By Emma Björngard-Basayne and Kristi Kaeppel with thanks to Hanna Gunn and Mandy Long for their contributions.
When the announcement was made that classes were moving online for the semester, I (Emma) felt nervous, wondering if I would be able to make my abruptly-online classes as good of a learning experience as my in-person classes. Once I was up and running, something surprising happened. I found myself enjoying the new online format and had the realization that the changes that the online transition prompted were improving my class for the better. I wondered if I was the only instructor feeling this way, so I decided to talk to friends and colleagues to see if they were experiencing similar unexpected benefits. These conversations revealed that the online shift, while challenging, also acted as a catalyst to explore our pedagogical practices.
In adapting to new modes of teaching, we came up with alternatives and tweaks to traditional assignments, forcing us past our default practices to ones that have pedagogical value across class formats.
After the initial scramble to move classes online and decide on technological tools, instructors turned their focus to their assessments. We no longer had the conventional setting of a proctored exam room wherein students write furiously in blue books as the clock ticks forebodingly in the background. Moving exams online prompted instructors to weigh issues of trust in students and reconsider the purposes and formats of exams. Mandy Long, a graduate student and instructor in the UConn Philosophy Department, used the shift online to rethink her exams. For the first time, she started using Blackboard to administer them which has proven simpler and more efficient. It also has the added benefit of removing concerns about biasing in grading. She remarked that “the BlackBoard grading process gives me an anonymous random exam. I grade each question, then it does everything else for me and puts it in the gradebook. There’s no more time-consuming addition or page-flipping. It’s incredible.” She decided to model her online exam after law exams, and thus it was “open-book, open-notes.” No longer focusing solely on memorization because of the open-book format led her to get creative. For each question she created a different made-up scenario that the students had to apply one philosopher’s ideas to, or “say what one character could say to another using one philosopher’s arguments.”
For Hanna Gunn, Assistant Professor of Cognitive and Information Sciences at the University of California Merced (UCM), the transition to remote learning reiterated the value of her open-book take-home exams.
Not only do open-book exams resolve issues of having to lock browsers or set time limits exams online, which can have implications for equity and signal a lack of trust in students, but they mimic real life settings.
Dr. Gunn shared that “my own professional life is an open-book situation—I use my notes, reference the actual papers I’m talking about in real time, etc., as I write”. As such, the open-book exam acts as a more authentic assignment designed to engage students in higher-order thinking and application of ideas and concepts rather than on memorization of them.
Another key principle in teaching and learning, especially in Universal Learning Design (UDL), is that students should have multiple means of demonstrating their knowledge. This opens up some fun possibilities beyond the traditional exam which privileges students who are strong test-takers and hinders those who aren’t, despite being just as knowledgeable. One creative alternative that Dr. Gunn gives as an option is a group podcast, an innovative assignment that develops secondary skills in communicating ideas within one’s discipline, storytelling, and audio editing. One student group invented a radio show with interviews and phone callers, another a true crime podcast, and a third group put together a satirical podcast with a host of absurd characters who discussed class concepts. In providing alternatives, instructors want to be sure that there is an equitable workload between the options. As anyone who has edited a podcast knows, it is a considerable task, but one that is likely to increase motivation for students and provide them with a tangible outcome that they can share with others.
There are pros and cons to any mode of delivery, but what remains true is that online or in-person, it is teaching and learning that should be guiding our decisions, including the activities we assign, the assessments we give, and the technologies we use.
A massive turnover of our default ways of teaching is disruptive and difficult, and some have borne the weight of this more than others. But rapid change also pushes us past our comfort zones in ways that can have long lasting benefits. We will all likely find a practice or two of value that going remote has illuminated for us. For me, it ranged from simple things like having all my assignments turned in via Blackboard, which saved me from trying to find and organize them, to the pleasant realization that introverts were participating more in online discussions. From this a larger lesson has emerged that applies to teaching as well as life: to embrace uncertainty and to push ourselves outside of our comfort zones. While these adaptations might seem intimidating at first, they have the potential of improving our students’ experiences and learning once we are back in-person. For us, that in and of itself, makes any moment of discomfort worth it.