Teaching During COVID-19

Teaching during this global pandemic is stretching us in many and shifting ways, professionally and personally. In terms of teaching, three issues emerge as paramount: 1) technology, 2) pedagogy, and 3) teaching during crisis.

Technology – Thankfully our Education Technology colleagues have that covered! Visit https://edtech.yale-nus.edu.sg/teaching-and-learning-continuity/ for extensive information and contact edtech@yale-nus.edu.sg for personalized assistance using distance learning technology like Zoom and Canvas. NUS CDTL has created the “Quick Guide to Online Teaching“. The brief guide is organised as a temporal sequence, focussing on what you need to do before teaching online, during such teaching, and afterwards. It thus focuses on reflecting and making a plan, then deciding on an approach and selecting tools, and finally revising class assignments.

Pedagogy – We are not all going to become stellar online educators in a week or even a month, but the CTL has identified some broad strategies and ways forward in the event of a full transition to online teaching. We are continuously updating our web site as we learn more, so please send useful ideas our way.

Teaching During Crisis – Whether you are teaching online or in-person, with every day it becomes clearer that we are teaching during a period of profound anxiety and global trauma. Our students are distracted, anxious, scared… and many of us are as well. This means we need to consider scaling down our expectations for our students, and even for ourselves. It also means prioritizing a sense of connection and community with our classes. With that in mind the CTL offers some guidance and resources about teaching during times of trauma and crisis. Again, please send useful ideas and resources our way.

SPECIAL SUMMER TEACHING GRANTS: The CTL is now receiving applications for a special summer round of Teaching Innovation Grants, with priority for those who want to use the summer to engage in short courses, training programs, or other professional development activities related to remote instruction. More information about TIGs available here.

Pedagogical Considerations When Transitioning to Distance Learning

On this topic, listen to Catherine Sanger on the Duck of Minerva Podcast: https://duckofminerva.com/2020/03/duck-podcast-episode-3-catherine-sanger.html

#1 Re-Think “Class Time” with Asynchronous Formats

Instead of thinking in terms of “class time” vs. “homework” it might be more productive to think about the course in terms of “independent learning time” and “interactive learning time.” This may involve adopting a more asynchronous format, meaning you set certain tasks or deliverables for students that they do across a given time frame, but without mandatory, uniform classtimes at the same time each week. This will be even more important if and when students return to their home countries, and are on a variety of time zones.

If you reduce the amount of time reserved for synchronous ‘class,’ students will have more time for independent or group learning activities like online discussion, writing exercises, problem sets, or creating visual representations of knowledge acquired from reading materials. It is likely that students will need more time to do these activities than they would under normal circumstances for at least two reasons. 1) Their access to resources and internet connectivity might not be as strong as it is on campus and 2) They are distracted and potentially exhausted by the global crisis.

If needed, you could adopt an almost entirely asynchronous approach. For example, rather than hosting a 80 minute discussion session every Tuesday and Friday, students could instead be tasked with doing some reading and uploading a writing submission or short audio essay by Tuesday at noon and then be responsible for giving feedback on two peers’ submissions by Thursday at noon. The professors’ job would then be to design the prompts, provide feedback, and stir online discussions that ensue. This approach might make the most sense to keep learning going at a distance. However, as described below, ideally we would complement asynchronous, online teaching with opportunities for some synchronous student-professor and student-to-student contact.

Additional Resources:

#2 Maintain Student-Professor Connection and Community Among Students

Even as you explore a more asynchronous course format, do think about how to maintain a sense of connection and community with students. Research on online learning shows that rapport and a sense of community is very important for successful completion and learning for online classes. Additionally, as we are teaching during a period of global crisis, creating a sense of community and comradery also has emotional and psychological value.

There are many ways to maintain this sense of professor-student connection. One is to continue to hold courses online, though as noted above that might not be viable especially if students are in very different time zones and if they have limited connectivity. Another option would be to maintain a connection with students through online ‘office hours,’ email correspondence, or by hosting smaller group conversations with students perhaps organized by time zone using Zoom or another platform. But this could be once a week or every-other week, with more asynchronous learning in-between. For example, you could host one or two 60 minute conversations for the whole class each week, or 30 minute small group check-ins organized by time zone.

Additional Resources:

  • Rebecca Glazier, “What matters most for teaching in the age of coronavirus?” https://duckofminerva.com/2020/03/what-matters-most-for-teaching-in-the-age-of-coronavirus.html Glazier also has an Edtalks video on the importance of fostering connection and engagement strategies for online teaching: https://youtu.be/BhNUrlxDqqA
    In this practical and helpful article, Rebecca Glazier, who has researched and practiced online teaching, encourages us to maintain a sense of community and connection, even if that means we have less time for savvy technological strategies. “Maintaining connections with our students and keeping them engaged as our classes go online should take top priority… We can do this through just being ourselves in our videos, calling our students by name, reaching out through personal emails, and connecting on a human level. Our efforts are put to much better use engaging with our students rather than wrestling with technology…  Multimedia elements can be helpful for engaging students in online classes, but even if you don’t have the ability or energy to add those right now, know that many of us have an advantage that online classes usually don’t—we already established in-person relationships with these students in the first part of the term. We just have to make sure we maintain those connections and keep them engaged for the rest of the term.”

#3 Adjust Your Role, from ‘Instructor’ to ‘Facilitator’, or from ‘Facilitator’ to ‘Instructor’

Online teaching puts you at a greater distance from your students. This might require a role adjustment for how you interact with them and how you teach. Freeing yourself to consider new roles might make it easier to think creatively about how to get students learning in the online context.

From Instructor à Facilitator

For those of us who embody an instructor persona – e.g. leading and lecturing – it may be freeing to focus on facilitating and even curating learning, rather than instructing in particular content. For example, rather than recording your own 45 minute lectures or trying to master interactive online lecturing technology, it might be more efficient – and more engaging for your students – to curate videos already available online that cover similar content. Ted Talks, recorded interviews with assigned authors, MIT OpenCourse videos all offer a way to get content to your students without having to lecture to them on Zoom or pre-record a lecture. You can then ask students to write summaries or reflections on those materials, respond to each other on the Canvas discussion page, and/or host Zoom conversations and Q&A sessions about those materials.

From Facilitator à Instructor

On the other hand, many of us are accustomed to more of a facilitator persona: ‘leading from behind,’ ‘stirring the pot’ of a student-led conversation, or nudging forward team-based learning. Faculty who embrace a ‘facilitator’ persona often rely on students to co-create knowledge and generate content in group conversation or problem-solving activities. But in the current context, our students may not be able to meet these high expectations. If courses move online, students will potentially be in different time zones, and may not be able to meet and collaborate in teams the same way they do when living on campus. Additionally, whether we are teaching face-to-face or online, in the current climate students are mentally taxed with worry and disruption, which may interfere with their ability to bring their ‘A Game’ in terms of group work and classroom participation.

For faculty who typically see themselves as facilitators of learning, you may want to move towards a more instructor-led model. If there is certain knowledge or content that you feel students absolutely need to command before the end of the semester, you may want to temporarily adopt a ‘content provider’ role for yourself. Instead of relying so heavily on informal classroom conversation or even more structured team-based activities to generate knowledge, you may need to consider more structured peer-review assignments and assign students more concrete deliverables.

Additional Resources:

#4 “Online, Everything Has to Be More Explicit” – Prioritize Organization and Clarity with Students

At Yale-NUS we have established norms – even if unspoken – about how students and professors typically behave during class. But we don’t have clear norms for online courses. You will likely feel more confident, as will your students if there are clearly articulated guidelines regarding schedule, expectations, and engagement in the online format. It may take some trial and error before you figure out what works best, but try to make your expectations clear to students even as they evolve.

For example, Kara Gardner from the Minerva Project (a fully online liberal arts college) offers some practical issues to consider, such as “Do you want the students to use chat to ask questions? How would you like them to indicate that they want to make a contribution to the conversation? Will you ask them to collaborate in small groups? If so, when will you do this, and why? Do you expect them to come prepared? If so, what work will you require, and how will you ask them to show they have completed it? Students will feel reassured if you clearly communicate your expectations.”

Additional Resources:

#5 Hold Yourself and Students to Reasonable Expectations

Most of us are satisficing, and that is going to have to be okay for a little while. Few of us have received any formal training in teaching, and certainly not in online education. Many of us work at Yale-NUS because we value face-to-face, small class instruction, and we find more distant ways of interacting with students unfamiliar and dissatisfying. But here we are, so we will do the best we can without driving ourselves crazy.

One way to get through this is to rely on resources that are already online, rather than trying to record or upload your own content. There are so many resources we can lean on. Here are just a few:

Another way to make this transition manageable for your students and for yourself is to scale back to essentials. You are unlikely to cover as much content as you intended. You are unlikely to inculcate the intellectual skills to the degree you had hoped. Here are some ideas for scaling back.

