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Helping Students to be Successful (Resilient) Online and Hybrid Learners During COVID Transitions

At the end of my recent post meta-analyzing a slew of student surveys, I promised more than just a couple of bullets about how to help students be more successful, resilient learners this fall. Some of you know my own General Education course at SF State, How 2 Lrn w ur Mobile Device, is designed to help students improve their learning. I also created a much shorter version of the course for LinkedIn Learning. The ideas from that course are based on research, as well as learning alongside more than 2500 students over the last ten years or so.

This post will pull some ideas from that course and from my consulting work, and share a few ideas from colleagues, starting with these two:

  • In an email reply on the POD Network listserv, Michelle Pacansky-Brock got to the heart of the matter: “All students are capable of succeeding in online courses but [the] way [they] are designed and taught matters. This is true for face-to-face courses too.“

  • Later the same week, Mark Porcaro from Wichita State University wrote a brief article for WCET Frontiers. In his post he asked a poignant question: “Is a student’s ability to come to our campus really the deciding factor about who gets the most attention and resources?”

Both emphasize the importance of effective course design and facilitation over the potential effects of choosing a particular course format. Similarly, I will share with you some thoughts on what we can start doing now to support students, regardless of how courses will be taught at your institution this summer and fall.

What teachers and campuses can do

Break it down

It’s not enough to put “fully online” or “hybrid flexible” in the class schedule. In that post about college student COVID-19 survey results, I shared a California Community College student’s recommendation to provide as many details as possible about how each class will be conducted. He suggested including the times and days of the week when class sessions will be streamed live, if those sessions will be recorded, and being consistent so students can plan their lives and schedules around any requirements. The campus also can send out a message to all students in advance of the fall term to let students know what’s happening, why you’re choosing this course of action, how you intend to support them, and what they need to do to get ready:

These are the primary course formats our campus has chosen to adopt for the fall 2020 semester: [insert course formats here]. We’re doing this to keep everyone as safe as possible. We have created an orientation to help you get ready. Here is a quick to-do list that will help you prepare over the summer…

Brian Beatty’s book, Hybrid Flexible Course Design, has a chapter about the student experience. It describes how faculty should act as coaches and guide students as they take greater responsibility for their own learning.

  • Let HyFlex students know what learner choice means: They must decide how and when to participate in each class meeting and activity, to the extent they have choices. (Essential workers or students taking care of family may only have asynchronous options.) Also share the pros and cons of each pathway, and generally what students will need to do to complete the equivalent learning tasks. For example, “If your primary learning path will be asynchronous, then create a weekly schedule in your calendar for reviewing course lectures and materials and for completing assignments and activities. While you will not get to participate in the live discussion, we will use the discussion forum to share ideas and answer your questions.”

  • Include time estimates in all prompts for learning materials and instructions for activities: Teachers should add the time it will take to complete a reading assignment, to watch a mini-lecture, to post a discussion thread and to reply to classmates, and so on. Good cookbooks include the total time it takes to prepare the ingredients, combine, cook, and let everything rest or cool before serving. I aggregate these in the module overview and instructions (see a sample module overview from my class), and I also individually share them in the prompts for reviewing learning materials and the instructions for activities.

  • Let students know you believe they can succeed: Students may be unsure of their abilities, due to inexperience with online and hybrid learning, common stereotypes about different student groups. Counter that uncertainty by promoting the growth mindset (Carol Dweck), validating ability for students of color (J. Luke Wood), “fostering grit (and other admirable qualities)” (Angela Lee Duckworth), and supporting students’ endurance, (re)motivation, happiness and sense of purpose (Anindya Kundu).

  • Let students know you believe they belong in your class and at your institution: In that same email I mentioned above, Michelle Pacansky-Brock makes this point clearly – it needs no embellishments: Creating a sense of belonging is critical. This starts with a positive instructor-student relationship that enables a teacher to challenge students beyond what they believe they are capable of doing. It’s not about lowering the rigor in any way – it is about believing in them [students], pushing back on negative stereotypes, and challenging them beyond their self-perceived limits.

Build it up – aka build community in and beyond the course experience

In brightspot’s recent student survey, “[a]mong the [seven] experience categories, Community was ranked the second-highest priority but had the least positive ratings (65% positive).” Inside Higher Ed had an article about creating community within an online course. Here are just a few ideas for building community beyond the course environment.

