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Why choose asynchronous?

Reflections on asynchronous online learning (part 1)

By Aimee Kelly, Reed Garber-Pearson, and Sara Vannini, UW Integrated Social Sciences

Since February 2020, most classes around the globe have moved online. Higher education is preparing for continued online and hybrid models of instruction and learning going forward. With this move, a number of resources to help instructors convert their classes to the digital environment have emerged.

Understandably, many of the initial resources were reactionary, offering guidance on how to quickly move courses online. Fewer addressed deeper course design. So many instructors translated face-to-face course design directly into this online environment, using Zoom to conduct synchronous class sessions. Emerging from this reactionary moment, we want to advocate for examining course design more critically. What is the difference between synchronous and asynchronous? Why should instructors choose one or the other?

With a three-part series of posts, we wish to share our multi-year experience working as an academic adviser, a librarian, and an instructor with the Integrated Social Sciences Program (ISS), a fully online undergraduate degree completion program at the University of Washington. Below, we talk about some of the advantages that asynchronous learning can offer to students and faculty. In our next posts, we will cover practices and strategies that we have successfully implemented, and finally we will write some major takeaways from our online program.

Why asynchronous?

An asynchronous course does not require all students to be active in the online environment at the same time. Students are given modules to complete within a certain timeframe, usually a week. As long as assignments are submitted by the deadline, students can complete the work on their own schedules.

Asynchronously run courses require a slight redefinition of the student and instructor roles in a course. A well-designed asynchronous online course requires a significant time investment on both the part of the student and the instructor. The instructor creates and facilitates the learning experience and environment, which the student then navigates. As a result, students need a higher level of self-direction than in traditional courses, necessitating a higher level of collaboration with faculty as well as programmatic staff like academic advisers and librarians.

Our online classes are designed with a student-centered approach. Rather than use a “sage on the stage” model, we have found that students are more engaged when they are able to explore small chunks of material in different formats (video presentations, podcasts, slides, readings, exploration of websites and other sources). While students may be assigned short video lectures, much of their learning happens when they engage in their readings and assignments. Assignments are designed to be interactive: students tie in their own experiential knowledge with course content, and receive personal feedback on them, either by the instructor or by their peers. Many of our core assignments build on each other, creating a dialogue between the students and the instructor.

Equity and access

Flexible course participation is a key component of asynchronous online classes. The ISS program reaches a student population facing many institutional and interpersonal barriers to higher education. Approximately 70% of our students work full-time, with the rest mostly working part-time. Another 30-40% have dependent care responsibilities. Although many of our students are Washington state residents, we serve students across the country and living abroad. Some of our students have learning or other disabilities, or health issues that make it challenging to attend traditional classes.

Our goal to expand access to a quality education is what motivated us to structure our program around asynchronously-delivered courses. Asynchronous classes can accommodate working students with varied shift schedules, students with family responsibilities, and those in different time zones. Students benefit from being able to fit their learning around their already busy schedules. In these times of pandemic, more students might be out of the state or out of the country, or maybe confronted with family or work responsibilities. This flexibility also extends to the instructor—who can be active in the course at times that work best with other commitments they might have (research, field work, family, etc.).

There are additional kinds of accessibility that are expanded by asynchronous design. Recorded video lectures or narrated presentations can improve the learning experience for many students. Videos and narrated presentations should always be captioned and transcribed, serving students who are hearing impaired or who are multilingual. Students appreciate the ability to pause the lecture to take notes or review challenging concepts. Lectures broken into smaller segments can support the many learners who find it difficult to concentrate for long periods of time. Besides video lectures, asynchronous discussion offers students nervous about participating in classroom discussions or have different cognitive strengths more time to organize their thoughts and participate.

A student’s ability to access a reliable computer and internet service is an important concern with online education. Students may not have a reliable internet connection available to them at all times, or they may be at home where there are multiple family members and only one computer. Though an asynchronously taught course does not completely mitigate this issue on its own, being able to download materials—including transcripts of lectures—and work offline at a time of their choice—including assignments—can reduce some of the pressures put on students.

Learning preferences

Asynchronous courses provide students with opportunities to make the learning environment more accessible based on their individual experiences with attention and learning preferences.

