Balancing Feasibility & Quality while Teaching in Uncertain Times: A Short Guide

by Michelle D. Miller, Northern Arizona University

Why Now?

After all we’ve been through, it might be reasonable to ask: Why worry about finetuning our teaching, now of all times?

What we went through in 2020, after all, was a crisis of epic proportions, one whose repercussions are going to reverberate for years to come. In higher education, most of the focus in the spring and early summer was on bare survival, as we tried to ensure some kind of continuity for students as all of our lives were turned upside down. 

This strategy makes sense. But now, as the dust settles from our emergency pivot and we look to what’s next, we can be thinking about what it means to maintain or improve the quality of the teaching that we do. This is a practical concern at a time of worries over declining enrollment and a need to serve more scattered student populations. It is also good timing considering that many of us will need to have at the very least backup plans in case we have to teach in a new modality or format in semesters to come.

And lastly, focusing on serving our students in the best ways we can is a way to honor the values that brought us to this profession in the first place.

What is Quality?

Being academics, we could spend hours debating what “quality” means in the context of teaching, and there are multiple valid ways of defining it. To me, though, the top hallmark of quality – regardless of modality, discipline, or student population – is a grounding in evidence. By evidence, I broadly mean scholarship of teaching and learning, plus research and theory in the learning sciences: cognitive psychology, educational psychology, and neuroscience. 

Granted, I’m a bit biased, given that I’m from an academic discipline (cognitive psychology) that is focused on the mental processes underlying learning. But there’s a developing body of work that suggests that this kind of conceptual basis can help address all kinds of important goals, from reducing achievement gaps among underrepresented and marginalized students to encouraging faculty to increase their focus on student engagement.

Quality = Caring

It might seem like a stretch to say that evidence-based teaching is part of caring for our students. The term itself may conjure up images of stacks of journal articles, reams of data, and prescriptive formulae for teaching. 

But the kind of teaching that gets its quality from a grounding in evidence can be a profound act of caring, and here’s why. First, evidence-based teaching is a concrete expression of the respect we have for students’ time and effort. Conserving this time and effort by choosing activities that deliver the biggest return on investment, is, to me, a deeply caring thing to do. This is especially true at a time when students are coping with demands and pressures from every side, even as they keep working toward their educational goals.

There is also a connection between evidence-based teaching and leadership. I believe that great teaching means being a leader, in the sense that we are asking students to trust us as we organize and direct all of their efforts toward a set of common goals. And in any leadership situation, credibility is key. Basing our pedagogical choices in research is a big step towards establishing our credibility. 

Quickstart to Quality 

Regardless of whether you’re planning to teach online, face to face, or some combination of the two, here are the points that will deliver the biggest impact for time invested – both yours and your students’. They’re also the approaches that are the most clearly backed up with empirical evidence. 

  1. Make deliberate decisions about essential elements.

    The bare essence of course design in any modality comes down to this: How will students engage with the course material, and with you? That last part, referring to your social presence in the course, takes a bit more thought and deliberate effort in online settings. But otherwise, you can start in the same place regardless of modality.

    When you get into the details of setting up your course, it helps to keep connecting back to the goals you have for the course. These should involve the formal learning objectives that you’ve defined. But they can also include more overarching concepts or skills that you want students to master by the end of the course – to think more like an expert in the course, to turn away from common misunderstandings or misconceptions, or even to want to take further courses in the discipline.

    Having those essential elements fixed in mind will then help you make choices about big aspects of the course, such as:
    • The balance of asynchronous (non-time-bound, completed independently) and synchronous (scheduled, done together) activities
    • What, if any, higher-stakes assessments and assignments you’ll need and how those should be configured to best support the goals you’ve laid out
    • Any specific teaching methods, materials, or technology tools you’ll want to use (with an eye to fully online versions, as a backup in case of emergency remote teaching)
    • Any media you will need to create, such as slide decks, video, audio, or graphics. As a logistical note, these tend to be time consuming to make, so
      this is an area where you’ll want to start early, and possibly get help (see #3 below for more on this part)

  2. Let learning science be your guide.

    There is another way to get down to the essentials of what you’re doing in your courses and identify areas for improvement. This involves examining what you want to do in terms of the underlying cognitive processes that are going on during learning, and how you can take advantage of what we know about how those processes work.

    This doesn’t have to mean engaging in a months-long process of reading and researching (although if you’d like to build your knowledge in this area, there are many great resources for doing so, with my favorites listed at the end of this guide). Much of what the science has revealed can be summed up in a few core principles – the best-supported, most widely accepted, and most practically applicable take-aways from decades of learning science research.

