As I’ve said before, I actually don’t consider the Covid semesters my “worst semester ever”; that honor is forever reserved for Fall 2019. However, although Spring 2020 was actually ok (all things considered), I will start by saying that Fall 2020 went badly for reasons that I probably could have prevented, and it is my intention to prevent it from happening again.
Normally I’d make my postmortem and my new semester’s resolutions two separate posts but these are very deeply connected topics this time, and also I needed to take a hiatus from the blog because, well, 2020 was a handful. So you get a double-header.
Fall 2020 Postmortem
I was allowed to teach the past semester entirely online, at my request. I’m very, very thankful for this, and I can’t stress enough that my department has done a lot of excellent advocacy for us in small and large ways. I disagree with my university’s decisions with regard to the pandemic in a number of ways, but I have always felt like my department is putting its faculty, staff, and students first.
In my request to teach online, I argued that I can’t in good conscience be a potential vector for up to a hundred students, each of whom I would have prolonged contact with over the course of a week. It would be different if I were teaching, say, graduate seminars with perhaps ten students in each section, but I teach four sections of a first year writing course with 25 students enrolled in each. The numbers just multiply too quickly. And I feel entirely justified by the events of the semester; several of my students did get Covid-19 and, even though I only leave the house for essential errands such as groceries and medical appointments, I wound up having to quarantine because of exposure via my husband’s work. I only didn’t get Covid-19 myself this semester, despite literally doing everything in my power to abide by CDC guidelines, by some miracle (and probably my husband’s diligent mask wearing and social distancing). If I had been teaching in person, things might have gone much worse for me and my students.
That being said, most of the problems that I can identify with this semester did have to do with the online asynchronous nature of the course. I refuse to regret moving the course online, but there are things I might have done a lot better.
I’m not inexperienced with online teaching. I’ve taught asynch online on and off since graduate school, and I’ve generally been successful with it, to the point that I was beginning to think I was better at asynch online than in-person classes. However, I have always taught asynch online courses just one or two sections at a time, where I didn’t really notice the extra labor I was putting into them. This was the first time I had a full slate of four fully-enrolled sections at the same time. As it turns out, my feeling that I’m better as an online teacher than an in-person teacher might have been entirely about course load and class size, rather than modality.
I had a large number of students fail the course this semester. That’s not entirely surprising, with a pandemic going on, but it still hurts. Normally, I have a failure rate of perhaps 10% (2-3 per section), but this time it was over 25%. I’m not taking this personally, though, although I admit there may have been certain actions I could have taken that might have reduced that rate somewhat. I suspect part of the problem is that these students didn’t sign up for an online course. It was converted to online more or less at the last minute. This was per my request, but also because our administration was playing chicken with the semester and trying to limit the number of online-only courses, so I refuse to take sole responsibility for that decision and, as I said, I insist that it was the right decision. And, of course, much of the attrition is probably simply because of pandemic stressors of varying kinds, most of which I will never know about because students often simply stopped logging in, with no notification to me.
However, I think part of the failure of the semester had to do with relying too much on Canvas as a delivery portal when I was trying to do something that Canvas doesn’t like at all: namely, contract grading. I am not saying contract grading is bad; it’s certainly a good and tested model. I am saying that Canvas is not optimized for it, and there were certain aspects of the Canvas user interface that gave students wrong impressions, which might have been prevented in an in-person format where I might have been their first point of contact instead of the LMS.
I used reading quizzes, as I’ve done before in online classes, because they’re a quick and immediate way to reinforce key comprehension points for students. Even if they don’t do the reading, the quizzes are teaching tools that highlight the main points for them. However, I didn’t realize until the end of the semester that all my “complete/incomplete” marks on everything else were each being considered by Canvas as 1 point and the quizzes, designed to be the most insignificant part of the course, were being regarded by Canvas as 5 points each. This meant that I had students who literally did only the quizzes and believed that they had an A in the course because Canvas lied to them, despite my constant reminders in the syllabus, weekly emails, course announcements, etc. Because Canvas by default shows “current grades” to students without them even having to log into the course page itself, they believed Canvas before they even saw my messages. Without using a weighted grade system with points, the way that Canvas is optimized to do, there was simply no way to make my messaging about contract grading primary over the noise that Canvas’s system was blasting.
The other failure, which rests entirely on me and needs to be my primary focus going into the next semester, is that I didn’t prepare enough ahead, and as a result I wound up getting bogged down in course planning when I should have been grading, so feedback to students was not done in a timely way. This also likely decreased engagement, and definitely hurt their development as writers over the length of the course, because, while my assignments were well-scaffolded, they depended on utilizing feedback as well. I know that when my to-do queue on Canvas hits “99+”, I struggle to stay motivated and keep up; with over 100 online-only students doing 2+ assignments per week, it hit that number quick and never really went down until the last week. It was rough for me, and it was probably just as bad or worse for my students.
So, there are three things that were in my control that contributed to the failures of the past semester: failure to optimize the grading and feedback systems to the user interface of the course, inadequate preparation, and too-slow feedback to students on assignments. And that leads us to:
New Semester’s Resolutions Spring 2021
While there is more hope in general this semester, in that there will be a new administration and there is a vaccine getting distributed, the basic challenges of this semester will be very much the same as they were last semester. I’m still teaching all asynchronous online courses. But I believe this will go better, because experience is a good teacher, and I’m learning hard and fast.
I will be returning to my more traditional grading scheme this semester because I know how to make Canvas report that accurately more or less in real time, which will help the students. This is not an endorsement of traditional grading; far from it. However, it’s an acknowledgement that so long as I’m working within the strictures of Canvas, I will do well to optimize the user experience according to the platform’s affordances. It’s also an acknowledgement that this is not the time to force my students to relearn everything they know about education when they are already having to learn new instructional formats just to keep up, and their institutions aren’t giving them nearly enough breaks. What’s familiar or intuitive to the student here is probably what’s best.
I’m not sure that I’ll be able to do it, but my goal is to have more preparation going into the semester. I will balance this by having fewer required assignments per week. I am also offering students an option to attend Zoom synchronous “lectures” (discussions, really) in lieu of submitting certain exercises; this will reduce the grading load for myself and allow students more possible points of contact for engagement, to compensate for the complaint several students had that they felt like they had to “teach themselves” in the asynchronous structure.
Reducing the number of graded assignments will also help me with getting feedback to students in a more timely manner, which is a major priority. I will set clearer deadlines for myself about when which assignments need to be returned to students as well. For all those jokes about 2020 planners being a bad investment, I have found it even more necessary to use a planner to structure my life now that it’s all at home, so I will be doing even more of that. My planner is ready.
Finally, I’m optimistic because I’m teaching the second course in the series, for which we have a better online textbook and which I’ve generally been more successful with in scaffolding the assignments. The flow makes more sense.
Last semester I tried to experiment with my grading systems and it didn’t really work. This semester my resolution is simply to do what I know how to do better, really. I think it’s realistic, and I expect good things to come out of it.