  • Some people learn better in the morning; others are night owls. The ability to choose the best moment of the day to engage with the material can be really helpful to them. Other students may need to pause and re-listen to explanations more than once.To be sure, it is easier to tune out a lecture online than in person, even more so when there is not a specific time that the class meets. Other commitments feel more real, there is not enough time to participate, and the shadow of procrastination is often peeking from behind the corner. Yet these risks don’t outweigh the benefits of asynchronous learning.
  • Students in our asynchronous courses are asked to demonstrate their understanding of the material through regular interaction in discussion forums and assignments. When reflective activities are designed intentionally, asynchronous learning provides more space and time for students to think about their learning.
  • This pandemic has caused many people to feel fatigued from Zoom. Asynchronous classes, requiring students to engage in a variety of activities and only a few pre-recorded short videos, can offer a valid alternative to Zoom meetings.
Looking for more information about asynchronous course design?

See the other posts in this series:

About the authors

Aimee Kelly is the Assistant Director of Academic Services for Integrated Social Sciences. In addition to direct student support she is engaged in improving the online educational environment through curricular design and program development. Prior to working with ISS she designed and taught face to face, hybrid, and fully online versions of Geography courses for the Virginia Community College System.

Reed Garber-Pearson is the Integrated Social Sciences & Online Learning Librarian at the University of Washington. They work in instructional design, online program development, and student support. Before becoming a librarian Reed was also an online student.

Sara Vannini is a former Lecturer at the University of Washington Department of Communications and former instructor at the Integrated Social Sciences program. She has been teaching core as well as thematic classes for the program from Autumn 2016 to Spring 2020. Sara is now a Lecturer at the University of Sheffield (UK).

Strategies for successful asynchronous courses

Reflections on asynchronous online learning (part 2)

By Aimee Kelly, Reed Garber-Pearson, Sara Vannini, UW Integrated Social Sciences

Structured course design

Paradoxically, more flexibility in terms of schedule to learning and instructing translates into more structure in terms of course design and lesson planning. A well-developed asynchronous learning experience usually requires significant work before the quarter begins. It is critical to align the overall course objectives, the individual lesson objectives, and associated course materials and assignments to create a coherent structure. Establishing a “pattern” or a predictable flow of content, assignments, and associated due dates is another crucial component. As a result, the ability to modify the course “on the go” is reduced, though not completely removed.

Without transparent course objectives and a predictable flow of materials students can struggle identifying what they need to be doing and when, and as a result, may miss assignments or find it difficult to make sense of the course content. Predictable due dates can help students who need to coordinate their use of a shared device with others. It is critical that asynchronous courses be organized and that the expectations for success are clearly communicated.

In order to maximize accessibility and reduce the need for retroactive edits to the online course, universal design principles should also guide development.

Collaborative design

Asynchronous course design requires an entirely different way of thinking and approach than that of synchronous in-person courses (though we have found it helpful to apply lessons learned from in-person courses). We have found it helpful to do this type of course design through active collaboration with program colleagues. One of the hallmarks of the Integrated Social Sciences (ISS) program is our truly integrated approach to design, instruction, and student support. Instructors, academic advisers and the librarian together design core courses and even teach portions of the courses. For example, the advisers comment on and grade an assignment where students create their own learning plan. In the second week of their first quarter the librarian facilitates and grades a module on information literacy. Students see that we are collaborative and integrated and know that there are always multiple pathways for support.

It can be difficult for students to find the help they need in an online environment; integrating advising and librarian support makes these resources more visible and it helps students have some experience of what “campus life” offers. Staff are additional resources that can help students who are falling behind. Though this type of collaborative course design might be difficult under the present circumstances, it may be useful to look at spaces in your course where you can build in support from or connections to other student services.

Instructor presence and communication

Another important piece of successful asynchronous design has to do more with how the instructor develops their “online presence” when they aren’t meeting with students. While students navigate the asynchronous course independently, students should still feel as though their instructor is guiding them through the course. Otherwise, students have a tendency to feel as though they are teaching themselves. The instructor presence in an asynchronous course can be established through communication expectations, announcements, and robust assignment feedback.

