Supporting and Engaging Students in the Spring Semester (SVPP COVID-19 Communication #20)

Date:             December 16, 2020

To:                 Iowa State University Faculty

From:            Jonathan Wickert                               
                      Senior Vice President and Provost

                      Carol Faber
                      President, Faculty Senate

Subject:        Supporting and Engaging Students in the Spring Semester (SVPP COVID-19 Communication #20)


We want to thank you for your significant efforts to navigate the fall semester, and for working together under challenges and difficult circumstances to support our students and each other.  As our attention turns to the spring semester, we are writing with ideas for you to consider and examples of faculty successes from the fall to:  1) foster student engagement, 2) encourage students to help each other stay up-to-date after absences, and 3) support student wellness.

Engaging students

At a time when many traditional forms of student engagement are less available – for example, student organization activities and social events – students’ interactions with faculty were, in many cases, the most “normal” facet of their fall experience. Indeed, engagement is a primary reason why students choose Iowa State. We know that the combination of classroom experience with high-impact learning practices leads to greater student success, retention and degree completion. Academic engagement is also important to students’ mental health, and for our own morale as faculty, since we became educators because of the opportunity to interact with students.

Faculty across campus have risen to this challenge since the spring by creating innovative engagement opportunities in their courses. We want to share a few examples with you:

  • Noreen Rodriguez in the School of Education employed numerous strategies to engage students in her courses, such as having students use FlipGrid to create video responses to readings, providing multiple options for projects, assigning collaborative web-based small group work, and personally checking-in with them throughout the semester. 
  • Tingting Liu in Finance had planned to teach a course last spring that included a trip to Spain. When the trip was canceled, Tingting transformed the course into a virtual, team-based exploration on the impact of COVID-19 in the Spanish and global capital markets.
  • Michael Wigton in the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication noticed some students were not engaging with assigned coursework in his advertising classes, so he reached out to those students personally, sending emails and even making phone calls to see how they were doing.
  • Betsy Swanner in Geological and Atmospheric Sciences assigned students to read and summarize on Canvas one of three journal articles each week. Students discussed their article with peers in a Zoom breakout room to cement understanding, then “jigsaw” to summarize their article to peers who read the other papers in a new breakout room. 
  • In a core foundation class, some first year students in the College of Design were assigned on-campus sites through a project entitled “Place.” Students selected their site and asked permission to install a three-dimensional environment, giving them an opportunity to engage campus in a hands-on way.

These snapshots are just a few of many on campus, and other faculty colleagues have additionally shared their engagement innovations on the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) website.  We encourage you to review these ideas and consider applying such strategies in your own spring teaching.

Maintaining student learning during absences

As emphasized in the Cyclones Care campaign, we want students to stay at home if they aren’t feeling well.  The faculty’s commitment to supporting students who were sick, absent, or in isolation or quarantine was a key factor for student success during the fall semester, and for students continuing and registering for spring classes.  At the same time, we know and learned from the fall that faculty experienced significant additional work by engaging and teaching absent students, and keeping them up-to-date with classes. While there isn’t a perfect solution to this situation, we would like to highlight approaches that some faculty have found helpful.

Faculty in the Department of History used “triads” for some in-person classes.  In that approach, groups of three students were asked at the beginning of the semester to share contact information with each other, and they served as a resource should other members of the group need to miss class. Encouraging students to help each other in this way reduced students’ requests for parallel online courses, which in turn helped to create a more manageable workload for faculty and encouraged students to take ownership of their learning.

Additional approaches that have been shared with us include:

  • Encouraging students to stay involved by sharing their in-progress work, or discussing with each other concepts that they are struggling with, so that all students can participate in the discussion and help each other.
  • Asking students to help solve the topic of an assignment in groups, or as an entire class.
  • For group projects, dividing students by their preference of either meeting online or face-to-face, so that they will be more apt to participate in their selected learning groups.

Local options rather than reading days

Some universities have scheduled formal reading days during the spring semester when classes will not be held. We considered such an approach, but after carefully weighing all feedback, we have decided not to adopt that practice as a uniform, campus-wide mandate (with the exception being professional courses in the College of Veterinary Medicine).  The primary decision factor was that faculty have already condensed course material into one less instructional week, and adding multiple reading days would create further pressure on academic progress, particularly for laboratory and studio classes, and those classes meeting only once or twice per week.

That said, we do encourage faculty, programs, and department to consider options that make sense at the local level. Some may choose to have no new assignments during a particular week, provide a break from reading or other activities, or use class time to recap material presented to date.  Building-in more time when students are struggling with a concept is another way to remove some pressure of due dates. And a project might help solidify a concept better than testing for it, eliminating the need for faculty to create new content and creating less anxiety for students. We ask that you be mindful of student wellness and stress levels, and consider options that work within the context of your particular classes.

Taking care of yourselves during winter break

Winter break traditionally represents an opportunity to catch-up on scholarly writing or research, mentor peers and graduate students, enhance courses, and prepare for the spring term.  This year, with the break being extended, some faculty will teach during the new Winter Session.

Above all, we hope you will take time to care for yourself and those close to you. ISU WellBeing offers a variety of resources to help make the most of the next two months, and that will help you “Stay Calm, Be Present, and Embrace Life.” All Iowa State faculty have also been enrolled in the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, an independent development resource dedicated to supporting the careers of higher education professionals.

Thank you, again, for everything you accomplished during the fall semester.  Together, we wish you a safe and productive winter break.