All courses benefit from a clear organizational structure. This goes beyond having a clear syllabus and grading rubrics. This entails leveraging your institution’s learning management system (LMS), typically Blackboard or Canvas, in such a way that each week of the course is clearly displayed. For example, my Blackboard course creates separate modules for each week of the course. When students enter our Blackboard course, the left-hand menu shows the following tabs: Syllabus, About the Instructor, Watch Me First (which contains a Kaltura video overview of the syllabus), Course Reserves, and then a module for each week of the course (e.g., Week 1, Week 2, etc.). Moreover, each weekly folder contains the following sub-folders: Read, Watch / Listen, Lectures, and Assignments. This blog post will circle back to the information that is contained within those sub-folders within the following paragraphs.
Blackboard / Canvas
My syllabus mirrors my Blackboard course structure. For example, within Week 1 of my course, my syllabus has the following sections: Read, Watch / Listen, Lectures, and Assignments. The first sub-heading, “Read,” is self-explanatory. Within the “Watch / Listen” folder, I assign YouTube clips, podcasts, movie trailers, music videos, and other multimedia that align with that week’s learning content. The “Lecture” folder contains a PDF of the Google Slides for that week’s lecture; for online courses, the “Lecture” folder also contains a video of that week’s lecture. Finally, the “Assignments” folder contains a place where students can submit a Discussion Board post or complete an assessment, such as a quiz, test, essay, or other assignment.
One of the biggest challenges many instructors encounter when pivoting their courses from in-person to online is how to create community and encourage dialogue in an online setting. This section will discuss three methods to encourage dialogue in either in-person or online courses: PDFs of slides, Reflection Questions, and Discussion Boards / FlipGrid.
PDF of Slides
All my courses use slides, regardless of whether they are online, in-person, synchronous, or asynchronous. The slides meet four pedagogical and practical goals. First, the slides enable me to institutionalize course content. This is particularly helpful for instructors who have high teaching loads and thus have to pivot from one course to another. However, it is also helpful for
instructors with lower teaching loads, who might be asked to teach a course they have not had for several semesters. Second, the slides facilitate pedagogy that draws from the Socratic method and from active learning; for example, in addition to drawing from the “Watch / Listen” content on a syllabus, the slides can also feature additional multimedia content that allow students to dive more deeply into certain topics on their own time. Moreover, if students are less talkative in a particular class, the multimedia slides can provide built-in activities that instructors can leverage to spark discussion in meaningful ways. Third, the slides make it easier for a course to be taught either in-person or online, as instructors can use their slides to record and upload lectures to Blackboard / Canvas. Fourth, students can use the slides as a study guide; I give students PDFs of my Google slides for this express purpose. The below paragraphs address how I structure my slides to meet the four aforementioned pedagogical and practical goals.
First, I choose a different template for my slides for every week of the semester. Many students love this, as it adds excitement and variety to the course. As one of my students once told me while preparing for an exam in my Western Legal Tradition class, “I visualized the information on the slides during the exam; in my mind, I thought, “Rome is Red” (because the slides are red), and I could see the answer.” For visual learners, having slides with different color schemes for each course units can be very useful. I find that Google Slides performs this role in both my online and my in-person classes; this is even true for my asynchronous classes. Google Slides has a wide variety of templates available online; many individuals even share their own, self-made templates, which you are welcome to use as long as you give credit to the original source.
Second, my slides are built upon the Socratic method. The first slide will contain a few open-ended questions, and the second slide will contain a short answer to those questions. I use the first slide as a way to spark conversation; the second slide then gives a brief answer. I will bold, highlight, and underline key words on each slide; students with different visual abilities may not be able to differentiate the highlighted text from regular text, but they can see the bold or underlined information. This method not only encourages students to answer questions in class, but it also assuages anxiety around exam time, as students have a study guide built into the course. I repeat this format of “question slide, answer slide” for the first six slides, before I move on to a “multimedia slide” (discussed in the next paragraph).
