To say this past year was challenging is an understatement. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say it was the most challenging year, regardless of the role you have in education. I experienced this year both as a teacher and a parent, so I understand the difficulties both were facing. Now that my school year has ended, I think it’s a good time to reflect on the experience. Each school approached this year very differently, so before I get to my observations and what students had to say about the year, let me provide an overview of what our year looked like for context.
Our District and COVID Schedule
The district I work in has had a 1:1 laptop initiative (currently using MacBooks) for 15+ years and we shifted to a common LMS about 5 years ago. This removed a significant challenge that other districts had right from the start. Students already had their devices and were familiar with how to access course information. We offered hybrid instruction from the first day of school, with only a few brief shifts to fully remote due to COVID protocols. The daily schedule was an A/B rotation with the morning classes having in-person sessions and the afternoon sessions being whole class remote learning. The schedule worked on a 4-day rotation. Below is an example of a given week. With this schedule, I would see most students in person once per week with 2 additional remote sessions. During the in-person sessions, students at home would join the class through GoogleMeet.
Let me start with the most important thing. Students learned. I am confident that the vast majority of the students that took my course are leaving with more skills and knowledge than they entered. With that said, we did not cover as much content or develop skills to the same level that we had in other years. To think that we could is unreasonable. With the reduced total instructional time and severely limited face-to-face instruction, that was an impossible task. On top of that, having to teach students in the classroom and at home simultaneously diminished my effectiveness for both groups. There really wasn’t any time that I felt fully comfortable and like the students were getting the best version of my class. I have no problem teaching a completely remote course or a fully in-person, however, I would be very happy if I never had to teach a hybrid course again. I think that students would have been better served by separating them into in-person cohorts and remote cohorts. I also found it very difficult to make connections with students, especially the students engaging remotely. For the students that were in-person, those relationships did eventually form, but it took a lot longer.
As I’ve been doing for the past 6 years, I gave students a mid-year and end of course survey. The following are students’ thoughts on different aspects of the school year.
Learning – Students self-reported their level of knowledge of content and development of problem-solving and lab-related skills. For content knowledge only 3 out of the 102 students that responded to the survey felt like they did not understand any of the topics that we studied, while 54 students reported having a solid understanding or fully grasping all concepts. The remaining 45 students reported a general understanding of most concepts. In terms of skill development, just 2 students reported no change in their problem-solving and lab-related skills, with 78 students reporting a significant improvement in problem-solving and 85 students reporting a significant improvement in lab-related skills. The remaining students reported slight improvement in both categories. This is in line with what we observed based on the practice provided and expectations of the course. In the free response portion of the survey, students had the following to say:
“I think I performed my best in this class. I’ve turned in almost every assignment we’ve had and I’ve worked to understand the material rather than memorize it or shoving it off.”
“I liked the way this class is graded and how it runs. It made it a lot less stressful than past science classes I have taken. This year was the only year in high school that I felt confident in my work and labs. I didn’t feel lost ever because you guys made learning all the terms and math equations very easy to remember. By far one of the best classes I have taken and thank you for giving us the best year!”
Of course, not everyone felt that way:
“I definitely slacked off a lot and had a hard time staying motivated”
While not alone, these thoughts were limited.
Motivation was a big theme of the free response for both the students who did well and the students who found the year challenging. One of the common themes that inhibited motivation was the virtual environment.
“Virtual classes are never really enjoyable for me even with the best teachers because I can’t really learn in a virtual environment that effectively. But being a hybrid student, I also got the opportunity to come into class and learn as well. The in-person sessions helped me and my learning experience in this class so much because I felt comfortable enough to ask questions, and never once felt like I was a bother for asking a question that might be a little silly. In-person sessions are the reason why I didn’t fail this class throughout everything.”
“I have found it difficult to learn/become invested in class when it is virtual. This is a problem I have encountered with my other classes as well, as there are more distractions at home to balance with mostly independent work.”
“When I was virtual I didn’t do my work and it was harder to understand the things being taught. but when I came in things were a lot easier and I did my work.”
“I wish we were fully in school! It would have been easier to learn and more fun in person!”
I was also noticing that students did not engage as much during our remote sessions. They would come on our GoogleMeet early or stay late, turn on their camera and ask questions. However, once class started or other students were present, there was silence. This student was not alone in their feelings, but their response summed up the challenges of remote learning nicely.
“When I’ve just woken up in the morning and I’m still in bed, that doesn’t really give me much motivation to do work or try. I also couldn’t really understand directions that well while virtual, and it’s much more revealing to unmute yourself in a google meet and ask a question than it is to ask questions in person.”
This made it very challenging to assess students the way I normally would when we are all in-person. I had to rely more on the students reporting where they were finding their challenges because I couldn’t have those quick conversations as I circulated the room. That was something that students did do fairly well though. The majority of students could identify strengths and areas of opportunity.
“My greatest strength in this class is that I am willing to take advantage of any opportunity to ask for clarification on a concept directly from the teacher. I pay attention to deadlines and make sure that I give myself enough time to create assignments that are as detailed but precise as possible. A weakness of mine is that I overthink to the point where I don’t trust myself to know if what I am saying is accurate.”
“My obvious weakness throughout this class is submitting my work, and submitting it on time. I tend to be a perfectionist and I sometimes work so hard on my assignments, just to get preoccupied with something else and to not submit the work I put so much time and effort into.”
While this year was far from ideal, it was by no means a lost year. Students learned. They may have learned some things that are difficult or impossible to assess, but they learned. For students to navigate this school year, they had to find a way to overcome challenges of motivation and distractions that came from non-traditional learning environments. They had to find ways to self-assess, reflect, and communicate their needs. And while they were doing all of that, they still learned course specific content and developed some transferable skills. This year was frustrating and tiring, but I’m proud of everything we’ve accomplished.