Results from Top Hat’s COVID-19 Faculty Survey About Online Teaching

Three months ago I shared the Results From Top Hat’s COVID-19 Student Survey About Online Learning. Top Hat recently launched a COVID-19 Faculty Survey as well (see Top Hat’s faculty survey announcement). As before, MindWires has full access to the anonymized results and is conducting an independent analysis of the survey. I’ve written several posts about COVID-19 student survey results since my review of Top Hat’s results. In this post I’ll compare and contrast what faculty told Top Hat to what students have been saying for the last three months. Phil Hill, Jeanette Wiseman and I have posted a number of podcast conversations about COVID Transitions, which have included discussions about faculty. So I’ll also explore how faculty feel about the upcoming fall term and how ready they feel to teach.

To start I’ll describe the survey respondents. Just over 800 people who teach college classes took the survey, which is pretty good considering a) it was conducted during the summer, b) it was not conducted through or with the help of any campuses, and c) the survey was open for only a short period of time. Here are some of the respondents’ demographic characteristics:

  • Teaching role: Respondents’ roles included tenured faculty (35%), tenure-track faculty (16%), lecturer or adjunct faculty (31%), other faculty roles (14%) and instructional designers and faculty development staff (2% each). In a sign of how varied the teaching role can be, “other” faculty included department chairs, emeritus faculty, contract and freelance faculty, clinical instructors, advising faculty with a teaching load, graduate students who teach, faculty who do have either tenure-track or lecturer positions and a very small number of campus leaders (e.g., one president, one provost).

  • Institution type: The respondents teach at four-year public institutions (44.8%), four-year private institutions (29.8%) and two-year public institutions (25.4%).

  • Institution location: Most of the respondents teach in the US (86%) and Canada (6%), but over 8% teach in other countries.

  • Last term taught: The majority of instructors have had experience teaching since the COVID pandemic began. The largest number of respondents last taught in spring (53% at semester schools, 41% at quarter schools), followed by those teaching this summer (38% semester schools, 42% quarter schools). It is not clear how many of those teaching this summer also taught in the spring.

  • Higher ed teaching experience: In the survey sample, those with the most higher ed teaching experience are overrepresented. Almost two-thirds (63%) of the survey takers have been teaching more than 10 years, followed by 20% who have taught 6 to 10 years, a little over 10% who have taught 3 to 5 years, and under 6% who have taught 0 to 2 years. We do not know how many of these teachers had taught online or hybrid courses before COVID.

Faculty Responses Compared to Student Responses

The Top Hat survey touched on topics that student surveys have covered, providing an opportunity to compare faculty and student perspectives. Here are two points for comparison:

Students’ sense of connection

Across many of the 22 COVID-19 student surveys, a majority of students stated that they miss seeing and feeling connected to their classmates and their teachers. Top Hat learned that faculty members feel reasonably confident about their ability to stay connected with students after the move to emergency remote teaching and learning this spring (average 2.74 out of a 4-point scale, 4 being highest). This may be due to the fact that so many of the survey takers have 6 or more years of higher ed teaching experience. Given a list of potential strategies to stay connected with students online, almost half reported increasing the frequency of their own interactions (49%) and humanizing the remote course environment by creating video messages (46%) this spring. Perhaps recognizing that students feel disconnected, faculty felt less confident (average 2.26 out of 4) in students’ ability to stay connected with classmates, and gave fairly high ratings to the importance of fostering a sense of community (3.37 out of 4).

Schools’ responses to COVID-19

In the COVID-19 student surveys, students reported wanting more communication, flexibility related to finances, and other specific aspects of institutional responses to campus closures. Overall, students’ ratings of their institutions’ response to the crisis have improved over time, possibly as we all have adapted to our situation to the extent possible. In March, Simpson Scarborough’s first student survey found that “41% of college students say their opinion of their current school has gotten worse as the result of COVID-19.” In June, the College Pulse student survey reported that “Nearly seven in ten [students] say their school did an excellent (23%) or a good (46%) job responding to the global pandemic.” What a difference a couple of months make.

