Example of resilient course design for an interactive lecture course

7 August 2020
By Melissa Eblen-Zayas

In thinking about fall term course planning, I had two strong responses: 1) I don’t know where to begin, and 2) It’s a lot of work to plan a course, and planning seems futile with so much uncertainty. The resilient course design framework helps with the latter by encouraging faculty members to inventory their pedagogical practices, prioritize for synchronous engagement (either in person or online) those activities that benefit the most from interaction, and consider how to change other activities so that they aren’t as likely to be disrupted when circumstances change. 

As I was preparing materials for various LTC and ACM workshops in July, I worked through the resilient course design framework with a hypothetical 200-level physics course. These courses usually have 24-36 students. I usually take an interactive lecture approach to my teaching, where I lecture but I regularly mix in think-pair-share activities, small group problem-solving, or some guided explorations with peers. In my pre-pandemic classroom, the interactive lecture format meant that content delivery and application and practice of topics and skills were interspersed throughout each class period. But the most valuable part of the class time, and the part that I would want to work the hardest to maintain as circumstances change, would be the activities. Hence, with the resilient course design framework in mind, it would make sense for me to move the lectures, with short instructional videos. Then, I could limit the amount of time we need to be together in the same physical space (or connecting online synchronously) and use that for group work and guided activities.  In addition, I’d want to move lots of the communication online so that students who can’t join the synchronous meetings don’t miss out.  Below I show the graphic of what course activities looked like pre-pandemic and post-pandemic. 

Image of activity matrix for a physics course in the pre-pandemic era. It includes a lot of face-to-face interactions.
Course activity matrix for a physics course in the pandemic era. To be more resilient, there is a significant reduction of in-person instructional activities.

Right away, one notices that all in-person content delivery activities have been moved online. For the application and practice activities, I can either try to keep them in person, if physically meeting in the classroom is a possibility, or I can move them online, if the public health situation worsens. In that scenario, I don’t have to completely disrupt my course because I have already minimized the amount of time we are spending meeting in the same physical space and I’ve considered what alternatives might be. 

Although the activity mapping is a great starting point for planning, it also feels very abstract. To make things more concrete, it helps to think through a “week in the life” of your course, including a close accounting of what you want students to do, when activities must be completed, and how long you expect students to work on those activities. This is not how I usually plan my courses. Usually, I plan class-by-class rather than week-by-week, and I often keep my plans rather vague. In an environment where I’m not likely to be able to regularly meet in the same physical space with my students (or where masks and physical distancing reduce my ability to read and circulate the room), I have to be much more intentional in my planning. In particular, clarity about expectations helps students navigate an environment that will be different than their traditional classroom experiences. 

In thinking through a “week in the life” of my hypothetical course, a couple of factors impacted my decisions. A physically-distanced classroom for 24-36 students is going to be lecture-hall sized (if we are meeting in person at all), and I’d rather not meet with everyone in such a distanced classroom. Therefore whole class meetings would be via Zoom. For in-person meetings (if they are possible), I would split the class into two halves and meet with one half on Monday and one half on Wednesday. If this were a mixed mode class, I might meet with half the class in person (on Monday) and meet with the other half of the class remotely (on Wednesday). But I also want to bridge those two halves, which is why I designed problem-solving groups of four that consist of two students in the Monday half of the class and two students in the Wednesday half of the class.

My design for the week is based on a couple of experiences I had with a physically-distanced classroom simulation at Carleton at the end of June. I like using think-pair-share in my teaching, but think-pair-share was extremely noisy and hard to manage in a physically-distanced classroom with masks. In the classroom simulation, the impressions of think-pair-share were less positive than when students worked in physically-distanced groups of four. Therefore I moved the think-pair-share activity outside of class time. Students will submit their responses to the think-pair-share activity so I can use it to inform our synchronous meetings. Secondly, in the classroom simulation, we found that attempting to teach with some students in the classroom and some students remote via Zoom didn’t go smoothly. I’d rather have more small group activities that can either be in-person group meetings or online group meetings, but don’t necessarily have to happen in a whole-class mixed situation. 

Here are two different views of what a week might look like:

Summary of the types of activities that would happen each day of the week.
More detailed like of prep work, activities, and assginments each week, as well as an explanation of what they are, when they are due, and how long I expect them to take students to complete.

A couple of notes about the time estimates above. I used the Rice CTE course workload estimator for the estimate of time students would spend on reading. The workload estimate adds up to about 9 hours, but the expectation for weekly hours of work on any given class is roughly 12-15 hours/week, with that number including both class meeting time and outside of class prep and homework. (This is based on the spring term communication from the Registrar’s office that each course should correspond to about about 150 hours of course activity.)  Even with my estimated workload, there are 3-6 additional hours available for course work within the weekly workload estimate. When teaching, I would explicitly point out to students those extra hours and note that different students might need to use those hours differently. A slow reader might add a couple of hours onto the assigned reading workload estimate. Someone who was rusty on math skills might need to spend time reviewing those skills and that would add time to the problem sets.  During the term, I would regularly ask students about how they are spending their time, and I would need to be ready to adjust.

Thinking through a course in this way has forced me to be intentional in a way that I am not normally as I plan for courses, but it has also helped me move beyond my fear of “I don’t know where to begin.”