  • Students need to know at the start of the quarter how and when they will receive communication from their instructor. Basic information to share with students includes your preferred mode of communication for questions about the course, your estimated response time for responding to questions, and when you plan to respond. Without clear expectations for communication and response time, students may expect the instructor to respond 24/7, or if they don’t hear back might assume the instructor is not present in the class. Setting these expectations at the start of the course can prevent a lot of student frustration and by extension, save the instructor stress and time.
  • Announcements, whether delivered through the learning management system or via email, work well if they are sent on a regular schedule to provide guidance for the week’s lesson. These are also a great opportunity to integrate current events or tips for completing the assignments. We find that these create a space for instructors to weave in a bit of their individual personality and humanity. Announcements are also a space to address common challenges with assignments. It’s helpful to think about these as opportunities to keep students on track and personalize tips and reminders based on the overall progress of the class.
  • Instructors need to provide robust and timely feedback in the discussion forum or on individual assignments in order for students to develop confidence that they are on the right track. This is especially important in courses where assignments scaffold—early, consistent feedback helps students feel prepared to tackle the next assignment. And of course, this feedback is important for steering students on the right track. As with responses to student questions, it is helpful when instructors let students know at the start of the quarter what their goals are for getting assignment feedback.

Social learning and community building

Social learning and community-building is probably the biggest challenge for online learning. As interaction will always be different in the online medium, we cannot expect it to replace face to face classroom experiences. However, if designed carefully, an asynchronous online course can develop community and leverage social learning in valuable ways. The key is to not equate it with that of an in-person class. With asynchronous education we are not trying to replicate a traditional classroom, but building something altogether different that will meet students’ learning needs and break down barriers to learning.

  • An online, asynchronous class can offer the opportunity to create an environment of dialogue, openness, and respect, particularly for students that may find it challenging to speak up in a face to face course. One way to do this is to develop required, graded discussions where everyone must participate. Setting expectations for what safe and authentic communication should look like can encourage students to share very deep questions and thoughts. This can be done by including spaces for introductions in each course and setting discussion norms. The instructor may also model this through their announcements and participation in discussions.
  • Peer to peer learning and relationships can also be encouraged through the inclusion of opportunities for small group work. The design can also develop assignments that ask students to draw from their own “outside the class” experience, which can also foster getting to know and learning from each other. This peer learning model not only encourages students to get to know one another through continual dialogue, but also helps students to use their own experiential knowledge in sharing information.

With their intrinsic differences from face to face classes, participating in asynchronous online classes might even teach students important skills for their everyday interactions. Social connection through digital environments, even before the move to remote work and learning, is increasingly a part of our everyday lives. Many interactions outside of school that already happen in an online environment—whether professional or personal—are also asynchronous (e.g.: work email exchanges). Asynchronous education is, then, an opportunity for students to improve skills that might be valuable in their career and elsewhere in their life.

Technology-enabled technology issues

Finally, it is important to remember that we are talking about courses mediated by technology, and that the technology will inevitably have issues. Technology that does not work in online courses has the potential to completely halt learning. This causes stress for students and instructors.

  • Instructors should specify minimal technical requirements that students have to have at their disposal in order to participate in their courses. Many of the initial resources that were shared at our institution to help instructors quickly move their courses online encouraged designers and faculty to limit the number of new technologies they put in front of their students. This advice is helpful for thinking ahead—limiting the variety of technologies students need to use, and testing the course environment to make sure that resources are linked properly and are accessible will reduce frustration.
  • Instructors should specify how students can resolve technical issues, be it in the form of technical support, a IT helpdesk contact, or alternative ways to complete assignments. To encourage students to reach out the campus support early on—tutoring, writing help, librarians, and IT—we have built in small extra credit assignments that allow course credit to students for making connections and asking questions.
Looking for more information about asynchronous course design?

See the other posts in this series:

About the authors

Aimee Kelly is the Assistant Director of Academic Services for Integrated Social Sciences. In addition to direct student support she is engaged in improving the online educational environment through curricular design and program development. Prior to working with ISS she designed and taught face to face, hybrid, and fully online versions of Geography courses for the Virginia Community College System.

Reed Garber-Pearson is the Integrated Social Sciences & Online Learning Librarian at the University of Washington. They work in instructional design, online program development, and student support. Before becoming a librarian Reed was also an online student.

Sara Vannini is a former Lecturer at the University of Washington Department of Communications and former instructor at the Integrated Social Sciences program. She has been teaching core as well as thematic classes for the program from Autumn 2016 to Spring 2020. Sara is now a Lecturer at the University of Sheffield (UK).

