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Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Building Communication and Structure Into Our Courses -- Preparing for Fall Teaching in Physically Distanced, Hybrid, or Remote Courses

This post is part of a series on preparing to teach in the fall.  For the other posts in the series, see here and for the  five step approach that I am using, see here.  This post focuses on the fourth step – developing a communication plan to introduce more structure and rhythm into your courses.

With classes just around the corner, most of us have likely figured out the key aspects of our course plan.  We’ve determined how to adapt our assessment and learning activities for these new learning environments.  We’ve come up with a strategy to connect with our students and help them connect with each other.  We’ve even practiced with the technology that will allow us to teach in a hybrid or remote way.  And we may feel like we are ready.  In my last two posts, however, I want to discuss how to put the finishing touches on our fall courses by (i) building additional communication and structure into our courses, and (ii) creating a plan to identify and support struggling students.  This post will focus on the first topic, and my final post later in the week will address the second.

Thinking about communication and structure certainly isn't new.  Most of us already think about how we will communicate with our students and how we can build structure into our classes.  This semester, however, when we are all teaching in distanced classrooms in the midst of a global pandemic, we need to think even more deliberately about these topics.  So here are a few suggestions:

Decide on a Consistent Communications Strategy (Ideally with Your Colleagues):  Back in mid-March, when the world suddenly shut down, how did you communicate the changes to your courses to your students?  Did you send them an email (or multiple emails)?  Did you put the new plan in your learning management system?  Did you create a Google Doc that you kept updated?  Most faculty I know used one of these strategies, and they felt pretty good about it.  Yes, our plans changed, but we made sure our students knew about all of the changes. 

From the student perspective, however, it often felt overwhelming because they were receiving communications from multiple professors and we all used our own preferred form of communication.  Imagine that you’re a student trying to keep track of five sets of Zoom links.  Some of your professors used a recurring calendar invite; others included the links in an email that got lost somewhere in your email folder; still others put the links on Blackboard, Canvas, or TWEN.  And maybe their approach changed from week to week.  Before every class, you have to remember where the particular professor put this particular piece of information.  And it’s the middle of a global pandemic, so you are already stressed and distracted.  I felt this dichotomy myself.  As a professor, I was sure I was being clear.  As a parent of three kids in the K-12 system, with multiple teachers who likely all thought they were being clear, I had no idea what was going on.  My kids missed several classes, assignments, etc. in the spring because we couldn’t keep track of all of the information coming our way through a million different channels.

My suggestion is that you decide now how you will communicate any changes to your course plan and then stick to it.  If you are teaching face-to-face, start using the system now, so your students will be used to it if and when the class has to transition to fully online. 

Ideally, your colleagues will all agree on a single consistent communication plan as well.  Yes, professors are all free agents, but this is a time to come together to reduce the mental load for our students.  Here at Richmond Law, we have encouraged professors to send out a single announcement through our learning management system each week with the reading, assignments, and Zoom links for the following week’s classes.  If a student can’t remember what they need to do for that week, they know exactly where to go.  It may be hard to pull off a school-wide plan at this point, but if you are teaching 1Ls, you might try to coordinate with the other 1L professors in your section.  If you are teaching a large upper-level course, try to coordinate with the professors teaching the other courses your students are likely taking.  And don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good here.  A consistent strategy across the school is far better than fifty perfect – but different – strategies. 

Build More Structure into Your Courses.  Most professors have thought deeply about the structure of their courses.  We know how the different doctrinal pieces fit together, and we’ve come up with assessments and other activities to help students learn this doctrine.  If you could see inside my brain, you would see a giant interconnected web of law, diagrams, hypos, and assignments for each of my courses that I have carefully constructed over the last 15 years.  The challenge though is that, even if these connections are clear to us, they may not be nearly as clear to our students. 

Good course design always includes thinking through how to make these connections visible, but this step is especially important this semester.    We are still figuring out how to teach in these new environments, so things that may have been clear to our students in the past may be muddier this fall.  Our students are also learning in new ways, and they may be juggling personal challenges and the stresses of the world in ways that make seeing these connections more challenging.  And many of the normal opportunities to clarify the content with our students – such as conversations before or after class or informal conversations in the hallways – may not happen now.  So it’s worth taking a few minutes to think through how you can make the underlying structure of your course even more visible to your students.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Build structure into your syllabus. This is not the semester for a barebones syllabus with a short list of reading assignments.  Instead, format your syllabus so students can easily tell the major units and sub-units of your course and then include the assignments within this structure.  In my syllabus, for example, the assignments section is in table form with a column that lists each day’s topic and another column listing the specific assignment for that topic.  Each unit in the course has its own table, so students can easily tell the major units in the course and where we are within each unit.
  • Build structure into your class sessions. We all know that attention wanders on Zoom, so keep students oriented by creating a clear structure for the class session and communicating that structure.  I include a slide at the start of every class with the main topics of the day, and I come back to that slide every time we move to the next topic during the class session.  If you don’t use PowerPoint, you can do the same thing by writing the topics on the board and referring back to them when you switch topics. 
  • Highlight the underlying structure of the doctrine. It’s easy for students to miss the forest for the trees when it comes to complicated legal doctrine.  They may focus on the particularities of Pennoyer or International Shoe, for example, without stepping back and understanding how these cases fit into the broader legal landscape.  Most of us have developed ways to  highlight the underlying structure.  For example, when I teach fiduciary duties in Business Associations, I have a single slide laying out how the big pieces fit together that I come back to between every case.  We need to make sure that this part of our teaching doesn’t get lost in the chaos of the fall.  Confirm that these techniques still work if you are teaching remotely and think through new approaches if necessary. 

I am planning one more post for later in the week on how to support struggling students during this semester.  In the meantime, good luck to everyone who started teaching this week!

Posted by Jessica Erickson on August 18, 2020 at 02:33 PM in Remote & Physically Distanced Teaching, Teaching Law | Permalink


This is an excellent post about a truly pressing issue.

Well done.

Posted by: thegreatdisappointment | Aug 18, 2020 6:56:32 PM

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