UMass Boston

Effective Practices


These best practices for teaching remotely were curated from our UMass Boston community – faculty from different committees/forums/departments, from Learning Design Services, and from students. 

How to Adapt Courses to Improve Student Engagement in a Remote Teaching Context

Remote teaching problems such as attrition, low attendance, spotty participation, disappointing outcomes may be addressed by approaching the course holistically: what students do in class and out of class as well as the relationship between them is key to creating student momentum and immersion.

Types of Student Engagement

There are three kinds of student engagement:

  1. Student to content
  2. Student to instructor
  3. Student to student

Modes of Remote Learning

There are two modes of remote learning:

  1. In-class (IC) activities (take place during a fixed-time, live class meetings using web conferencing
  2. Between-class (BC) activities (flexible-time, Blackboard-assisted)

In-class and between-class activities should work together in clear and helpful ways to drive learning forward.

  • Instructors should frequently explain the relationship between the IC and BC activities.
  • These activities should count towards students’ grades and students should receive feedback.
  • Communicate your expectations for time on task and your reasons.
  • Students need multiple, low-risk opportunities to practice applying what they are studying; frequent feedback will drive learning forward.
  • IC and BC activities should be varied so as to incorporate the 3 kinds of engagement: student to content; student to instructor; student to student.
  • Consider the diversity of your students when designing activities, choosing examples, etc.
  • Instructors should check in with students to monitor these forms of engagement and make adjustments where needed to improve learning and student satisfaction.

Plan in-class activities in increments that construct a thought process in your students.

  • A live mini-lecture might be followed by break-out sessions that address issues from lecture, followed by group reporting to whole class, Q&A, final summary by instructor
  • Large classes can employ polling, TA monitored chats, whiteboards for group work to be reported and for instructor to comment on
  • Notice that the above activities include all 3 kinds of student engagement—to content, instructor and each other
  • Reserve IC time for checking in and learning about how students are doing. Kindly initiate one on one meetings where needed; don’t wait for students to initiate.

Plan between-class activities to set-up or follow-up in-class activities.

  • There should be an especially clear and mutually supplemental relationship between IC and BC that helps to focus students and draw them in.
  • Reading assignments, recorded lectures, videos etc. should be accompanied by the requirement for students to do something with what they read, listen to or observe.
  • BC activities may include self-assessments, quizzes, traditional homework assignments

Discussion boards facilitate all three forms of student interaction.

Their use can improve students’ sense of connection to University, instructor and each other. Discussion boards facilitate:

  • Student to content interaction via reflective writing, practice with new material, applications, self-assessment, comments on readings, lectures, videos, etc.
  • Student to instructor interaction via feedback and related in-class activities
  • Student to student interaction via small group discussions, sharing, opportunity to reach out to each other between class

Use simple organizational methods and tools to coordinate IC and BC. Be consistent.

  • Look at your course organization from a student’s point of view and adapt it to address problems
  • Assume that course goals, methods and organization will need re-visiting, both in-class and between-class activities.
  • Be consistent with how your course lessons are structured. For example: Have a short introduction to the course each week, going over the objectives, assignments, etc.  Preferably audio/video the recording. Students love to hear our voices and/or see us! 

Assessment: Follow a Low Tech Approach

When planning your assignments or assessments for a remote modality, please be aware of the technology requirements of any new tools you may be considering. Keep in mind that your students may not have access to the latest technology at home; they may be using internet access with low bandwidth, sharing a home and computer time with others, and may not have access to a video camera. Using the basic features already available in Blackboard will ensure everyone can participate and succeed equally and the need for accommodation will be low.  

Things to avoid:

  • Do not create a final assessment that requires the use of equipment that was not required at the start of the course, or campus facilities that students can no longer access.
  • Do not schedule a “live” exam at any time other than the one assigned to your course by the Registrar.

Assessment Ideas

Consider preparing intermittent lower-stakes assessments that are made available throughout the semester rather than few high-stakes exams. This provides you with more opportunities to evaluate student learning, and it gives you a chance to engage students earlier in the semester. 

According to research presented in the Faculty Playbook, Delivering High-Quality Instruction Online in Response to COVID–19, published by the Online Learning Consortium, “Four alternative assessment methods identified in the literature are focusing on skills that can be applied outside of the classroom (authentic assessment), involving students in the learning and assessment process (active assessment), measuring learning throughout the learning process rather than at the end (formative assessment), and engaging students in work either offline or even just online but outside of the LMS (experiential assessment). 

Assessment Activities

Frequent and varied forms of assessment give your learners the opportunity to apply the information they've learned and improve their performance.

Some tips:

  • Set up weekly graded Discussion Forums to measure student participation and engagement with learning material.
  • Set up periodic Assignments for students to submit their written work such as essays, research papers, literature reviews, reflection papers. 
  • Use SafeAssign or Turnitin,  the plagiarism prevention tools available at UMass Boston, to educate students about plagiarism and proper citation practices.
  • Use digital rubrics to facilitate grading for discussions and assignments.
  • Assign group assignments. The Groups tool in Blackboard provides additional spaces and tools for students to collaborate with each other. 
  • Set all activities as “gradable” in Blackboard so that a column is created in the Grade Center. This provides you with the most options for providing grades and feedback to students. 
  • Ask students to create a presentation to share their learning. Students can present in real time using web conferencing, or pre-record for asynchronous review using VoiceThread.

Best Practices for Tests

Test questions can be created directly into Blackboard using the Tests tool. Questions can also be imported in bulk from a document using the Respondus 4.0 tool available to UMass Boston faculty.

