5 Ways to Build Flexibility into Your In-Person and Online Classes

The Trial of Mary Mallon, a children’s book by Ariel Smith (shared with permission).

Sometimes offering student choices can seem daunting: more assignment guidelines to create, divided objectives, split rubrics, and different sets of expectations. However, the pay-off in engagement for you and your classes can be totally worth it. Let’s face it. Regardless of your class modality, now is the time for flexibility. Designing options for students allows them to decide if they feel more comfortable working alone or with a partner. It enables the creative student to write a song, while the writer tackles the traditional research paper. Flexibility fosters diversity and participation, breaking away from a typical class.

  1. Engagement choices

In our normal reality, I’m all for attendance policies with few exceptions. Pandemic teaching demands different expectations. Giving students choices on participation can help overall engagement and sometimes reduce your workload.
How to do it: For each synchronous discussion (in-person or on Zoom), offer an asynchronous alternative (a discussion post or short essay response). See this blog post for the detailed approach. I lay out these choices at the beginning of the semester and require students doing discussion posts to respond to each other. The in-person/Zoom group merely has to show up and discuss. Students may go back-and-forth between types of sessions without letting me know.
Making this work: Establish clear guidelines for both synchronous sessions (must be on-time) and the discussion posts/responses. NO LATE ASSIGNMENTS. I offer extra credit opportunities to offset missed points so I’m not constantly pushing back deadlines. I also make the online options slightly more time-consuming to cover the class-time missed.
Why this approach can be a good idea: With students shifting in and out of quarantine and facing additional struggles, having flexibility from week to week is very helpful. As an instructor, I really enjoy directly connecting with students. Those that choose to attend tend to be more engaged.
When this probably isn’t the best approach: I wouldn’t recommend engagement options for a small seminar or a graduate-level course in which discussion makes up the majority of the class. For strictly lecture classes, this also likely wouldn’t work as well.

2. Voting for the Day’s Class Content

Students (well, humans) like to have a say in what they do. I try to build in a day in which the class gets to decide what we do. It might be to swap the scheduled topic for a different one or allowing students to vote for a particular movie or TV show.
How to do it: Decide what day works for switching up the content. Obviously, this shouldn’t be the class period in which you introduce the pivotal theory or set up something foundational. On the day that works for you (I usually pick a week or so after the midterm), decide what the options will be. Convey them to the class as students enter the room (or Zoom). Then have a class vote.
Making this work: Don’t leave the topic/example open ended. Have clear choices that satisfy your overarching objective for the course. For example, on our fictional representations of outbreaks class period in Health Com., the options were Contagion, Outbreak, House, M.D., and the Criminal Minds episode “Amplification” — all centered around the same theme. In other words, it’s not a “free day.”
Why this approach can be a good idea: Why not, as long as you structure the choices?
When this probably isn’t the best approach: I like to be a ways into the semester before I give a choice day. I imagine this approach wouldn’t work as well some disciplines (or you’d have to get really creative).

3. Topsy-Turvy Day

If you have assigned seats for in-person or set breakout rooms in Zoom, choose one day to mix it up. It’s good for students to get to know people outside of their seat neighbors or group members.
How to do it: One method is to do random seat/group assignments for the day. Draw numbers or (in a pre-pandemic time), attach seat numbers to pieces of candy. If you want to grant students more choices, have them choose their own spots for the day or sign up for breakout rooms based on interest.
Why this approach can be a good idea: It’s a break from the humdrum of class or from irritating classmates. This approach also keeps students guessing a little about what will happen in class.
When this probably isn’t the best approach: Delay “topsy-turvy” day for late in the semester — long enough to establish routines.

4. Student-provided Content

I don’t consume many of the same media products as my students. As such, they can come up with examples that I have never even heard of. One way to bring students into the course material is to have them supply it, suggesting readings, images, videos, or other content for the class.
How to do it: Write out expectations and criteria for the examples (i.e. format, length, what will work and what won’t, the number of discussion questions). Figure out which week’s topics could work for this assignment and list them out. After students give their top 3 preferences, assign them in pairs or groups to a particular topic/week. For their assigned week, they must find an example that demonstrates the concept and/or encourages discussion and get it instructor-approved. In class, they introduce and share the example and then ask the rest of the class 2-3 discussion questions.
Why this approach can be a good idea: It breaks up the monotony of class and helps to connect students to the class concepts and material. This approach also diversifies the examples shown in class, going beyond the instructor’s familiarity.
When this probably isn’t the best approach: During the first few weeks or for a concept that is new or especially challenging.

5. Term Project Options

I used to be much more rigid in setting up the term project. I required every student to do a research paper on a particular topic and a traditional presentation. Over the years, I have expanded the choices for students. Admittedly, this is partially due to my own fatigue of the same topics. Students are more excited about something when they choose it. In most of my classes, I now allow students to either do a research paper OR a creative project (i.e. documentaries, poems, songs, or artwork), all related to class material. While it is vital that students learn to write, there are more ways to come at class material than just a straight-forward, traditional paper.
How to make this work: Make sure you have some structure laid out for each of the options. Lay out expectations and requirements clearly. The tricky part (other than coming up with two types of projects) is how to make the components equal in weight and in their objectives. I do this by requiring a form of writing and a presentation for all students. Creative project students explain the concepts of their projects and discuss the creative process and then present their work. The research paper students also present. To really make this work, I recommend providing strong examples for the class (see below).
Why this approach is a good idea: It enables students to channel their passion and talents into their chosen format, while still requiring them to build off of an idea related to class.
When this probably isn’t the best approach: Beware of your own limits. One semester, I let every student in a 90+ class choose to either do a research paper or participate in a creative group project. It was difficult to bounce back and forth between the two types with such a large class. I’ve found that in a big lecture, it’s either a group project or no project (like I’ve done during pandemic teaching).

Creative Project Examples from this semester (across classes)

  • Ariel Smith’s children’s book on Mary Mallon (posted above).
  • Serena Vasudeva’s poem “Illuminated Manuscript
  • Chase Cimala and Andrew Pauly’s song “Divided”


Why Add Flexibility?

Keeping students engaged can be hard word. It can save you time, however, cutting down emailed excuses for missing class, complaints about group members, or questions about paper topics for which students have little interest. In offering choices, it does take a leap of faith. As we shift a little bit of control to students, we don’t always know what to expect. Clear guidelines and instructor-approved material can help structure the shared example, delivery, or project, but you just never know. And it is okay if you have a class day, example, or project that doesn’t exactly turn out. We’ve all had our teaching moments that influenced future classes. I will never forget the “Ted Bundy as a class game” presentation or the “Hitler country song” (both of which made the list of off-limit topics). Experience shapes future guidelines for assignments. It is worth trying out flexible approaches, even if they later need refinement.

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