10 tips for Instructors and Professors starting a new semester during COVID-19

10 Tips to keep students engaged during COVID-19

January 15, 2021

COVID-19 first hit the United States nearly a year ago, and we are still feeling its effects. Higher education has been especially disrupted by the pandemic , as many institutions are starting the spring semester remotely, or at least under continued restrictions. 

Preparing for a New Semester in the New Reality

How you organize your courses, how you teach, and the materials you need are completely different because of the realities of the pandemic. In this time of uncertainty, many teachers and professors have found themselves unprepared to transition into a new semester. However, there are some things you can do to make this semester more successful than the last — for your students and yourself. Here is a round-up of tips to foster student success and wellbeing throughout the next semester and beyond.

1. Be Understanding

All of your students are in a unique situation, each with different resources and individual family needs. Unfortunately, many students are dealing with distraction, disappointment, and increased financial burden due to lost jobs or cancelled internships. Others may be concerned about their health, family members, or uncertain future plans. 

 For myriad reasons, COVID-19 has made it more difficult than ever for students to stay focused and motivated heading into the spring semester. Teachers also have been scrambling to get their courses in order all while balancing their own personal needs.

At a time like this, it’s most important for instructors and professors to be understanding and flexible. Show your emotional support for students in the communications you send them. Virtual classes are isolating on their own, so your kindness will go a long way. Most of your planned lessons, projects, and labs will need to be adapted — and some students may struggle more than others. If someone cannot complete an assignment due to lack of resources or time, create an individual plan just for them. COVID-19 is no one’s fault and your students may need a bit of empathy right now. 

2. Decide How You Are Going to Teach

There are two primary ways to conduct courses during this upcoming semester: Synchronously and asynchronously. Synchronous classes occur at the same time for everyone — usually an in-person class or over a video call where the teacher and students can come together and carry out a discussion. Asynchronous classes allow everyone to go through course material at their own pace with pre-recorded lessons or prepared content. 

Due to the uncertainty right now and changing situations for your students, you may start with one teaching style and realize you need to pivot. There’s no shame in changing direction! Each course is different, and it may take some trial and error to effectively transition from in-person to online or vice versa.

3. Examine Your Goals for the Remainder of the Course

Your projects and final tests may need to change shape, if they haven’t already. An article from The Chronicle of Higher Education helps conceptualize what traditional teaching tools (homework, tests, presentations) are made to do, and how to translate that to a format that fits your current teaching situation. 

You can start by looking at the goals of your previously scheduled lectures, quizzes, and discussions. Think about why you’re doing them. Are they intended to present content, check for understanding, initiate collaborative learning? Once you’ve determined your objective, consider whether there are other ways to achieve the same outcomes in a way that’s more conducive to the environment you’re teaching in. For example, instead of a discussion that needs to be synchronous, could you use something like a discussion board to support students who are now learning asynchronously?

Some assignments or projects may need to be cut out entirely. If a lesson doesn’t really contribute to your courses goals, consider removing it from your lesson plan.

4. Communicate a LOT

This year, the transition to the spring semester can be particularly confusing for your students. It’s important that they feel supported and understand what’s going on. Overcommunication is much better than not providing enough detail. To start, it can be very helpful for your students if you make sure all documents, textbooks, other required resources, and a sylabus of your course are all available online. 

Additionally, Online Teaching Advice suggests teachers record themselves explaining assignments as if they were in class. This allows students to hear exactly what is expected of them, and it adds a human element to the course. If you can, showcase past student examples to demonstrate what an “A” looks like. 

For institutions that are opening the doors for in-person instruction, it’s important to communicate the safety precautions that are in place. Students need to feel that they will be in a safe and healthy environment when they’re on campus. If any students are uncomfortable coming into the classroom, work with them to create a plan to meet their individual needs. 

It’s also a good idea to connect with your students on free platforms like Slack or Whatsapp, or you can provide a secondary email address in addition to your regular channels. Providing multiple methods to reach you ensures that students will know you’re available when they need direction. 
While some questions can be easily answered with an email or message, students may sometimes require more in-depth assistance. Though you can’t always meet in person, you can still hold virtual office hours. Below is a graphic from edublogs featuring a number of different video calling softwares that could be useful. It also lists the different functionality of some of the major ones.

