Out of the Office: Creative Conferencing with Students Online

Matthew Luskey

As we enter the final weeks of the semester and approach the Thanksgiving Break, after which all classes at the University of Minnesota will be fully remote, the need to maintain supportive communication and instructional presence is vital. For many students, end-of-the-term, often high-stakes writing assignments may generate questions and concerns that are intensified in a remote learning environment and differences in time zones. Here are four suggestions for how to create productive, just-in-time conversations that can support student writers in the final remote weeks of the term.

Suggestion 1: Rebrand and Vary Office Hours

Weekly office hours that are clearly listed on the class syllabus ensure students with an established time to contact instructors. But the traditional and fixed office hour with a line of students outside the office door or with students placed in a Zoom waiting room may be an intimidating, rushed experience. And the timing of the office hour may be simply inconvenient. Reframing office hours in less formal language—“Happy Hours,” “Afternoon Check-ins,” “Coffee Breaks,” etc. — and varying their timing has been shown to be effective in generating increased interaction between instructors and students.

Example: Prior to the start of a final project in Graphic Design, an instructor announces optional morning and afternoon check-in sessions on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Students are encouraged to drop in for informal, online, brainstorming sessions with the instructor and other students who show up. 

Suggestion 2: Let Students Set the Meeting

Through the use of Google Calendar invites, a Google Doc or Sheet or online scheduling tools like YouCanBookMe and Calendly, students can schedule meetings with instructors as needed. Instructors can establish the times in the week when they are available and then encourage students to schedule appointments to discuss any aspect of the course or writing assignment. Brief sessions scheduled by the students can often prove more effective and efficient than a series of emails. As an added bonus, students can indicate their specific reason for meeting with the instructor at the point of sign-up.

Example: An instructor in Communication Studies teaches a fully asynchronous course. Below their email signature and listed in the contact information on the syllabus and Canvas site, the instructor includes the line Want to schedule a meeting? The question includes a link to a Google calendar where students can choose from available time slots. The instructor adjusts the available times throughout the semester, based on their availability.

Suggestion 3: Ask Students When, How and If They Want to Meet

Some students may feel more comfortable meeting in small groups with the instructor at specific times in the semester, or they may choose not to meet. A brief survey conducted with a Google form or a Doodle poll that offers students a chance to accept meetings and/or decline them can help instructors determine how best to allocate time during peak hours of the semester. Surveying students about meeting times and options can also be useful for accommodating students who are in different time zones. If instructors choose to use a survey, it is important to be transparent about whether or not the decision to meet will affect students’ grades. Including a statement that makes clear the optional nature of a meeting can lower the pressure to participate when students feel they do not need to. Here's a sample statement:  “I understand that there may be many things affecting your availability to meet. Please know that your decision to check in or not check in with me will have no effect on your grade.”

Example: An instructor in Architecture surveys their students about available times to discuss feedback on recent essays analyzing the Minnesota skyway system. The ”live feedback sessions” are scheduled to support students on optional revisions and to prepare them for their final projects, entailing an architectural case study.

Suggestion 4: Conduct a Discussion Asynchronously

Despite efforts to establish times when instructors and students can engage in productive, real-time conversations about writing, it may not be possible to meet synchronously or it may not be feasible due to class size. Creating a pinned discussion forum on Canvas dedicated to writing-related questions can allow students to pose questions that are visible to the entire class and to read the instructor’s and teaching assistants’ responses. Through the use of a Q&A platform, such as Piazza, students can also ask and answer questions within a larger course community.

Example: An instructor in Advanced Physical Chemistry uses a pinned discussion forum to support students who are working on assignments requiring the creation of clear data plots. The instructor provides examples of good and bad data plots in the discussion forum and responds regularly to students' questions.

Want to Talk?

Creating informal, just-in-time opportunities to meet with students requires careful planning, and  we’re happy to consult with instructors on ways to confer remotely with students. If you have developed an effective method for supporting students remotely, we invite you to share in the comments section below.

Further Support

Beginning in January 2021, Writing Across the Curriculum is offering a 3-week short course, "Teaching with Writing Online". This three-module short course supports faculty members and instructors as they devise (or revise) online writing assignments and activities appropriate to a particular course. Each module contains structured synchronous discussions and workshops and a set of pre- and post-discussion asynchronous activities. As participants work through the modules, they will receive specific feedback on assignment design and strategies for promoting success and engagement in online environments. They’ll also have a chance to become familiar with a variety of online commenting and grading tools.  Read more and register!