Third, my “multimedia slides” incorporate the “Watch / Listen” items on my syllabus. For example, the movie trailer “Marshall” features a clip where then-NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall says, “We’re not slaves now, are we? We’ve got weapons we didn’t have before – we’ve got the law.” I then ask students if they agree or disagree with this statement. Is the law a weapon? If so, who has the authority to use it, and who is oppressed by it? Sometimes I revisit the same movie trailer multiple times a semester, pulling different themes from course readings, such as “the law and social change,” “critical race theory,” or “legal consciousness.” I often include two or three “multimedia slides” after each set of six “question / answer slides.” The multimedia slides can also highlight content that is not in the syllabus, but that is relevant to the course content; for example, I might include a link to an online documentary with several reflection questions that students can choose to watch on their own time as a way to deepen their knowledge in a particular area. By organizing my slides in this manner, I am able to respond to different learning styles, while also covering the course content; moreover, the slides allow students to deepen their knowledge in different areas, should they choose to do so.
Each week of my syllabus features “Reflection Questions” based on the assigned readings and multimedia content. This gives students guidance about what to focus upon in the required weekly materials, and helps them identify important themes across different units of the course. As an added incentive, I tell students that Reflection Questions might be a future exam question or reflection paper topic. In addition, my Google Slides often include a few of the reflection questions, which gives students the opportunity to prepare for class discussions in advance.
Discussion Boards / FlipGrid
Online asynchronous courses are perhaps the most challenging instructional format for purposes of creating community and encouraging discussion. I find that a mixture of discussion boards and FlipGrid posts help to meet these objectives. Both of these tools have different pros and cons. Discussion boards allow students to practice their writing and critical thinking, while reflecting upon the thoughts and views of their peers; however, they can be time-consuming and anxiety-inducing for students who struggle with writing. By contrast, FlipGrid is a sort of academic TikTok; students can choose to post a video or audio-recording of themselves responding to reflection questions. Students tend to have fun with FlipGrid, which has multiple filters, stickers, and other effects. Since FlipGrid allows you to make audio-only recordings, it allows students to decide whether or not they wish to disclose their home environment. Moreover, some learning management systems, such as Canvas, have FlipGrid built into them as an optional instructional tool. By alternating between discussion boards and FlipGrid, you can encourage students to practice their writing and critical thinking skills, while also having them practice their verbal articulation of course concepts, just as they would in a live classroom setting. In addition, for both discussion boards and FlipGrid, you might consider having an optional “student space” that is ungraded for students to communicate with one another.
Worksheets can be a powerful tool to encourage in-class discussions and to help students prepare for exams or papers. For my in-person courses, I have students pick up a worksheet as they enter the classroom. For my online courses, I post worksheets in their own folder in Blackboard’s left-hand menu. For my in-person courses, I arrive to the classroom a few minutes early so that I can play a Spotify playlist with songs chosen by students. This creates a welcoming environment; students know that their “jam” might be playing, and the worksheets prepare them for some of the questions that will be in the lecture slides. This allows students to refresh their memory about that day’s course content, and to think about their answers to particular questions. This is a particularly powerful tool for students who may be shy or for whom English is not their first language, as it allows them to write down their answers to in-class questions, making them feel more prepared and empowered to speak up when the class officially starts. My worksheets occasionally have sections where students can propose exam questions, giving them agency and control in the course. At the end of the class, I collect all of the worksheets; I do not grade them, but instead, I skim them to see how well students have grasped that week’s course content, and whether I need to review anything in class for a second time. I then return the worksheets to students for them to use a study guide.
The above-listed teaching strategies can be leveraged in either in-person or online courses. They are conducive to different academic disciplines and class sizes. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, these instructional strategies likely prompted a response from you, the reader – you may have thought of additional pros or cons to these strategies, or you may have thought of entirely different strategies. If so, then this blog post has served its purpose; it has sparked conversation about best pedagogical practices, and has hopefully opened avenues for additional dialogue on creating community and cultivating learning.