Supporting student learning during times of disruption

Elon faculty and students are usually able to teach and learn as planned in the syllabus. However, there are times when disruptions related to weather, travel, or illness mean that plans need to be adjusted to include additional remote or online course components. Taking the possibility of disruption into account at the course design stage by planning alternative instructional approaches can make any necessary mid-semester transition smoother for you and your students alike.

In times of significant disruption, the key goal is to build a plan that will help students get the support they need to meet your most essential course objectives. During any necessary mid-semester shift, remember that you and your students may be experiencing a wide range of challenges such as limited internet bandwidth, difficulty finding quiet and safe locations to work, and added emotional and cognitive load: Compassion is key. Even in challenging circumstances, you can create engaging learning experiences and maintain a supportive and nourishing class community in spite of the temporary disruption.

As you create your plan, use the questions below to think about how you will address continuity for each of the teaching activities or assignments in your courses.

Communicating with students

Create a detailed communications plan and communicate with students early and often. Once you have details about changes in the class, communicate them to students, along with information about how they can contact you (email, online office hours, etc.) and reassurance that although this shift is unexpected, their learning will continue. They will have many questions, so within that communication plan, try to let students know how soon they can expect a reply.

Things to consider:

  • Communicating clearly and early students about your continuity plan. Questions helpful to consider:
    • How often will you communicate with students and what tools will you use for communication (e.g., Moodle Quickmail and course announcements, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, WhatsApp)? What tools or internet access do they have available? (Download a Word doc version of questions you could ask, created by Amanda Sturgill, here.)
    • How comfortable are you with the tools available for communication? How can you increase your–or your students’ confidence in using these tools? 
  • What are the best ways to effectively manage your communication load?
    • For example, you might answer frequently asked questions for the entire group through a group email, by adding an informational page to Moodle, or by holding office hours via conference call for students who have limited access to laptops or data plans.

Reorganizing course content

Consider realistic goals for continuing instruction and communicate any changes in the plan to students:

  • What do you think you can realistically accomplish during this time period? Can you (and your students) maintain the pace, quantity, and quality of work outlined in your original syllabus and schedule under the conditions of this disruption? If not, what reasonable alterations could you make?
    • Pacing: Given likely differences in pace when teaching remotely, how might the timing of course content, assignments, and assessments need to be adjusted?
    • Reevaluating: Being mindful of your overall learning outcomes, can or will you adjust content, materials, and assignments to more explicitly align with your most essential course goals?

Ensuring access to course materials

When migrating instruction online, materials such as readings, textbooks, and learning supports may need to be exchanged or altered in ways that maintain accessibility for students with a range of needs and in a range of settings.

  • Consider whether your course materials (e.g., readings, resources, syllabus and course schedule) are currently available to students online in formats that are also phone-friendly or accessible for students without WiFi or a computer. If you can’t scan related documents because of length or copyright concerns, talk to your library liaison about alternative materials or consult the library research guides, which provide an overview of resources (mostly online) for each disciplinary area.
  • Other accessibility concerns to consider:

Delivering course content

Many helpful tools and strategies already exist when thinking about fundamental ways of engaging students with the content of your course.  As you plan, consider:

  • How will you convey information, through readings, lectures, videos, demos, or some other source?
    • Visit our web page for Interactive Lecturing
    • See Carlton College’s Options for Communicating Course Content for a list of creative options.
    • Visit Princeton University’s Strategies for Direct Instruction for examples of strategies tailored toward different teaching contexts, including lectures, seminars, lab-based courses, and studio courses.
    • If you plan to record your own lectures, there are a range of strategies you can use to deliver those, either synchronously (via Zoom or Microsoft Teams, which you could then record and upload to Moodle) or asynchronously (via audio or video recordings, or narrated PowerPoints).
    • If you would like to substitute your own lectures with a few high-quality prerecorded lectures, videos or demos: Talk to your library liaison (who can, by appointment, provide virtual research and library instructional support) or consult the library research guides, which provide an overview of resources (mostly online) for each disciplinary area.
  • Labs, studio, or field experiences: How can these activities be altered in such a way that your learning outcomes are still met? Could alternative independent learning experiences be developed?
    • See “How to Quickly (and safely) move a lab online” for some great ideas. (Chronicle). Consider which learning objectives are crucial to prioritize in an online environment — data collection, data analysis, learning techniques or instrumentation, or some other. If data analysis is key, for example, then you could share preexisting or ”dummy” data with students then ask them to analyze and submit their findings. If understanding data collection or techniques are key, could aspects of the lab be accomplished if students watch them as simulation videos.