Support current and incoming students (and faculty and staff, too) as they deal with traumatic, current events. Even if we do not have all the answers, we can show empathy across a campus. Here are some concrete ideas from across the country:

Don’t wait until fall. Work with other units (e.g., Division of Student Life, Office of Student Leadership) to start creating a sense of campus community right now.

  • Address equity through technology access: Based on what’s going to happen at your campus this fall – what format classes will take, what housing will look like – send out wifi hotspots and/or devices to level the playing field now. In my last post, I shared Cora’s story about getting a campus-supplied Chromebook a month after classes had restarted. Make sure students have the equipment they need and run a series of online tech checks before classes begin.

  • Put the ‘unity’ in community: Send absolutely every new student a campus logo t-shirt or hat and ask them to wear it on informal Zoom get-togethers. Take “group photos” and post them on Instagram with messages like “Gators Online – Ready to GO this fall!” or “HyFlex Nation is ready to learn this Fall!” If your campus will have on-ground classes that require masks and you have a fashion design program, have a contest for the best mask and then have them mass produced and distributed.

  • Create virtual community spaces on different platforms: You probably have some official social media accounts for your campus. Now it’s time to create some student-centered spaces and events. Then hire some students to manage and promote them. If you’re my age, you may be thinking of Facebook groups. Expand your social reach to environments like Instagram for student life, LinkedIn groups for soon-to-be grads and alum, and even unconventional ideas like peer-to-peer online research support on Diigo. YouTube would work for my idea for a gallery of videos by recent grads talking about what their degree means to them and their family, how they reached their goals and overcame obstacles, what they will do next, and so on. If self-organizing students create their own groups, promote and amplify their work! These homegrown, organic environments are essential elements to the overall community experience.

  • Host regular virtual social events: In my post about the Top Hat student survey results, I referred to Vincent Tinto’s model of student departure which combines academic and social interactions to support student retention. Schools like Elon University started hosting virtual events soon after closing their campus this spring, including weekly coffee chats, wellness activities, and professional development opportunities. In her idea-packed book, Community Building on the Web, Amy Jo Kim describes how regular virtual events can anchor community engagement that can lose energy over time.

Build an awesome student orientation. Work with academic technology and academic support teams (e.g., academic counseling, tutoring) to create a series of online events that include equal parts of a) team-building fun, like signing up to meet fellow new students by entering a virtual escape room, and b) online or hybrid learning readiness preparation, building skills like self-directed learning, time management and managing technology for learning. Students are great with tech, but most are not familiar with using it for learning purposes. NOTE: You also can build out some of the ideas I share directly with students below.

Host guided virtual work sprints throughout the summer and fall terms (and possibly beyond). I did this for my class at the end of the spring semester and those who participated said they were more productive than usual. We used the Pomodoro method – start with each student sharing a goal (out loud or in the chat), spend 25 minutes working and then take a 5-minute break to report what we accomplished and take a bio-break. Rinse and repeat several times. 10 to 12 students out of 50 in my class participated over a four-day period with little advance notice. If you had virtual study hall periods open to all students, they would fill.

Many of our readers are higher education administrators, staff or faculty. Therefore the strategies above are for people in those roles. However, it is important to give guidance directly to students as well, and we do have some student readers. So below are some tips that can be shared directly with students.

What students can do

If you’re a student and you found this post, here are some quick tips for you. Just as I told your campus teams above, start getting ready now. You’ll want to be familiar with any technology you will need, to pick up some new learning skills, and to identify who at your campus can help you with different challenges. Here are some specifics.

Control what you can

COVID-19 reminded the entire world that some things, like viruses, are beyond our control. However we can control some things, like our habits, our actions, our attitudes, and to some extent our environment.

Optimize yourself for learning

  • Get healthy: Whether you know it or not, your body and mind affect your learning, so take a look at your body- and mind-related habits. Do you get enough sleep? Do you take time to exercise? It increases oxygen to the brain. How do you manage your stress? How willing are you to take risks, like answering a teacher’s question in class? Take time over the summer to experiment with your habits, and work toward creating a routine that you can follow in the fall. When you’re in the thick of working, learning, and living, it will be harder to find helpful apps or to analyze what works best for you.

