Graduate Courses: Instruction and Communication Strategies

Synchronous Activities

Some graduate programs reported little impediment to seminar-style interactions, while others mentioned challenges in achieving similar levels of dynamic discussion as existed in person (due to absence of visual cues people use to manage their own behavior in a conversation). Here are some things to keep in mind for graduate instruction with FHLE:

  • Be alert to the effects of a single direction of attention in the virtual component of synchronous activities;
  • Be sensitive to the fact that while for some the online environment relieves certain anxieties about interaction, for others the experience of being “on screen” poses new sources of anxiety;
    • Attempt to find out about the dispositions of your students in these cases, and make arrangements individually to help maximize their experience of class time (consider calling on people who tell you they hesitate to insert themselves in the online format; consider an arrangement that allows everyone a moment of commentary before launching into more loosely structured interaction;
    • Consider giving students opportunities for “co-teaching” over the course of the semester. One or two students could be signed up for each class session, conferring ahead of time with the professor in order to discuss objectives and pedagogical options, as well as content and logistics;
  • Both face-to-face discussion with mandatory masks and fully online discussion may lack the capacity for some forms of confirmation of learning (visual cues like facial expressions and gestures, auditory cues like sounds indicating agreement, etc.). Alternative modes of indicating confirmation of a student’s understanding, or signalling a need to press further in learning, will be useful for students. This applies in both student-teacher interaction, and in interactions between students. Possibilities of missed tone and context are also multiplied by these challenges, and so clarity of expression and care that communications not sound chastising, dismissive, or confusable with micro-aggressions will help build productive learning interactions;
  • Consider choosing a selection of asynchronous comments by students to inform synchronous communication, and vary the students whose work is selected in each session. Likewise, take intentional and deliberate note of comments made in synchronous work and bring them to bear on asynchronous feedback (in online threads, on papers, etc);
  • Find ways to vary the synchronous concentration on a text by using screen-sharing (if online) and board display (if FTF) of excerpts to promote group focus;
    • This could include sharing online collaboration on textual excerpts in a tool like Perusall;
    • If co-teaching is used a co-teacher could negotiate adding marginalia/commentary to the shared text to produce a group artifact by discussion’s end, that is either stored on the course website or shared digitally when the session is over;
  • Consider how the practical dimensions of your program, if present, will unfold in the HF environment. How will the learning objectives implicit in practical work be pursued if FTF contact with partners, access to site-specific work, etc. is not possible?
    • Are simulations available?
    • Can partners/sites connect virtually and if so what protocols might need to be considered (scheduling issues that may be different from FTF routines, increase in asynchronous contact between students and site-partners, etc)?
    • Can asynchronous collaboration spaces be made to accommodate non-Fordham partners If so which are the best possibilities? 

Asynchronous Activities 

  • Online tools like Voicethread and Perusall could be used to explore interpretive options in approaching complex texts in a graduate population where diverse methodologies are employed;
    • Threads where students adopt different interpretive standpoints and actively engage others (in writing) could create dynamic interactions that carry over to or extend live collaborations in learning;
    • Students could be required to comment in a module a set minima of times, and to respond to others a set minima of times in order to encourage robust participation;
    • Students can reflectively collect their participation in online threads over the course of part or all of the semester in order to develop a high-order view of possible research topics, intellectual challenges likely within that topic, etc;
  • In STEM graduate work students might be encouraged to share the challenges of the Hybrid model in pursuing research and share solutions to obstacles raised by limited access to live subjects, laboratory settings, inadequacies of simulations, etc;
    • These modes of sharing might be encouraged across disciplines, as they sometimes involve elements that are common to a number of areas;
    • The University might consider privileging certain modes of on-campus access (particular buildings and laboratories, classrooms) for those whose work cannot be replicated virtually. 

Knowledge Demonstration

  • Writing long papers can be a positive demonstration of learning in the online environment as for the face to face modality, and is an essential skill to develop professionally. However, some students find the focus and concentration required for such work to be a strain in the online environment, especially in crisis periods. Be alert to these issues and adaptive to students’ needs for support, guidance, encouragement, or alternatives for assessment;
  • To the extent that examinations are used in graduate courses we have no reason to believe that similar student considerations apply as in the case of undergraduates who in Spring experienced problems with: timed exams, exams where one could not return to prior questions, or exams where questions disappeared after a time;
  • Take-home exams of at least 24 hours were less susceptible to technological or other disruptions in taking them.

Communications Protocols

  • Be sure to have a clear policy about how consistent communication will occur in a class and/or academic unit;
  • If using Google Drive, make sure materials are well-organized and easy to locate. Provide direct links in communications if a folder or document is referenced in a communication;
  • If Blackboard is being used, be sure that the Home page is welcoming, clear, organized, and directs students to the nodes in which work and information may be found;
  • If Blackboard is not being used what central location will provide students clear and consistent access to all relevant information, and from a variety of devices? Remember students may experience ‘platform fatigue’ if too many different collaboration spaces are used across a program, so adopting Departmental norms/suggestions may be very desirable.

Collaboration Opportunities and Tools
Graduate students may enjoy the participation in and at times creation of online collaboration opportunities. These might include:

  • Voicethread discussions;
  • Special topical Zoom sessions;
  • Perusall exercise (live or asynchronous) on texts, images, or video clips selected by instructor or students;
  • Discussion Boards on pre-established and/or spontaneous topics of interest in the course;
  • Opportunities to discuss the relevance of course material to professionals in the field, or to explore practical objectives of students taking the course/completing that degree program by making connections with alumni, employers, professionals, etc.

While it is non uncommon for high-level disciplinary content to drive the construction of syllabi, material, and assignments at the graduate level, consider the particular challenges and needs of students encountering these details at this time.

  • Will learning objectives be inflected by the pandemic and its economic impacts? How can that be explicit in the syllabus?
  • Are there ways of engaging students in the selection of certain aspects of the course’s content and assessment instruments? Empowering students to help set the standards and goals they will be assessed by can increase engagement and forge community, while decreasing anxiety;
  • Attendance Flexibility: Consider having provisions for flexibility on attendance requirements as the fluid environment of the pandemic and FHLE unfolds. How can students make up for absences at live sessions that are beyond their control or necessary for reasons arising from their own experience at this time?
  • Consider a variety of formats for the use of synchronous and asynchronous course elements. This will better meet the variety of students’ learning styles, while also overcoming the limitations of attention span that seem to be shorter via Zoom than in live seminars;
  • Here is some recommended and suggested language for syllabi.