Take-away strategies for asynchronous online learning

Reflections on asynchronous online learning (part 3)

By Aimee Kelly, Reed Garber-Pearson, Sara Vannini, UW Integrated Social Sciences

Most of the curriculum design should happen before the course begins

  • The curriculum needs to be designed very carefully, content will need to be clearly structured with overall course goals and weekly lesson objectives
  • Deadlines should follow a published and regular schedule
  • Written instructions need to be explicit
  • Instructions and content need to build on each other gradually
  • The design needs to still allow for a few issues (misunderstandings, technical glitches, etc.) to emerge, and students should not be penalized for them – develop a plan for how you will handle these scenarios
  • Review universal design principles and check out the UW-IT Accessible Technology website for guidance on developing an accessible course

Think about your lessons in terms of a flipped classroom environment

  • You can record lectures, but most of the time a few very short videos (max 10 minutes) are more effective and maximize on students’ attention span
  • Provide readings and other materials to support the lesson objectives
  • Use frequent discussion boards and assignments to check on students’ progress and understanding
  • Find ways to give regular and frequent feedback to students (e.g.: by creating weekly assignments), so they know they are on the right path or they’ll learn how to adjust. This is another good way to keep them on track and to let them feel your presence even if they don’t see you on zoom!

Design a space to foster social learning and community building

  • Give students an opportunity to introduce themselves at the start of the quarter
  • Use graded discussion boards where they have to post and reply to each other
  • Use peer reviews
  • Set up small group discussions
  • Encourage students to bring in examples/observations from “outside class” that engage with the course material

Work on your instructor presence

  • Communicate your preferred mode of communication from students as well as an expectation for your response time
  • Use regular announcements to repeat instructions, keep students on pace, respond to their questions
  • Connect class material to current events, etc.—this will also help students to stay on track
  • Think about how you will help your students get to know you when they can’t meet you in person

Collaborate with your program’s advisers, librarian, and other staff

  • What ways can they support students through your course model?
  • How can you build in your course experiences that remind students of life on campus

References that have guided our work

Conceição, Simone C. O, & Lehman, Rosemary M. (2013). Motivating and retaining online students (1st ed., Jossey-Bass guides to online teaching and learning). New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Palloff, R., & Pratt, Keith. (2007). Building online learning communities : Effective strategies for the virtual classroom (Second ed., The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Quality Matters. (n.d.). Rubrics and Standards. Retrieved August 10, 2020, from

Looking for more information about asynchronous course design?

See the other posts in this series:

About the authors

Aimee Kelly is the Assistant Director of Academic Services for Integrated Social Sciences. In addition to direct student support she is engaged in improving the online educational environment through curricular design and program development. Prior to working with ISS she designed and taught face to face, hybrid, and fully online versions of Geography courses for the Virginia Community College System.

Reed Garber-Pearson is the Integrated Social Sciences & Online Learning Librarian at the University of Washington. They work in instructional design, online program development, and student support. Before becoming a librarian Reed was also an online student.

Sara Vannini is a former Lecturer at the University of Washington Department of Communications and former instructor at the Integrated Social Sciences program. She has been teaching core as well as thematic classes for the program from Autumn 2016 to Spring 2020. Sara is now a Lecturer at the University of Sheffield (UK).

Using Team Operating Rules to foster collaboration

By Jennifer Diamond and Julie Scales, Project Management Certificate (UW Professional & Continuing Education, Continuum College)

Collaborative projects are a key component of many UW courses. But before project work begins, teams need to connect, set ground rules, and articulate norms for shared work and outcomes. For the Certificate in Project Management capstone course, we developed an assignment that models this activity. Our Team Operating Rules assignment devotes an entire class session for students to identify their own team roles, create a schedule of activities, and determine the rules and tools that govern their team collaboration. As a result, when conflicts arise, as they inevitably do, the students first turn to their own norms to resolve conflicts. This emphasis on collaboration helps foster greater accountability for their own learning and work.

The basics

We ask the students to meet with their teams to identify role rotation, schedule team activities, and address the logistics of collaboration (like how to store files and when to use a Slack channel). They also determine interpersonal processes such as conflict resolution and assignment review. In this way, the team builds its own operating model. Project Managers do this with their teams; it reinforces the layers of culture within an organization, a project, and then the team.

The same principles apply to any team that plans to work together for a length of time, whether it’s a one-day workshop or years on a research project. In a Chemistry course, for example, students work together to help each other solve their problems on their weekly quiz section assignments. In an English class, students give each other critical feedback for peer review.

