The one thing to do now for Fall 2020

The one thing to do now for Fall 2020

It's crunch time.

Every summer there's a moment in time when the start of classes for the Fall shifts from abstract to concrete, overnight, and without seeing it coming. Although the actual starting dates for Fall 2020 classes are being shifted from their usual spots because of the pandemic, all of us college faculty are in the season when the start of classes is imminent. All the plans we've made, all the uncertainties about what awaits in September, all come to the point now. And if you're feeling 100% confident about this semester, it's very possible you are overlooking something important.

We know all this. We've been imagining Fall semester, for better or worse, since March. But now we need to act. What are we supposed to do?

I've actually been asked that question a lot lately. This summer I had the privilege of working with several different faculty groups on flipped learning and online learning, and helping them build local communities of practice and stable, predictable workflows to help them navigate this semester with as little stress and uncertainty as possible. I think having the combination of routines for doing your work on the one hand and people to lean upon on the other helps us believe that we can do our jobs, and do them well, this fall (and afterwards). Still, getting all that in place is a lot of work, and there's one question that has been asked by every group I've worked with this summer:

If you were to tell faculty one thing that they needed to do now (or first) to get ready for the fall, out of all the stuff you've mentioned, what would it be?

This good question has a simple answer:

Write out the learning objectives for your courses.

I wrote about this most recently in this post, but all of the "Building Calculus" posts recently center upon learning objectives. And I've written extensively about learning objectives in the past. Why do I believe learning objectives are so important?

  1. Everything in a well-designed course traces back to learning objectives. In my latest articles, I've mentioned repeatedly that everything in a course should align with the learning objectives. What students do in and out of class to learn; the assessments students take; the grading system you construct; even the learning materials and tech tools you select all must be in alignment with the learning objectives for the course and the modules within the course. By writing out learning objectives, you're deciding in advance many things about most of the other parts of the course. That gets me to the next point:
  2. Having clear, measurable learning objectives will save time and energy later. One thing's certain about this Fall: We won't be able to do everything we normally do in a class. We will have to fall back to basic principles of instruction and the essential goals and content of the course. Just like back in March, we will need to simplify almost brutally to cut out everything that does not serve the essential parts of the classes we teach. I've been thinking that this Fall, the paring down of the content and assessment in my classes should get to the point where I should be questioning whether I am left with viable classes in Calculus or Discrete Structures. Your learning objectives codify those essentials. And having them written out is like having the legal system of your state or country written out — you write them out once and many future decisions are pre-decided, and you don't have to reinvent the course every time you need to decide whether or not to teach something or assess something.
  3. Writing clear, measurable learning objectives helps your sanity. All of us are feeling like we are fighting for our lives right now. At times it feels like the world is spinning out of control. Perhaps it actually is. So what do you do in order to be a functioning human being in such a situation, especially when students feel this many times more potently than we do, and they are looking to us to provide some stability in their lives? Answer: You exert control over whatever it is you can. And as dumb as it sounds, the simplest, most possible next action for exerting control over your situation is to write out the learning objectives for your courses. If you do this, you may find that you can breathe again, just a little, when you're done.  

And so will your students, because of course they are also getting those learning objectives and this will give them a desperately-needed framework of structure to hold on to as they enter in to the fall.

If you need instructions, here's what I did for my classes:

  • First, for each class I set aside a two-hour block for this exercise.
  • Second, I came up with the course-level objectives that describe the big picture learning goals for the course. These are actually provided by my department, but as I wrote here they are weirdly phrased so I remixed them and made sure they were clear and measurable.
  • Next, I split my course up into 12 modules of content, each centered around a central topic or question and lasting about one week.
  • Next, I went page-by-page through the textbooks for my courses and wrote out all the micro-level objectives for each module — everything students will learn on a fine-toothed scale as they progress through the course. Here's what that looked like for Calculus.
  • Next, and finally, I sought middle ground — I don't intend to (and would not be able to) assess every single micro-objective in my list because there's just too many. So I wrote out 20-25 Learning Targets for each course that aggregate the micro-objectives and sit in the space between the micro- and course-level objectives. You can find the ones for Calculus in the back page of the syllabus. The Learning Targets are the goals I am explicitly going to assess.

Today I'll be finalizing that list because I thought of two Learning Targets that I am going to cut, that normally are considered important topics but they're just not essential in my view, and I can free up time and space by simplifying.

So that's the next action. In all of this insanity and uncertainty, simply writing out your learning objectives is the one action you can perform if you haven't done so already that will give you the most return on the investment – the 20% that accomplishes 80% of the work. My challenge to you today, is to do this if you haven't already.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.