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Blog-5 Steps Toward Better Teaching In or Out of a Pandemic

5 Steps Toward Better Teaching - In or Out of a Pandemic

Posted on: February 26, 2021

Written by David Boninger and Brett Pelham, authors of Introductory Psychology in Modules.

If you thought it was hard to maintain student attention in classrooms – rooms specifically designed to promote learning – just try maintaining student attention in student living rooms, basements, or the bedrooms they share with younger siblings. Add to this the whims of spotty wi-fi coverage, and the stress, exhaustion, and mental load of coping with COVID-19. You now have a recipe for intellectual disaster – or maybe it’s a perfect storm of poor learning, or an intellectual desert. Whatever it is, it’s not an optimal learning environment.

But psychology, and our own experience, suggests a few things instructors can do to reduce the damage the COVID-19 pandemic is inflicting on higher education. Better yet, most of these tips don’t add appreciably to instructor workloads. Further, if you integrate these tips into your teaching during the pandemic, nothing will stop you from maintaining these good practices if we ever get to teach face to face again. These five tips boil down to (a) reducing readings and lectures into smaller units, (b) creating lectures and remote teaching activities that encourage hands-on participation, (c) increasing transparency, (d) recognizing and leveraging silver linings, and (e) exercising empathy. We address each of these tips in turn.

Tip 1: Divide

Cognitive, educational, and motivational psychologists have long known that a journey of a thousand miles starts with packing a suitcase. Then, of course, you have to take that first step.  Keeping steps small and manageable may be more important than ever in a pandemic because stress, exhaustion, and simple interruptions make it challenging for students to focus for long periods.  Keeping lectures and assignments brief does not necessarily require cutting back on material or sacrificing depth of coverage.  Instead, it means slicing long lectures and readings into smaller pieces, each of which you still retain.  Whether students try to absorb these lectures via live Zoom meetings or watch recordings later, we believe students learn better when we break material into small bits. 

Female student with laptop open and working on a tablet

Photo by Josefa nDiaz, from Unplash

By the way, we are not convinced that the benefits of short lectures and short reading assignments occur because students today have inherently short attention spans. A recent review by Neil Bradbury (2016) strongly suggests that the popular idea of the 15-minute student attention span is mostly mythical.  None of our students have ever had difficulty paying attention for two solid hours at concerts, football games, or Avengers movies. In fact, the biggest problem with teaching in a pandemic is probably simple interruptions, which naturally arise when the instructor has little control over the learning environment.  And these interruptions are more easily resisted when students know there is only five minutes to go in a lecture than when there is 25 minutes to go (See the Ovsiankina effect, or Clark Hull’s classic research showing that organisms rarely abandon goals when they’re about to achieve them). 

When it comes to shorter readings, a big benefit to both students and instructors is greater instructor control over the exact content of an entire set of course readings. For example, if an instructor uses a typical 15-chapter textbook, it is both difficult and confusing to assign the first half of chapter 3 and the last eight pages of chapter 4. But by using textbooks that adopt a modular format, or by creating a set of 25 or 30 brief readings, instructors can cover precisely what they wish without confusing their students. Our own introductory psychology textbook breaks psychology into 36 stand-alone modules rather than the traditional, longer chapters.               

Tip 2: Engage

Most instructors today recognize that students remain engaged precisely to the degree that we engage them.  This is more important than ever in the present world of remote (distracted) learning.  By using humor, personal stories, recent world events, and hands-on learning activities, instructors maximize student engagement. If students are all raising and lowering their hands (or using their Zoom “reactions”) to vote for which of two aphorisms they believe to be more valid, or if they are viewing and debating the basis of visual illusions, they find it difficult to tune out. Likewise, if students are working in small groups to solve an intellectual puzzle – something more akin to an escape room than a waiting room – they are unlikely to drift off or be pulled away by a text message.  In our view, keeping students engaged also means requiring them to do out-of-class activities at least one or two times per week, so they remain engaged – in and out of virtual class.                                   

Tip 3: Clarify 

Manageable assignments and engaging activities will work well – pandemic or not – when students know exactly when, where, and how they are supposed to do things.  In our experience, a third route to teaching effectively during a pandemic is consistent transparency, combined with a little redundancy.  For example, we both explain assignments in class and in Canvas and we remind students what’s coming.  Further, we both include summary class schedules organized by week, and they separate readings and lectures, for example.  We also both use study guides. To keep up morale, one of us (Brett) scores practice quizzes either wholly or partly as credit-for-doing. For example, a student may see that she only got half the questions correct on a practice quiz, but she might still receive 100 as a participation score for the quiz. Of course, if your students are better socialized for college than many of our nontraditional students are, you might adjust this credit-for-doing grading scheme to be a bit stricter. Incidentally, we also test our students a lot because research in cognitive psychology shows that retrieval practice is one of the best ways to increase student learning and retention.                

Tip 4: Recognize Silver Linings

Make no mistake about it, we would both rather be teaching in person.  In fact, we’re both sick of Zoom, Google Meets, WebEx, and every other horrible facsimile of a face-to-face classroom.  We want the real thing – the energy and enthusiasm that is unique to the face to face classroom.  But there are silver linings to Zoom and other remote classrooms and while we’re stuck in this virtual world, there is value in recognizing and leveraging these silver linings.  For example, Zoom’s chat feature allows students who typically would not participate in a live classroom to express themselves.  Further, some students who do not wish to chat to the entire class thrive on the “chat directly to the instructor” tool – which allows them to comment while remining anonymous to classmates. We can then reinforce those private student comments by sharing them anonymously with the rest of the class.  We have observed that this confidence booster often evolves into public chats.  

Tip 5: Exercise Empathy

In our experience, flexibility and forgiveness are much more important in a pandemic than they are normally. In many cases, students’ lives have been turned upside down by unemployment, illness, and families trying to coexist (that’s right, working, learning, eating, playing, and probably arguing) in what are often tight living spaces.  Yet, these same students are still choosing to continue to pursue their education.  We should encourage their perseverance with increased empathy.  We’re not saying that students should be allowed to coast along effortlessly, or that grades should be handed out like candy at Halloween.  Instead, we’re arguing that when a student asks for an extension on a written assignment – or asks for an excused absence because of a job interview – we should lean toward granting the request.

There are many other routes to teaching well in a pandemic. But in our experience, reducing the size of the chunks that students need to digest, engaging students during and out of remote classes, being transparent, recognizing silver linings, and exercising empathy are five of the most important things instructors can do to promote student success in times of uncertainty. If and when teaching returns to normal face to face instruction, we plan to continue to follow these five simple rules.