An Urgent Transition

Each semester, we put careful effort into designing and sequencing our courses to maximize student learning. However, severe weather, illness, or other disruptions sometimes mean that plans need to be adjusted and some components of in-person instruction must shift to remote work or online spaces. Simultaneously, we and our students may also be experiencing a wide range of related challenges such as power outages, transportation struggles, limited internet bandwidth, difficulty finding quiet and safe locations to work, and added emotional and cognitive load that reduce our capacity for engagement and productivity.

As you consider how best to adapt your course during these circumstances, it may be useful to review these Five Design Principles for Resilient Teaching. Offering students additional flexibility to meet deadlines and adjust workloads and allowing them time to adapt to a changing situation or to find resources and supports can help them learn and thrive even in disruption. Beyond these general principles, the following questions and recommendations can help each of us adapt our courses in compassionate and realistic ways when disruptions occur.

Communicating with Students

Before or at the onset of a disruption

Uncertainty and ambiguity around course work can add to the stress that students experience during a disruptive event, which can undermine learning. When a disruptive event seems likely or imminent, proactive communications can help build trust and increase the likelihood of effective communication during the aftermath. Topics you might address early on include:

  • How and when do you plan to contact students (e.g., Moodle Quickmail or Announcements, WhatsApp, etc.)?
  • How would you like students to contact you, and how quickly should they expect a reply?
  • How, or under what conditions, will any near-term due dates be altered?
  • How, or under what conditions, will near-term late penalties be suspended or revised? If this is not possible, what alternative options should students use to turn in work while experiencing infrastructure disruption?

During or in the aftermath of a disruption

Some disruptions may last for quite a while (such as the COVID-19 pandemic of spring ’20), while others can cause extended challenges in their aftermath (such as a hurricane or ice storm). During this time, regular communications can help reassure students that their learning will continue.

Questions to consider at this stage include the following:

  • How can you learn about students’ current situations and varied lived experiences during this disruption? (survey, email, text, etc.; download a list of possible questions, created by Amanda Sturgill, here, here.)
    • What campus resources might individual students need due to illness, mental health, or safety concerns?
    • What course materials or technology (laptops vs. phones) do students have with them?
    • Do they have electricity and access to a stable internet connection?
  • What are the best ways to effectively manage course communications?
    • How will you adapt office hours or other meetings for students with limited access to laptops or data plans?
    • What practices could help you manage the number of communications, such as responding to frequently asked questions for the entire group through email, video, or by creating a Moodle Forum?
  • What regular communication schedule will work best for your course and your students (e.g., weekly, twice a week, on which days)?
  • How familiar are my students and I with the necessary technologies? What support might we need?

As soon as you have decided on any changes in schedule, assignments, readings or videos, and activities, it will be helpful to communicate those to students, along with suggested ways for them to ask clarification questions or discuss their unique circumstances with you.

Re-evaluating Learning Objectives

In times of significant or extended disruption, revisiting, prioritizing, and even reducing the number of learning objectives or the depth to which we expect students to master them can benefit our students, and ourselves as instructors. Counter-intuitively, maintaining normal expectations during traumatic events or severe disruptions can further decrease learning by undermining students’ confidence in their ability to succeed and leading them to disengage. While cutting learning objectives is never an easy task, you might ask yourself the following questions:

  • For courses that meet major or minor requirements, which learning objectives are most central to students’ success in future courses for which this course is a prerequisite? What level of mastery or familiarity with those objectives is absolutely essential to prepare students for those future courses?
  • Which learning objectives will be most valuable to students in their lives or careers?
  • Which learning objectives (if any) might help students make sense of the disruption they are currently experiencing?

Once you have prioritized your course learning objectives, you might explore these questions about upcoming activities, assignments, and assessments:

  • What can you and your students realistically accomplish during this time period, given the nature of the disruption and any associated infrastructure, cognitive, and emotional challenges?
  • Are there any upcoming assignments or activities that are more peripheral to your course learning objectives that can be quickly eliminated or reduced?
  • What other alterations could you make to the pace, quantity, or scope of work outlined in your original syllabus, guided by your answers to the questions above?

The key goal is to build a plan that will help students get the support they need to meet your most essential course learning objectives and focus your (and their) efforts on maximizing those outcomes. If time allows or conditions improve, learning objectives cut or scaled back due to disruption can always be resurrected later in the term.

Choosing a Modality

Different modalities or approaches may be more or less useful to you and your students, depending on the nature of the disruptive event. For example, events accompanied by loss of electricity or internet access suggest a low-tech approach, such as asking students to read printed materials, engage in hand-written reflections or responses to prompts, and communicate by phone or text (if possible). Infectious disease outbreaks or other non-infrastructure-related disruptions may suggest blended/hybrid or online (synchronous/asynchronous) course designs, with the choice between the two depending on university guidelines, the level of current risk, state or local restrictions on occupation density or travel, student and faculty comfort levels with classroom instruction, and whether students are located on campus or at home.