Video calling platforms
From Resources for Teaching Online During School Closures

5. Avoid Surprises or Ambiguity

It’s possible that assignments may take students up to twice as long as before to complete, due to stress and other environmental factors. So, it’s understandable that pop-quizzes or time-bound “surprise assignments” could set some students up for failure. Try to be as detailed as you can when re-explaining existing assignments or assigning new ones. Students should understand exactly what they need to do and how to achieve the grade they want.

The director of online education at Georgia Tech, David Joyner, provides a straightforward method for creating an intuitive course cadence that students can rely on:

  • Set a memorable deadline policy: Make assignments or quizzes due on regular dates — like every Friday at 11:59 ET.
  • Post announcements at regular intervals: This could be an announcement at the start of each week reminding students of upcoming assignments, exams, or notable happenings.

6. Ask for Feedback

Students will likely identify challenges that you don’t see. Since your goal is to help them succeed, it’s important to understand when coursework is confusing, or if they are not able to complete assignments due to resource constraints. That’s why it’s a good idea to set up a designated feedback loop. This could be done by sending out a survey on your Learning Management System, asking for responses via email, or setting up an anonymous Google Form. 

Making Google Forms Anonymous

Some students may feel uncomfortable providing feedback, others won’t do so unless things get really bad. You can mitigate these factors by making feedback a regular, anticipated action. George Washington University created a resource that outlines questions you can ask to students. While these were meant for in-person courses, they easily translate for online teaching, too.

7. Support Your Fellow Professors and Instructors

Starting the spring semester can be difficult in the best of situations. With COVID-19 still a major concern, it is even more of a challenge this year. Your ultimate goal is to support your students, but try to keep in touch with other instructors, too. See what’s working for them and what’s not. If you have time, help review a colleague’s online course portal. You may be able to identify opportunities for improving their course designs or suggest materials that they may not know of. If you are teaching in-person, you may want to check in with other faculty members to see what precautions they are taking to reduce COVID-19 risks. 
Many organizations have put together resources to support those transitioning to online teaching. Teaching Tolerance, for example, has created an extensive list of resources to help instructors, students, and families. You can find articles on emotional support, free education, how to help families in need, and best practices for distance learning. There are also many Facebook groups designed to foster community for teachers during the pandemic — Teaching During COVID-19 being one of them. Don’t hesitate to join or to ask for help.

8. Focus on Relationship Building

Student-teacher relationships are a key component to academic success. It’s important for students to feel that someone who knows their interests is looking out for them. In the times of remote and socially distanced learning, it has been harder than ever for teachers to build these relationships and ensure students feel a sense of belonging
It’s not too late to get creative and knock down communication barriers that COVID-19 has created between you and your students. By mapping out a strategy to keep them talking, you can gain better insight into each student’s individual’s needs. For example, Education Week shared that many teachers are asking a “question of the day” to get to know their students. Maintaining a routine of weekly or daily check-ins will help you understand where students stand beyond the classroom or computer screen.

9. Plan for the Unexpected

Of course, you want a happy, healthy classroom during every semester. However, you may need to take extra precautions to ensure all students stay well this spring. As the new semester begins, it’s essential to share your classroom plan for COVID-19 positive students. Addressing your action plans ahead of time will give students peace of mind if such a situation occurs.

While it’s important to announce testing protocol as soon as possible, an unexpected COVID-19 outbreak may still occur on campus. If a student in your course tests positive, follow up with the student to ensure their health and wellbeing needs are appropriately met and that classmates, professors, and staff are protected as much as possible. Doing everything possible to keep your classroom healthy can help minimize COVID-19 outbreaks on your campus.

10. Be Kind to Yourself

Teaching is a noble job, and it can be hard enough without a pandemic. The disruptions to your daily life, challenges with staying inside all day, family needs, and health and economic concerns are all very real. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed or a bit down. But try to do what you can to make students feel supported — interact with them on the discussion board often, send out occasional encouraging communications, be present to answer questions — and take some time for yourself to process what’s going on. Caring for your own mental health will translate to effective teaching.

Take student support a step further by providing an always-on resource for your students. Check out AdmitHub’s free COVID-19 chatbot, today. 


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