« Podcast on "Clauses and Controversies" | Main | Koppelman and Inazu on Speech, Teaching, and Journal Policy »

Friday, August 21, 2020

Designing an Inclusive & Supportive Classroom Environment -- 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 final step – supporting the students in our fall courses.

This is the last post in my series on preparing for our fall courses.   This post focuses on the final step in my approach to redesigning our courses to be physically distanced, hybrid, or remote -- planning for an inclusive and supportive classroom environment.  This step is easy to overlook as we try to learn all of the new technologies and techniques for fall teaching, but it is essential.  We all try to support our students and create an inclusive classroom, but it will be harder this fall.  Take our efforts to help students who don't understand the material in a given unit.  Normally, we can observe students in class and notice if they look confused or a little lost.   We can catch up with them in the hall, and they can also casually stop by our office if they have a question.  We don’t catch all issues this way, but we catch a fair amount.  When we all start wearing masks in the classroom and leaving the building (or logging off Zoom) as soon as class is over, we lose these informal ways of checking in with our students.

At the same time, our students may be struggling more.   They are dealing with additional anxiety and trauma related to the past several months.  Classes will be more challenging, both because our pedagogical techniques in these new environments will be less familiar to them and because being in a physically distanced or remote classroom feels more alienating.   And students may be struggling with the logistics of these new learning environments -- they may not have the right technology or a quiet work space.  In short, they may struggle more this semester, but we may notice it less.

Importantly, these burdens are not distributed equally through our society or our classrooms.  Black and Hispanic communities have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, as well as the racial violence and protests this summer.  Students with children may be struggling to find childcare this fall.  Students with spouses or roommates may have to share limited Internet connections, and students living in remote areas may not have any reliable Internet. 

In addition, we are changing many aspects of our courses, from assessments to learning activities and community building exercises.  When we redesign this many things at once, we can easily miss things.  We can craft assignments that don’t fully reflect our commitment to diversity, plan learning activities that don’t fully include all students, and miss ways that our policies and practices burden students unnecessarily.  This isn’t necessarily about bad faith on our part.  We are trying to do a lot right now, and things will fall through the cracks if we aren’t careful to think about our new course design through an lens of inclusivity and equity.  

Finally, students with disabilities may be particularly vulnerable.  Higher ed’s disability services are never perfect, but they will have additional hurdles this fall.  Students who have not been formally diagnosed with a disability may discover additional learning challenges in this new environment.  Students who do have a documented disability may have figured out accommodations that work for them in a traditional classroom, but these accommodations may be less effective in physically distanced or remote courses.  And universities have not developed clear guidelines on how to help students in these new environments, so they will be trying new approaches, some of which may need adjustment or may not work.  

If you want to understand the challenges that some students may face in the fall, check out this website.  It is styled as a “choose-your-own-adventure” narrative through the eyes of a student with disabilities. Someone could probably create a similar one about trying to navigate remote courses this fall as well.  The pandemic has created new and very real challenges for our students regardless of the learning environment.

It sounds daunting to build an inclusive and supportive classroom environment under these circumstances, but here are some concrete tips you can implement fairly easily.

Look at New Content and Assessments Through an Inclusivity Lens.  Ideally, you’ve been thinking about inclusive pedagogy all through your course redesign, and my advice throughout this series has tried to reflect inclusive pedagogy principles.  But it’s important to do a final hard look at your course design as you put the pieces together.  Which issues and voices do you prioritize in your selection of readings?  Do your fact patterns include a diverse group of people and fact patterns?  Experts in inclusive pedagogy talk about using curriculum choices as a window and mirror.  As a window, curricular choices should help students see into other people’s lives and lived experiences.  As a mirror, students should have the opportunity to see their reality reflected in the chosen examples.  Use this redesign as an opportunity to look critically at your pedagogical choices through this lens.

Look at New Policies and Practices Through an Inclusivity Lens.  You can do the same thing for any new policies and practices you have built into your course.  Most of us have many new policies in our syllabi this year.  With each rule, ask yourself, who is included and who is left out?  In other words, who will find it easy to comply with the rule, and who will find it more difficult?  Are these difficulties necessary to achieve your pedagogical goal or is there another approach that might accomplish the same goal without imposing new challenges on some students. 

For example, there’s been a robust debate this summer about whether to require students to turn on their cameras.  There’s no easy answer.  Seeing everyone’s faces helps foster the virtual classroom environment, and it allows professors to see whether students look engaged or confused.  On the other hand, students may have privacy concerns about showing their personal space to classmates and professors.  I saw this language recommended somewhere, and I like it, but my point isn’t that you should adopt any one specific policy.  Instead you should think intentionally about the different interests in play and give considerable weight to the interests of students who may want to keep their environment private.  Give your other new policies and practices – from your attendance policy to rules about private chats on Zoom—the same scrutiny.

