Spotlight on Teaching and Learning: Supporting Your Students’ Return to Campus

August 6, 2021

Students, like many faculty and staff, are returning to campus after more than a year of remote teaching and learning. What are some of the challenges students are likely to face as they prepare for an in-person Fall semester? How can instructors support student learning in a way that is inclusive and responds to students’ new and ongoing needs? We share a summary of recent findings on students’ experiences with remote learning and offer instructional strategies designed to enhance student learning as we prepare for a different kind of “normal.”

Students Experienced Complex and Persistent Challenges in AY 2020-21

For many students, remote learning exacerbated existing challenges and surfaced new and unexpected ones. Last year’s series of Student Pulse Surveys highlighted the ups and downs students experienced with respect to their mental health, including, but not limited to, reports of depression and anxiety. The most recent Student Pulse Survey suggests that graduation plans may be delayed for more than a quarter of transfer students. By the end of Spring 2021, 65% of undergraduate students reported Zoom burnout “nearly every day”.

A national survey of 2,000 undergraduate students from 108 two- and four-year college institutions offers insight into other student learning challenges:

  • Students found it challenging to concentrate when listening to remote lectures.

  • Students reported spending more time completing course assignments when learning remotely compared to pre-COVID years.

  • When asked to take stock of the previous academic year, students expressed feeling like they learned less compared to pre-COVID years.

  • A majority of first-year students surveyed reported feeling unprepared for their first year at college.

Despite the complexity of these challenges, instructors can play a critical role in supporting students and creating inclusive learning environments that can respond to ongoing and unexpected needs.

Strategies for Designing Flexible, Inclusive Courses

As you look forward to the Fall semester, consider incorporating one or more of the following strategies into your course design and instructional practice. This non-exhaustive list of strategies highlights three areas of course preparation: course planning, assessment design, and enhancing instructor-student interactions.

Position what students will learn, rather than what you plan to teach, at the center of your course design.

  • What skills, topics, or concepts will set students up for success in their discipline? Although it may feel like a disservice to students, the reality is that all learners can only focus so much of their concentration for a limited amount of time. Identify what is most important for students to learn and dedicate students’ expected course hours to learning those skills, topics, or concepts deeply.

  • When will students actively engage with their learning? Research suggests that students learn effectively when engaging in their learning beyond passive note taking and listening (Freeman et al., 2014). Consider when, how, and how often, you ask students to discuss, self-explain, problem-solve, reflect, analyze, or other action-oriented ways of learning.

Design flexible assessments that help students check in with their learning and help you to determine whether students are learning what you expect them to learn.

  • What kinds of testing and assessment environments best support student learning? Research suggests that timed-exams can enhance student anxiety and, in many disciplines, are not an effective indicator of student learning (Gernsbacher et al., 2020). Similarly, research suggests that closed-book exams limit students’ effective demonstration of learning by limiting their ability to organize their own knowledge and self-explain concepts (Hiller et al., 2020).

  • How do you vary assessment formats to evaluate a wider range of student learning? Consider implementing universal learning practices that include giving students’ multiple options to demonstrate their knowledge (e.g., written, oral, visual) and engage with the course material (e.g., letting students select their own topic for a research project or paper) (Sanger, 2020).

  • How do you create opportunities for students to practice their skills in low-stakes assignments? Incorporate assignments that allow students to check in with their own learning in a low-stakes, or even ungraded, format. Strategies such as weekly written responses, discussion boards, quizzes, polling questions, and peer discussion can help students identify gaps in their knowledge and prepare for upcoming high-stakes exams or assignments. For assignments that may be new or unusual, provide specific guidelines or templates. For instance, provide a template for a poster, so that students unfamiliar with the structure can focus more time on the content than the form.

Incorporate inclusive teaching practices into your everyday interactions with students.

  • Proactively learn about your students, especially their prior educational contexts. Ask students to complete an anonymous survey prior to the start of the semester to learn more about students’ prior knowledge, relevant experiences, and professional interests. (e.g., Pacansky-Brock, "Getting to Know You Survey")

  • Foster a growth mindset in your students. Research suggests that students’ mindsets, referring to how students perceive their abilities, play a key role in their motivation and academic achievement (Good et al., 2012). When designing assignments, giving feedback, and speaking with students, signal confidence in each student’s ability to build upon their knowledge with practice and time.

  • Be explicit about course expectations. Articulate course policies and a grading breakdown in your syllabi. Consider using rubrics to evaluate student work for course assignments, especially high-stakes ones. When rubrics are used on low-stakes assessments, they can help students understand the nature and scope of learning expected, the level of learning expected, and then make decisions about their current level of learning to inform revision and improvement (Reddy and Andrade, 2010). 

  • Represent diversity in syllabi and course content. Who is featured in your course and course materials? Consider content-related opportunities to include and highlight the contributions of scholars from underrepresented and excluded groups in your discipline (e.g., Schinske et al., 2016) and use diverse examples to illustrate concepts.

Navigating the Unexpected is Our New “Normal”

Returning to campus will be an adjustment for all students. For students who are reacquainting themselves with campus resources or stepping onto campus for the first time, there are bound to be unexpected challenges. Help students enhance their learning and advance toward their professional and personal goals by designing courses that recognize and make space for diverse student needs and interests. 

References & Resources:

Freeman, Scott, et al. "Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics." Proceedings of the national academy of sciences 111.23 (2014): 8410-8415.

Gernsbacher, Morton Ann, Raechel N. Soicher, and Kathryn A. Becker-Blease. (2020). “Four Empirically Based Reasons Not to Administer Time-Limited Tests.” Translational Issues in Psychological Science, 6(2): 175-190.

Good, C., A. Rattan, and C. S. Dweck. (2012). “Why do women opt out? Sense of belonging and women’s representation in mathematics.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(4): 700-717.

Hiller, Sara, Stefan Rumann, Kirsten Berthold, and Julian Roelle. (2020). “Example-based learning: should learners receive closed-book or open-book self-explanation prompts?” Instructional Science, 48: 623-649.

Pacansky-Brock, Michelle, Michael Smedshammer, and Kim Vincent-Layton. "Humanizing online teaching to equitize higher education." Manuscript submitted for publication (2019). See also:

Reddy, Y., & Andrade, H. (2010). “A review of rubric use in higher education.” Assessment & Evaluation In Higher Education, 35(4), 435-448.

Sanger, Catherine Shea. (2020). “Inclusive Pedagogy and Universal Design Approaches for Diverse Learning Environments” in Diversity and Inclusion in Global Higher Education: Lessons from Across Asia, edited by Catherine Shea Sanger and Nancy W. Gleason. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan.

Schinske, Jeffrey N., et al. "Scientist spotlight homework assignments shift students’ stereotypes of scientists and enhance science identity in a diverse introductory science class." CBE—Life Sciences Education 15.3 (2016): ar47.