By Toni DiMella

Even pre-covid, everyone left campus at the end of a semester tired. After 15 weeks of grading, schedule changes, advising, and administrative duties, everyone’s goal is to make it to the start of the break. After a few Netflix marathons and a week or two without grading, you begin thinking about your courses and the changes you want to make. You come back to the (virtual?) office recharged and committed to making all the updates you thought about over the break.

But after a few weeks, your energy begins to dwindle and you slowly slip back to doing the same things you did before. Why? Beth McMurtie talks about some of the reasons at length in Why the Science of Teaching is Often Ignored. There may be little to no incentive for all the hard work needed to make small or slow changes. It might be hard to find the balance between what you were doing and what you want to do. There may be mixed messages on how to meet your goal, if you can meet that goal, or whether you should meet that goal at all. One of the more common updates faculty mention wanting to make is increasing student participation in online or hybrid courses.  For the most part, faculty know how to increase student participation, but it’s surprisingly hard to keep up.

How do you make lasting change? By making small, incremental changes over a period of time and having a long-term plan. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. While we start out with the best intentions, too much, too fast means that you will run out of energy. Think of one of the most popular New Year resolutions: diet. It’s a simple concept. You can eat less or burn more calories or some combination of both. But if you’re planning on eating a salad for lunch every day for the next month, that’s probably not going to end well. After a week or so, you’re hitting a drive-thru on the way home. It’s the same thing with creating and maintaining teaching and social presence. If your presence and participation plan is front-loaded, students will notice (and make comments on evaluations) if you disappear or stop listening to student voices. Instead of getting praise for starting strong, you’ll get grief for ending weak.

Maintaining a solid teaching and social presence is harder than it looks. So how do you set yourself up for success? Think about your course into 3 to 5 “chunks.” These don’t necessarily need to be equal chunks, and the level of presence and participation will vary for each one. After looking over your course and calendar, break it up in a way that makes sense for both. If you know you have a conference presentation one week, you’re going to need to have a lighter presence during that time. If you have a chapter or unit that students struggle with, you may need to include more presence then.

I normally think about my courses in quarters. I balance my teaching presence (video, announcements, and feedback) which impacts my students’ participation (social presence) in each of those 4-week intervals. It usually looks something like this:

  • Weeks 1 to 4: There’s a heavy teaching and social presence during this time. This is the get-to-know-you stage of the course. There’s a welcome video, a course tour video, an introduction forum, and 3 manually graded assignments so I can provide personal feedback. The assignments are usually two assignment uploads and one content forum.
  • Weeks 5 to 8: Now that the stage is set, I can reduce both presences some. Most of my course videos are (hopefully) made by now, so I don’t need to make or edit any new videos. I start spacing out things that need to be manually graded. In this 4-week period, there’s one forum and one manually graded assignment. The other two weeks are auto-graded. This gives me a chance to catch up and the students an opportunity to manage their own schedules as we’re approaching the middle of the semester.
  • Weeks 9 to 12: We’ve passed the halfway point, so it’s time to increase both presences some. I send two announcements each week all semester. During this time one or two will become a video update. They can still “hear” me in my written announcements, but it’s important to make a visible appearance. A question about content that is worthy of a video response usually pops up by now. I either add that in the weekly announcements or add it to the course and mention in it in the announcements. If none of these types of questions come up, I’ll do video feedback for a manually graded assignment. There are two manually graded assignments and a forum during this time as the content is usually more involved by now and they need more personalized feedback.
  • Weeks 13 to the End: At this point in the semester, it’s about keeping them informed and calm, so lots of updates, but little manual grading. That also frees me up for the “Can I resubmit X?” which means I need to regrade X. Depending on when my final is scheduled and the course material, I might have one more manually graded assignment. There will be one video announcement before the “grades are in!” update so I can wrap up the course.

Ultimately, you need to figure out what works for you and your course. The level of presence can ebb and flow, but it can’t disappear. Be honest with yourself about what you want to do and the time needed to do it so you can create a realistic, manageable plan. If you can’t imagine doing a forum and a graded assignment, start with just one of them. One is better than none. If you have 4 courses, you’ll want to stagger when you’re manually grading so you don’t have to leave 100+ video feedback messages in one week. Consistency is key. If you need to veer off the plan, let students know. They will notice if you miss an update or don’t grade for two weeks. They just won’t mention it until the Student Opinion Poll. 🙂