How does this assignment work in an online course?

We’ve adapted this assignment for synchronous, asynchronous, and blended online courses. For synchronous courses, we run the activity using Zoom breakout rooms. For large classes, we pre-assign groups to Zoom breakout rooms and use the groups feature in Canvas (which allows one person to turn in an assignment for the whole team).

If the class doesn’t have a fixed meeting time, we set up a small group discussion in Canvas so that students first schedule a time to meet with each other live. If students are in different time zones, part of what they need to figure out is what time will be acceptable to everyone. This practice is part of conducting business internationally. Like the rest of the assignment, it has professional relevance for students after they earn their certificate/graduate.

Students meet using Zoom or whatever tool they agree to use. While teams could technically complete this assignment offline (e.g., students IM each other to coordinate, they fill in sections of a shared Google or Word doc, or they email back and forth attachments), we want the students to meet each other and co-create group norms so that they are accountable to each other. That negotiation is easier when you establish real-time working relationships with teammates, hearing their voices and seeing their faces.

The benefits

Practicing to articulate team rules and roles reinforces the value of investing upfront as a team before putting that investment to work toward shared outcomes, so any student teams in any program can benefit. And of course, collaboration helps students get to know each other and ultimately improves their teamwork and their learning.

Jennifer Diamond is an instructor with UW Continuum College’s Project Management Certificate Program. She has more than 30 years of organizational, operational, and professional services experience focused on team performance and operational improvements driven by solid organization design and technology.

Julie Scales Sr. instructional designer, UW Continuum CollegeJulie Scales is a senior instructional designer with UW Continuum College where she works on a portfolio of in-person, online, and blended courses, including the Certificate in Project Management. She collaborates to foster active learning experiences that encourage student interaction with the content, other students, and with the instructor.

Online finals: Providing flexibility & opportunities for creativity

By Ileana M. Rodríguez-Silva, History

For last spring’s HSTLAC 289: The Cuban Revolutionary Experiment, I initially planned to offer a final exam, similar to the mid-term, but changed my mind. Instead, I asked my 26 students to do a final assignment. In the last week of class instruction, I made the final assignment optional in order to accommodate the needs of students impacted by the protests. Because I designed the class with a good number of short assignments, and because the mid-term exam went well, I felt comfortable making these changes.

The mid-term was a great success for the majority of students. The first part included a set of multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, and true/false questions. The other half consisted of three short writing exercises where students were presented with a scenario to respond to. Using knowledge from the class, they had to go on a Twitter rant, write a film review for their student group blog, and compose a Facebook post. The exam was all on Canvas, open book, and not timed. Students had four days to finish it (so they could come in several times to address the different components of the exam).

The final was going to be the same, but honestly, we all were very tired. Earlier in the quarter, we had a very effective short assignment in which students crafted a quiz based on the assigned reading and then had a class peer answer it. Because students had more autonomy, they engaged with the material differently. Inspired by that experience, I shifted the final exam to a final assignment.

The final assignment prompted students to pretend to be a TA for an upcoming study abroad program taking a group of Environmental Studies undergraduates to Cuba for two weeks. They were asked to create a one-hour presentation, based on our course, introducing students to the projects and struggles of the Cuban revolutionary experiment of the last 60 years. As TAs, they were charged with preparing the study-abroad students to understand with historical nuance the socio-political dynamics they would encounter in their visit to the island. They had to prepare 8-10 slides discussing at least five major points (three of these points had to be based on matters explored in the second half of the course). I provided some tips on what makes for effective slide presentations to help students think through the medium strategically. Their slide presentations were evaluated mainly on substance, completeness, coherence, creativity, and originality.

These changes to the course assignments resulted in the students experiencing more joy and creativity in learning, which is what I think we need most.

Ileana M. Rodríguez-Silva is a Giovanni and Amne Costigan Endowed Professor in History and associate professor of Latin American and Caribbean history. She is also the current director of undergraduate studies in the Department of History at UW-Seattle. Her research focuses on the production of race in the Americas, slavery and post-emancipation racial politics, and comparative colonial arrangements in the configuration of empires. She is the author of the award-winning book Silencing Blackness: Disentangling Race, Colonial Regimes, and National Struggles in Post-Emancipation Puerto Rico (1850-1920). Her scholarship appears in several academic journals such as the Hispanic American Historical Review, positions: Asia critique, Journal of Modern American History, and NACLA: Report on the Americas.

