Managing classes during challenging times

August 4, 2020 | Claudia Stanny

Managing classes during challenging times

The coming academic year promises to present unique challenges to faculty. The most obvious challenge is created by the need to establish community in a remote teaching environment or in a face-to-face classroom with significant precautions to limit opportunities for spread of infection. However, students and faculty will not easily keep challenges from day-to-day life out of classroom interactions. These challenges may include stress related to health, social isolation, or economic stresses associated with COVID-19. Other stressors might be associated with ongoing events, such as concerns about policing or the exceptionally charged politics of a national election.

While faculty are well-prepared to teach the content and skills of their disciplines, few have received explicit guidance on how to manage the interpersonal dynamics of a classroom, whether interactions are face-to-face or online. In a recent blog post for Inside Higher Education, Steven Mintz offers suggestions for how faculty can connect with students and promote a supportive and productive learning environment. Some suggestions are based on good course design; others focus on interpersonal communication.

Design courses to promote learning and social connection

  • Focus on a small number (2 or 3) key learning outcomes and goals for the course. Select assigned readings, learning activities, assignments, and assessments that have a clear relation to the key learning outcomes. Known as backward design, this approach to course design ensures that every aspect of the course serves a clear purpose. 
  • Don’t assume that students will figure out why an activity or assignment will help them learn. Tell students about the purpose of an assignment, describe key steps to complete the assignment, and clearly describe expectations for the quality of work students should produce. Transparent assignments help students connect learning activities to course goals and improve motivation and connection to the course.
  • Attend to equity when you select course materials. When possible, select readings and problems that resonate with the diverse experiences of students enrolled in the class. Select materials that will be equally accessible to all students, including equity in access to technology as well as equitable access related to physical accessibility (e.g., closed captions, for students who access materials in noisy environments or have hearing issues, text to explain images for students with limited visual ability). 

Communication and interpersonal dynamics

  • Communicate with students with minimal jargon to ensure clear descriptions and explanations. (See the discussion above about transparent assignments.)
  • Set ground rules for in-class communication that promote multiple points of view and civil discourse.
  • Create opportunities for students to connect with you and each other as individuals. This does not mean that we should blur boundaries for personal privacy, but we should attempt to develop a human connection that allows each member of the class to experience one another as real individuals. This is more easily done in a face-to-face class, where people are physically present to one another. A human connection in the remote environment requires intentional actions that reveal the person behind posts on a discussion board. A shared (appropriate) photo (even shared photos of pets), short video posts, or occasional synchronous interactions via WebEx or Zoom can contribute to a sense of community.
  • Instructor presence in an online class promotes connection with students. Use the announcements feature of Canvas to send a brief, friendly greeting to students once a week to remind them of upcoming activities, looming deadlines, and offer general encouragement and enthusiasm for scheduled learning activities. Some instructors personalize these short messages by recording them as brief (5 minute) videos. Use Panopto to close caption the video to ensure accessibility to all students.
  • Have a plan for “hot moments.” From time to time, instructors must respond to disruptive behavior from students during class. Gold (nd) offers some excellent suggestions for how to manage these classroom challenges. Avoid responding impulsively. Pause and give yourself time to gather your thoughts and allow you (and your students) to calm emotions. In the short term, try to defuse the situation. Remind students of the ground rules you established for class discussion at the start of the term. Speak with the disruptive student privately in a neutral environment after emotions have cooled. Discuss the incident with your chair and determine what follow-up activities are warranted (e.g., contacting the Dean of Students, referring the student to the Campus CARE team or other support services on campus).



Gold (nd). Making the most of “hot moments” in the classroom. Resource for faculty, University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT).

Mintz, S. (2020, July 15). A prediction: More contentious classrooms. Inside Higher Education.

08/04/2020 ajc