It is inevitable that the high adrenaline rush of getting ready for the new academic year and Responsive Blended Learning will give way at some point to a dip in motivation and enthusiasm. The ‘Week Four Wobble’ is common even in a ‘normal’ year. It is likely to be even more keenly felt this semester. So how can you keep yourself – and your students – motivated and inspired? In this blog, Professor Martha Caddell offers some hints and tips to keep your students engaged and you & your course team enthused.
How has the start of term been for you – and what does the view ahead look like? For many colleagues I’ve been speaking to, there seems to be a pattern:
- Week 0: The rush of activity, anticipation and anxiety as materials for the first few weeks of semester are pulled together, session plans put in place, and welcome videos recorded, re-recorded, and posted.
- Week 1: A palpable relief to be underway with teaching. For some, a surge of confidence that students turn up to sessions, technology works and all that effort over the summer to learn new skills, develop new approaches is going to pay off. A glimmer of a thought that teaching through RBL could actually be enjoyable and engaging.
- Week 3: Perhaps a worry or two about how you and your students will be able to keep going at this pace and maintain enthusiasm for the whole semester. Some students may not be actively participating in live sessions and you are running out of ideas of things to try. You may be missing the familiarity and ease of communication of a pre-Covid class as Collaborate Ultra, Teams and a socially-distanced lecture theatre lose their novelty. And everyone is just a bit tired.
If this pattern feels familiar and you are in need of a boost of ideas and motivation, here we offer out some top tips to help you and your students avoid the ‘Week 4 Wobble’ and move forward confidently to the rest of the semester.
These are, of course, simply suggestions, ideas and quick reminders, not a ‘must do list’. The most important thing you can do is to keep focusing on people – communicating with your students and colleagues, reinforcing messages of support and care. And, of course, extend that same care and support to yourself. A break or slowing of the pace now will help you keep going for the rest of term.
Time to Check-In
Week 4 is a good time to do a further check-in on your students, to encourage and support those who may be struggling, and to inspire those who started with enthusiasm to keep going. You may wish to:
- Post a short video, recognising the challenges your students may be facing and opening space for them to make contact with you. Remind them of your office hours. You may even want to dedicate a discussion board thread or part of a live session to helping those who are worried about falling behind or who wish a review session. This could be a student-led discussion or collaborative development of catch-up notes.
- Maintain an emphasis on building an inclusive course community. There are a wealth of resources and suggested activities available that you can adapt for your own use. You may wish to explore this Sense of Belonging in Online Learning toolkit which offers practical suggestions from course start through to assessment or this suite of community building activities from OneHE.
- Explore who is engaging with resources. Make use of the evaluation tools and dashboards on the VLE to quickly identify students who have not been engaging with course resources. You may want to follow up with a friendly email to check on their progress, remind them of your virtual office hours and invite them to make an appointment.
- Remember that there is a wealth of support available to students. Simply reminding them of this at this critical point in the semester can be very useful. Wellbeing advice and student support information is available here: https://heriotwatt.sharepoint.com/sites/Coronavirusadvice/SitePages/Supporting-Success.aspx
A Sense of Direction
Orient students to what is coming up each week and in each session will enable them to pace their effort and will support those who do fall behind to get back on track.
- Outline key learning activities each week – write or record (video, audio) these to help students stay on task and manage their time. It will also help students to feel that you are engaged and in turn will engage them. A short reflection on the previous week’s work can help students to link concepts and activities together across the course and can be useful revision and catch up point for students who may have had a disrupted period of study.
- Provide a short note of guidance alongside any asynchronous learning resources or recordings you upload to the course site on the VLE. A brief written introduction to a lecture or slide set can be helpful, especially if you include a guiding question or two for students to consider as they engage with the materials. Focused listening, reading or viewing is more active and more effective. Similarly, add a few notes after a resource, reinforcing the key points that you hope students will take from the material.
- Assessment can be a powerful motivator and provide a focus for study planning. Highlight when you will be introducing guidance about the first assignment into a live session or discussion board. This may well motivate students to attend – and you then build broader pastoral support and community building elements into the session.