Flexible finals in the pandemic

By Holly Barker, Anthropology

This quarter I am teaching Research in Critical Sport Studies (ANTH 269). It’s a course for first-generation to college and/or students underrepresented in research. The class gives students a space to develop a series of small research projects with classmates so students consider the important contributions they make to academia, as well as opportunities to take these projects to a deeper level during successive quarters.

I don’t give midterms, and I don’t give final exams. Instead, I collaborate with students to create final projects that apply their learning from the class in ways that are meaningful or practical to them.

This is a quarter for maximum flexibility, so I’m emphasizing options. I encourage the students to talk about the barriers to learning they are experiencing right now so we can collectively adjust. Some students want their final projects to be a written option (e.g., writing an application to the McNair program or to an honors program on campus ). Another option is a video/oral submission where students apply critical discourse analysis in sports to the unfolding current events connected to police violence and the pandemic, an option that emphasizes the importance of student voices.

The students and I feel challenged in so many ways this quarter, and we are being open and honest with one another. I’m certainly not at my best, and I can’t expect them to be either. We are learning a great deal, but our learning is not the same as it would be in the classroom. We are learning a great deal about ourselves, and our responsibilities to shape our institutions. My job in this class and in the assignments is to further enhance the existing strengths of these fabulous young people so they will feel bolstered, prepared, cared for, and connected as they address the challenges of this world.

Our class started with a critical analysis of sports but quickly transitioned to the many ways that what happens in sports is very much connected to what happens outside of sports. I thank my students for their grace, courage, honestly, and patience this quarter, and for their ability to lean into one another for support even though they have never met in person.

Holly M. Barker is a principal lecturer in the UW Department of Anthropology and curator for Oceanic & Asian Culture at the Burke Museum.

Art is a dialogue

By Timea Tihanyi, School of Art + Art History + Design

Because art is a dialogue, much of what the Interdisciplinary Visual Arts seniors have been doing in ART 400 this quarter has been synchronous. Instead of the white-box gallery exhibition, students are presenting their work in a virtual “gallery” for which each student created both a senior project and an art portfolio website. By still presenting the work publicly, we’re trying to create a sense of normalcy. Working on an online platform gives the students new tools and new opportunities for content and form. It’s difficult to make creative work in isolation, so we’ve done guided peer critiques using the breakout room function in Zoom regularly.

Students have also had various opportunities to get the most important class content, do work, give and receive reviews asynchronously. They co-authored artist statements and gave written progress reports and feedback using Google Docs. Then used the feedback they received from peers and from me when preparing their online portfolios.

As for the final grading, only a small percentage of the final grade comes from the final project. I used a large number of low-stakes assignments throughout the quarter (such as the written progress reports and feedback). Our finals are a way to look back on the process, get a better understanding of each student’s individual perspective, and reflect on their quarter-long conversations with each other, me, and their work.

Image by Flora Davis for spring 2020 ART 400 course
Image by Flora Davis

Learn more about the ART 400 gallery page, “Ebb and Flow,” and find links to the students’ portfolio sites on the IVA Open House page.

Timea Tihanyi is a senior lecturer in the School of Art + Art History + Design’s Interdisciplinary Visual Arts concentration.

Teaching Spanish: A multi-day “finale” instead of a final exam

By Samuel Jaffee, Spanish & Portuguese Studies 

This spring quarter I’m teaching Spanish 302 and Spanish 303, both of which guide students in developing writing strategies in Spanish (creative fiction, business letters, reportage, argument and counterargument, and literary and visual analysis).

In lieu of a final exam, both classes will enjoy a multi-day “finale.”

Students in Spanish 302 are collaborating during Week 10 on synchronous debates (using Zoom, with a mix of speaking and writing). These debates are design-centered and inquiry-based activities that ask students to engage critically with current events and rely on the skills built during the course. In the debates, students propose a political, social, and economic future for Venezuela that responds to that country’s ongoing, years-long crisis. Students also debate Mexico’s “Day without Women,” a social movement from March of this year, and develop plans for a mobile app that would spread knowledge of the Mexican women’s lived realities.