1. Use more frequent and shorter tests

Create short tests (e.g., 30 minutes). More frequent testing has been demonstrated to reinforce student understanding better than longer tests that are less frequent. Shorter tests are less stressful for students, and also do not provide as much time for students to consult with others on how to solve or answer problems. Short tests also do not allow enough time for students to research answers to questions for which they have not prepared. Use timed tests with "auto-submit", don’t use “force-completion”.

2. Ensure alternatives for when students are unable to show an ID

Students may have lost their BeaconID. Other students (e.g., undocumented students) may be endangered if their ID is recorded. Create an alternative and locate it prominently in your syllabus and on test information materials to indicate how students will be able to identify themselves if they do not have an ID to show. For example, the instructor and student can agree ahead of time on another individual at the university (staff, faculty, or student) who is known to both individuals and can join a Zoom meeting briefly while webcams are on to vouch for the student’s identity. Multiple Choice and Multiple Answer question types also allow for randomization of possible answers to questions making it even harder for students to exchange answers to questions. You can also format the answers without numbering (e.g. no a,b,c,d) when publishing the tests which makes them more difficult for students to reference to one another

3. Randomize questions

Blackboard tests and pools can be set up to randomize questions in tests so that different students will have different versions of tests.

4. Use open-book tests

Focus on conceptual and applied questions that take advantage of students’ resourcefulness in finding relevant information to bring to answering the questions. Indicate that students should cite sources.

5. Create pair or group projects-based assessments

Pair and group projects help to build important 21st century skills that are important in today’s workforce. Students can practice and receive feedback on their ability to communicate effectively and work collaboratively when they engage in these. It is important to provide students with clear assessment criteria and grading schemes with clear expectations of roles and responsibilities, so students can be assured that grading will be fair.

Pedagogical Solutions

1. Ask students to explain how they reasoned through a problem

Choose a problem on your test, set a random number generator, or ask each student to choose one of the problems on your test. Ask the student to make an audio recording explaining how they reasoned through the solution to the problem. Then provide the student a link in Blackboard to upload the audio recording.

2. Modify test questions to require unique answers

Ask students to choose a model system. Provide a list of options and have students sign up for a unique one ahead of the test. Use a random number generator to create unique questions when there are quantitative solutions. 

3. Create a “Public Exam”

A Public Exam is an incomplete version of a test that is provided to students in lieu of a traditional study guide before a test. The document has the same format as the actual test but leaves out key information in each section. Students can study while they work on getting a sense of what will be on the exam. Examples might be: providing data to interpret but withholding the question, providing a list of possible questions on a broad topic. For more ideas, see “Public Exam” on this web page by Wiggins.

Technical Solutions

1. When a student is not comfortable turning on their webcam in front of others in the class who are taking a proctored exam

Move the student into a Zoom breakout room and ask the student to keep their webcam on while in there. A proctor, generally the faculty or a TA, can drop in at random to view the student activity.

2. Mitigate possible dangers to students when using a lockdown browser

The Respondus LockDown Browser locks down other functionality on a student’s computer. Specifically, the web browser is locked, not allowing the student to open another webpage, etc.  However this does not prevent the student from asking someone else in the room or referencing content on another device or printed material. Students have expressed concerns about how invasive it feels to have to give the browser permission to access and lock down all systems on their computer. Substantial research has also demonstrated that when students are subjected to accusations or assumed negative stereotypes (e.g., dishonesty) at the beginning of a test, this has a differential negative impact on students from marginalized groups. You can explain to the student that using proctoring software does not mean you suspect them of dishonesty, rather it adds value to their degree for UMass to be able to say that we have evidence that students have actually gained knowledge throughout their tenure here.

3. Have students complete a paper instead of an exam 

Arrange for students to complete a paper for their test and run it against SafeAssign or Turnitin (plagiarism detection systems). The professor can also compare it with writing samples collected earlier in the semester to look for likelihood that it is the same student who wrote the paper.

4. Set the online test so that test results are not displayed until all tests are graded

Choose settings in a test so that answers will not be shown until “all attempts are graded”, so that answers cannot be shared among students during the test. If you know that some students will not be taking an exam or are not really students (for example, students created when instructors invoke Student Preview mode) they could block the release of grades indefinitely. However, entering an actual zero in the grade cell as opposed to leaving it blank will cause the system to consider it graded for the purpose of displaying the answers to other students.

5. Additional options to enable when using Blackboard Tests:

Authentic Assessment

Authentic assessment is a form of assessment in which students are asked to perform real-world tasks that demonstrate meaningful application of essential knowledge and skills. Like many assignments, authentic assessments often employ a rubric, a scoring scale used to assess student performance along a task-specific set of criteria. Here are some examples:

  • Education: Create a classroom management plan and/or lesson plan for the student’s subject matter and/or intended audience.
  • Nursing: Assess a mock patient’s health and plan and implement that patient’s care.
  • Business: Develop a business plan for a company in the student’s location and desired field.
  • Computer Science: Troubleshoot faulty code or create a website or application.
  • Exercise Science: Record and analyze a mock client’s diet and come up with a nutrition and/or exercise plan.

Additional Resources on Assessment

Academic Integrity

Students in remote classes are expected to adhere to the Code of Student Conduct as it applies to Academic Integrity. Students should be reminded of these policies in the Syllabus. Academic integrity is best maintained through the continuous engagement of students and applying assessment methods that require the application of knowledge rather than memorization.

Plagiarism Prevention

Plagiarism prevention tools such as SafeAssign and Turnitin are available for checking written work submitted by students. The tools are best used in a transparent educational way while engaging the student in the originality check process.

Proctoring Tools

Additionally, UMass Boston faculty have access to Respondus Lockdown Browser and Monitor to administer exams that require proctoring.

Get Help

Schedule a consultation with an Instructional Designer to get help with your course. 

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