Research on Teaching

A stressed-out woman holds her head and looks at her computer.
Teaching Assistants have experienced an increased workload during the transition to online learning. Photo via PickPik.

In the last few months, higher education institutions have faced the challenge of moving in-person coursework to various online platforms in response to COVID-19. During this unprecedented time, a graduate level course at the University of Minnesota called “Teaching Sociology” launched a project to evaluate how instructors were handling the transition. The graduate students administered a survey to the Sociology department’s instructors and teaching assistants and issued a final report highlighting broad trends and making recommendations for the department to consider as the crisis continues and planning for the fall begins. Given how widespread these issues and challenges are, we thought it might be useful to share some of those ideas here on TSP, with particular focus on the experience of teaching assistants.

The survey found that, much like their instructors, nearly all TAs experienced an increased workload with the transition online. This increased workload was due to both technological learning curves and increased overall time demands. In addition to the extra emails, students expected TAs to respond more quickly and have increased availability outside of already extended office hours. Yet perhaps most salient is the proportion of TAs who noted an increase in emotional labor. TA’s provided anecdotes of dealing with students’ panic and anxiety over the rapid transition online and students’ upheaval in their personal lives. They also reported being on the end of increased student frustration and emotional outburst. In a more extreme case, one TA noted that they had received aggressive emails from students, but many more reported students’ frustrations being communicated directly.

While the survey was meant to provide reflections on the rapid transition to online teaching, the findings suggest some important considerations regarding the roles of and challenges faced by teaching assistants during unsettled times. Borrowing from the literature on workplace harassment, we find that individuals in low- to mid-level supervisory positions, such as TAships, often experience such challenges in their roles.

TA weekly hours worked pre- and during COVID, Spring 2020 

Note: this includes both 25% and 50% appointments.

The literature on workplace harassment suggests that, unfortunately, backlash against low and mid-level supervisors is not uncommon. Although many would view the authority of a supervisor as providing a protective measure from harassment, research suggests that it provokes backlash from subordinates. As a result, workers in supervisory roles are more likely to experience harassment, and that likelihood increases even more if they are female. 

In contrast, in the United States, people in higher supervisory positions such as an executive or department head are less likely to experience sexual harassment. Given that women in low- or mid-level supervisory positions are often on career tracks for these higher level positions, it is somewhat surprising that they are the most likely to experience workplace harassment.

While this literature focuses on women and sexual harassment in the workplace, these frameworks are useful for understanding the harassment faced by others in low-level supervisory positions, such as TAships. TAs may receive more “blowback” from undergraduates who hesitate to make demands or express frustration with professors, and this backlash is likely to fall more heavily on TAs who are women and/or people of color.

Because TAs often have a lot of responsibility but relatively little power, our findings suggest that instructors consider the following recommendations: 

  1. In designing remote courses, reconsider assignments and expectations for students and TAs. This may require giving TAs ample time to deal with technological challenges, as well as additional training in how to provide tech support to students.
  2. Both instructors and TAs reported a significant increase in extensions and accommodations. Consider creating a shared document so that TAs may better manage a range of deadlines and accommodations.
  3. Establish and reinforce norms and expectations for respectful communications with students throughout the semester. 
  4. Recognize and discuss responsibilities around emotional labor. Discuss which student comments or emails should go directly to the instructor and which should be handled by the TA.
  5. Put explicit email and office response hours in the syllabus to help manage and bound TA work hours.

Works Cited

Olle Folke, Johanna Rickne, Seiki Tanaka, and Yasuka Tateishi. 2020. “Sexual Harassment of Women Leaders.” Daedalus 149(1): 180-197. 

Heather McLaughlin, Christopher Uggen, and Amy Blackstone. 2012. “Sexual Harassment, workplace Authority, and the Paradox of Power.” American Sociological Review 77(4):1-23.

This article originally appeared on The Conversation on May 14, 2020 and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.

College students don’t have to appear in person to do good.
Tom Werner/Getty Images

At Troy University in Alabama, students went online to help a county with a high infant mortality rate in the state of Georgia to analyze health disparities and develop solutions.

At Cornell University, where I teach, law students are providing legal services online to death-row inmates in Tanzania and children and young farmworkers in upstate New York.