During Week 10 in Spanish 303, students will collaborate one day synchronously (on Zoom, mostly speaking) and one day asynchronously (in writing, via Canvas Discussions) on creative activities that allow students to rethink, rewrite, and build upon four stories read in the second part of the quarter, in order to make the characters’ identities and lives experientially real. Students recently completed a formal literary analysis essay, a comparative analysis of two stories by Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Julio Cortazar. In this project, students will have a chance to play with the readings — perhaps writing a sequel, changing the protagonist, introducing a new conflict, or clarifying what is left unsaid in the original. In these creative tasks, students have the freedom to focus on aspects of the stories that were confusing to them and keep “thinking with” the characters (and their classmates’ ideas).

I have studied the work of linguists Jean Lave, Etienne Wenger, and Claire Kramsch, and artist-scholars Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (Kids of Survival), and I use their approaches to invigorate my assessments. The SPAN 303 course methodology is anchored in the scholarship and practice of Pre-Texts by Doris Sommer (Harvard University) and the work of Sommer’s Cultural Agents initiative, which offers educators programming, training, and workshops — most recently, an April webinar via Zoom in “Social (Distant) Practicing” — that I have found inspirational for my course design.

These design-centered activities encompass methodologies that democratize learning for the current generation and make the class a lot more dynamic. After all, who wants to learn Spanish in order to take an exam?

“Finale” project examples

Two students in Spanish 303, Kamryn Bodholt and Zachary Chambers, submitted dueling songs to the Canvas Discussions — songs that do much to clarify the turbulent emotional state of the protagonist of Argentine expatriate writer Julio Cortázar’s classic story “La noche boca arriba” [Headstrong into the Night].

Kamryn and Zachary were also my students in Spanish 302 in the winter quarter of this year. Here, they describe how the two-course Spanish writing sequence helps their intellectual and creative development as they gain fluency in the language:

Kamryn Bodholt:

I am a sophomore and am double majoring in Spanish and English: Creative Writing. Spanish 302 and 303 have been my favorite Spanish classes at UW so far (especially 303) because I have a lot of interest in creative writing and short stories, so in a way this class has been a combination of my two majors. Reading the stories alone builds my vocabulary (having to look at the definitions in the margins or the dictionary), and the homework questions help guide my thinking by hinting at the deeper messages in the story. I like how there can be multiple interpretations of each story, and that we have the freedom to explore our own interpretations as well as our classmates’ through class activities and discussions. Reading the articles written by literary critics has helped improve my professional/scholarly tone when writing in Spanish, and I have noticed these improvements in my speaking as well. I also enjoy the opportunities we have to be creative during class, like creating an Instagram post from the perspective of a character in one of the stories, drawing pictures of characters/plots, and writing songs, to name a few. Practicing my reading, writing, and speaking skills through these various activities has made me a more well-rounded Spanish student, and I can see these improvements in my writing when I compare essays from past quarters to ones from this quarter.

Un accidente de moto
ha hecho a mi cuerpo roto

Desperté en un hospital
y la ayuda médica para salvar mi vida fue vital

En la selva en mis sueños
tenía que correr de los enemigos
Había una enfermera vestida de blanca ropa,
y ella me dio mucha sopa
Un enemigo me apuñaló con un cuchillo
Esto también sucedió en mi sueño
El conflicto con los enemigos fue una inconveniencia
pero habló con otro paciente, y tuvo la misma experiencia
Estaba atrapado en la silla y escuché a los tambores
y sentí la celebración de mi muerte de los aplaudidores
En el hospital no pude abrir los ojos
Ya mi vida no tenía despojos
Alguien se le había acercado
Con un cuchillo en la mano
En este momento gané una nueva perspectiva
En la posición de la boca arriba

Zachary Chambers:

I am a sophomore pursuing a double degree in Biochemistry and Spanish. During my past two quarters in Spanish 302 and 303, my knowledge of the language has grown exponentially. I have really enjoyed these courses more than my previous ones, because they have been structured very differently. Instead of focusing on the smaller aspects of grammar and stressing over tests, I have been able to learn the language in a much more engaging and interesting way. As a matter of fact, the assignments always stretch my thinking and sometimes leave me pondering over a story for many days. They are always very creative, unique and thought-provoking. Because of this, I feel that my Spanish writing skills have tremendously improved as I am able to analyze texts from multiple perspectives before making a final decision about the characters, themes, hidden messages, etc. All in all, I have really liked these courses and have grown greatly as a Spanish writer because of them.