Developing assignments and assessments

Think strategically and creatively about how to assess student learning online: As with any assignment, the most effective online assignments or activities are closely aligned with your intended learning goals and help students develop the skills to succeed. Being as transparent as possible about what you will assess, why you are assessing it, and how, can help your students succeed while also helping you focus your grading and feedback. Additionally, you might consider:

  • How to balance compassion and rigor given the unusual circumstances, as you adapt major assignments or final exams
  • How to encourage and assess students’ engagement in online discussions, reflection-oriented activities, or small group projects (for the latter, you might check out the Inside Higher Education article, 8 Ways to Improve Group Work Online)
  • How to modify quizzes, tests, presentations, or exams if necessary, so that students demonstrate their learning in different ways (e.g., projects, portfolios) or in ways they can complete with a “low-tech” adjustment (in cases where students have limited internet access)
    • For example, for classes with significant writing (weekly responses, multiple papers, etc.), students could have the opportunity to revise a certain number of assignments and compile them into a final portfolio. The portfolio should then be annotated, where students explain their writing and revision process for each piece and include a brief introductory statement about the work as a whole, or which elements of their growth in the class the portfolio highlights.
    • Or, for planned in-class student presentations, you could ask students to record their presentation using simple technology (such as a cell phone or their computer) and upload it to Moodle for you or the entire class to view. One lower tech option, if oral communication isn’t a core learning objective, might be to ask students to submit a written script of their presentation to assess content knowledge and other skills like persuasive thinking.
  • How to effectively give feedback online. See the Chronicle guide: “How to give better feedback to your students with technology.” for suggestions
  • Review any expectations related to the Honor Code and remind students of them, or clarify given adapted learning environments or methods.

Maintaining a Supportive Classroom Community

Creating a supportive classroom environment is equally essential to learning online or remotely, as students offer one another quick feedback, encouragement, and motivation to stay engaged with the course regardless of where they may be or how conditions may change.

  • How will you encourage communication and collaboration among students in your course and maintain a cohesive sense of classroom community?
    • Online spaces such as blogs and discussion forums create spaces for students to post reflections on course content or assignments, comment on one another’s work and thinking, and share questions and strategies for understanding course content and its application.
    • Web-based documents such as a wiki or synchronous web-based technologies such as Google docs can allow student groups to work collaboratively at a distance, allowing them to discuss and iterate on group projects and complete assignments.
  • The teaching guide, “Teaching in Times of Crisis,” developed by Vanderbilt’s center for teaching, reminds us that many of us have taught through challenging times in the past, while also suggesting some simple steps instructors can take to make things a little easier on themselves and their students. It includes an important reminder that our students or our colleagues may face different kinds of challenges during course disruptions–physical, emotional, cognitive, and financial–that can impact learning and performance. We don’t have to be directly impacted by a crisis for it to have a significant impact on health, well-being, and stress levels. When possible, offer all students additional flexibility to meet deadlines, adjust workloads, and the necessary time to adapt to a changing situation, or to find resources and support that help them learn and thrive.
  • Mays Imad’s “Hope Matters,” an article on Inside Higher Education, offers additional ideas about how to sustain and foster student hope and sense of connection, such as creating a space for them to exchange phone numbers and using hopeful and optimistic language when you talk about the future.
  • Mental health resources may be useful to have handy as you find yourself on the front lines of needing to help students who have mental health concerns.
    • Managing anxiety and stress, a helpful resource from the CDC
    • Therapy Assistance Online (TAO) Self-Help, is a completely private–free to Elon students, faculty and staff–online library of behavioral health resources that includes interactive educational modules and practice tools to help you understand and manage how you feel, think, and act. is exclusively licensed on Elon’s campus.

Works Cited & Resources

Katie Linder’s “Keep Teaching: Resources for Higher Ed.” offers a free online community for sharing helpful resources, ideas, practical ideas, and other support during a suspension of in-class meetings.

Adapted from resources at UNC-Asheville, Vanderbilt and Brown University and others linked to directly above.