September 17, 2020

Sheri Fabian: “I embraced a flexible approach”

Sheri Fabian invited her students to collaborate on the course design when she moved her graduate seminar online.

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.

According to Sheri Fabian (university lecturer, Criminology, and director, Institute for the Study of Teaching and Learning in the Disciplines), the “pre-COVID” version of her discussion-based Advanced Qualitative Methods graduate seminar course “had an organized syllabus with predetermined deadlines, clear expectations and detailed guidelines. In short, it was inflexible and planned.”

Making lemonade

The abrupt move to remote instruction became a classic when-life-hands-you-a-lemon moment and prompted her to revisit her plans for the Summer semester.

“I decided to try something I’ve been wanting to do for a while. The students and I collaborated and built parts of the syllabus together, and I embraced a flexible approach to assessments. I offered a menu of sorts from which students chose the weightings for their assessments within parameters, and I made one assignment optional—students were still required to read the text and participate in discussion, but they could choose to opt out of the week 7 written reflection. I added new options for participation in case some [students] weren’t available for synchronous conversations. Despite initial concerns, I also offered them an option to work in pairs or small groups for their research projects.”

Back to school

Fabian quickly realized that she would need new technical skills to manage the changed instructional environment. To pick up those skills, she turned to SFU’s learning and teaching community.

“For the first few weeks, it felt like I’d gone back to school. I enrolled in workshops and webinars and thought about what I’d do with my summer grad class. I spent lots of time exploring the many resources from the Centre for Educational Excellence and from my teaching networks, but the conversations with colleagues were the most important. I found it most useful to talk through ideas with peers to help fully develop them.”

Community is possible, even online

One of Fabian’s biggest worries was that remote instruction would hinder the personal connections that are integral to her course.

“My grad class is a methods class that typically requires a research project that includes face-to-face in-person interviews […] I was worried that it would be hard to build connections in the [virtual] classroom and concerned that it would be next to impossible to build the necessary rapport with participants essential for successful interviews. But it’s working […] The breakout groups helped students connect early on, and […] I’ve watched my students engage with each other and behave with compassion. It takes some care and planning, but I’ve learned that we can build community in this virtual world, even if we begin as strangers.”

“Remember to be kind”

Fabian has drawn a number of conclusions from her experience.

“Trust your gut, embrace that you don’t really know what you’re doing, and admit that to your students. Your transparency will help with building community in the classroom. Try to offer some flexibility if you can and, of course, remember to be kind.”


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