructor”, “When is the first assignment due?”, or “Which of the course objectives interests your group the most?”.
Start building community among your students despite being remote, whether or not you choose to hold a synchronous session via web conferencing.
Icebreakers are an excellent way to build classroom community. Some potential icebreakers:
Similar to an icebreaker, ask students to post to the discussion board with a personal introduction. You can provide questions for them to answer or ask them to post one or more photos that represent themselves. Students can also reply to their classmates’ posts.
Flipgrid and VoiceThread both offer easy ways for students to record short videos to introduce themselves and for their classmates to respond. Students can access Flipgrid for free with their NIU account and password. VoiceThread is integrated into Blackboard and licensed for the entire campus to use.
Recall of prior learning is one of the steps in Gagné’s Nine Events of Instruction because it helps students make sense of new information by relating it to something they already know or have experienced.
Create a series of multiple choice questions that students can answer using a poll in Blackboard Collaborate or Zoom to gauge how much students already know. For each question, ask a student to explain their answer. You can add a collaborative element by putting students in breakout groups after the poll to discuss their answer and come to agreement, then use the poll again.
Use a classroom response tool like Kahoot! to create a fun, gamified quiz that assesses students’ prior knowledge of your topic or from pre-requisite courses. Kahoot! is free for up to 50 students and can be played live in a synchronous session or asynchronously.
Concept map activities can reveal the underlying structure or organization of students’ knowledge of a topic. Students can construct one in real-time using the whiteboard in a synchronous session (Blackboard Collaborate, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom all have whiteboards built in), or students can create one individually to post to a discussion board.
There is no need to wait for the second week or a return to the classroom for students to start learning. You may need to modify your usual approach to your activities, but try to be consistent with the general strategies you will use the rest of the semester so that students know what to expect.
Use your web conferencing tool of choice (Blackboard Collaborate, Zoom, or Teams) to conduct a synchronous online session with your students. Planning and conducting the session at the same time as your previously planned face-to-face session should ensure that most students are able to attend. You can even record the session for students who register late or are not able to attend.
Have students begin reviewing course content by posting readings, such as a textbook chapter or article PDF and use the discussion board to facilitate a discussion about the reading.
Share content you’ve already created, perhaps as part of previous remote teaching, or content found on YouTube to get students started with your content.
Your students form a lasting impression of you and of your course in the first class sessions. This shapes the attitude your students have toward the course, the effort they are willing to put into it, and how they engage with you for the rest of the semester. Think about the type of course you want to have and begin establishing that approach from the very beginning, even though you are beginning the course remotely.
Use the first week as an opportunity to let students know that you are there to support them and help them be successful. This is also a great time to establish guidelines for productive discussions and expectations for being inclusive.
Use the Ground Rules for Dialogues guide from Academic Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to introduce ground rules for creating a respectful learning environment. Ask students whether they have concerns or questions for following those ground rules and whether they have anything they would like to add to them.
As of Spring 2022, Blackboard Ally is enabled for all courses. Share information with your students about the tool and how it can support their unique learning needs through on-demand access to alternative formats for the content of your course, including audio (mp3), HTML (better for mobile), ePub (great for annotating in an eReader or app), BeeLine Reader (improved experience for reading on a screen), and more. The communication toolkit includes a sample announcement you can send to your students.
Find ways to promote active engagement among your students and build excitement and energy for your course. This will promote active participation by your students and motivate them to engage with your course.
Record a presentation or a screencast featuring interesting concepts, ideas, and activities that students will encounter in your course. While a more traditional course tour might focus on the syllabus, policies, and course navigation, a course trailer (like a movie trailer) highlights critical and exciting parts of the experience, giving students a taste of what they will be learning.
Post an excellent sample of a course project or key assignment. Consider recording a short explainer video describing how the students who created the exemplar were effective, creative, and innovative.
Explore options for gathering expectations, needs, and ideas for the course content, assignments and activities, and projects. This could be accomplished with a survey in Blackboard or Qualtrics, as a discussion prompt in a Blackboard Discussion or Yellowdig Community, or as a breakout discussion in a synchronous online session. This input can be helpful in assuaging fears, incorporating student interests, and anticipating student needs.
Consider using the remote start to begin building a collaborative learning community within your course. Strong learning communities encourage students to take an active role in their learning through open communication, creative thinking, negotiation, and mutual respect of each member of the community. Ideas for building community could include:
If you plan to conduct synchronous sessions in a videoconferencing, consider carving out a portion of the time to have students meet in small groups to get to know each other, discuss course content, and solve problems.
Use the traditional text-based Blackboard discussion board or audio/video discussions using VoiceThread or Flipgrid. This might also be a great time to try Yellowdig, a communication platform designed to create learning community using social network conventions and an innovative scoring system that encourages dynamic discussion.
Encourage or require your students to complete their Blackboard profiles, particularly updating their photos. Once they have added a profile photo, you and their classmates will be able to see the photos in the discussion board, which helps students connect to one another. While they are adding a profile photo, they can also customize their notification settings, and connect their account to their OneDrive storage for streamlined document editing and submission.
Faculty and students alike are experiencing stress and now may not be the time to introduce new technologies. Make simple adjustments and pick tools and approaches familiar to you and your students. Follow the flexible teaching guiding principal of planning by keeping workloads appropriate. Engage with your students, provide them with learning activities, but resist packing too much into the first week.
The Northern Illinois University Faculty Tips for Starting the Semester Remotely are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License