In planning an emergency pivot using either modality, questions to contemplate might include the following:

  • Am I and my students located in the same or similar time zones?
  • What course activities or components would best be accomplished via in-person meetings or synchronous online interaction (via Zoom or WebEx)? Possibilities might include: Interactive lectures, perhaps including the use of polling; scaffolded small group work or peer feedback, perhaps using breakout rooms; or conferencing between instructors and individuals or groups.
    • How much synchronous online interaction is likely to be productive given the experience of “Zoom fatigue”? What classroom agreements or design practices might help keep Zoom fatigue to a minimum?
  • What course activities or components would best be accomplished via asynchronous work and engagement via Moodle or other tools? Possibilities include:
    • Reading discussions using social annotation tools like
    • Recorded lectures, perhaps including a Video Quiz using Kaltura or with a follow-up discussion forum for questions
    • Quizzes or other low-stakes assessments to help you and your students monitor their learning
    • Feedback on common mistakes or concepts students are struggling with via recorded video
    • Writing-to-learn assignments designed to prompt students to recognize their prior knowledge or prepare for group activities
    • Discussion forums that foster learning and community by inviting students to share personal experiences related to content, integrate and draw connections among ideas or concepts, discuss case studies, etc.
  • How familiar are my students and I with the necessary technologies? What support might we need?

Maintaining a supportive course community

Creating a supportive course environment is more essential than ever during disruptions. Students who experience themselves as part of a cohesive community exchange support and camaraderie, motivating each other to stay engaged regardless of where they may be or how conditions may change. The Community of Inquiry Framework provides a useful structure for thinking through social, teaching, and cognitive presence that come together to build community, especially in online or hybrid courses. CATL’s handout on Fostering Community and Belonging can be helpful in thinking about the arc of community development across the semester. In addition, the following approaches and resources may be useful in designing ways to maintain a collaborative and supportive course 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 and provide peer feedback at a distance, allowing them to discuss and iterate on group projects and complete assignments.
  • 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.
  • Larry DeBrock, Norma Scagnoli, and Fataneh Taghaboni-Dutta argue in The Human Element in Online Learning that “online education can be surprisingly intimate,” and offer concrete suggestions for engaging all students and nurturing their bonds with one another and with us.
  • Finally, CATL’s web resource on Trauma-Informed Teaching offers guidance for course design and instructional approaches that reinforce students’ “sense of control, connection, and meaning” to help them thrive after personal or shared trauma (Carello, 2020).

During times of increased stress, tempers may be short, and we are all more susceptible to our own implicit biases. Creating course agreements or guidelines for respectful interaction can help raise everyone’s awareness of supportive and mutually-beneficial communication norms. It may also be helpful to develop a proactive plan for how we might address bias and microaggressions in virtual spaces. Additional 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 is a helpful resource from the U.S. Center for Disease Control.
  • WellTrack and MindWise are self-screening and self-tracking mental health resources available to Elon students via Counseling Services.
  • Elon’s Counseling Services include individual care and counseling, ongoing support groups, and workshops on a variety of mental health-related topics.
  • Finally, it may be helpful during times of disruption to be even more proactive than usual in referring students to Student Care and Outreach, so that students receive additional support beyond the course context.

Ensuring access to course materials and information

As noted above, when a disruption that may interrupt power or internet is approaching, it may be useful to ask students to proactively print or download course materials such as readings or assignments. You might consider the following:

  • Are your course materials (e.g., readings, resources, syllabus and course schedule) currently available to students online in formats that are easily printed, phone-friendly, or accessible for students without WiFi or a computer?
  • Is it feasible to scan upcoming course readings or documents because of length or copyright concerns?
  • If you need to find alternative materials, have you contacted your library liaison or consulted the library research guides, which provide an overview of resources (mostly online) for each disciplinary area?

If lecture or in-class demonstrations are substantive elements any upcoming class sessions, additional considerations may come into play.

  • For synchronous or recorded lectures, how can you take advantage of research-supported design elements such as interactive lecture to help hold students’ attention?
  • Are any useful narrated animations, visualizations, interactive media, simulations, videos, or podcasts available online, through the library research guides, or by consulting with your library liaison?
  • If infrastructure disruptions are likely, can lecture notes be converted to a form that does not require high-speed internet (e.g., PowerPoint file with lecture notes accompanying each slide; lecture notes typed into a text format)?