  • Lower expectations around all learning outcomes (e.g. identify 4 main learning goals and bring them all down by 50%).
  • Jettison most learning outcomes and focus exclusively on one major goal (e.g. focus primarily on 1 of those 4 learning goals for the rest of the term). As Deborah J. Cohan writes “A crisis should not prompt us to add more; it should encourage us to distil things to the essence and to model for students how and what to prioritize.” https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/03/20/beyond-focusing-educational-delivery-models-faculty-should-prioritize-essential
  • Reduce the scope, length, and demands of assignments. Look closely at assignments and ratchet down to essentials. For courses that serve as prerequisites for other modules, what must students know to move forward? For electives, what are the most essential take away lessons or skills? For example, perhaps a research paper could become a research proposal or an annotated bibliography. Perhaps timed in-class exams can become untimed take-home exams. Could closed book become open book assessments?
  • If you practice frequent/ continuous assessment, offer to drop the lowest one or two scores.
  • Cut reading assignments and the number of assessments. Loosen expectations around participation.
  • Cut a few classes and instead assign flexible independent learning activities
  • Extend deadlines to a new, specific date but one that gives students more time.

Promoting Student-Student Interaction and Discussions Online

Avoid Domination By a Few Voices – This kind of a forum can be easily dominated by a few voices because there is less ability to read body language or and use non-verbal cues to elicit student contributions. You can have students raise their ‘hands’ using the chat page or you may want to invite specific voices into the conversation and invite students by name to contribute.

Create and Communicate Expectations re: Microphones – It can get too loud and garbled if everyone has their microphones on simultaneously. It might be better to have students unmute themselves when they have questions only, or to use the hand-raising function and have the professor call on students and then they would unmute themselves.

Use the Chat Function – The use of the chat function might be a more comfortable option for students to share ideas and ask questions rather than everyone speaking potentially over each other.

Use the Whiteboard function – You can even have whiteboards for each breakout room.

Small Group Work – During class you can create break-out groups using Zoom. Outside of class-time students can do ‘group work’ via WhatsApp groups or you can create Discussion Groups on Canvas. During “class-time” you can give students prompts to address and have then report out their responses on the Canvas discussion page or by posting videos of their presentations, which peers can then comment on. Give some guidance as to what constitutes good/ productive commentary.

Discussion in Writing – Use a GoogleDoc or the Canvas discussion page to host a written discussion. Encourage students to name themselves and respond to each other by name.

Student-Led Discussion – Have students prepare provocative questions for a discussion board on Canvas. Have student facilitators responsible for keeping the conversation on track and rigorous.

Tips on Facilitating Online Discussions

Assessing Student Learning in Online Courses

Moving our courses online is an impetus to think creatively and strategically about how we assess student learning. As with all assessment, you are encouraged to align assessments closely with your intended learning goals and help students develop the skills to do these assessments successfully. Additionally, you are encouraged to be as transparent as possible about what you are assessing, why you are assessing it, and how you will assess it. This information will help students meet your high expectations and have a rich learning experience.

Here are some options to consider specific to online assessment.

Exams and Quizzes – You can use Canvas to administer timed or untimed exams online. These can be multiple-choice, short essay, long essay, and a mixture. It can be helpful to implement exams through Canvas because they can be anonymized and you can use TurnitIn to deter plagiarism/ cheating. Here are instruction on how to proctor a Canvas-based exam using Zoom: http://cei.ust.hk/files/public/good_practices_for_conducting_live_proctored_online_exams_using_zoom.pdf

Essays and Written Submissions – You can have students upload essays on Canvas using the Assignments function or in more of a blog-post style using the Discussion function. You can use Turnitin function if you are concerned about students copying-off each other or other sources. You can incorporate Peer Review using Canvas as well. Contact Edtech@yale-nus.edu.sg for instructions on setting up Peer Review via Canvas, and the CTL for resources on designing successful peer review exercises.

Oral Exams and Video Presentations – Writing is not the only way to assess student work. Consider integrating oral exams and/or have students do video presentations using Zoom.

Visual Assignments – Assign students to create a visual representation of course material, ranging from the highly interpretive and artistic to a more traditional Prezi or Powerpoint presentation. For example, you could assign them to produce a concept map and either upload it or take a photograph of something they’ve produced using pen and paper. For more on concept map assignments visit: https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/assessment/assesslearning/conceptmaps.html

Assign Online and Social Media Deliverables – If you are moving assignments online, you could have students produce online content as their assignment. This could be a video for YouTube or a Podcast that explains a key course concept for a general audience, an Instagram account that brings together diverse imagery to demonstrate the multi-faceted nature of a course theme, or a library resource page or Wikipedia entry with annotated bibliographic material. For an example of how to use Wikipedia as a powerful learning exercise see: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/ps-political-science-and-politics/article/subversive-potential-of-wikipedia-a-resource-for-diversifying-political-science-content-online/350EFD45B47257C1D03ED3870C3A5FD8

Here are some creative assignments for humanities courses operating on remote instruction: https://eh.bard.edu/covid-19/

Consider Audio Feedback – Written feedback can sometimes come across as harsh and unfeeling, which can in turn dampen a student’s receptivity and eagerness to improve in the future. To make online teaching and feedback more personal, you can use Zoom to record audio feedback on students’ work, to complement written feedback.

