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The Challenge of Choices When Teaching During COVID-19

Updated: May 17, 2023

University of Maryland, Baltimore County

I am a face-to-face educator. I say that without shame or apology. In my salad days of teaching undergraduates, I used the learning management system to provide students with materials, resources, and lecture slides and to allow communication through email, announcements, and discussion groups. But my heart and soul were in the physical classroom—engaging students in interactive lectures and active learning through group work, role play, and debate. All the serious choices I made were grounded in that reality. In my current teaching as an educational developer, I feel the loss of face-to-face physical community keenly, and I emphasize with other instructors struggling with choices in the new normal.

The Importance and Challenge of Choice

Choice is central to the human psyche. James Zull describes the neurological basis for the primordial human need for control and how choice is one key way we exercise that control (2002). We know that choice is a motivator in human actions—one we often exploit to engage our students. Now, however, our choice to teach face-to-face has been taken away, perhaps for some time to come. Instead, we are awash in a sea of tools--drowning in the cognitive overload of unfamiliar choices. For faculty accustomed to face-to-face teaching, the transition has been existential—how do we capture the spirit of the communal experience in a seemingly soulless platform? Even for faculty accustomed to authentic online instruction, teaching during COVID-19 poses new challenges in replacing proctoring options and experiential opportunities. The beast of remote instruction is neither fish nor fowl—it isn't face-to-face instruction, but it sure isn't online learning either.

In this crisis, it isn't that we have no choice; it is that we are facing an overwhelming number of choices—whether to be synchronous vs. asynchronous, use this videoconferencing tool vs. that, or even how long a video recording should be. Too many choices can be as discouraging as too few, especially for those who want to make the "best" choice— "maximizers" in the parlance of decision-making psychology. Economists and psychologists have noted that when it comes to decision making, people tend to fall into two camps—maximizers and satisficers. Noble prize winner Herb Simon in his theory of Bounded Rationality (1982) coined the term satisficers to capture the combination of satisfy and suffice—when good enough will do. Over and over during the first days of remote instruction, faculty developers and instructional designers urged faculty to do less and be happy. But for some of us, that is hard. Maximizers want to explore all options and make the choice that reaps the maximum benefit in the midst of all we have available. The bad news is that when faced with too many choices, maximizers typically experience "buyer's remorse," i.e., the feeling that their choice was not optimal (Schwartz, 2004). Any sense of satisfaction from a well-informed decision may be unattainable—after all, given all the other choices we could have made, how do we know we picked the best one?

How do we generate any feelings of meaningful choice and satisfaction as newbies to online learning (in this case, still really remote instruction) as we go forward? Luckily, we can reframe our choices, so they are less focused on “how”—a seemingly endless list of options—to “what” and “why.” Going back to some basics can help us navigate the uncharted sea of remote instruction.

Making Meaningful Choices

When facing too many choices, it is essential to focus on those choices that are core to what we do as teachers. What do we want to accomplish in our course? What do we want students to take away? Do we want them to master concepts, read critically, interpret data, be creative, evaluate, and embrace new ideas? Although we may feel constrained in accomplishing these goals in an online world, web-based tools cannot only provide worthy substitutes for face-to-face activities but also open up new possibilities for engaging students in their learning. The online environment can shine a spotlight on places where we are selling our expectations short. For example, the challenge of maintaining integrity in online testing can illuminate situations in which we ask students to memorize and regurgitate information, rather than apply it to a meaningful context. Such "recitation" questions make it easy for online students to look up information using any source they have at hand. Although lockdown browsers and monitors exist, these devices can somehow seem Orwellian in their obvious "Big Brother is watching you" message. Although we closely watch our students during face-to-face exams, online methods for doing that are disembodied and can thus seem more draconian.

Creating authentic, not-easily-plagiarizable assessments requires us to focus on what we really want students to be able to do.

Classic backward course design (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998) reminds us to make our means serve our ends, i.e., decide on the primary goals of the course and make everything else we do subject to those imperatives. Thoughtfully reflecting on what we want students to be able to do in our discipline can help us refine our content and assessments and create a more coherent course (Nilson & Goodson, 2017). If we want students to think critically, then assessments and course activities need to engage students in thoughtfully evaluating ideas and information. Asking our students to analyze real case studies, for example, is not only more useful and meaningful for them but also less easy for them to accomplish by lifting from online sources.

These course-planning choices then naturally feed into other questions about teaching online. For example, should class components be synchronous or asynchronous? Although we make decisions about this all the time in face-to-face classes as we assign homework or flip content, this choice seems fraught in remote instruction. In actuality, as is often the case, the answer most often is "both." Which of our goals can be achieved better synchronously (with the caveat to record for accessibility) and which asynchronously? For example, during synchronous activities, students can connect with each other, build community, and serve course goals such as:

1. Recognizing diverse perspectives

2. Learning to discuss across difference

3. Developing problem-solving processes

Asynchronous activities allow all of the above but without time constraints, serving course goals such as:

1. Refining ideas and making new meaning as new concepts build upon earlier ones

2. Reflecting on personal growth or transformation in thinking

3. Generating authentic, collaborative projects

Thus, choices such as the timing of instruction, as well as the tools we use for delivering it, are secondary to the goals we have for our students' learning.

Final Thoughts

Even given this back-to-basics approach, we can still feel that the number of tools to choose from presents us with a staggering number of choices. Word of advice from satisficers to maximizers—use the tools supported by the institution's instructional technology team. Often these folks know what tools work best within the institution's learning management system and with typical student devices. The instructional technology team may have just 1-2 recommendations for the best choices of platforms that allow us to accomplish what we're striving for with our students in our context. And, in the end, there really isn't one best choice of tool. Assuming we engage in thoughtful planning, as long as the approach serves our students' goals and fits within our students' constraints, it's all good.

Discussion Questions

1. What course goals have you found easily achievable using online options? Which ones not so much? How have you addressed those challenges?

2. What have you learned about your own needs as an educator by moving to remote instruction?

3. What new tools will you continue to use in your face-to-face classes, and why?


Nilson, L. B., & Goodson, L. A. (2017). Online teaching at its best: Merging instructional design with teaching and learning research. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice: Why more is less. New York: Ecco.

Simon, H. A. (1982). Models of bounded rationality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (1998). What is backward design. Understanding by design, 1, 7-19.

Zull, J. E. (2002). The art of changing the brain: Enriching teaching by exploring the biology of learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

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