When migrating instruction online, readings, textbooks, and learning supports may need to be exchanged or altered to maintain accessibility for students with a range of needs and in a range of settings. Visit CATL’s page on meeting the needs of students with disabilities in online and remote environments for more information about Universal Design for Learning and related topics. A few of the most critical questions to consider include these:

  • If any students in your course have visual impairments, are lecture notes or assignment guidelines provided in a format such as a Word document with headers that is converted to a PDF, which can be navigated using screenreading programs?
  • If any students in your course have hearing impairments, are videos and synchronous online class sessions (for example, using Microsoft Teams, Zoom, or even PowerPoint) captioned?
  • If students encounter bandwidth limitations, intermittent internet connections, or other technological hurdles, what alternate ways can you provide for them to access materials or participate in activities?
  • Are synchronous online course sessions recorded and uploaded for later viewing?
  • Can you provide transcripts for videos or recorded lectures?
  • May students submit comments or reflections on a discussion board if they are unable to participate in an in-class discussion?

Additional resources on accessibility include Rice University’s page on ensuring Inclusion, Equity and Access While Teaching Remotely and the American Historical Association’s page on Best Practices for Accessibility in Online Education.

Designing activities and providing feedback

As at any other time, assignments or activities during disruptions help students practice the skills they need to succeed on higher-stakes assessments, in future courses, or in their lives or future professions. However, depending on the modality for course continuity, there may be unique affordances of technology you can leverage, or additional challenges to student engagement that you may want consider. Some questions to explore include the following:

  • If students must perform work that requires using special symbols or formats (such as solving math problems or writing music scores), can they submit photos of handwritten work or access special software programs for that purpose?
  • How can assignments or activities serve double-duty by also encouraging a strong and supportive course community?
  • What additional guidelines or scaffolding might enable group work to be more effective? You might check out the Inside Higher Education article, 8 Ways to Improve Group Work Online.
  • How can technology help reduce students’ stress by allowing you to target learning outcomes more specifically or offer a broader array of choices?
    • For example, might offering ideas out loud during a class session, posting questions or comments in a Zoom/WebEx chat box, and posting reflections or questions (in text, audio file, or video) on a discussion forum all count equally for any participation credit?
    • Might students be able to record and post videos of themselves presenting, rather than needing to present live, to allow them to focus on the content of a presentation?

Lab or studio-based courses often present a unique challenge during disruptions to on-campus classroom instruction. In these contexts, revisiting course learning outcomes and thinking creatively about ways for students to practice and master them is key.

  • The Chronicle of Higher Education article “How to Quickly (and safely) move a lab online” suggests, for example, that if data analysis is a central outcome, we might share preexisting or “dummy” data with students then ask them to analyze and submit their findings. If understanding data collection or other techniques is key, aspects of the lab might be accomplished by asking students to watch simulation videos.
  • Princeton University’s Strategies for Direct Instruction page offers examples of strategies tailored toward different teaching contexts, including lab-based courses and studio courses.

While practice is essential to learning, practice accompanied by targeted feedback is exponentially more effective. Since students may be more likely to experience cognitive overload during a disruption, being as transparent as possible about what you are looking for in an activity or assignment, why, and how, is even more important to helping students succeed (while also helping you focus your grading and feedback). The Chronicle guide How to give better feedback to your students with technology offers useful suggestions for those teaching in online or hybrid modalities. Finally, providing students the option to revise work by incorporating feedback helps them learn from that feedback, reduces the impact of learning difficulties that result from the disruption, and may reduce the grade-related stress students are experiencing alongside the stress of a disruption.

Assessing learning during disruptions

Due to the infrastructure, cognitive, and emotional challenges associated with significant disruptions, high-stakes assessments are particularly fraught for students, who are less likely to be able to perform to their full capacity and accurately demonstrate the level of mastery they have achieved. Since these assessments may need to occur outside the classroom setting, they may also be troublesome for instructors concerned about academic integrity. If at all possible, it can be helpful to reschedule major assessments until well after a disruptive even has resolved.

If the disruption is likely to continue for some time, you might explore the following options:

  • Can major assessments be swapped out for more-frequent, lower-stakes assessments throughout the semester? What other inclusive assessment approaches might be applied?
  • How might you modify quizzes, presentations, or exams to allow students to demonstrate their learning in different ways, potentially including “low-tech” options (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 could 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.
  • In what other ways might you incorporate trauma-informed practices such as providing choice and control to students around how they will demonstrate their learning?

If planned high-stakes assessments cannot be eliminated or substantively modified, considerations outlined on the Balancing Rigor & Compassion in Assessment During Times of Disruption page can help to maximize their effectiveness under these conditions. Asking students to affirm their understanding of the Honor Code and how it applies to online or remote assessments can be surprisingly effective at reducing academic integrity violations. Finally, some faculty have been pleased with the effectiveness of online proctoring software such as the Respondus Lockdown Browser, though it may be important to carefully consider the inclusivity concerns related to these technologies.

Additional Resources

The IT Service Desk can help with questions about Elon-supported tools, including Moodle, Zoom, WebEx, Microsoft Teams, and Kaltura. CATL can help you think through design aspects of the course or assignments. The Strategies and Resources page of this site provides guidance on a wide range of related topics, such as ensuring accessibility of online course materials, adapting student presentations, holding office hours, and supporting students. Other resources that might be useful include the following: