Checking in on your semester

Christopher Buddle, Associate Provost (Teaching and Academic Programs), spoke to the Reporter about how McGill is collaborating with students on the continued improvement of the remote learning experience.
“Everyone worked hard through the summer to improve on that experience for the Fall semester –and we’re still making adjustments. We’re still learning,” says Christopher Buddle, Associate Provost (Teaching and Academic Programs)Owen Egan

In a recent message to the community, Principal Fortier talked about how the COVID-19 pandemic is a period of “intense learning” – and the faculty and staff behind the remote delivery of the semester’s courses would certainly agree. “As big an undertaking as it was to transition some 2,000 courses to remote learning back in March, that was only the beginning,” says Christopher Buddle, Associate Provost (Teaching and Academic Programs). “Everyone worked hard through the summer to improve on that experience for the Fall semester –and we’re still making adjustments. We’re still learning.” Prof. Buddle spoke to the Reporter about how McGill University is collaborating with students on the continued improvement of the remote learning experience.

How has the University been listening to students’ experiences during the Fall 2020 semester?

Several ways. There was a structured survey for students across the University which almost 10,000 students completed. We are just starting to look at those results; it will really help us with the rest of this semester, but also looking forward to the Winter 2021 term. At the Faculty level, there have been feedback and discussion forums, focus groups and town halls. Also, Teaching and Learning Services, in collaboration with the Provost’s Office, has held forum sessions for student leaders.

Is there one particular concern that seems to be top of mind for students?

Right off the top, we have heard, loud and clear, that taking a full load of remote courses is really difficult. So it’s no surprise to hear that students are feeling overwhelmed, and feeling fatigued by studying online so intensely. The number-one issue that they raised is the increased amount of work, and with that can come difficulty focusing and staying motivated, balancing learning and personal responsibilities, and general concerns about managing time and stress. The majority of the returning students who completed the survey said they are spending more hours on each course than they did in in Fall 2019. On top of the workload, we are living in a pandemic, and the milieu is just so challenging for everyone right now.

We’ve been hearing that students’ major concerns are the extra evaluations in remote delivery courses, compared to “traditional” courses. Multiple assessments and increased feedback to students is a pedagogically sound approach, but it can really add up quickly when you’ve got several small tests or quizzes in every one of your courses. Students are telling us that it can be hard to keep up with all of the smaller components of every class, and it’s easy to fall behind on all the discussion forums. On top of that workload, there’s the lecture commitment; some students have indicated that they feel lectures are too long, and having them in more “bite-sized pieces” would be helpful. Some instructors are trying to provide opportunities for synchronous (live) connections with students, which is great, but can also place additional expectations for students to be online.

This can all be an issue for TAs as well, since they are the ones grading and answering questions from students. Not to mention Zoom fatigue, which is understandable when you have to be available for many hours in a row.

So we’re working on finding a balance. Some of the ideas we’re hearing are reduced penalties for late submissions, shifting the focus to fewer in-term assessments per course (but also not putting all the focus on final exams – as this creates additional stress at the end of the term), and exploring ways to improve how discussion forums are organized. We’re also hearing from students who would like more support for health and wellbeing, including mental health resources, longer Hub hours, and more windows for appointments.

Are students concerned about academic integrity?

For sure, as are instructors. There’s definitely an awareness that remote teaching and learning may provide more opportunities for dishonest work.

There are, understandably, privacy concerns about proctoring, or monitoring, software during exams but McGill doesn’t use proctoring software. Instead, the University encourages assessments which are less subject to cheating as they require students to engage with the materials and demonstrate their abilities to use and apply the knowledge appropriately.  Not only are those more difficult to cheat on, but the assessment is better aligned with desired learning outcomes.

Academic integrity is always important, but I think the online environment has raised the awareness and concern. The strongest tool to help with academic integrity remains strong education on the topic, and ongoing reflection among students and instructors about ways to always do honest work.

What do students have to say about accessibility?

We’ve got students around the world, so naturally there is interest in things like asynchronous exams. Not all instructors record their lectures, thus making the content difficult to access if students are studying from a different time zone. We’ve also heard from students who are not in the Montreal area who cannot take advantage of the McGill Library’s pick-up services, so we’re looking into whether we can expand the e-book collection. Time zones can complicate group work as well.

Of course, we’re all at the mercy of technology. As someone who spends far too much time on Zoom, I know how frustrating a slow Internet connection can be. That can be a problem anywhere in the world, and it’s certainly not students’ fault. So we’ve been hearing about the need for a bit more flexibility and leniency when it comes to submitting assignments and participating in class discussions.

What about success stories?

I’m happy to report that, in addition to all the constructive criticism, students have positive things to say about their semesters. Over eighty percent of students surveyed say they are personally comfortable with the technology used for remote delivery. Many students appreciate the flexibility of online courses, and many find it helpful to watch or re-watch lectures at different rates. Some students who would usually require academic accommodations are finding that they don’t require them because of factors like recorded lecture captioning, and longer assessment windows, or different kinds of remote assessments. Students who aren’t comfortable speaking up in classrooms appreciate being able to contribute to discussions with the “chat” function rather than verbally. And the Fall 2020 final exam schedule has been reduced by 25 per cent, compared to Fall 2019, so I anticipate this will mean reduced stress and anxiety for many during the final exam season

It’s important to recognize the work of our instructors in all this as well:  they have really stepped up to the plate. We’re hearing about some really great remote teaching strategies. Some of them require a fair bit of work and planning, like giving students a low-stakes practice exam so they can get used to the technology before writing the real exam. Or professors who schedule additional discussion sessions to help students participate from different time zones. Then there are the smaller efforts that students really appreciate: uploading lectures in smaller chunks so that students can more easily re-watch specific content, using breakout rooms to foster discussions, even something as simple as scheduling breaks. And, as a note to profs: Students really like seeing your face in recorded lectures! They miss you as much as you miss them. All those little touches can really add up.

While we don’t have a crystal ball, what things might be in store for students in the Winter 2021 term?

As the Provost announced in late semester, the Winter term will necessarily have some similarities to the Fall term, in that most courses will be delivered primarily through remote means. However, with international students now being able to travel for their studies, we have strong indications that most of our students will be in Montreal this winter, and we want to support them in this decision.  Our students are eager for connections to the University, especially around academics and academic success.

Almost half of the students who completed the survey said they’d physically been on campus during the Fall semester, whether to attend a class in a Teaching Hub, use a Study Hub, pick up course materials from the bookstore, or for an appointment with an advisor, counsellor or some other student service. Eighty-one per cent of them felt comfortable being on campus, in terms of the safety measures in place.

We are working closely with Faculties to ensure there are enhanced opportunities for in-person classroom experiences – and all of these will be planned with strict safety protocols in place. The in-person experiences won’t generally be full classes, but could perhaps be some specific lectures or labs, conference sections, perhaps discussion groups, tutorials, or smaller seminar classes. The planning will be done in a way to not disadvantage students who cannot be here, and, if the situation in Montreal means we have to switch back to remote delivery, we will be able to do this. We have also heard positive feedback about the Study Hubs and we realize study space is a priority for many students.

In the weeks ahead, you’ll be hearing more details about what is being planned for Winter. There will also be more opportunities to share your experiences and ideas.