The sudden shift from on-campus teaching to remote learning in March 2020 changed the ways university and college faculty taught courses.
While some professors reverted to old ways after returning to campus, others sought new approaches. The result is a mixture of different types of courses available to university and college students.
It’s no longer just a question of whether a course fits a student’s program and schedule. Students need to ask additional questions. Yet, times are changing rapidly and information can quickly become out of date.
1. How much time does the course require?
The online pivot encouraged some professors to either add or drop course material. The result is that the amount of time students spend on a course may vary greatly from one professor to another. This may especially be an issue for students who have heavy course loads while balancing other professional and personal responsibilities.
Aside from practicums and field classes, most universities and colleges have few standards on how much time students should spend outside the classroom.
Ask, how much reading is required? Are there heavy writing requirements in papers and online discussions? A course with weekly assignments is easier to manage than a course with just one major assignment due at the end. Course advisors may have copies of syllabi or an instructor’s course syllabus may be available online.
While students should not take only “easy” courses, it is important to appropriately manage workloads. Stress is a contributor to students’ mental health challenges. It’s good to be challenged, but don’t take on too much.
2. Do I need to attend classes? Can I work remotely?
Many students are now combining online and face-to-face courses into their programs.
The difference between online and face-to-face courses has blurred. Many face-to-face classes now have significant online components. If instructors record lectures, provide comprehensive lecture materials and allow assignments or tests to be submitted online, the class grading structure may make it possible to take a face-to-face course and rarely show up for classes.
This may benefit students juggling family or professional commitments with college or university.
But be aware of how missing lectures could affect your grades, experience and learning. Teachers work hard in the classroom to engage and inspire. Lectures can be entertaining, interesting and can open new possibilities for learning. Professors’ body language communicates additional information. They may edit out parts of a recorded lecture they feel are too spontaneous to be preserved.
Whether or not learning outcomes depend on peer collaboration, many students find it motivating to be surrounded by their peers. At the same time, the creation of learning communities can also take place in online environments.
It’s also easy to spend more time than anticipated replaying recorded lectures.
3. Is the professor approachable and flexible?
Some professors became more understanding and sympathetic to student needs during COVID-19 chaos. Others less so. Faculty are typically required to describe how students can reach them, including preferred communication method and email or online message system response time in the syllabi. This will also describe any flexibility built into their course.
Students often share their experiences with different courses and instructors with one another, and this can be helpful. Bear in mind, however, that such experiences may have changed through the pandemic.
Another way to gain information is to ask the professor directly. Their reply (or lack thereof) may be useful. Just respect the work-life boundaries most professors have established concerning digital communication outside regular work hours as they are also juggling commitments amid increasing workloads, all while attempting to mitigate burnout during the pandemic.
4. Will I need special equipment and materials?
It became clear during the pandemic that some students struggled with internet connections, under-powered devices and equitable access.
Operating systems may be an issue when installing specialist software (such as ArcGISPro GIS software used in our field of geography). Campus computer labs are commonly set up for specific software, but it’s worth investigating how responsive IT support is for students using their own devices.
Students should also ensure they will be able to access textbooks. Anecdotally, we have seen situations where copyright constraints affect how international students can access digital textbooks, or deliveries are delayed or held up by customs.
5. Does the grading scheme show off my capabilities?
Many professors had to rethink traditional grading. Some are now more flexible with respect to deadlines and formats.
Some professors offer the opportunity for students to resubmit. Open book exams became more common during COVID-19.
Find out: How many quizzes and exams are included in a course? What type of questions are on a test? How are tests administered and graded? What are the assignments? Do grading rubrics clearly show how the professor will grade assignments?
And ask yourself why you’re taking the course? Do the assignments help you learn, or do they simply allow you to prove you already know something? What matters most to you for this particular course?
Different professors teach differently. If you’re a student with choices in a program, it makes sense to find out what you’re getting.
Author Bios: Terence Day is an Adjunct Professor of Geography at Simon Fraser University and Paul N. McDaniel is Associate Professor of Geography at Kennesaw State University