Professors Assess Fall Instruction and the Impact on Students

College faculty members finished the fall semester feeling more confident in their online teaching and their institutions’ support for them, but they were also exhausted — and deeply concerned about their students, especially those from groups that are historically disadvantaged in higher education.

Those are among the findings of a report released today, “The Impact of 2020 on Introductory Faculty and Their Students.” The study is the third in a series that Every Learner Everywhere, a network of college and technology groups focused on using digital learning to drive equitable access and success in higher education, and Tyton Partners, an investment, research and consulting firm that is part of the network, have released under the tagline “Time for Class.”

The first report last July explored faculty views from an April survey about last spring’s emergency pivot to remote learning, and the second, published in October, shared the results of an August survey of instructors’ impressions looking ahead to how their fall classrooms, in-person and virtual, might differ from the spring’s.

The series of reports has served as a useful indicator of how one important constituency — the faculty — assesses how colleges and their instructors have fared in keeping students on their educational paths. (They are particularly useful when viewed alongside the perspectives of the other key group — students — in surveys like the one released last week by New America and Third Way, as Inside Higher Ed‘s Lilah Burke reported here.

The new report from Tyton and Every Learner Everywhere focuses on how the fall went and, importantly, also narrows its aperture to a smaller, but essential, group of faculty members: 852 instructors who teach introductory courses at two- or four-year colleges who participated in all three survey administrations (April, August and November).

These instructors are on what pass for the front lines in higher education, teaching the courses students take at the start of their academic careers that can help make or break their future success, being “gateways to degree paths” (ideally) or “gatekeepers” that lead to significant dropouts, the report notes. Many of these instructors were teaching their courses differently than they historically have: 90 percent of respondents delivered them in either online or hybrid formats (67 percent fully online), whereas 80 percent of intro courses have historically been taught in person.

“We’re seeing that despite really herculean efforts that have been made by individual faculty and institutions to elevate their game, in particular at two-year institutions, the loss of some of the in-person and face-to-face supports sometimes proved insurmountable.”

— Kristen Fox, Tyton Partners

Some of the findings will probably prove heartening to many college administrators and to others who hoped that exposure to virtual learning — even if “forced” — might increase faculty members’ comfort with, if not confidence in, forms of education that involve technology.

As seen below, only two in 10 instructors in introductory courses disagreed with the statement “online learning is an effective method for teaching,” while nearly half agreed and a third were neutral. Before COVID-19, more than a quarter disagreed and 43 percent agreed. Not a transformative change, perhaps, but the number of professors expressing confidence in the quality of online learning had not budged in several recent years of Inside Higher Ed‘s own Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology.

Answers to another set of questions suggest that instructors see progress in their own work. Significant majorities altered their courses in meaningful ways: seven in 10 integrated new digital tools (72 percent) or updated learning objectives, assessments and activities (70 percent), and 60 percent embedded active learning components between the spring and the fall.

The new approaches appeared to pay off, most instructors said: nearly three in four respondents said they were either extremely or somewhat satisfied with how well students learned and almost six in 10 said the same about how well students were engaged, up about 10 points each from the spring. (Surveys about the nature of emergency remote instruction last spring overwhelmingly found students and faculty members alike bemoaning the lack of interaction and engagement with each other.)

Institutions appeared to pick up their game, as well — and it made a difference when they did, the survey shows. More than half of instructors in introductory courses (54 percent) said their institution had provided sufficient training and professional development, similar to the summer survey but up from 42 percent last spring.

Those instructors who taught online — and those who taught purely face-to-face — were significantly likelier than their peers who taught in hybrid or “flexible” formats to say they were well prepared to deliver a high-quality course during the fall. Many institutions tried to split the difference between staying wholly online and fully reinstituting in-person learning by embracing blended approaches, but frequently, to hear instructors tell it, without training faculty members sufficiently in how to do so effectively.

Perceptions of faculty preparedness and quality of online instruction also varied by type of institution. Faculty members were far likelier to say that they felt prepared to teach during the fall if they also described their institution as having “sufficient” as opposed to insufficient professional development.

And instructors at community colleges — which were far likelier than four-year institutions to have opted to teach entirely or mostly virtually during the fall — were significantly likelier to describe their institution as having achieved an “ideal digital learning environment.”

The Toll on Instructors and Students

Professors’ ability to adapt to new approaches and what for many people was an emotionally difficult personal and professional period did not come without a cost.

Majorities of instructors said they spent more time this fall than they had last time they had taught the introductory course in the following activities: selecting or adjusting tools or content (68 percent), preparing and delivering assignments (58 percent), preparing for class (74 percent), providing support (62 percent), and grading student work (50 percent).

“This has opened many faculty’s eyes about what their students are facing,” said Kristen Fox, director at Tyton Partners and lead author of the survey and the report. “The things we’re seeing them spend time on — staying up all night sending emails, additional office hours — suggest that professors are seeing the benefit of giving more frequent feedback,” Fox said. But it may also reflect overdependence on manual processes that are hard to pull off with the types of larger cohorts typical for introductory courses, she added.

It’s not surprising that taking on more duties, and being much more the face of their institutions for students, especially those studying remotely, took a toll on professors, who chose words like “exhausting,” “challenging” and “frustrating” to describe their experiences.

Instructors aren’t primarily concerned about themselves, though.

Even as they express the belief that they and their institutions stepped up their teaching game during the fall, faculty members worry deeply about their students.

Professors at four- and especially two-year institutions are significantly likelier to report increases rather than decreases in the proportion of students either dropping out of or failing their introductory courses.

And reinforcing evidence from fall enrollment data that the pandemic and the recession are disproportionately affecting students from low-income backgrounds, first-generation college students and those who are members of underrepresented minority groups, faculty members at institutions with high proportions of students eligible for Pell Grants were about 10 percentage points likelier to say they saw increased failure and dropout rates.

“We’re seeing that despite really herculean efforts that have been made by individual faculty and institutions to elevate their game, in particular at two-year institutions, the loss of some of the in-person and face-to-face supports sometimes proved insurmountable,” said Tyton’s Fox.

Potential solutions, she said, are for institutions to focus even more on preparing faculty to teach effectively and to better reward instructors who focus on teaching, giving instructors tools that might help them automate or streamline some of the more time-consuming parts of their teaching roles, and focus more than ever before on closing equity gaps by race, income and other categories.

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