Participation – If you continue to host synchronous classes online where you expect students to participate verbally as they might in a seminar, you will want to have a way of providing feedback and assessment. Similarly, you may be unfamiliar with how to offer feedback and assessment if you move ‘discussion’ to an online board or blog-type format. Here are some rubrics for online verbal and written discussion participation: https://topr.online.ucf.edu/discussion-rubrics/

Academic Integrity and Online Assessment

On this topic, see Catherine Sanger’s article in Times Higher Ed: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/career/teaching-intelligence-how-take-your-classes-online

Some faculty may be concerned about students taking exams from their own computer, in their own room may be more likely to copy material from the internet or copy each other’s work. There are a few strategies that address this concern.

Design Less Cheat-able Assessments

Avoid easy-to-cheat formats like multiple choice or objective (simple definitional or right or wrong answer) questions. Instead, ask more synthetic, complex, nuanced questions that require critical thinking and creativity. Also, design assignments that are specific to your course material such that answers are unlikely to be found online. E.g., instead of asking a student to “define the Collective Action Problem”, instead ask them to “define and describe a collective action problem specific to the Yale-NUS context.” That isn’t something they are likely to find on Wikipedia! If you must conduct assignments that are relatively easy to cheat on, add a reflective writing component at the end where students have to discuss their process and reflect on the experience of the exam. Together these strategies will make it harder for students to simply copy and paste from online sources or copy each other’s work.

Use the Technology

Use Timed Exams on Canvas, which will force students to work efficiently and reduces the amount of time they can use searching online.

Use TurnitIn, which is already built-into Canvas. Contact Edtech@yale-nus.edu.sg for assistance.

Activate Honour

Have students sign an integrity statement on a cover page using a digital signature or by typing their name in full. You can use language like this:

Academic Integrity is a central tenant of the Yale-NUS College experience. College regulations state that “Yale-NUS College upholds the highest standards of integrity common to the academy. Honesty and academic integrity are foundational to our intellectual mission.” (https://studentlife.yale-nus.edu.sg/policies/academic-integrity/) As such, I expect all students to complete this work with integrity and forgo any of the following: [detail most relevant breaches given your course/ assignment/ discipline such as copying from internet sources, discussing answers with peers, etc.].


Please sign below affirming that your work is your own and has been conducted with full integrity.


___________                          _____________

Signature                                Date


Lean into It

Rather than designing a ‘cheat-proof’ test, instead deliberately design open-book, open-source, or even collaborative assignments. Instead of creating structures that prevent students from using their reading or notes, or that forbid collaboration, build assignments that encourage collaboration. In most post-college endeavours students will not be told to produce work in total isolation. Similarly, we can design assignments that mirror the ‘real world,’ where you have access to books, internet, and colleagues for help.

Let it Go

Sometimes we spend more time thinking about how to minimize cheating than thinking about how to enhance learning. Assessment activities can ideally also be learning activities – opportunities for students to solidify and deepen their knowledge. If assessment design promotes learning, but creates some small opportunity for cheating, sometimes that is unavoidable. So one option is to just let it go. Start from a position of trust in your students and tell them that you hold them in high regard and expect them to act honourably. Then design your assignments focused on learning and worry less on preventing cheating.

Additional Resources for Online Assessment:

Teaching During Trauma or Crisis

Whether we are teaching online or in person or both, we are teaching in a time of global crisis and massive upheaval. Especially as a highly internationalized institution, these are precarious and unstable times. And for many students, these are traumatic times as they worry about loved ones, their own health, and what this means for their future. In this situation, it will be important to balance 1) giving ourselves time and space to respond to the crisis and 2) continuing to provide our core teaching functions. Here are some resources and thoughts on how we can meet this moment in our teaching practices.

#1. Acknowledegment

Just acknowledging that this is a time of difficulty and change can help alleviate unnecessary pressure on your students to act as though everything is fine. Signalling you understand that students are not at 100% can be reassuring, which in turn can help sustain a trusting and productive – if changed – learning environment.

