The challenges of assignments in the COVID-19 era: strategies for an active process

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged education worldwide, forcing universities and community colleges in the U.S. to turn online. While there is immeasurable “learning loss” during the last almost three years, there is also an opportunity to ensure that writing is a tool of self-expression that engenders political, economic, and social change. In the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, college classroom has changed forever, and there is opportunity for more and different cross-curricular writing than before.

In a complex interconnected world of increased poverty and inequalities, cross-curricular writing has the power to give young people access to the academic and professional world.  If education is freedom, writing is the tool of self-expression to transform it. It is our duty, as teachers and students, to transmit that across our academic communities. We must interact with students’ assignments in a more meaningful way, so we go beyond reviewing grammar, spelling, and style.

From 2019 to 2022, during which I was teaching at Brooklyn College, I did my best to bring critical consciousness to the classroom. But this became particularly challenging when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, as not only the class turned online but students were also struggling to adapt to the new world as well as to concentrate on the writing and other assignment processes.

Our solution was to go together through the online learning process, so students had an active role to play on it instead of being a passive recipient of knowledge. For instance, we had collaborative writing assignments—when students had to work in zoom breakout rooms to write an analysis of one international organization—and research papers, which were divided into several steps during the semester, including feedback from me and the other students in the classroom.

Yet, it was only more recently, as a WAC fellow at City Tech that I had access to a broader variety of pedagogical strategies on how to best make writing a process of critical thinking for students. In the insightful “Engaging Ideas” by John C. Bean and Dan Melzer, there are a variety of ideas that apply to pedagogy in general and can be particularly helpful for engaging students in times of online learning. Let me share three strategies from “designing productive small-group task” (Bean and Melzer. Engaging Ideas, 2021, chapter 8) that I found most useful for online assignments and my reflection about how they help to overcome the challenges of online teaching.

First, the template strategy, in which the instructor provides a template frame to shape a short essay. Students must create the content, developing the argument for each section. What appeals to me in this strategy is that students are free for thinking but at the same time have a clear structure to guide and develop that thinking. Moreover, students usually have difficulty to develop their ideas in a structured manner or a way the reader can understand. This is particularly good for online teaching and addressing concentration issues: with clear guidance, procrastination and distractions become harder.

Second, the question-generating strategy, in which the instruction breaks the students into groups to brainstorm possible questions related to the topics in discussion. Students must select 2-3 best questions and explain why they are good ones. Although the format – breakout groups – is like what I did before, I wish I had known about this strategy before as it focuses on question-generating rather than on the students answering the questions I was posing. This strategy incentivizes students to collectively think and build arguments because they need to justify why a specific question matters as well as to try convincing each other. One of the online teaching challenges is that, given the environmental distractions, students need extra incentive to actively engage in class discussion and assignments.

Third, the evidence-finding strategy, in which an instructor asks students to use evidence to support an assertion. In my field, international relations, this means finding textual details from primary documents. The way of doing this online is breaking the students into smaller groups and suggesting a topic for them to find evidence. For instance, looking at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and world leaders’ official statement, both usually available online, for evidence to support their argument on whether some leader is violating a human right.  The beauty of this task is that often we learn together how evidence is actually selectively chosen. Since this task challenges students to search and prove a point, it incentivizes them to move away from distractions and try to convince their peers.

To transform education with WAC, we must take the opportunity of the pandemic and construct together the change we want to see.  The strategies already exist. It’s our job to adapt and use them for the online learning and teaching world, which came to stay.


Works cited:

Bean, John C., and Dan Melzer. Engaging Ideas. 3rd Edition, Jossey Bass, 2021.