At five state universities in the U.S. heartland, students are helping Michigan towns create government websites.

These are all examples of “e-service learning” – that is, service learning that takes place online. Service learning refers to a wide range of student experiences meant to help a community organization, local government or business.

I am an education researcher and – along with my colleague Yue Li – I am investigating the best ways to engage students in e-service learning, both here in the U.S. and around the world.

Even though colleges and universities have shut down their campuses due to COVID-19, e-service learning shows how college students can still do their volunteerism in the virtual world. Students need not be physically present to help support local government, local nonprofits and vulnerable individuals like farmworkers, all of whom have a greater need for the help of volunteers due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vast benefits

Service learning is not meant only to help community organizations, governmental agencies and businesses. It’s also meant to advance the student’s individual academic goals.

A key part of service learning is for students to reflect on the service they actually do and how whatever they are studying – whether it be health, law or the environment – relates to the real world. Reflection also helps students clarify their personal values and gain a sense of civic responsibility.

Better outcomes

Compared to peers who didn’t do service learning in college, graduates who did participate in service learning report higher levels of civic-mindedness. That is to say, they are more likely to work with others to achieve public goals.

For community organizations, the benefits of having college students help
with their work are vast. Students can offer companionship for elderly clients, become role models for high school students or simply serve as an extra hand to tackle a nonprofit’s back-burner project.

Research applied

Through e-service learning, communities can gain access to the latest university research. For instance, residents of Gracias Lempira, Honduras, and Rohne Village, India, used engineering research to build electricity-free water purification systems. And in Louisville, Kentucky, students from several universities created models to help residents decide where to plant trees to cut down on air pollution.

Each partnership has unique benefits. For instance, an official at an international climate action group – Team 54 Project International – remarked on how a Cornell University student played a key role in gathering information for a tree-planting guide. The guide will be used to help plant trees in Serbia that are suited for the region. The guide will also serve as a template for similar tree-planting projects around the world.

Is virtual the same?

Can students still have a meaningful service learning experience in cyberspace?

A study of business marketing students shows that students who engaged in online service learning gained the same skills, such as the ability to work well with others and understand cultural and racial differences, as those who worked alongside their partners in person.

Back in 2013, some university scholars predicted that online technologies would disrupt in-person university teaching as it was known, including service learning.

What I have found is instead of disrupting in-person teaching, e-service learning has enhanced it. It does this by offering opportunities for any student and any nonprofit with an internet connection to form a partnership on short notice. E-service learning has also added new opportunities for busy students to help NGOs overseas, U.S. nonprofits and local governments in other states. Students help with everything from disaster planning to food waste and hunger issues.

Ever since colleges and universities have been forced to move their instruction online due to COVID-19, critics have worried about whether or not they’re doing a good job. But as schools continue to teach online for the summer and possibly even the fall, similar attention should also be paid – in my view – to how well they are engaging students in service learning online.

Especially with employees working from home due to social distancing, e-service learning may prove itself as one of the most effective ways to prepare students to solve the kinds of problems they will encounter once they start their careers.

[Like what you’ve read? Want more? Sign up for The Conversation’s daily newsletter.]The Conversation

Marianne E. Krasny, Professor of Environmental Education and Civic Ecology, Cornell University

Photo depicts a modern office work space with two tables and two white boards. Photo via Pixabay.

This article is reposted with edits from an original post made 3/11/2020

Erika Sanborne is a TSP Graduate Board member who has received various awards for teaching and often serves as a teaching & technology consultant for faculty and graduate instructors. Her research interests include the life course, race, and religion. Her favorite course to teach is statistics.

Many of us are a week or two into teaching a suddenly-online course that we had designed to teach in person. Having taught about 50 undergraduate class sections in person, and about 50 undergraduate class sections online, I am duly familiar with both options. To be clear, when I have taught the same subject online and on campus even during the same semester, they are very different courses. Yet here we are with this current situation, so let’s deal with it as best we can. In this write-up, I’m inviting you into “round 2” following all the big changes you have made in the past few weeks to get to this moment.

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Volunteers work with youth to create posters for an HIV awareness campaign. Photo by Peace Corps via Flickr.