- Vary the pace of study: Neither you nor your students can maintain the energy and enthusiasm of Week 1 through the whole semester. Vary the structure of your sessions and allow some space for reflection and consolidation.
Build Student Confidence in ‘Speaking Out’
Posting a comment on a discussion board or chat box can be daunting and actually turning on a mic and speaking out even more so, particularly in large or unfamiliar classes. Explore ways to build student confidence in interacting online.
- Use the whiteboard to offer an anonymous route to share questions and ideas. Using ‘pair and share’ chat box activities, allowing students to interact with just one other, can build confidence. And don’t forget the emojis, thumbs up and other buttons can be a quick fire way of checking in on students mid-session or even for doing some simple polling.
- Design in time in each class that is not recorded, so less confident participants can be encouraged to share their ideas and to speak out. The worry of being the one to ask the ‘daft question’ remains real, no matter how many times we try to disavow people of that idea. That applies to text as well as ‘mic on’ contexts. You could address this head on: introduce a whiteboard activity to post up the questions or concerns that are on students minds or ask them to discuss in break out groups and then share a collective set of questions back to the wider class. You can then pick those up and either respond immediately, post up your responses in the discussion board, or return to them at the next live session.
- Value participation beyond video. A common theme in our Week 1 Snapshot responses was a concern about speaking to a blank screen as students were not using their cameras. Replicating your on-campus lecture experience by asking students to switch on video may seem vital to help assure you of student engagement and to make your session feel more human. But there are many reasons – technical, cultural, and personal – why video use must always be a student choice and not a compulsion. And, of course, being visible does not equate with being actively engaged in learning. You may wish to encourage students to add a photo or image to their profile. Continue to build in a diverse range of engagement methods and ‘mood check’ points into your session.
- Re-emphasise the university netiquette guidance. These emphasise respect and mutual support in the online learning space. Simply highlighting this can help give students confidence and clarity around what is expected of them. There are also practical tips on accessing and using Collaborate Ultra and Discussion Boards for students, just in case understanding of technology is a barrier to engaging.
Celebrate Success, Share Practice
Course teams have worked incredibly hard to ensure such a successful start to the semester.
- Take time to meet and share experiences about what is working well. Colleagues will welcome hearing about the activities and interactions that have led to successful student engagement and inspired learning.
- Look out for colleagues who may be struggling. As the semester progresses, the importance of a strong and supportive course team will become even more evident. Share ideas, make time for informal conversations, and do not struggle alone.
- Support is available to help keep you inspired in your teaching practice and to help you tackle the teaching and technological challenges that may arise through the semester.
- There are a number of practice sharing events taking place at School, University and sector level. Taking time to join, share your practice and hear from others may offer just the boost of enthusiasm and sense of shared experience you need to step in to the next phase of teaching with confidence.
Taking time now to check in on your students, your colleagues and your own wellbeing is vital. Pacing your effort, sharing experience, and helping your students engage with their learning will hopefully help keep your enthusiasm for teaching high through the Week Four Wobble and on to the second half of the semester.
Crucially, pace yourself. Allow time for proper breaks and days off. An enthusiastic and engaged lecturer who has had a rest and time away from their screen is far, far more important to students than having a perfectly edited video uploaded.
Take breaks. Make choices. Focus on care for others and yourself. And reach out for help and support when you need it.
- Fundamentals of Online Teaching Practice
- RBL: Top tips for teaching in physically distanced contexts
- Adapting Your Assessments
- Introducing Responsive Blended Learning module materials
VIEWS FROM THE KITCHEN TABLE: SHARING PRACTICE IN SUPPORTING STUDENTS
21 OCTOBER 2020, 10:00 – 12:30
As the 2020-21 academic year gets underway, Scottish higher education institutions continue to assess how best to support students in challenging circumstances. How can we ensure that all our students can access digital learning environments and resources, and that they feel part of our learning communities? And what does blended learning look like in a physically-distanced world?
QAA Scotland, in partnership with Heriot-Watt University, is delighted to offer this half-day event with the aim of providing a safe space to share insights about the story so far and ideas for the next chapters. Please join us online for some informal, supportive discussion.
This event is free to attend and programme details will be confirmed shortly.