On March 11, 2020, the UNC system ended in-person classes and transitioned all courses to fully remote instruction because of the COVID19 virus sweeping the globe. At UNC Pembroke, where faculty and students were on spring break, classes were canceled the week of March 16 to give instructors and learners a week to make this rapid adjustment. In the Department of English, Theatre, and Foreign Languages, faculty had to get creative as they revised their syllabi for online instruction. One of those faculty, instructor Brigitte Knight, overhauled four courses in the middle of the semester – and then had to remake four courses again in fall 2020, this time as hybrid courses in which class meetings of small groups of students allowed for physical distancing and online activities accounted for remaining instruction. In this conversation (via email) with professor Scott Hicks, Knight tells readers about how she changed her courses, what she learned from teaching in a pandemic, and how she continues to calibrate her pedagogy to the real-world conditions in which she and her students are continuing their coursework.
SH: How did the transition to fully remote classes in March 2020 affect you professionally and pedagogically?
BK: During the transition, I learned that being more flexible with due dates did not turn out to be the disaster I imagined. I was surprised that despite rolling due dates, most students were willing to keep up and adhere to the schedule, and students who turned in work late did so in a reasonable amount of time so that it was not inconvenient to grade. I realized that that students, in general, were as anxious to move on and finish the semester as I was and did a remarkable job of staying on schedule. By the time we transitioned online, students also had developed good habits the first half of the semester for turning in work on time. This semester, I have changed some policies to make room for some flexibility, while still trying to promote good habits, such as a 24-hour grace period on late essays.
I also realized during the transition how much of my teaching relies on conversations with students about their assignments as well as reading body language to determine if they understand concepts or are confused or bored. Body cues oftentimes also indicate to me if students might be distracted or distressed about personal issues. So, I struggled last semester with not having this face-to-face (F2F) interaction that is vital in helping me determine how to adjust my teaching to ensure students understand the material and remain engaged. Hybrid classes this semester provide some opportunity to interact F2F with students, but not enough. I worry how this lack of F2F interaction might have an impact on their sense of belonging as well as motivation.
SH: What lessons did you learn about teaching and student success thanks to the pandemic?
BK: I learned last semester not to make assumptions about why students are not attending classes online or struggling to keep up. Many of these students in the spring were dealing with significant hardships, such as working extra hours, securing safe housing, and coping with family crises. I have tried to keep this in mind this semester and give students the benefit of the doubt when they approach me about, for example, “family drama” that might prevent them from keeping up with assignments. Oftentimes, just a few minutes after class or a short email expressing empathy and encouragement as well as a plan of action is enough to get these students back on track.
From conversations I have had with my students, most seem to prefer face-to-face (F2F) classes and one-on-one interaction with their instructors and professors. As students have mentioned to me, they struggle with the freedom to work independently in a hybrid class and prefer the structure of attending class F2F more often to stay focused, motivated, and on task. This struggle was evident this semester as students seemed to take longer to make the transition from high school to college, particularly with accountability and time management. Despite the bumpy start, students have been resilient and are finally adjusting to the hybrid format and doing better than I expected, but they did need a great deal of encouragement and patience.
SH: How are you approaching teaching and learning in fall 2020? How have you modified what and how you teach, and how are students responding?
BK: Because of social distancing requirements and time constraints for F2F meetings, I no longer use class time for group work, workshopping, and taking students to the computer lab to work on essays, and I do not require conferences. Instead, I use class time mostly to answer questions and to review assignments and sample student essays. I also encourage students to self-assess their work when we review assignments and sample essays in class. Some students thrive in the hybrid modality and can work independently on their revisions with just class discussions and materials on Canvas. However, most students still require individual feedback before they will make significant revisions on assignments. Students also seem to be making much slower progress this semester with drafting and revising their essays. Not having that class time and individual conferences to work on essays seems to make students less motivated to make significant progress from week to week. As a result, essays overall seem more rushed and not as well developed as they should be.
As Knight notes, many students are struggling with housing and hunger this semester. Please consider making a financial donation to the CARE Resource Center of the Office of Community & Civic Engagement. For more information, visit https://www.uncp.edu/campus-life/community-and-civic-engagement/care-resource-center and click Donate.