The faculty responding to Top Hat’s survey followed that trend line – nearly seven in ten faculty said their school’s response to the COVID-19 crisis was excellent (25%) or good (41%). When asked why they gave the rating they did, faculty gave a wide range of written responses. On one end were comments like the campus being well-organized; communicating well; and providing flexibility, training and support to teachers. On the other end of that spectrum faculty decried institutions being “reactive, not proactive,” a “lack of communication and transparency;” and “little to no support for teachers.”

Faculty Feelings About Fall and Their Own Readiness For It

How faculty are feeling in general

It’s telling that just over half (51%) of the survey takers feel uncertain about the fall term, followed by 36% who feel acceptance, a third (33%) who feel confident and a quarter (25%) who feel calm. As they’ve had a few months to adjust mentally, it is not surprising that small numbers still feel confused (17%), afraid (16%), sad (12%) and/or angry (9%). Given the high level of uncertainty, the overall mental state has improved from the high levels of anxiety that 5,000 U.S. educators reported to the Yale Center of Emotional Intelligence back in April (for more see my April 9 post or a related EdSurge article).

Faculty confidence in their readiness to teach this fall

Almost two-thirds of faculty reported that the change in circumstances required them to participate in more than 20 hours of formal or self-directed training to prepare to teach this fall (42.5% 40+ hours, 20.8% 20 to 40 hours). Perhaps as a result of this effort, around two-thirds of the faculty survey takers feel very confident (31.6%) or confident (33.6%) in their ability to support their campus’ planned primary approach to instruction this fall. Thanks to some cross-tabulation work by Top Hat, we can dive into those numbers more deeply (see table below). Here were some notable cross-tab findings:

Table. Comparing faculty confidence in their ability to support their campus’ primary approach to instruction this fall, by institutions’ primary approach*

*Bold numbers indicate ~5 or more percent higher than the overall average; Italicized numbers indicate ~5 or more percent lower than the overall average

  • In-person: For campuses that intend to return to primarily in-person courses with a “normal” (non-modified) calendar (n=23), faculty confidence skewed lower (17.4% not at all confident) than the overall average. For campuses that intend to return to primarily in-person courses with a modified calendar (n=59), faculty confidence skewed slightly lower (32.2% some confidence) than the overall average. Note: Both of these subgroups were relatively small compared to the total who answered this question.

  • Some form of hybrid or hybrid flexible (HyFlex): For campuses that plan to teach hybrid courses (n=207 hybrid determined by campus, n=141 hybrid determined by instructor), results were largely consistent with the overall average. However, for campuses that intend to move to hybrid flexible or “HyFlex” courses – where students choose when to attend in person (n=49), faculty confidence was lower (42.9% some confidence) than the overall average. This lower confidence rating could be interpreted in many ways, as HyFlex has been defined differently around the country and HyFlex does require more planning and effort from faculty. (Also see my blog post providing “A Closer Look at Hybrid Flexible Course Design.”)

  • Online: For schools that announced they will be primarily online (n=191), faculty confidence was higher (44.5% very confident) than the overall average. This is a positive sign, but I’d like to ask those same faculty (and their students) about their experience after the fall term.

Echoing many student survey results, the highest ranked faculty concerns about teaching in the expected primary modality this fall involve student engagement and connection. Here are the top five faculty concerns:

  • Ensuring students stay motivated and engaged before, during and after class (81.3%)

  • Building connections with students (60.5%)

  • Building a sense of community with students (59.8%)

  • Providing engaging in-class experience (57.9%)

  • Meeting the needs of students who are at higher risk of dropping or failing courses based on course-delivery format (53.8%)

Faculty reported their biggest concerns about students’ ability to learn effectively in the expected primary modality this fall were more about the students themselves or their learning conditions than the students’ abilities. The top five concerns faculty had about students were:

  • Students’ mental health (68.7%)

  • The ability for students to feel connected to their classmates (67.5%)

  • Reliable student access to the internet (64.3%)

  • Reliable student access to technology / computers (61.2%)

  • Students’ ability to juggle school work with other priorities, like employment and caregiving (of children and/or loved ones) (59.6%)

Faculty awareness about learning equity issues

I’ve discussed learning equity in a number of my posts, so I commend Top Hat for asking faculty about their ability to manage learning equity issues that can emerge during synchronous and asynchronous online activities. The answer options ranged from awareness to action, including “not aware of equity issues,” “aware of equity issues, but have not taken steps to manage them yet,” and “have taken steps to manage equity issues.”

