Faculty Tips for Starting the Semester Remotely

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.

Prioritize Well-being for Yourself and 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.

Take steps to support your own mental health, such as reaching out the Employee Assistance Program at 815-753-9191 or EmployeeAssistance@niu.edu for short-term counseling and referral.

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:

  • Focus on very basic things that you can do to take back your power and exert control in your environment.
  • Reassert a sense of control over your fears, without overreacting and risking contributing to your own fears and anxiety.
  • Connect in a safe way with people in your life who you trust, who help reassure you and who you can turn to for support. Be ready to give that same support to others who need it from you, in a safe manner. Maintain your healthy relationships.
  • Stay informed without overdoing it. This might mean placing limits on how much time you spend on social media, reading comments of others, or even watching all the news alerts. It is all right to let others know you might be limiting your online time; be sure to offer them other ways to contact you if necessary.
  • Stay connected with hobbies and interests that stimulate and relax you physically and mentally.
  • Make time to unwind and remind yourself that the strong feelings of uncertainty or anxiety will fade.
  • Try to maintain a sense of hope and positive thinking.
  • Don’t forget to remember your wellness and take care of your body. BREATHE. Stretch. Meditate. Try to remember to eat balanced meals, stay active, rest and get plenty of sleep.

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.

Principles of Trauma-informed Teaching

  • Trauma-informed teaching is strengths-based: Build on the practices that already work for you and prioritize your self-care.
  • Trauma-informed teaching understands that students are not giving us a hard time; they are having a hard time: Recognize student behaviors as trauma reactions as opposed to intentional disruptions and model calm understanding to help student's achieve a more regulated state.
  • Trauma-informed teaching embraces radical empathy: Actively strive to understand the feelings and experiences of your students; remember that "student" is only one aspect of their identity.
  • Trauma-informed teaching asks that you not take other's responses to trauma personally: Seek clarification and ask questions to clarify intent and allow for space between you and your initial thoughts and feelings. When you are ready, respond instead of simply reacting.
  • Trauma-informed teaching requires intentional flexibility: Offer structure but be flexible and consider how your policies may unintentionally negatively impact students who are experiencing trauma (e.g., attendance or late-work policies)
  • Trauma-informed teaching requires prioritization: Focus on the essential key concepts at both the course and program level. Streamlining content will allow you to maintain high standards for the critical assessments.

Learn more about trauma-informed teaching at the Moving Forward Together website.

Share resources for students to help them focus on their own wellness:


Resource Units

Clear Communication with Students is Critical

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. 

Determine Your Goals for the First Week

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:

Introduce the Course

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?”.

Record a short video to highlight key portions of the syllabus using Kaltura Capture or other screen recording tool and post to Blackboard.

Record a short video of yourself describing the course, what students will learn, and why the course is important. You can use your webcam with Kaltura Express Capture or use your smartphone and upload to Kaltura and post to Blackboard.

Get to Know One Another

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:

  • Personal Preferences – Students introduce themselves and answer a question about their personal preference, such as what they like to eat on toast, how they like their coffee, their favorite sport/team, etc.
  • What I Want to Learn – Ask students to introduce themselves and complete sentences such as “I want to learn…”, “Something that would help me learn is…”, or “Something I plan to do to learn is…”
  • Quiz Show – Write a fun quiz (pop culture items, well-known facts, etc.) about your topic area. Ask students to work individually for a few minutes to answer the questions, then put them in small groups to discuss and agree on the correct answers.
  • Common Ground – Divide students into breakout groups, and ask them to identify things the group members all have in common.
  • More icebreaker ideas:

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.

Activate and Assess Prior Knowledge

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.

Introduce New Material

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.

Create a presentation introducing new content using your smartphone and uploading to Kaltura, Kaltura Capture to record a screencast, or schedule time to use the One Button or Lightboard Studios in CITL or Founders Library digital media studios.

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.

Set the Tone for the Semester

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.

Develop an Inclusive and Supportive Learning Environment

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.

Direct students to the Assist tab in Blackboard for information about academic, personal, and career services that might be helpful. You can also highlight them individually, such as Counseling and Consultation Services, Tutoring, or the University Writing Center.

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.

Build Excitement and Energy

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.

Establish a Collaborative Learning Community

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.

Final Thoughts

Keep It Simple

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.

Use available support and resources

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