  • Get organized: Every Sunday or Monday, use a paper or digital calendar to plan out your entire week. For online classes, make sure you are setting aside at least 4 or 5 hours a week. You can start with big blocks of time (30 minutes, 1 hour, 2 hours), and when you start each online learning session set small, specific goals for what you want to accomplish. Use reminder apps to alert you about due dates, sure, but also use them to remind you about start dates. You don’t want to find out about a big paper the morning that it’s due! Online to-do lists like Todoist help too, as they have reminder functions built in.

  • Get focused: Shankar Vedantam from NPR discussed research about the cost of interruptions. The studies show that “it takes actually a very long time once you get interrupted to get back to what you’re doing.” Use anti-distraction apps on your phone like Freedom or RescueTime (or turn your phone off).

  • Get connected: Start building (or keep building) your learning network. Get contact details from classmates in your major and a few friends, so you can encourage and support each other when you need help or information. Most instructors want to be helpful, but they also may not be available when you need to ask a question. Being able to text someone quickly can help fill in the gaps.

Optimize your attitudes about learning

  • Get intentional: Learning doesn’t happen to you. Not only are you an active participant in the process, but you own your learning. A process I share with my students has three steps – Plan what learning task you are going to complete and how you are going to do it, Do it (and pay attention to yourself as you go), and Reflect on what worked and what you would do differently next time. For example, instead of just opening a textbook and reading pages 10 to 25, plan what questions you want to answer through the reading, take notes about words or concepts you need to look up, and check in with yourself after. Should you use a different note-taking strategy, like the REAP strategy or the two-column Cornell method?

  • Get motivated: Make connections between your personal goals and your learning. Sometimes long-term goals like “I want to be a nurse” can help you get through a tough semester. Other times, rewarding yourself for reaching short-term goals can help you finish a tough task. For example, “When I finish this English essay, I’m going to call my friend (or enjoy some chips and salsa).”

  • Get active: Whether your classes are partly online or 100% online, you will get more out of the online activities if you participate. At the end of the semester, one of the most common comments from students in my class is “I wish I had been more active in the discussions.” At the same time, I get it if some discussions feel like busy work. Pat James and I moderated a student panel keynote session for the 2019 Online Teaching Conference. Like some of the panelists you may be working, taking care of kids, taking classes or all three. You have to pick and choose where you spend your time. It doesn’t help if discussions have weak prompts or no instructions for what your replies to classmates should achieve. Do what you have to do, but know that the other students benefit when you share your ideas. The teacher will benefit if you share suggestions for discussions that you would want to join with more energy.

Optimize your environment for learning

In several surveys, large numbers of students said that they don’t have reliable access to a quiet place to study. I know about this first hand. My “office” is a seat at the dining room table.

  • Get quiet: Negotiate “communal quiet times” with your family or roommates. If you can afford it, invest in noise-cancelling headphones. If not, earplugs are a cheap alternative. If you use music as “white noise” to help your busy mind focus, experiment with instrumental songs (no lyrics) to see if that improves your attention.

  • Get organized: Whether you’re study space is in your room or at the kitchen table, it helps to tidy up a little before you get started. Visual clutter can be a distraction. If you don’t have a lot of time, you can put things into neat piles or just move them out of your sightline while you work.

Gain new skills

  • Get learning skills: Above I described the three step Plan-Do-Reflect model, which falls under a larger learning improvement umbrella called “metacognition.” I plan to write my own book that goes with my LinkedIn Learning course, but I also strongly recommend Saundra McGuire’s book, Teach Yourself How to Learn. It is chock full of strategies to help you be successful.

  • Get study skills: Every semester students in my class are surprised to report: Spacing out your studying really works.

  • Get time management skills: The Pomodoro method says to break your time into 30 minute chunks – work for 25 then take a break for 5. Set a goal before each time slot – even if you’re just going to work for half an hour – and check in with yourself afterward to see how you did.

There’s so much more, but this is a strong set of strategies to get you started. Use these tips to prepare now for the fall, and use the comments section below to share what you are doing as a campus or as a student to get ready.