Success often is in the details for winter session courses

The foundation of what makes a course successful doesn't change, even if the time frame does.

Iowa State piloted a 25-day online winter session last year, and this year's four-week option again gives students an opportunity to catch up or work ahead to meet their graduation requirements.


Several instructors who taught during the inaugural winter session will take part in a Q&A session, "Winter Term: Faculty Appreciation and Collaboration," led by associate provost for academic programs Ann Marie VanDerZanden on Nov. 29 (11 a.m.-noon, 2010 Morrill Hall).

Instructors must determine how a course -- perhaps taught during the summer semester -- can be structured to help students learn. But for instructors who taught during the first winter session, success often came in paying attention to the details.

"I tried to have more checkpoints with students throughout the course," said Jan Lauren Boyles, associate professor in the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication.

Boyles taught the 400-level course Communication Technology and Social Change asynchronously, but met with each student through Zoom during the first week. She also had a midterm check-in to allow tweaks.

Boyles said going from a five- to four-week course will require instructors to think further on the information they want to share with students.

Emmanuel Agba, teaching professor of mechanical engineering, also taught a 400-level computer-aided design course asynchronously last year. He said the shorter timespan doesn't change the material he covers, just the way he goes about it.

"I may have to do a longer lecture to cover the material, but I would cut it up into smaller sections," he said. "I don't want to have students sitting through one long lecture, but I also would have us doing some hands-on activities during that time."

Rethink delivery

Agba said he used the Center For Excellence in Learning and Teaching's (CELT) course template in Canvas to design his winter course. It benefited both the students and himself then and now.

"It helped me to better organize my class and put things into modules," Agba said. "I used to spend a lot of time in office hours when I taught the class face-to-face, but this semester I haven't had any one-on-one appointments with students. The information I offer in Canvas helps them do their work."

Agba opens all of the modules from the start of class, allowing students to work ahead. He can spend more time answering questions and providing help.

"This semester I have a student who is way ahead of me working on projects before those classes begin," he said. "She comes to class, takes notes and then goes back and fixes any mistakes."

He believes more students are working ahead, allowing for the material to be covered faster.

Providing the course as a winter session option also eliminated the waitlist for it that used to be the norm.

Course design

Teaching a class in four weeks presents challenges, but CELT offers assistance to those leading a condensed-format course.

One of the first questions instructional technology specialist Lesya Hassall asks any instructor is "What is important for this session?"

"You want to look at your learning objectives and determine if they are viable," said Hassall. "If your students are to learn during the compressed time -- and the key to learning is practice and feedback -- how do you structure the time to provide information, opportunity for practice and time for feedback?"

CELT recommends instructors "chunk" material into must-know, should-know and would-be-nice-to-know groups. Boyles sent students the syllabus before class began and had a video the first week laying out activities and assignments.

"It is really important to set the parameters from the first day," she said.

Hassall said many instructors develop a "hook" at the beginning of each class to get students engaged. That might be a funny meme followed by an interactive question or it could be music.

"We know students learn in different ways, and the more flexibility you have, and the more options you provide your students for learning, the more successful the course will be," said Lori Mickle, CELT instructional technology specialist.

Engaging students with one another gives them an opportunity to seek assistance from more than just the instructor. It puts the onus on the students to use their time wisely away from class so instructors can provide feedback about their learning, Mickle said.

Communication and organization

A clear plan of progression and communication in Canvas are key regardless of when a course is taught. Hassall said the winter session is not solely about delivery of content, but motivation, persistence, explanation and time management. Making sure students know what is expected, when assignments are due and how to access content helps a course run smoother.

Most instructors used virtual office hours through Webex or Zoom during the pandemic, which  is helpful for winter session courses. Others use discussion boards or dedicated time for online chats to reach students in a variety of ways.

"In an online environment, I think you have to be more proactive as an instructor," Boyles said.