I read this morning that an influential leader in educational thought, Arthur Chickering, passed away on August 15. While Chickering had a prolific career in advancing undergraduate education, he is most widely known for his 1987 collaboration with Zelda Gamson, “Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education,” which led to an 1996 adaptation with Stephen Ehrmann entitiled, “Implementing the Seven Principles: Technology as Lever.” Chickering’s model set the stage for much of our work in active learning and student engagement, and it is probably more relevant today than it ever has been. So, I want to honor his work and memory by sharing a few thoughts on how his work can help us promote student success in this most challenging of times.
1. Good practice encourages student-instructor contact.
Frequent contact between instructors and students, both in and outside of class, is vital to student motivation and engagement. You not only motivate your students with your love of your discipline, but you can provide the encouragement and support they need to persevere in this tough time. And we learned from a study of last spring that students really missed that regular contact with your instructors, so we need to continue finding new ways of connecting to them remotely. Some ways to do that:
- Share your experiences with students, including times you struggled as a student or scholar, which can normalize the fact that success takes work, and we don’t always get it the first time through.
- Get to know students’ names and a bit about them; the familiarity can be encouraging, and it keeps them from feeling anonymous in your online class, which can lack some of the social cues they are used to.
- Hold virtual office hours and review sessions.
- Boost your “instructor presence” with email updates and comments in discussion boards.
- Humanize the class by asking how they are doing. In a recent DEMA webinar, Dr. Tyrone Cooper from AAADS commented on the importance of loving our students and deeply caring about their success. They know, he said, when we really love them or not, and that makes all the difference in their motivation and success.
2. Good practice encourages cooperation among students.
Learning improves when it involves a team effort, when it is collaborative and social, rather than competitive and isolated. Working with other students can motivate and engage students, let them test out their knowledge with follow learners, and hear different perspectives on class topics. Students in that spring study also noted feeling isolated from other students, and since they don’t have the same opportunities to casually work with classmates—no more making a connection with someone sitting next to them in class—we need to find ways to help them structure this important collaboration. Some ways to encourage cooperation among students:
- Use breakout rooms in Zoom class meetings, perhaps keeping groups the same for multiple class meetings so students can build a sense of camaraderie and trust with their virtual classmates.
- Help structure study groups, maybe by creating small team projects to review course content and provide summaries. Or rotate through teams providing pieces of a class study guide.
- Structure group discussions or projects so students are working with classmates with different backgrounds, strengths, and opinions from their own; quick surveys can help you create these informed groupings.
- Try approaches like peer review or collaborative tests to encourage cooperation and improve performance.
3. Good practice encourages active learning.
Students don’t learn much by trying to passively absorb knowledge. Learning theory shows us that students need to engage with new concepts by relating them to personal experience and prior knowledge, rehearse or practice with that new knowledge, and essentially make it part of themselves. Structuring active learning may be trickier in our current remote/hybrid contexts, but it is important to encourage engagement in a setting that makes it too easy for students to disengage. Ways you can encourage active learning include:
- Give students breaks during Zoom lectures to write about what they are learning, to synthesize concepts and create questions (just pausing for a moment doesn’t always work), or to work on a sample problem with classmates (another good use of Zoom breakout rooms).
- If you are using Kaltura recordings, keep them short and intersperse them with questions and activities that give students chances to confirm what they do/don’t know, build connections between major course concepts, and practice solving related problems.
- Give students real-world situations to analyze to encourage concept formation and application. Bonus if you can make connection to very current events, like some course-related aspect of the pandemic or the current fight for social justice.
- Use Classroom Assessment Techniques to help them practice with new concepts, and to figure out what they do or don’t understand.
4. Good practice gives prompt feedback.
Students need feedback early and often on their performance, helping them understand what they do and don’t know, and helping them set direction for improvement. They need frequent opportunities to perform throughout the semester, and to get feedback on that performance. Ideally, we can set up structures for feedback that make failure acceptable and actionable—that allow students to fail in small ways when they still have time to learn from those small errors and succeed. Ways to improve feedback include:
- Provide students with frequent assignments that let them get feedback on their performance. But make sure you have the time to give them useful feedback, or students will see this as “busy work” as they reported last spring.
- Move from a few large exams to more frequent and smaller exams and quizzes. Not only does the increased frequency give more opportunities for feedback and course correction, but smaller exams can reduce anxiety, which can be even worse in remote and proctored settings.
- Consider using “exam wrappers” as a way of helping students reflect on their exam performance and set specific goals for improvement. This self-reflection is a good complement to instructor feedback.
- Use short, low-stakes quizzes in Canvas that immediately let students know how they did—even better if question-level feedback can point students back to relevant content or help them understand why their answer was incorrect. These are particularly useful to students who may be making up ground after illness or other absence.