Service-learning is an extremely high-impact educational practice. Research shows that it increases students’ social responsibility and civic-mindedness, awareness of stereotypes, tolerance for diversity, and commitment to continued civic engagement and development of multicultural skills like empathy, patience, reciprocity and respect. Teachers may assume the benefits of service-learning come from relatively advantaged students reducing their prejudices through contact with relatively disadvantaged service populations. This is only part of the story, though. New research shows that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are actually more attuned to structural — instead of individual — explanations of inequality during service-learning.

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Image from rear of stadium seat lecture hall facing forward, photo by nikolayhg, pixabay CC

Jessica A. Cebulak and John F. Zipp. 2019. “Using Racial and Class Differences in Infant Mortality to Teach about White Privilege: A Cooperative Group Activity.” Teaching Sociology

White college students often struggle to understand, recognize, and learn about white privilege. Many students prefer a “color-blind” approach that denies racial inequalities altogether. Although there are other teaching strategies that try to overcome this, too many simply shift the conversation to inequalities in social class. These strategies fail to address the complicated relationship between race and class. As a result, students struggle to understand, for instance, why affluent, well-educated Black women still have higher infant mortality in the United States than low income, poorly educated white women.

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John Chung-En Liu and Andrew Szasz. 2019. “Now Is the Time to Add More Sociology of Climate Change to Our Introduction to Sociology Courses.” Teaching Sociology.

Picture of Earth drowning in a sea of flames via CCO Public Domain.

Young people around the world want to talk about climate change. Intro to Sociology classes could capitalize on students’ interest by demonstrating how sociological thinking is useful for understanding it. For instance, one unit could focus on the factors that make social movements–like the Youth Climate movement–effective. Another could illustrate how inequalities in housing and access to resources mean that climate change will disproportionately impact less advantaged. Still others could show how our socialization shapes how we think about the importance of protecting the environment, or how social institutions can impact climate change and its effects.

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YouTube website screenshotThe June issue of the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching (Volume 5, Number 2) has a great article on multimedia options for the classroom by sociologist Michael Miller at the University of Texas at San Antonio. The article, entitled “Integrating Online Multimedia into College Course and Classroom: With Application to the Social Sciences,” describes “an approach for efficiently incorporating online media resources into course and classroom.”

The article discusses pedagogical rationale for making use of online media resources, as well as types of materials that can and should be used, locating and delivering programs and clips, as well as technical issues, like copyright obligations. The piece also deals with some of the most common problems that instructors and students have when using online materials.

Read the article.

Managing conflict with students in the classroom is something that many instructors struggle with. Both new teachers and those with years of experience often express anxiety and frustration about how to address some of these issues. The following tutorials are provided by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Teaching and Learning.

Why is it important to address these issues?

Managing a classroom well–balancing your instructional authority with your students’ concerns–comes with experience. Sometimes painful experience! Small problems poorly handled can distract you from teaching well and cast a pall on the semester. And while many are ready to complain about situations, we don’t often engage in constructive talk about how to manage and minimize the troublesome issues when they arise.

These scenarios help instructors think about what to do when a student complains about a great, doesn’t think s/he will ever ‘get’ the concept, misses work because of a sick child, disputes classroom or assignment directions, or asks you to meet off campus.

How to use the tutorial:

Select a scene (see below) and you’ll have a chance to view an encounter between a student and an instructor.

Following the clip, you’ll likely want to think about how you might have handled the situation—there’s no single correct approach. After you’ve formulated an opinion, you can choose to listen to several teaching consultants to see how they might have worked with the student to resolve the conflict.

Transcripts of both the scene and the advice are available on every page and further resources can be found on the workshop’s resources page.

Take a look at the scenes below…

Scene 1 – Why Did You Take Points Off?
Scene 2 – I’ll Never Get It!
Scene 3 – Could You Talk to the Professor for Us?
Scene 4 – It’s a Zoo in Here!
Scene 5 – Let’s Meet for Coffee
Scene 6 – I Had to Go to a Funeral
Scene 7 – Sorry, but I Don’t Always Understand You
Scene 8 – Do the Problem for Me!
Scene 9 – I Had a Sick Child!
Scene 10 – You Never Told Us That!