Basic Principles of Effective Education: Emerging from the Pandemic as the Best Educators

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Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, many wondered if education would ever be the same. Here at the Catholic University of America Center for Teaching Excellence, we’ve found ourselves creating new (distance) training programs and supporting faculty as they navigate constant unpredictability. We have helped faculty continue to adapt to a new world of teaching: how to use the Learning Management System to communicate with students scattered across different states or even multiple countries, how to teach on Zoom and, possibly, how to manage a hybrid classroom with students both in the classroom and on screen.

Along the way, we have watched our teachers as they continue to create, innovate and perfect their craft under unimaginable pressure. And we’ve found that, regardless of the chaotic circumstances, the fundamentals of good teaching have remained the same, whether the courses are in-person, online, or hybrid. Throughout the pandemic, our Center has recommended that teachers prioritize four elements of effective pedagogy: clarity, organization, relationships and commitment (CORE). When our teachers apply these CORE principles in their lessons, we see our students thrive, whether they are gathered in cyberspace or in the auditorium. While the end of the pandemic is hopefully in sight, these CORE principles can help you continue to shape transformational education for your students, regardless of the changes that may come.

Clarity

At the onset of the pandemic, students were looking for clarity and consistency in course communications to support them in a rapid transition to distance learning. Instructors relied on the Learning Management System (LMS) and digital communication tools to connect remotely with students and ensure continuity of instruction. The past year has demonstrated the need to be clear on course components and requirements to keep all students on track for success.

To promote clarity in your lessons today and in the future:

  • Share and publish learning outcomes and be explicit about the purpose of homework and activities to help students see their value.
  • Explain expectations for participation and engagement, including how students will be assessed so they know how to prepare and succeed.
  • Draw attention to key course content and help students make connections between ideas. Clarify how certain topics relate to other topics in the course and to other courses in the program.
  • Send regular reminders and announcements via the LMS to note deadlines and requirements. Include clickable links to provide students with direct access to relevant documents and assignments.
  • Use rubrics in the LMS to share clear scoring criteria when assessing student learning, and to promote fair and effective scoring.

Clarity has been especially important in distance education, but continuing to communicate regularly and be explicit about your expectations will always promote student success, regardless of the modality.

Organization

During the pandemic, the organization of information and course activities has clearly become even more critical in supporting student learning and combating cognitive overload. As teaching required a more asynchronous engagement using the LMS, it was crucial to have a consistent flow and predictable structure for how students could access and complete their courses. While these practices have been invaluable during the pandemic, thoughtful and cohesive organization will continue to remain an important part of supporting student learning.

To streamline the delivery of course materials and guide student interaction:

  • Develop a coherent and logical structure for your course to reduce cognitive load. Consider structuring documents in the LMS chronologically by week or unit, and categorically by type or schedule of task or activity.
  • Create a weekly rhythm so students know when homework is due and when content will be posted. Use a weekly plan or planner to communicate the plan each week and provide guidance for navigating materials and activities in the LMS.
  • Share an agenda or preview with students when scheduling synchronous class sessions. Allow for flexibility, allow more time for transitions between activities, and be prepared for potential technical difficulties.

Using a consistent and predictable organizational structure allows you to devote more time and energy to developing student relationships and sustaining engagement with material.

Relationships

As we shifted to online and hybrid education, in order to reconnect with students, we have learned to use new techniques and tools to build relationships. Students thrive in courses where instructors plan to build focused relationships. Establishing intentional relationships helps establish a welcoming and inclusive learning environment that fosters increased student engagement, a sense of belonging, and student achievement.

Whatever your teaching method, to cultivate meaningful relationships with and between your students:

  • Building a welcoming community through greetings, warm-up activities and the use of student names. Think about how to connect the content of your course to the life of the students.
  • Show interest in your students and models a culture of openness. Leave space for students to share their personal experiences and social and emotional well-being.
  • Create a climate of support to learn in synchronous and asynchronous interactions by adopting a growth mindset, showing empathy and recognizing each other.
  • Be available to support students with virtual office hours and timely email responses.
  • Allow time for informal interactions by starting classes early or staying after class.

In any classroom, developing meaningful relationships with students is the basis for increased student engagement and achievement.

Commitment

During the pandemic, two critical shifts in thinking about engagement have been critical to the effectiveness of our instructors in the online and hybrid classroom. First, the shift from a teacher-centered classroom to a student-centered classroom allows students to cultivate ownership of their learning, which translates into greater academic achievement and richer student engagement. .

To promote a student-centered learning experience in the online and hybrid classroom:

  • Let the students take the lead through student-led presentations or team projects and to offer choices on how students want to be involved in course content.
  • Vary the teaching methods such as shorter lectures, small group and class discussions, case studies, demonstrations, simulations and group work.
  • Provide opportunities for interaction and collaboration with students via chat tools (Zoom chat), workshops and interactive applications (Google Docs, Jam Board, Miro).

The shift to online teaching has also taught us that student engagement can occur both during your synchronous meeting hours and outside of class sessions. Instructors find that the more students engage with each other asynchronously, the more willing they are to engage during live lesson time.

Asynchronous engagement can occur:

  • On a discussion forum in the LMS.
  • Through teamwork homework to prepare for the next class.
  • In study groups that allow students to bond and empower each other.
  • Through collaborative applications (Google Docs, Flipgrid, Miro).

Higher levels of student engagement stem from creating a culture in which students want to be involved. By designing opportunities for students to collaborate with each other, and with you as an instructor, they will be more engaged and enthusiastic.

The pandemic has forced us to innovate quickly, anticipate the unexpected and learn to teach well in any modality. When designing your course for another semester that may include unexpected challenges, keep these teaching fundamentals in mind. Create a clear and organized learning experience that will motivate your students to engage and connect them to you and each other, whether your students participate through screens or meet again in class.


This article was written by the team at the Center for Teaching Excellence at the Catholic University of America. Our center partners with professors, staff and students to promote educational innovation and teaching excellence. More information can be found at https://centerforteaching.catholic.edu.


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