Transitioning to remote studies mid-stream: Teaching strategies for student independence and success

In the case of a crisis or unexpected emergency, instructors may have to work remotely, conducting their classes from beyond VIU. In addition to using robust online tools, instructors can also consider transitioning their coursework to a more self-directed or independent study model. In this case, students are given greater agency, autonomy, and responsibility over their learning with instructors guiding and facilitating them as they go. But how do you accomplish this mid-way, or even later, through the semester? The following tips outline what to consider when moving from a face-to-face learning environment to a more independent approach, and how to ensure students are supported for success.

  1. Prioritize learning outcomes
    The first step is to take a good look at your learning outcomes and decide what outcomes are outstanding, or which are most important to you and your learners to address in the remainder of the course. It may be that you and your students cannot reasonably or feasible accomplish every learning outcome. Pick your favs, or the ones you deem most important, or all if you can manage, and use those as the base for your plan forward.
  2. Consider how best to have students pursue and demonstrate learning outcomes
    Your original assessment plan may have to change. Certain learning outcomes may have merged or been dropped completely. Exams and quizzes may or may not be possible, or they may not be the most effective way forward given your new priorities. These changes may call for alternative assessment strategies. If you’re moving away from traditional assessment means (exams and quizzes), you may want to consider what students could create (artifacts, portfolios, recorded presentations, slideshows, reflective video responses, written responses, etc.) to demonstrate learning outcomes. Given the circumstances, you may want to provide a variety of options to students in how they demonstrate their learning. Whether you have choice or not, when determining new assessment strategies, you will also have to consider evaluation criteria. Instructors might have to adjust or even recreate assessment tools (the CIEL can help!). Also see #8 below for more ideas.
  3. Monitor the learning process, in addition to final artifacts and assessments
    In thinking of assessment, consider the ways you will monitor learning, keep students on-track and support them as they move forward more independently. How will you check-in with students, and scaffold them to stay focused and move in the right direction? It may be that they have to submit short reflections, bulleted lists, or check-lists on their progress. Or you can replace traditional class time with virtual office hours (use ZOOM) in order to check in with students, independently or in small groups. In addition, you may want to consider using smaller assignments that ladder into a larger assignment. Providing feedback on smaller assignments will allow students to stay on track, and reduce the focus (and the anxiety!) of having all of their efforts in a final all-or-nothing assignment. Smaller assignments also allow instructors opportunity to provide feedback that can inform and influence future success. Progress checks and smaller assignments may have to be “assessed” not so much for quality, but to ensure accountability and that students stay on task. Smaller tasks can be assessed quickly as well; instructors can choose to provide key feedback that will support students on their final assignments.
  4. Consider what tools your students may or may not have
    Think of what students will need to do, and what tools they will need to do that. Will students have access to wifi? A computer? Will they have to write essays from a mobile device? What is manageable, and what will give everyone the best chance of success. Whatever adjusted plan you create, you will have to share this with students. Be transparent. Explain your reasoning so that students understand the rationale behind the new plan. Let students know what tools they will need, and work with those who may need more time to access these tools.
  5. (Re)design and re-articulate expectations for students and instructor
    If suddenly your course plan has changed, it is okay to adjust expectations, and rebuild them if need be. Consider what you now need from your students and what they need from you. If you need them to check-in with you weekly in an email that outlines what they’ve been doing, make that clear. If you are going to hold virtual office hours once or twice a week (via ZOOM for example) let students know. If time allows (and it might not) you could even ask students to contribute to or co-build new expectations, getting their buy-in and providing them with a measure of agency over their own learning for the rest of the course. Provide these expectations to your learners, and consider how you will determine or assess that they are being followed (check-in with students; self-assessment techniques).
  6. Consider how you will maintain and encourage connection among and between students
    How will students stay connected to you and their peers? Moving beyond a face-to-face environment and into a more self-directed/independent modality runs the risk of losing the richness of peer-to-peer learning and connecting. Although some students may thrive in an independent setting, many others may struggle. Can you create opportunities for students to come together, work together, share their ideas, and connect? This is where learning technologies could offer you and your students valuable opportunities to stay connected. For example, you may consider using ZOOM to have online meeting groups. ZOOM also has breakout rooms where students can work in small groups. This space could be used for structured or unstructured classroom discussion. VIULearn also has discussion tools where students can be divided into smaller groups to connect and discuss. Other social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram could be used as a focus for students to connect and come together if they wish, and if you are inclined. You could also encourage students who are interested to share contact details with one another and encourage them to connect and check-in with each other. You may decide to share your contact information for students who are struggling in exceptional ways. Switching teaching environments and methods suddenly mid-stream may make some students anxious. The reasons behind the switch may also challenge students. As we know, increased anxiety can detract from the successful learning, so instructors will need to be mindful of online strategies that will provide support as students adapt and adjust.
  7. Reflect and adjust accordingly
    Teaching is always a highly reflective endeavor, especially in times of challenge. Take time to reflect, in any way that makes sense to you, on how the experience is going for yourself, and how you think it’s going for your students. Ask yourself what’s working, and why. Ask yourself what could be improved, and if so, how? But also go easy on yourself. If you’ve had to switch your entire teaching methodology somewhat suddenly, and amidst extenuating circumstances, do what you can to the best of your professional ability. Take care of yourself as you would your most vulnerable student, and it will all work out. You’ll see.
  8. Alternative assessment ideas
    The following PDF lists assessment strategies and examples of assignments that may provide alternatives for students (and instructors) that demonstrate flexibility, especially in independent study circumstances.

Briggs, S. (2015). 20 Steps towards more self-directed learning. Retrieved from:

Brown, S. & Sambell, K. (2020). Contingency planning: exploring rapid alternatives to face-to-face assessment. Microsoft Word Document, Staff and Educational Development Association, (SEDA), UK.