What can you do this semester to protect your well-being and support your students?
by Flower Darby | January 13, 2020
Teaching in the new semester? Chances are you’re coming into the classroom — virtual, physical, or both — already exhausted from the Covid crucible.
New class formats, increased teaching loads, work-from-home problems — the early months of 2021 promise more of the same. So with little relief in sight, it’s essential to determine what you can do in your own courses to protect your well-being while also supporting your students.
Online teaching can feel more time-consuming and draining than teaching in person. You may be hearing the word polysynchronous” a lot in 2021, given that many faculty members do some combination of asynchronous and synchronous teaching, not one or the other. The wide range of newly popular teaching formats — HyFlex, blended, and others — are here to stay. To help you regain some level of work/life balance, I offer the following eight strategies, designed to work in whatever mix of online formats you plan to use this term.
Keep it simple. It’s easier on you and promotes equity. Last fall the move to remote and online teaching produced a frenzy of advice on how to engage students online. Many professors, however, ended up using new tools and techniques that were more complex — and thus, more stressful to use — than necessary. You can teach a good, engaging online class with low-tech approaches. Even better, low-tech and simple means a more equitable experience for students.
In asynchronous environments (like Canvas, Blackboard, D2L, or Moodle) you can hold students’ interest with simple activities and tools as long as you vary their use and sequence them intentionally each week. A good model is to provide information (readings, videos), structure interaction with the information (homework, discussion forums, practice sets), and then assess their learning (assignments, quizzes, projects).
Likewise, in Zoom classes you can keep students’ attention in simple, low-tech ways. No need to require them to turn on their cameras (although in my own classes, I like when they do). Create equitable and inclusive activities using the chat feature, Zoom polls, and collaborative tools such as Google Docs, Slides, or Jamboard. It can be something as simple as asking students to share the most interesting or confusing thing they heard in the previous 10 minutes of class. The idea is to encourage attention and participation without creating equity issues. For instance, such issues are raised when you require students to turn on their cameras: Some students don’t have good internet access, a quiet learning environment, or a laptop with a camera.
Overly complicated online activities can hinder learning because they often take more time than you expect, and the chances that the tech will not do what you thought it would increase with the complexity of the approach. And again, higher tech often means less equitable. So keep it simple.
Don’t teach the same way online as you do in person. My expertise is in online teaching, so I know from years of experience that it requires methods different from teaching in person. In the fall I worked with thousands of well-meaning instructors — many of them new to Zoom — who hadn’t realized that yet.
In short, don’t try to do things on Zoom in the same way you would in a physical classroom.
I have a little secret to share: I’m not a big fan of breakout rooms. I don’t use them when teaching in Zoom, and I’m not sure rookie online teachers should, either — unless, of course, you’ve perfected the secret sauce, and your breakout groups are going swimmingly. Time and time again, however, I’ve seen dedicated instructors bang their heads against the wall of those little black boxes on Zoom as students resisted unmuting to participate in a discussion, whether it was classwide or in a breakout room.
My takeaway? Don’t rely on your usual, in-person discussion strategies. Now is the time to think creatively about what works well online. So what else might you try?
Aim for the right balance of synchronous and asynchronous. If your college allows you the flexibility, design each class to be a mix of 75 percent asynchronous/25 percent synchronous. Zoom classes are exhausting. Interactions in your LMS are much less so and, again, are more equitable and inclusive of students with different home and economic circumstances.
One model I like: Each week hold an hour of class on Zoom and do the rest asynchronously. That way, you connect with students regularly in real time without adding to everyone’s Zoom fatigue. Pro tip: Think about the best ways to use that Zoom hour. Plan activities that benefit from synchronous interactions — modeling, demonstrating, solving problems, Q&As. Move the rest of the course to your LMS.
Hit pause, or build in breaks from the get-go. If, at some point this spring, you find yourself at wit’s end, call a timeout. Cancel Zoom sessions and plan only asynchronous online activities that week. That can work really well on the fly, if needed, but why not build in Zoom pauses in your course schedule? Once or twice during the semester, create asynchronous-only weeks. Alert students to those Zoom-free dates upfront.
Another way to hit pause — either spontaneously or planned from Day 1 — is to let students know that you’ll be offline for a few days. Maybe you just need a break, or maybe you have unexpected family obligations or a virtual conference to attend. Whatever the reason, take a mini-break.
Be sure to give a specific date for when you’ll be back online. Students don’t need to know what you’re doing or where you’re going, but they do need to know when you’ll be available for them again. With a bit of notice, students won’t feel ghosted by your sudden lack of response, and the result will be permission to take that long weekend away from the computer guilt-free.
Schedule wisely. Don’t plan a schedule for just your students; plan one for yourself — and stick to it. Block out time during your workweek for grading, sending announcements, creating class materials (PowerPoints, assignments, quizzes), holding virtual “office” hours, and responding to discussion posts. Try to keep teaching duties from bleeding into the evenings and weekends. Carve out time to unplug and recharge.
If online teaching is still very new to you, take heart: It will get easier and less time-consuming with practice, just like when you first taught in person. During my 13 years of online teaching, I have absolutely become more efficient at supporting my students without giving up all my downtime. You will, too.
Communicate strategically and sustainably. Rather than spending hours and hours of your time in conversation with individual students via email or Zoom, communicate in ways that help lots of students all at once. Provide explicit instructions, checklists, rubrics, and examples whenever possible. The more you answer common questions upfront, the fewer emails and requests for meetings you will receive later on. Create a short video to give detailed directions on how to do an assignment. While those videos take time to make, they can save you a lot of time in the long run, and you can reuse them in future classes.
Think one-to-many instead of one-to-one:
If you do find that one-on-one meetings with students are helpful, consider using a tool like Calendly. It’s free and allows students (and colleagues) to schedule a meeting with you according to the availability you set in advance. Save the back and forth on email; provide a Calendly link instead.
Be as candid as you can with students. Falling behind on grading? Did something unexpected come up? Tell your students, with an appropriate level of disclosure about the exact circumstances. Most important, tell them how you plan to catch up. Students know that life happens, and are often very understanding — assuming you explain when you expect to be back on track.
This gives you some breathing room while supporting your students through open communication.
What if you’re struggling with online teaching, or with a particular technology tool? Acknowledge your learning curve (students are observing it, anyway), and seek their input. Consider a “stop-start-continue” survey, for example, midway through the semester: Ask students what they want to stop, start, and continue doing in class. You won’t be able to grant all their requests (“Let’s cancel the final project!”), but you are likely to get some useful ideas. Be sure to circle back and let students know what you decided to change, or not.
Seeking, and acting on, student input will both strengthen your connections with online students and permit you some wiggle room if you need to make changes to preserve your sanity.
Streamline grading. Finally, take advantage of technology to reduce your grading time. Use rubrics and auto-graded quizzes. Comment on students’ work with audio-recording tools. Or try text-expander tools to add common feedback on their assignments. Check out this advice guide for a wealth of tips and ideas on “how to provide better feedback with technology.” The goal is to grade in efficient and time-saving ways, not lose your evenings and weekends to that task.
Teaching online can be time-consuming and draining, but it doesn’t have to be. Try some of these self-care strategies. Do it for yourself, and do it for your students. You can’t teach well if you’re burned out.
Flower Darby is an instructional designer and the author, with James M. Lang, of Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes. Find her on Twitter @flowerdarby.