Tips for Starting the Semester Teaching Remotely

ethnic student with laptop on lawn

As the new year begins, the pandemic still looms and Covid cases are currently spiking. Many college educators are finding themselves starting the first few weeks of the semester back in remote teaching settings.

Yes, we’ve had experience with this by now! However, college faculty can still benefit from thoughtful planning about how to use the first few remote/online weeks and sessions intentionally.

What is important?

First, consider your goals for the first weeks/days of class. What do you most hope to achieve in the first weeks of ANY semester? And for this year in particular, what additional aspects might be needed due to current circumstances? Use the answers to these questions to focus your efforts.

Here are a few ideas.

Build community

By now we’ve realized the need to develop a community of learners in our courses. The pandemic and remote teaching have made this even more necessary. Students are feeling the compounding stress and disconnect. And they’ve openly expressed the value of connecting with their classmates and instructors.

We also know that social presence can occur in online settings, but requires explicit opportunities to exist and thrive online. Because the informal before/after class interactions are missing in online classes, we need to find ways to bring that sense of community back in.

  • Dedicate some time for social icebreakers during the first few sessions.
  • Spend the first few minutes of each class checking in, asking what’s going on, and/or sharing some of your own personal hobbies/interests.
  • Add video elements to an asynchronous course – even low-quality video of you welcoming students from your office or couch can create a sense of presence.
  • Allow students the option to record online discussion responses via audio/video.
  • Sprinkle a few fun activities or questions into your course material. (When helping students learn how to take an online quiz, start with sample questions about their pizza preferences or favorite movies.)
  • When using groups or breakouts, give students a few “warm up” minutes to simply get to know each other first. Ask them to uncover and share out a few things they all have in common, or vote on their favorite pandemic meme.
  • Create a survey that allows students to let you know what is going on in their lives.

Set participation guidelines/norms

We often spend time in the first class session/week setting class norms and guidelines. Each of our courses are different and students have always had to maneuver between differing expectations. But the added challenge of a new course format, new technologies, and continually changing policies, makes this aspect more necessary.

  • Co-construct classroom norms with students – use small groups, google docs, breakout sessions, or surveys to achieve this remotely.
  • Add extra discussion about online/remote settings. What did they find most successful with remote teaching in the past year? Crowd-source from students the lessons we have learned.
  • Include metacognitive thinking opportunities for students. What study habits work well for them and what new habits could they try this semester? Apply these ideas to your course specifically. Ask students to set individual goals for themselves and check in with them a few weeks later.
  • Summarize co-constructed norms using the students’ language as much as possible, and keep it visibly posted in your LMS.

Get students excited about the content

We also want to start in on our content right away and begin developing the knowledge and skills of our course. This is essential. But perhaps we can also front-load some of the more engaging or exciting aspects of our content during these first remote weeks.

  • Demonstrate or share a video of a particularly “cool” experiment or intriguing findings to pique interest.
  • Ask students to brainstorm interesting questions, or wicked problems, that this course will aim to explore.
  • Have students connect course material to real-life situations, give an honorary award to the most creative example, or have them create a commercial or marketing slogan about the benefits of the course.
  • Ask them to rate their confidence of achieving the course learning outcomes right now, with assurance that they will rate themselves much higher in just a few months.
  • Share a teaser of the final project – show highlights from past student projects.

Be mindful about logistics

Shifting from online to face-to-face and back again can cause confusion, to say the least. As you develop your first weeks, keep in mind how things will change with a shift back to an on-campus or hybrid format.

  • Keep it simple. Yes, we want to provide explicit instructions, but try to use bullets, numbers, steps (first, second…) to keep your instructions manageable and easier to adjust if/when things change.
  • Store everything in your LMS but use clear labeling, use the modules/units, and include titles that students will recognize and understand.
  • Record your live sessions for those who cannot attend. You can refer back or make clips of some aspects to save time later.
  • Connect with your valuable campus support team to see what support they provide. Rather than reinvent the wheel yourself, make use of these talented individuals!

Address your Pedagogical Challenge

If you’ve gone through Dee Fink’s Integrated Course Design Approach, you’ve already identified the main Pedagogical Challenge of your course.

The idea of a Pedagogical Challenge is that each course has something about it that makes it challenging to teach that particular subject to the students in that particular course. The key here is the term “pedagogical.” This is not a challenge of having an evening class or a cramped classroom. It is related solely to the teaching/learning enterprise.  

If you’ve previously identified your main Pedagogical Challenge (do your students feel unsuccessful in math? do they not appreciate literature? do they need to see the value of theory-informed practice?) this should not wait until in-person learning resumes! Find a way to address your challenge in a remote setting (give them an easy-win warm-up problem set to build confidence, discuss a real-life application, use an inspiring case study).

You want to address this challenge head-on from day one, no matter what the format.

Take care of yourself

Finally, remember there is only so much you can do. This is not the time for perfection, rather this is the time for real, imperfect, meaningful human connections with your students.

Set realistic boundaries for yourself and share these with students. Let students know you genuinely care about them and their learning, but you also need to take care of your own family, health, etc.

Keep your focus on what is most important and direct your remote teaching time on those goals.

Aim to stay positive, and test negative! 🙂