- Build office hour visits into the course requirements, if your course size allows. These meetings offer opportunities to discuss student progress, as well as great ways to improve the student-teacher relationship and build students’ motivation.
- Utilize the Student Engagement Roster to give students broader feedback about their performance; this tool has the benefit of alerting advisors, so they can keep an eye out for patterns in a student’s performance across classes, a task they are very attuned to during the pandemic.
5. Good practice emphasizes time on task.
Students often need assistance with learning how to effectively manage their time, whether it is in class or in their outside studying. This is even more vital now, when many students are not familiar with online learning, where they don’t have as much external structure on their time. To help student succeed and keep from foundering, we need to provide structures that let them develop good habits for time on task. Here are some ideas to try:
- Communicate to students the amount of time they should spend preparing for class, along with some ideas of how best to prepare for the type of work your class requires. Having previous students provide study tips is also very useful.
- Utilize intermediate assignments for large projects to keep students on track—also a great opportunity for feedback along the way. But be sure not to turn intermediate assignments into busy work; make sure you have time to provide useful feedback.
- Refer students as needed to appropriate tutoring services—like the Academic Support Center, Student Academic Center or Writing Tutorial Services—which can help students improve their study skills and focus more effectively on specific assignments.
- Meet with students who are falling behind on homework to talk about study habits, time/project management, and tutoring options. Particularly during this pandemic, don’t assume missed assignments are caused by laziness; students may be struggling with physical and mental health challenges, family obligations, and other things that get in the way of learning. Show you care, and share ways of getting back on track.
6. Good practice communicates high expectations.
Setting high expectations for students is vital to student success, as is clearly communicating both those expectations and how to reach them. This goes beyond a sense of rigor or noting the toughness of the course, but rather making sure students know both of your high expectations for them and your belief in their ability to meet those expectations. This is particularly important in disciplines where some students may feel marginalized, deal with stereotype threat, or who feel like they don’t belong in a class or discipline. A message of “Here are my high expectations, I believe you can reach them, and I am here to help you” can go a long way. Ways to share high expectations and help students meet them include:
- Make expectations clear at the start of the class, including clear learning outcomes that show what students should be able to do at the end of the course. Sharing and discussing sample assignments from former students (with permission, of course) can provide a concrete example of where you want them be at the end of the semester.
- Utilize rubrics and “transparent” assignments that make expectations clear and that give students pathways to meeting them. These are even more important in remote/online learning, as students aren’t immediately available in class to ask clarifying questions about assignments.
- Use cues that indicate a growth mindset, allowing you to reinforce goals and your belief they can reach them.
- Give “shout-outs” to students who are meeting your high expectations, both giving them a boost of confidence and setting up role models for the rest of the class. Try to spread this around; everyone could use a boost of confidence in this challenging semester.
7. Good practice respects diverse talents and ways of learning.
Students bring different strengths and approaches to their learning, and we need to be ready to work with this variety. This isn’t about the over-simplified and debunked “learning styles” we still hear about, but students still arrive with different strengths, respond best to different types of explanations, or have different ways of communicating their ideas. Again, the switch to remote learning adds another challenge here, as students may need to adapt to both a new modality and ways of learning particular to a certain class. Here are some ways to address this diversity:
- Have extra materials ready for students who may lack essential background knowledge or skills.
- Consider contract or specifications grading, which allows students to select what combination of assignments to complete en route to their target grade.
- Give students flexibility in how they meet assignment goals—for example, an option of creating a video project instead of the standard essay. And let students suggest new project types that meet the learning objectives.
- Structure class discussions knowing that all students are not going to jump into a quick back-and-forth conversation, especially on Zoom, where that is even more difficult. Consider using breakout rooms where all students get a chance to speak in a less-intimidating setting. This is also more useful for second-language speakers, who may need a bit more processing time with English.
- Promote an inclusive class by making sure your course content and examples represent a wide variety of cultures your students bring to class.
- Further promote inclusivity by actively inviting students bring their backgrounds and cultures to the class—through their assignments, projects, examples, and real-world applications of course content. And amplify the validity and value of those contexts and perspectives.
- Explore Universal Design for Learning (UDL) for more ways to make your course accessible and inviting to all students.
Arthur Chickering gave so much to higher education over his career— from his work on the 7 Principles to his explorations of assessment that still resonate with how we use data to support student success. I suspect “Chick’s” legacy will live on for quite a while in higher education, and his lessons will continue to offer us insight into how we can treat our students with the careful attention, compassion, and support that are essential to their success.
As always, if you want to talk with us about any of these instructional ideas, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.