September 15, 2020

Nicky Didicher: “I’m finding my job less exhilarating”

Nicky Didicher's Bitmoji says it best: the batteries are running low.

On March 16, 2020, less than four weeks before the end of the Spring semester, SFU made the decision to suspend face-to-face instruction in response to the spread of COVID-19. Overnight, instructors were required to move their courses and final exams online. Their efforts to maintain effective learning experiences for their students were, and continue to be, heroic. During the summer, we asked six of them how they were doing. Here is what they told us.

Nicky Didicher (university lecturer, English) was geared up to teach two courses in Summer 2020, “both brand-new and both writing-intensive.” She cites English 112: Literature Now, a course with 153 students and four teaching assistants, as an example of the detailed preparation she had done prior to the spread of COVID-19.

“I had plans for scaffolding the writing assignments, doing lots of in-class writing, peer feedback sessions and a tight schedule—for example, students hand in a draft of their first paragraph, get feedback from TAs in a week, get to their complete rough-draft stage by the week after, and so on.”

The move to online learning forced her to rethink everything.

Changed roles, changed assignments

“When we moved to remote instruction, I made two big shifts, one involving TA work and the other student assignments.

“First, on the assumption that time to communicate with students would definitely go way up and marking time would likely also go up, I revised the TUGs [time use guidelines] and removed synchronous tutorial-leading from the TAs’ responsibilities. And I apologized to my TAs for taking away what is for many of them the most fun part of the job. Instead, they hold online office hours in Blackboard Collaborate Ultra in Canvas in some of their tutorial times and spend lots of time answering student emails.

“Second, on the assumption that my nicely scaffolded, tightly scheduled essay assignment would not work if students had to miss weeks here and there due to sickness, work, domestic situations, etc., and having taken advice to ‘chunk’ the course, I switched to a series of five very short writing assignments in weeks 2 through 6, from which students would choose one to revise and expand into a longer essay, and their best three of five marks would count, so technically they could skip two of them.”

Support from many sources

During the early days of the transition, she relied on the counsel and support of teaching colleagues and the Centre for Educational Excellence.

“[I took] advice from I-Chant Chiang in CEE, advice from Sheri Fabian in Criminology, advice from Amanda Watson in Sociology-Anthropology, and [from] a Canvas sandbox my [undergraduate chair] David Coley set up in Canvas for English faculty to share their challenges and advice.”

Looking for the positives

Based on her initial online experiences, she drew a number of conclusions about what works for her and her students.

“I’m doing well with using my assigned lecture slots for non-required open office hours on Mondays and open discussion sessions on the week’s readings on Wednesdays. Each session is in Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, gets recorded for students who aren’t there for whatever reason (about 50 come each time), and there are three volunteer student note-takers who post their notes afterward (for 0.5 percent bonus—it’s one of four types of volunteer jobs they can do, to a maximum of 2 percent on their final grade).

“The discussion boards are going well, though I need to encourage students to respond to each other and not just post their own thoughts and leave. The collaborations in their tutorial group spaces are going well for some groups and poorly for others.”

Challenges for students—and the instructor

Didicher also offered some observations regarding student performance in the online environment.

“Where in a large lecture class I normally get a few keeners, a few non-entities, and the rest in the middle, this term I have about 30 percent keeners, 30 percent who have disappeared, and the rest in the middle. I expect that my final grades will ‘flatten the curve’ in that I will have more A grades and more Ds/Fs than normal …

“A few students with determination and resilience are thriving, but many more are feeling overwhelmed and anxious, even in week 3 of term (I did an anonymous survey). They appreciate my communication and my caring, but they’re wilting, not thriving. I am trying to do remote teaching well and, though of course we can always improve, I think I’ve adapted pretty well. But I’m seriously overworked, and a lot of my students are not getting the learning experience they were hoping for.”

Looking ahead, Didicher shared advice and a frank confession.

“Communication is essential: repeat yourself, remind them of everything, answer their questions over and over again publicly and privately. It’s a shitload of work. I’m finding my job less exhilarating, less fulfilling and more exhausting than I ever have before. I am not looking forward to fall.”


Teaching Practice, Course and Curriculum Planning, Technology and Media, Remote Instruction