Casey Henley is the director of online programs and an assistant professor of neuroscience in the College of Natural Science.
Y'all - this semester has been the most exhausting semester of my life. And I'm sitting in a super privileged space. I cannot imagine what others are facing right now.— Casey Henley (@nerdoscience on Twitter) September 26, 2020
I gave an exam recently. Some grades were unbelievable. Some grades were not. Know what I'm gonna do? I'm going to give everyone the chance to revise.
My job is to help them learn. Who cares if they can demonstrate that the first time they see a question on an exam? I don't. I will provide feedback (I love guiding questions). I will meet with those that need it. They can try again.
If they walk away in December being able to formulate an argument based on data and facts and have an understanding of how the nervous system works, we all will have succeeded.
I have been teaching in some capacity at MSU for 15 years, and this semester easily walks away with the “Most Challenging” award. Though I do teach in-person, my primary role, even before the pandemic, was that of online instructor. I have been teaching online classes every semester for years, yet this semester is still difficult. This semester, I’m not only teaching online. I’m teaching the most students I’ve ever had. I’m managing virtual elementary school for two kids. I’m trying to keep my preschooler from spending all day watching the Disney app. I’m missing my family. I’m missing my friends.
However, I do recognize that I am extremely lucky given the current situation. I have a job I love that allows me to work remotely, as does my husband. My kids are happy and still getting a great education. I always have someone nearby when I need a hug. We have reliable internet and myriad devices to keep each of us busy. My family and friends are healthy.
Our students may not have those luxuries.
These young adults may not have quiet or safe spaces to study. They may have financial worries because jobs are hard to come by right now. They may be working many hours under stressful conditions if they have a job. They may be quarantining because a roommate tested positive. They may have family members that have become ill. They may have never taken one online course before, let alone four at the same time, all of which use different technologies and have different expectations.
As faculty, we have a responsibility to provide students with the education they deserve. This semester, though, requires a new level of flexibility and generosity in the classroom to promote student success. I recently gave an exam. Some students did amazingly well, but some students really struggled. It became clear during grading that there were misunderstandings about the content and the structure of the assignment (how to form an argument based on evidence). Both of these pieces, the content that is the foundation for the rest of the course and the scientific practice of forming an argument, are critical for success moving forward in the class.
Given the trying times our students are living through, I decided to allow revisions on the exam. I did have a smaller revision assignment at the end of the semester, but an immediate revision of an entire exam wasn’t planned. However, the best way to solidify this early material was to let them try again. My TA and I provided feedback, and we met individually with the students that struggled the most as well as any other student that wanted to discuss their performance. The point of an exam is to assess student learning, and my assessment showed not everyone was where I wanted them to be. It’s my job to get them there.
Although this is an incredibly challenging semester, I still believe we can all walk away having learned something about our teaching and learning. I hope students have an experience that lets them know their instructors truly care about student learning and success given how much time and effort has been put into creating courses with quality online pedagogy. I hope faculty have learned new ways to engage and assess their students that can be implemented in face-to-face classes to strengthen our teaching. But most of all, I hope we have all learned to be compassionate, understanding and patient with each other, and that we use these characteristics to inform our educational practices in the future.