Use Universal Design Principles.  Faculty should strive for universal design of their courses, which means designing a course to work for everyone.  For physically distanced classrooms, this means wearing a mic even if we are fairly confident that most students can hear us from behind a mask.  In all classes, it means captioning our videos, using high-contrast color combinations in our slides, and providing concise text descriptions of content presented within image. 

Clear structure and communication is also a key part of universal design.  For students who struggle with attention and processing challenges, having a well-designed course in which the professor clearly lays out the requirements and how the different pieces of the course fit together is essential.  My last post addressed ways to build this structure into your course. 

Be Flexible on Accommodations.  Although online education has been around for a long time, we are still in unchartered territory in many ways.  Many law schools did not offer online courses before this past spring, so they may not have established accommodations policies for remote learning.  Zoom is a relatively new platform for online education, so its features raise new issues as well.  Physically distanced teaching is also entirely new for most educational institutions, so few have road-tested policies on helping students learn in an environment where the professor is teaching in a mask, behind Plexiglass barriers, with students spread out throughout a classroom. 

Students may also discover that they have new challenges or that existing challenges are magnified in these learning environments.  Some students, for example, have learned that spending a lot of time on Zoom triggers migraines or that the challenges from ADHD are magnified in remote courses.  We should let students know that they should talk to use or our dean of students’ office about any new challenges they face, and we also need to be flexible as our schools use a bit of trial and error to find the right accommodations for students.  The AALS had a great webinar called “Meeting the Needs of All Students Online” that addressed this issue. 

Check In Often, Esp. with Remote Students:  In traditional classrooms, you can often tell if students are struggling or just seem off.  In physically distanced or remote classes, though, it may be more difficult to read these informal signs.  Consider planning monthly individual check-ins with students or find other ways to check in regularly.  If you are primarily teaching in-person, but you have some students who regularly participate remotely, check in with your remote students even more.   

Nudge Struggling Students:  Create enough low-stakes assessments (graded or not) in the first few weeks of class that you have a pretty good sense of who is falling behind early on.  Reach out to them with a personalized but supportive email telling them you have noticed that they are having difficulty in the course and asking if you can help in any way.  You might say something like, “Hi ___, I was looking at the scores for the midterm and saw that you didn’t do as well as you might have expected.  It’s still early in the semester, so I would love to talk about how you might be able to improve your performance on the final exam.”

Build in breaks.  In a long in-person class, we often build in breaks.  Consider doing the same in synchronous Zoom classes as well.  You may even need more frequent breaks.  Best practices suggest a ten minute break for every fifty minutes of class in online classes.  You might also encourage a 1-minute stretch and/or breathing break after every 15 minutes of lecture or as a transition from lecture to an activity.

That’s a wrap on this series!  I may be back with a post or two in the fall, but for now I’ll end with a note about the importance of supporting yourself and your colleagues this semester, in addition to your students.  The summer is normally a time for rejuvenation when we can focus on other aspects of our jobs, but this summer looked really different.  Not only are we still in a pandemic, but we also had to overhaul all of our classes, often with a great deal of uncertainty about exactly how we will be teaching this fall.  It’s important to remember that your courses weren’t perfect the first time you taught them, and they won’t be perfect this semester.  That’s ok.  We’re all making the best of a truly challenging situation.  Be easy on yourself, and be there for your colleagues where you can be.  Good luck to all of us!

Posted by Jessica Erickson on August 21, 2020 at 09:42 AM in Remote & Physically Distanced Teaching, Teaching Law | Permalink


Hi Jessica, reading your series is really helpful as it has useful information with regard to the situation currrently the world is facing. Many parts of the world education has downfall due to lack of systems and policies. And your series can be helful atleast some percent in the field for supportive teaching policies.


Thanks to you.

Posted by: Emanuel Debbarma | Aug 25, 2020 4:32:28 AM

Jessica! I've read every one of your posts and I'm so grateful for them. Thank you for all the work and thoughtfulness you've put into helping us through this extremely demanding time.

Posted by: Anna Roberts | Aug 22, 2020 10:29:49 AM

Thanks for this series! One quick tip to give students an opportunity to ask questions as an online class ends: I linger in the Zoom room until everyone has left and invite any final questions, which gives students a chance to check in on points they might have missed. It’s not quite the same as it is in-person, but I’ve almost always had at least one student stick around to ask a question.

Posted by: Anon | Aug 21, 2020 10:34:07 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.