VIGNETTE: Structure and Organization to Facilitate Learning in My Large Class During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Didier Mena-Aguilar

On December 2019, I finished my first college-level teaching opportunity, acting as a co-instructor responsible of leading half of the lessons in in-person biochemistry concepts course for more than 270 students[1]. Based on the grades and student feedback, I felt satisfied with my performance. Student’s comments highlighted two main aspects of my teaching: They valued my genuine care for students and the highly structured and organized way I taught the course. However, I was well aware of the advantages I had in having a more experienced faculty member assisting throughout the experience; the older professor was the face of the teaching team, and he led most of the logistics and overall planning of the course. I knew that I was going to be the sole instructor of the same course in the fall, and I needed to take my teaching to the next level in a manner that would benefit my students’ learning.

It is not uncommon for graduate students to feel overwhelmed at the prospect of teaching a whole class on their own. I asked myself questions about my preparedness and future performance on the course. Will the undergraduate students trust a graduate student to teach them on his own? Will I be able to engage the students and facilitate their learning? Could I successfully implement the pedagogy techniques I have been learning in my teaching courses? I knew I had time to prepare, and I comforted myself with my good performance last semester.

However, in early 2020, the world seemed to stop due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Airports shut down, businesses closed their doors, and quarantine orders were imposed throughout the world. Universities were not exempt, and quick actions were taken to transfer in-person courses to fully online. I felt lucky that I did not have to teach during spring 2020, and I assumed the pandemic was going to end quickly, so I did not have to worry about it affecting my future teaching.

However, summer came, and the pandemic was still going strong. Cases were increasing in our little town in the middle of rural Virginia, and it was clear that the fall semester was going to be mainly online. For a course that was expected to have more than 270 undergraduate students, the only possibility was to move the course to a fully online modality. Now the challenge was not only to teach a course on my own for the first time, but also to teach it online. I knew what I did before was not going to be enough, and I decided that the best course of action was to meticulously prepare for it.

The first thing I did was to identify the potential challenges my students were going to face during the semester. I was aware that the weight of the pandemic was not distributed equally throughout the student population. I knew some of my students had more responsibilities outside my course and, thanks to the pandemic, many of them had to face challenges that were unprecedented: Some of them were in different time zones, some of them did not have a quiet space to participate in class, some of them had to work full time to ease the financial hardships, some of them had to take care of their loved ones, some of them were sick themselves.

Online courses were particularly challenging for students who were enrolled at a traditionally in-person university. In a normal semester, they could get away with just showing up to the classroom and catching up with what was happening at the moment. Online courses require higher student awareness of how the course is designed and the logistics behind it. For example, an online course requires the students to properly navigate the course management system, in our case Canvas, that would contain everything from the materials and the assessments to the link for the synchronous meetings. However, students are not always well-versed in the platform and struggle when encountering a lack of structure on the website.

How could I make my course easy to engage in, uphold the quality standards required by the university, and accommodate the emerging needs of my students? Based on my students’ feedback from the previous semester teaching, I knew the highly structured lessons I planned were a strength. I contemplated how I could transfer my perspective on lesson planning to other key aspects of the course.

I carefully planned every step of the course in a way that would intuitively lead to student success. This plan covered aspects from the general progression of the course throughout the semester, to the specific structure of each lesson. For example, I created a template of how the usual lesson was going to look, specifying the responsibilities of the instructor and the students before, during, and after the class meeting (Figure 1). At the start of the semester, I reviewed this template with the students, making sure we all knew what was expected. The key objective of this figure was to give the students confidence by allowing them to be informed and empowered during each lesson.

The instructor and students both have unique responsibilities before, during, and after class in order for this class to be successful. Before class, the instructor must submit the slides, reading guide, and learning goals to Canvas and prepare a start-of-class question, while students must respond to the start-of-class question. During class, the instructor must cover the learning goals, make annotations on the slides, and embed active learning activities, while the students must participate in active learning activities. After class, the instructor must upload the lecture recording and annotated slides to Canvas, while students must review these materials to answer any questions they missed in their notes.
Figure 2.1 Overall plan presented to the students at the start of the semester.

To address the innate challenges associated with the need for technology proficiency in an online course, I tried to make the Canvas site as clean and intuitive as possible. The homepage contained only the key information that the students needed, including a description of the course, my contact information and links to the syllabus, the schedule, and the Zoom address that we used to meet every week. I made sure the links needed to access the class recordings and assessments were easy to find and intuitive to follow.

I also reflected on the best way to organize the materials needed to study. The course subjects were mainly taught through lectures with incorporated active learning strategies. Each lesson I designed contained a set of documents that included the learning goals, the annotated slides, and the recorded lectures. All of these documents were uploaded to the Canvas site before or right after the meeting session. The key aspect of the organization approach that I implemented in all documents that I uploaded was a carefully designed labeling system.

I assigned a number to each subject based on the chronological order in which they were reviewed. Each document label started with the number assigned to the subject the lesson covered. This way, the learning goals, slides, and recorded lectures could easily be associated with each other just by looking at the label. Since the document names started with a number, they were organized chronologically by default on the website or even in each student’s personal file management system. This approach made it intuitive for the students to access the documents when needed.

I implemented these strategies throughout the semester, and I frequently reflection on both their effectiveness and their impact on the students. Based on comments from the class survey, the strategies I put in place helped the students face the challenges derived from the COVID-19 pandemic and concentrate on the goal of the course: learning biochemistry. Furthermore, by having a detailed structure and plan to follow, it allowed me as an instructor to have flexibility to adapt to my own challenges. I think the most valuable component of my teaching experience as a graduate student is the impact I had on my students. The actions I took to be more inclusive and facilitate learning in this unexpected online setting were reflected in the student feedback. I was particularly pleased to receive comments that specifically addressed how the way I taught the course eased the difficulty of online learning during a pandemic by students at a traditionally in-person university:

“We always knew what was expected of us in that class and I appreciate the structure of the class. The structure of the class helped with having the discipline for online schooling.”

“Professor Didier did a great job having all of his material organized on canvas and a great schedule. He made the material easy to understand. I struggle in chemistry, but this has been the best chemistry course and the one I am doing the best in at Virginia Tech.”

“The style in which this course was conducted was exactly what I would want. This was my most organized course and I always knew exactly what I had to do in order to succeed. It was very straightforward.”

Figure and Table Attributions

  • Figure 2.1 Kindred Grey. CC BY 4.0.

  1. How to cite this vignette:

    Mena-Aguilar, D. 2022. Structure and Organization to Facilitate Learning in My Large Class During the COVID-19 Pandemic. In: Westfall-Rudd, D., Vengrin, C., and Elliott-Engel, J. (eds.) Teaching in the University: Learning from Graduate Students and Early-Career Faculty. Blacksburg: Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. License: CC BY-NC 4.0.


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Teaching in the University Copyright © 2022 by Didier Mena-Aguilar is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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