How can I maintain sensemaking when moving my class from in-person to online?

posted March 13, 2020 and revised March 26, 2020
by Andrew Elby (he/him) and Ayush Gupta (he/him, they/them)

While switching your in-person, active-learning physics classroom to an online environment, navigating technical and curricular issues in a kind and humane way that accounts for the various additional challenges that you and your students will face in these times, is inevitably the first priority. We argue for devoting some of your remaining bandwidth to this issue: helping students continue to frame their “in-class” activity as sense-making.

As you know, it can be a challenge to establish a classroom culture that promotes making sense of concepts. When active-learning activities work well, it’s partly because they support students in maintaining a sense-making mindset. Even if your classroom culture of sense-making is well-established, the switch to an online environment could function as a kind of reset; you and your students will experience different sets of cues, many of which might be less associated with sense-making and more associated with information transmission. Small-group work could feel less organic and social, allowing a “get to the answer” mindset to intrude upon a sense-making mindset. When you as the instructor address the whole class, orally or in writing, it might feel to students less like part of an ongoing sensemaking conversation than normal—allowing an information-transmission mindset to intrude. And so on. All these threats to a sensemaking mindset and the sense-making class culture become more severe with greater amounts of asynchronous work (which might be needed more when our technologies and/or bandwidth get overwhelmed), which to students could feel less collaborative than synchronous activity. Students most in danger of being marginalized in a regular physics classroom may be in even more danger under these online conditions. We shouldn’t discount the potential for online spaces to function in racist, sexist, and classist ways, even when people aren’t intending to do so. (In-class active engagement was also never free of these considerations).

We should admit right off—our intuitions about how to navigate these challenges are based on our research and teaching aimed at fostering a sense-making classroom culture in “regular” in-person classes. We have no experience with purely online instruction. With that in mind, here goes…

  1. Partner with students to maintain sense-making. In any steps you take, partner with students. What do they think are the main threats to their sense-making in the shift to an online environment? What do they think they can do to maintain sensemaking despite the challenges—in partnership with you and each other? How are students experiencing this shift differently based on race, gender, class, dis/ability and other factors, and how might we create a more inclusive online-learning space? Partnering with students to face the technological and other challenges might open up new opportunities for making your instruction more equitable.
  2. Go meta with your students about this issue. Shifts away from a sense-making mindset, and the emergent drift away from a sense-making class culture can happen beneath conscious awareness. Therefore, helping yourself and students become aware of this issue, of discussing how you and they can fight the drift away from sense-making, can help. Revisiting this discussion can help as you adjust your classroom practices. During these discussions, talk less and listen more to what your students have to say.
  3. Grades. Even in classrooms with great sense-making cultures, grades can be a threat, nudging students away from sensemaking and toward “playing the game.” Whatever way you can adjust grading to mitigate this threat in the online environment could help. Again, students can be great partners in helping design the assessments and grading.

Do Less. Reducing expectations of how much of the content to cover would help you and your students navigate this transition in a more humane manner (allowing space to care for loved ones, including self) and have time to orient to sense-making.

Image ©Bluefield College Photos via Flickr CC-BY-SA