It should come as no surprise that teaching online has been a challenge this term. Across the board, both students and professors have experienced growing pains. I know that, amidst the pandemic, we haven’t had our first choice of instruction style or teaching materials, but I still hope that this post can bring some clarity among the chaos. 

To do so, I came up with a list of various skills and tactics—generated partly from my own experiences teaching online this fall and partly from insightful conversations I’ve had with colleagues about the difficulties we’ve all faced this semester—that I would like to adapt for use in the classroom for future semesters:  

  • Bonus quizzes
  • Bonus chapter-specific worksheets
  • Jointly written exams
  • 4 midterm exams and 1 final exam
  • Consistent exam and assignment dates
  • Self-scheduled online office hours

Making the quizzes into bonus opportunities has been great for my students this semester. The quizzes serve as diagnostic assessments that help students determine if they are studying the appropriate material in the right ways. In my class, a total of 5 quizzes is given over the course of the semester. They are traditionally held unannounced the week before an exam, so they act as a means to silently inform students that an exam is on the way. Changing the quizzes to count as bonus points was mainly inspired by the transition to typically asynchronous online courses. For instance, because there is a 12-hour period during which students can access the quizzes, they can take them from wherever, whenever they are free. Since I know that organic chemistry can be challenging for my students, I like to meet them in the middle by throwing in a few bonus opportunities to help boost both their grades and morale as they learn the content.

In addition, worksheets are assigned approximately each week, roughly as each chapter is completed, and are currently worth 20% of students’ overall grade. I created these worksheets to facilitate students’ practice outside the classroom. However, I’ve noticed that students became more concerned with earning the points rather than learning the material. But honestly, I couldn’t blame them. I was a student a short time ago, and I understand how “missed points” can either make or break students’ grades. That’s why I decided to make these worksheets count as bonus points for future semesters—by taking students’ minds off the fear of missing points, I’m hoping that they’ll be able to better focus on nailing down the material instead. 

When looking at these bonus quizzes and worksheets together, I appreciate how they will not only alleviate students’ stress by eliminating their concerns over losing valuable points, but they will also lighten instructors’ workloads in terms of grading. For example, each of the 11 worksheets in my class averages to around 3 pages in length. For a 55-person class, that amounts to 1,815 pages of worksheets alone to grade! This makes it pretty evident that the switch to bonus worksheets, as well as quizzes, will save instructors time and energy.

I’ve also found that these bonus quizzes and worksheets offer great sources of pen-and-paper practice for my students, which benefit them tremendously as they prepare for exams. Starting with the Fall 2019 semester, my colleague and I decided to write our exams together since we had already been working to teach our lecture and lab material uniformly. So far, this has allowed us to jointly assess the content in a holistic manner. Even though we are both different learners, we both agreed to a collective exam-writing process that emphasizes the following three elements: 1. the type of content (choosing the questions); 2. how best to assess the content (the style of questions); and 3. the length of the exam (the number of questions depending on exam duration). Our goal with these jointly written exams is to provide a consistent presentation of the content to our students. Plus, by meeting routinely to keep our courses on the same page, my colleague and I intend to minimize student complaints about different instructors giving different exam experiences.  

As a result of my decision to count both quizzes and worksheets as bonus points going forward, I will increase the number of midterm exams from 3 to 4 in order to keep the course points balanced. My Fall 2020 course is currently set up for students to earn a maximum of 500 points (Perusall – 50; Worksheets – 50; 3 Midterm Exams – 300; and 1 Final Exam – 100). After this semester, though, I think it would be best to have 4 midterm exams and 1 final exam in addition to the Perusall readings. This would add up to 550 points and give students 16 potential bonus opportunities, through 5 quizzes and 11 worksheets, for additional practice. Again, I expect these changes to lower the stress levels of both students and instructors—while students will have an increased chance to make up points throughout the semester, instructors will have more time to focus on writing and grading exams.

Furthermore, I want to note the benefit of extending consistency across the dates of exams and assignments. In our current semester, my colleague and I have tried to make all our assignment due dates consistent, even with us teaching MWF vs TR sections. We also schedule as many exams as possible to be within only a day of each other. For example, if I hold my review session on a Monday and my exam on a Wednesday, then he holds his review session on a Tuesday and his exam on a Thursday.  

Likewise, our bonus quizzes are also held within a day of each other (i.e. Thursdays for my colleague and Fridays for me), and our worksheets are both due on Fridays at 10:42 pm during the weeks that we complete a chapter. I realize that the time is odd—why 10:42 pm? I’ve found that the use of an odd time and a consistent day forces students to remember the time of the submission due date. On select occasions, however, we have the worksheets submitted on the Sunday prior to exam days. This ensures that we have their worksheets graded and answer keys ready so we can review the material together before students take the exam.

Lastly, I strongly encourage my students to self-schedule office hours with me through Google calendar. This online resource has made it very easy for students and professors to meet during set times throughout the semester. Not only do students have a clear visibility of professors’ availability within 30-minute increments, but upon scheduling, confirmation emails and reminder alerts are sent to both parties. However, I have suggested that students schedule me for no more than 2 sessions back to back because I understand that it can get draining to stare at a computer screen for longer than an hour.

Ultimately, the rationale behind my proposed course updates is to help my students and myself move forward when we eventually transition back to life in the classroom. When looking over my nearly five years of teaching, I notice how I’ve evolved in the classroom to promote my students’ success over the semesters. Because I can see that our students are learning in a world that is vastly different than the one we were in when we were students, I recognize how incredibly important it is for us to constantly adapt to the current times—to account for and remediate any obstacles in both learning and teaching—so we can best ensure our students’ success for years to come.

-Kerri Taylor, Columbus State University

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