  • More respondents have taken steps to manage equity issues that can emerge during asynchronous activities (53.7%) than during synchronous activities (44.6%). These numbers are higher than I would have expected.

  • A considerable number – roughly a quarter – of faculty are aware of equity issues, but have not taken steps to manage them yet. Knowing how much there is to prepare for new teaching modalities in the fall, this may indicate that some faculty are prioritizing new online or hybrid teaching skills.

  • Fairly low numbers of faculty report not being aware of equity issues. This may reflect the increase in discussions about equity in mainstream media as well as in higher education circles.

Table. Faculty awareness of and/or actions to manage equity issues in synchronous and asynchronous learning activities

Faculty feelings about campus communication, training and support

Like the student surveys, the Top Hat survey asked people who teach to rate their institutions’ communication related to COVID-19, as well as training and support to help them prepare for fall. Here are some highlights:

  • It should be noted that only a little over a quarter (28.7%) of the faculty respondents rated the clarity of direction their school has provided about how to prepare for the Fall academic term (11.3% excellent, 17.4% good). A full 44.2% answered “does not apply,” likely meaning their campuses have given no direction for them to rate.

  • Two-thirds of faculty rated the overall quality of support to help them teach effectively and help students succeed in the fall as either excellent (21.7%) or good (40.4%). These numbers are consistent with faculty members’ perceived quality of support prior to the COVID-19 pandemic (22.9% excellent, 44.3% good). Two-thirds is high, but still leaves a third of faculty feeling their support has not been high quality or didn’t exist.

  • When asked about the types of support that campuses provided to prepare faculty for fall (see figure showing results for types of support below), the most faculty reported learning how to use tools to teach asynchronously online (2.87 weighted average out of 4) and to teach synchronously online (2.67 weighted average). Unfortunately, fewer faculty reported learning how to build connections between themselves and their students (2.45 weighted average), how to use tools to engage students outside of class environments (2.30 weighted average), and how to build connections among students (2.22 weighted average). If this finding holds true more widely, then students may feel disconnected yet again this fall.

Top Hat results about types of support campuses have provided to prepare faculty for fall (Q32)

Top Hat results about types of support campuses have provided top prepare faculty for fall 2020

Next Steps

For those of you who don’t know, I teach online classes as a part-time lecturer at San Francisco State University. My own class starts in about three weeks, so efforts to learn how faculty feel about fall will intensify as campus start dates rapidly approach. Start by reviewing Top Hat’s survey results. They asked almost 50 questions, so as long as this blog post is, there is still more to learn!

We’ll also see more faculty surveys launch in early fall and throughout the term. For any campus or third-party organization still planning a faculty survey, we still need to know the answers to questions like: Do specific demographics of instructors feel less supported by their campus? COVID-19 student surveys by organizations like brightspot (see brightspot’s student survey results), the Higher Education Data Sharing (HEDS) Consortium (see the HEDS student survey results) and others identified that some student groups feel less supported than others – e.g., students of color, students who identify as non-binary, students with disabilities. How do faculty of color, faculty who identify as non-binary, or faculty with disabilities feel? In addition to these demographic categories, new faculty surveys also should ask if faculty who are parents of K-12 students feel supported, if faculty who are poor – especially itinerant lecturer or adjunct faculty – feel supported, and so on.

As a next step for me, I plan to review results from a few other COVID-19 faculty survey projects that have released their results. Let me know if you have done a faculty survey at any level – campus, system, or planet – and I’ll add it to the list. If you teach in higher education, use the comments below to share your own thoughts.