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John Tures
Professor of Political Science at LaGrange College

July 13, 2020

COVID-19 forced many teaching assistants and instructors to adapt traditional practices to a new and often unfamiliar environment.

COVID-19 forced many teaching assistants and instructors to adapt traditional practices to a new and often unfamiliar environment. And it’s likely that many graduate students who have to serve as T.A.s will have to teach online again this Fall.

Having taught summer online classes over the last several years, and researched the evaluation of classes, I have a little experience in tracking student participation and progress, and presenting and publishing the results. It will be helpful for the graduate student teaching his or her first discussion session, or the veteran T.A. having to learn new virtual lessons.

In this article, I provide some lessons I learned from the first month of evaluating several online courses, hopefully giving you some ideas about assessing learning platforms and following undergraduate performance on assignments. I hope this will help those of you who are having to teach online in the Fall semester of 2020.

Lesson 1: Be Prepared For A Student Involvement Recession After Initial Participation

In tracking attendance across the classes, I found that regardless of format, there was higher attendance in the first few classes, as students were excited by the novelty of the format (78.3%) in the first third of the month’s classes. In the middle third of the month’s time frame, however, class attendance fell (to 39.2%), a combination of the novelty wearing off, and students adjusting to health, economic, and social changes (getting temporary jobs, volunteering to help combat the coronavirus, juggling online advising and registration, having to move in with parents and siblings). As Spring Break approached, you would expect the numbers to further decline, but they actually rebounded in the final third of the month, up to 61%, a function of looming exams and paper deadlines, I expect.

I’ve heard all kinds of stories, ranging from professors teaching huge classes with empty chatrooms to colleagues with a steady level of input. Others experienced wild success with a “Discord" party for their psychology majors. But the lesson is clear: Continue to track your student involvement to catch such dips in turnout.

Lesson 2: Find Ways To Reach Students With Good Excuses For Being Absent

You’re likely to hear more cases during this pandemic, and most are quite legitimate. I have one student who was asked by his father to help with the family law practice by day when the firm had to shut its doors and tell the members to stay at home. Another volunteered to get meals for his community. One was hired locally to fill in for a temporary position, getting much needed income to his family. Another had Internet connectivity problems in her rural location.

The best practice is to find ways to get these absent students to stay connected. Find ways to archive your chatrooms so that students who legitimately have to miss classes can keep up with the discussion. You may have to consider nontraditional office hours to keep up with students during these difficult times, as a fellow professor advised me.

Lesson 3: Post Your Lectures And Liven Them Up

Students juggling the stress of the coronavirus era need to still access the course material. But instructors have told me about the struggles with the technology, and the inability to load up or email long lectures. There’s also a real fear that students will find such class speeches to be boring, and would be unwilling to listen to them.

Other professors and I have found success with posting video lectures online in a YouTube link that students can follow. Some programs allow limited audio files, something I’ve used for years, on pages and slides. And there are ways to lure students in to tuning in to those lectures. Keep them relatively short, maybe 2-3 20-minute bursts rather than 40-60 minute sermons. I usually play soundtrack music in the back, related where possible to the material. And I’ll wear something to get student interest, donning my academic robes and poufy hat for a chat about international law, and a Houston Astros jersey when talking about cheating in the Tragedy of the Commons game for a talk about environmentalism. And I label these “podcasts," which gets them excited, as students are really into these radio-style shows. Perhaps this article will stimulate your own ideas on how to get your students interested catching your video or audio lectures outside of class. But I have noticed that class viewership of my online videos approaches 100%, as opposed to 20% viewership of videotaped classes that I posted online when I taught a similar course five years ago.

Lesson 4: Better Participation Leads To Better Performance On Exams

I also assessed how well student attendance was connected to course examinations. It is worth noting that all class powerpoint slides were posted online in our college’s learning management system, along with YouTube video lectures or audio lectures on each powerpoint slide, in some cases. Students were also encouraged to email me with questions. Attendance was taken, but was not part of a student’s grade, recognizing the realities of the challenging situation.

In a course with my majors, students with strong attendance records (defined as being involved in 80% or more of the chats or videoconferences) received an average score of 87 on a multiple choice and essay online exam, with grades generally clumped around the mean (no one received less than a B with strong attendance). Those with lower attendance scores received an 83, with a pair of outliers. The gap widened to a ten-point difference when these outliers were removed.

In an interdisciplinary class with a mix of majors, the findings showed a wider gap between strong attendees and those with moderate to low attendance records. Those with strong attendance records achieved an average score of 93.1% (again, with an online exam with multiple choice and essay questions), while those with lesser records managed an 82.4% mean score. 

The findings also applied to a class of professional students. For those with a strong attendance record, these students were able to get a 95% average on a multiple-choice online exam, better than those who had a lower attendance record (88.6%).

In each case, better attendance increased test scores between 4-10 points. I will now be able to use such data to convince students of the value of participating in these online discussions, something I couldn’t do before. If you are looking at boosting attendance in synchronous or asynchronous discussion formats, collecting such data on prior assignments should be beneficial.

Lesson 5: Track Student Performance & Learn From It

But the most important lesson I’ve learned is the importance of tracking student input and performance. I’ve learned that for some students, I need to archive and post the chatroom discussion boards for all to see. I can share stories with the students about the need to follow the discussions, for class performance on tests.

I know many graduate students serving as teaching assistants, new instructors and even professors are struggling with the new format and technology, and may see such analysis as a bridge too far, not worth the time. But as I have discovered, it’s worth it learning about how your students are learning, and whether you need to make adjustments before the semester ends, especially given the possibility such formats may have to persist into the Fall of this year, and well into 2021.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia. The author would like to thank Beth Tures, Randall Adams, Chris West, and John Orlando for their input.