La mujer con quien me choca
En la ciudad hermosa
Ojalá viviera allí
La camilla de que me ponen
Incómodo, pero reconfortante
A saber que el otro era una pesadilla
La selva que huelo intensamente
En que corro para escaparme
De la guerra florida
En la cama, me siento
Ojos muy abiertos
Y como la sopa que me pone tranquilo
Regreso a la selva
Todavía corriendo
Puedo ver sus antorchas
¡Fiebre! Me despierto en la espalda
Con una tos y bebo agua
Para ponerme de nuevo a dormir
Los gritos que oigo
Me están acercando
Hasta que me llevan y me toman
Me despierto por la última vez
Y sé que la realidad no era lo que pensé
Este es la verdad
Las hogueras que me circundan
Y los aztecas que me miran
Me dicen que este es el fin
Me acerca con el cuchillo
Que tiene la habilidad de asesinar
Yo boca arriba

Samuel Jaffee, lecturer, UW Spanish & Portuguese StudiesSamuel Jaffee is a lecturer in Spanish & Portuguese Studies and teaches courses in writing, literary studies, and visual culture. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Irvine, with a specialization in Andean literary and cultural studies from the colonial period through the present day. He presents widely and leads workshops for high school and college instructors on strategies for teaching classes of heritage and second-language learners, writing pedagogies, and incorporating less-commonly taught languages, such as indigenous languages, into a Spanish curriculum.

Teaching physics: Videos instead of midterms

Video problem solutions

By Peter Selkin, School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, UW Tacoma.

For the past two quarters, I’ve used an approach based on an idea adapted from Andy Rundquist, a physics professor at Hamline University in Minnesota. Instead of a midterm and a final (and in addition to weekly content quizzes), students submit short videos walking the viewer through solutions to physics problems of their choice. Overall, I have been impressed by the solutions students — including those who are struggling in other aspects of the course — submit. Even if the students are getting help from other sources, I see their ability to explain their work on a video as a demonstration of their knowledge.

This approach works best in certain contexts. Most of my teaching is in the introductory physics sequence at UW Tacoma where classes range between 20-40 students. Video demonstrations may not work well for larger classes. The problems require substantial scaffolding for both technical (e.g. posting videos) and pedagogical (e.g. choosing problems) reasons, but that scaffolding is scalable.

Grading is the most time-consuming part of this approach. For that reason, I limit video length to five minutes and cap the number of videos at 10 per student. I have students submit the videos in two sets (five at midterm and the rest at finals), and I watch the videos at 1.5x speed as I grade them. I use a holistic rubric to grade solutions, which also speeds the process. Although grading is time-consuming, it has been rewarding to hear students’ voices on their videos.

For additional information about video problem solutions and other teaching tools Peter Selkin uses, visit his Selkin Lab blog.

Peter Selkin is an associate professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at UW Tacoma. As a geophysicist who studies the magnetic properties of earth materials, his scholarship and teaching are at the boundary between geophysics and mineralogy.

Math in the time of coronavirus

Reflections on teaching during the pandemic

By Jennifer Quinn, School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences at UW Tacoma 

The COVID-19 viral disruption affects us all, particularly our most vulnerable citizens. It’s vital to find ways to connect our students and humanize this unprecedented and isolating experience.

These days I’m trying to worry less about the integrity of online examinations and the quality of online content — and think more about the people. I start by assuming students’ best intentions.

I’m also thinking about learning goals: Do we want to enable students to be critical thinkers? Problem solvers? To have flexible minds and be able to adapt? They will get all that through the experience we provide and more.

Will it really matter if my Calculus I class doesn’t get to L’Hopital’s rule, or the Calculus II class doesn’t get to partial fraction decomposition? I doubt it. For those that need it, there will be time later. For now, let’s congratulate ourselves and our students on getting through, and just breathe.

Visit Math in the Time of Corona to read more of Jennifer Quinn’s reflections on teaching during the pandemic.

​​Jennifer Quinn is a professor of mathematics in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences at UW Tacoma. She has held many positions of national leadership in mathematics, including executive director for the Association for Women in Mathematics, co-editor of Math Horizons, a publication of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA), chair of MAA’s Council on Publications, and currently MAA’s president-elect. As a combinatorial scholar, Quinn thinks that beautiful proofs are as much art as science. Simplicity, elegance, and transparency should be the driving principles, and she strives to bring this same ethic to her teaching, service, and professional work.