    Here’s the short list of these principles:
    • Retrieval practice. This principle has to do with building knowledge – i.e., memory. Memory is only one aspect of learning, but it’s an important one, and need not compete with higher-order learning. Essentially the principle is that whenever we pull information out of memory, that strengthens our ability to recall the information in the future. In practice, this often involves formative assessments such as low-stakes quizzes, which are there primarily to be part of the learning process rather than to measure performance in a summative way. But it doesn’t have to be a quiz. For example, having students do a “brain dump” where they write down everything they remember from a reading or class meeting can be another form of retrieval.
    • Spaced study. This is another memory principle that has to do with how we spread out study sessions over time. More widely spaced engagement with material yields greater gains in terms of knowledge acquisition. 
    • Practice of higher-order thinking skills. Of course, what we really want is for students to be able to apply the knowledge they acquire, and for this, they need practice, and a lot of it. Practice is most productive when students get feedback and when they get to try lots of different and varied examples. As an illustration, one thing I do in my research methods courses is to have students read short descriptions of different empirical studies, and for each one, state what the variables are and identify whether the design is experimental or correlational. In this way, they practice breaking down and critiquing study designs using the same concepts and terminology used by experts in our field.
    • Active learning. This is a very general principle, but it’s a robust one. In short, students benefit when we shift focus off pure content presentation and onto assignments that get students involved, whether online or face-to-face. We should always be looking for new and innovative ways to bring active learning into classes, but one new thing to consider is that traditional methods such as small group discussion or think-pair-share may have to change with new social distancing practices.

    There are many other ways to bring learning science into teaching, and plenty of nuances depending on the level of course, the discipline, your style and myriad other factors. But it is hard to go wrong with this short list.

  3. Get help.

    Redesigning courses for quality can be overwhelming under the best of circumstances. Instead of trying to go it alone, ask yourself: What do you need to have, know, or do in order to be successful? What might you be able to delegate, and what kind of assistance might be the most helpful?

    Colleges and universities almost always have some kind of infrastructure for providing help to faculty. But the specifics vary a lot from institution to institution, and oftentimes, the processes for getting the right assistance to the right person are less than perfect.

    With this in mind, here are some steps you can take:
    • Find the pinch points. What are the major parts of your course that you will be changing or redesigning, and within those, what are the most glaring gaps between where the course is now and where you want it to be? Especially if you do need to create new media or other major resources, make a list of those potentially time-consuming, expertise-demanding items. 
    • Determine exactly what kind of help you will need. “Help” can mean vastly different things: pointers to information, professional development services, one-on-one consultation, or actually sharing the workload. Oftentimes the consultation and assistance part falls under the general label of “instructional design” – which may be a specific service offered by your institution.Figure out what your ideal combination of these forms of help would look like.
    • Take your request to the right people. Depending on your institution’s particular setup, the kind of help you need might be available through the faculty professional development office, library, teaching and learning center, or e-learning center. Help might also be available outside of your institution. Check out Twitter and your favorite academic blogs for up-to-the minute information and advice. Or, consider taking a short targeted course from an organization such as the Online Learning Consortium to build your skills.

Sources and Suggested Resources:

Agarwal, P. K. (2019). Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bain, K. (2004). What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Darby, F., & Lang, J. M. (2019). Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Eddy, S. L., & Hogan, K. A. (2014). Getting under the hood: How and for whom does increasing course structure work? CBE Life Sciences Education, 13(3), 453–468.

Eyler, J. (2018). How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories Behind Effective College Teaching.Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(23), 8410–8415.

Karpicke, J. D., & Roediger Iii, H. L. (2008). The critical importance of retrieval for learning. Science, 319, 966–968.

Lang, J. M. (2016). Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. San Francisco: JosseyBass.

Miller, M.D. (2011). What college teachers should know about memory: A perspective from cognitive psychology. College Teaching, 59, 117-122.

Miller, M.D. (2014). Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Miller, M.D. (2019, August 23). How to make smart choices about tech for your course. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Miller, M.D. (2020, March 9). Going online in a hurry: What to do and where to start. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Miller, M.D. (2020, May 6). 5 takeaways from my Covid-19 remote teaching. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Pennebaker, J. W., Gosling, S. D., Ferrell, J. D., Apfel, N., & Brzustiski, P. (2013). Daily online testing in large classes: Boosting college performance while reducing achievement gaps. PLoS ONE, 8(11), e79774.

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Balancing Feasibility & Quality while Teaching in Uncertain Times: A Short Guide by Michelle D. Miller is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. It is part of the Pedagogies of Care Collection.

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