That said, it might not be helpful to make everything about Covid-19. As academics, it might be tempting to turn this into a learning moment. I teach international relations, and the importance of national territorial borders, so the temptation to illustrate so many course themes with reference to what is happening right now is very strong. But I also want my class to be a respite from the constant Covid anxiety. So for the most part, I am trying to avoid these illustrations during class, and instead inviting students to discuss the relationship between course material and Covid-19 on a voluntary basis outside of normal class time.

If you do want to bring Covid-19 into your teaching, here are some resources:

#2. Adaptation

Being willing to make changes in recognition of students’ emotional drain and lack of focus may make it possible to salvage the most important learning outcomes from your course. This adaptive approach is reflected in many of the examples provided under the headings of “Pedagogical Considerations” and “Assessment” above.

#3. Action

Empower students by soliciting and offering suggestions on how they can continue to learn while taking care of themselves.

In case it is at all useful, here is a recent email I sent to my students (slightly edited to make sense to a broader audience).

Hello everyone,

 As I mentioned in class today and last week, I not only recognize but empathize with the distraction and in some cases anxiety that is riling many of you right now. To that end, I’ve been thinking about how we can adjust some of our expectations for the next few weeks. A few ideas about how we can move forward together.

 I invite you to share your thoughts with me on what would help you continue to learn and engage with the course during these difficult times. 

  1. We can hold ourselves to a more flexible standard. For example, I am going to lower expectations regarding your reading comprehension and attention to detail, in recognition that you might be distracted and exhausted from the collective anxiety and uncertainty. I hope you’ll cut yourselves and your peers similar slack. When we are stressed and stretched, people tend to be quicker to anger and insult. Especially in times like these, I like to remind myself to ‘assume positive intent’ rather than taking offense or assuming the worst motives in others. I hope you will show me that generosity of spirit as well.   
  1. We should continue to learn about the world, about history, and the law, and we should continue to engage in intellectually interesting issues. Continuing to engage with this material is valuable long-term to be equipped with important knowledge and analytical skills.  But I also want us to keep learning and conversing because it is good for us in the short term to stay mentally active. We probably shouldn’t spend all day every day thinking about covid19. My hope is that this class can be a place for us to use our brains for something intellectually stimulating, but less emotionally taxing than following the news. 
  1. We should rethink class-prep, in keeping with the need for flexibility mentioned above. To that end, I am going to try to find videos that cover some of the information contained in the assigned readings because for some of you learning through videos might be easier than learning from reading right now. I am also going to go through the reading assignments and make cuts.   
  1. We could rethink class-time too. If you all would like, I can also do a bit more of something I don’t really like to do: lecture. I can do this because you may not be quite as prepared for class as you are typically. So rather than my normal approach of having you generate the most important take-aways from our reading, I can start class with a mini-lecture that will cover some of the important features of the topic/ reading. I know that many of you were just coming into your stride in terms of verbal participation, and I am sad that this situation may derail that somewhat. But do know that I’ve seen your effort and your progress.  
  1. We could re-think assessment.  I am thinking about ways to ratchet down the burden of assignments without giving up on our most important learning objectives. I will take this situation into account in terms of “participation” assessment. On Friday I’ll share some instructions for your research and debate regarding the South China Sea dispute, and I have already cancelled both classes next week to give you that time to do the research. The “deliverable” will be an annotated bibliography and brief summary of findings. I’ll give more instructions later in the week that will hopefully make this assignment very clear, and very manageable. After that, our only ‘assignment’ is the end of year take-home, open-book short essays ‘Consolidation Exercise.’ This will be the same kind of format as the mid-semester Consolidation Exercise. It will probably have more questions, but you’ll also be given more time to complete it. If you have any concerns about your ability to do these assignments, or anticipate any future issues, please let me know. 
  1. We should keep ourselves and each other healthy: Please continue to self-isolate (including not coming to class) if you have any respiratory symptoms (coughing, sniffles, etc.) and to monitor your temperature. You can notify me if you need to Zoom to class and take the time you need to take care of yourself.   

 Please let me know how this all sounds to you and if there are other ideas you have that might help us maintain a productive learning environment and feel a sense of intellectual accomplishment while balancing the need to take care of ourselves during a time of tremendous global hardship.

Prof. Sanger

Additional Resources re: How To Manage Crisis And Trauma In Class

Additional Resources for Online Teaching

Technologies and How to Use Them

Accessibility in Remote Teaching

Specific Pedagogical Issues and Concerns

Advice/ Strategies for High-Impact Online Learning

Note: many of these resources are geared towards faculty who are intentionally designing online courses. As such, some of these recommendations and strategies go beyond our current context of satisficing for unexpected remote instruction. The CTL is sharing these resources in case they are useful, not to create added pressure.

Resources for Students: Learning Online

Catherine Shea Sanger, Interim Director, CTL