October 22, 2020
Dear Undergraduate Students,
I am writing to you to follow up on the survey which we administered over the past two weeks. Thank you to the more 1800 of you who took the time to respond. As you recall, this survey was not numerical, so there are no results such as, “75% of you were either very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with….”
Rather, we asked three open-ended questions:
(1) “What are some of the most successful aspects of the semester?"
(2) "What were the biggest challenges of the semester?"
(3) "What other feedback would you offer as we plan for the spring?"
Several members of the Tulane academic leadership and I have read every single survey response, and we have passed along many of these responses to other offices for whom they would be most relevant. No matter the issue, we received passionate responses on all sides. Please understand that when I say, “A majority of you expressed a preference for ….” We are reading and taking seriously the views of those with other preferences. And it would be impossible to mention every item that was referenced in the survey, so my apologies if your particular priority is not mentioned in this letter.
These surveys have been extremely helpful as we have been planning our Spring semester. Even though we did not limit your responses to predefined topics, several larger themes emerged, that I will review in this letter. When appropriate, I will also tell you how we are responding to some of the issues you raise. This semester was unlike any other, and all of us - faculty, staff and students - worked extremely hard to reimagine how the university can carry out its research and educational mission while keeping everyone as safe as possible. It should not be a surprise that not everything worked as well as we had hoped, but with the feedback we received from you, the faculty and staff, we will finish this semester strong, and implement a variety of improvements for the spring.
Among those of you who offered a preference on the modality of education that we offer in the spring, there were strong preferences for a fully on-ground education, as others for fully online education. The majority, though, expressed a strong preference, in general terms, for the education we offered in the fall, with a majority of in classroom instruction, but with options for those who choose to learn remotely. Additionally, many of you requested expanded options for those students who select to learn remotely. It remains our plan to offer a spring structured much like the fall, with a majority of our classes having a significant in-person component but incorporating several of the improvements you have suggested.
The second most common feature referenced in the feedback was the call for more breaks in the semester. Many of you supported the idea of canceling Spring Break, understanding the need to limit travel. With that issue in mind, you also wrote about the extraordinary stresses of this semester and requested that instead we distribute isolated days off through the semester to allow some time to catch your breath, catch up on classes, and catch up on sleep. We agree that this is a good idea, and we will be adjusting the spring academic calendar accordingly.
Some of you commented on your frustration that we were forced to schedule classes on a weekend to make up for the classes cancelled on hurricane days, and that as a result you lost some of your limited down time. It is rare that we require make-up days in the spring, but we will choose a weekday late in the semester as a make-up day (or day off from classes if a make-up day is not required) to reduce the chances that we will have to reschedule classes on a Saturday or Sunday.
Some of you identified frustration, anxiety, even anger, that not all of your classmates are following the COVID-19 protocols. I think it is worth mentioning that while we are aware that violations are taking place and are doing our best to hold accountable those who are not following the rules, a great majority of our students are doing their best to help keep themselves and others as safe as possible.
Others of you wrote about your feelings that the university was being too strict and insufficiently trusting. By far, though, the most common “challenge” identified is the difficulty some of you are having in engaging socially with new students with the restrictions on, for example, dorm visitation. We take this concern very seriously, and we are exploring a variety of ways of energizing the social opportunities on campus. In particular, we agree with one of the most often mentioned requests. On a trial basis, we will be lessening the restrictions on visits in residence halls from students from other residence halls.
Acoustics in Temporary Classrooms
Among the most mentioned challenges, are the sound issues in the temporary classrooms. Many of you commented on the improvements made through the early semester, but others pointed out that in some of the classrooms, audio problems remain an issue. Some of you specifically requested that sound curtains be placed around the interior of these spaces to reduce the echo. We had reached the same conclusion, and curtains for all of these classrooms will be installed this week. In addition, we are adding stronger amps, optimizing speaker placement and angles, and — with the cooler weather — we will be using the air conditioning at lower levels. We have tested these improvements (with full air conditioning) in one of our loudest classrooms, with very positive results. Going forward, with these improvements, we are confident that all of these spaces will allow for easy and effective communication and conversation.
Some of you wrote about challenges you and your faculty were facing in hybrid courses in which, for example, half of the students were scheduled to be present in the classroom and half scheduled to attend remotely. Several faculty members also spoke about the challenges they faced managing such a class (but others mentioned how well the structure worked). We have heard this loud and clear. These hybrid classes worked well in some settings, but for the spring we will be scheduling more of our courses in classrooms that can hold all of the enrolled students in a socially distanced manner (and that complies with other public health guidelines), so that faculty will have more options on how they structure the class meetings.
There is another type of hybrid course. Those in which all students attend class in the classroom on some days and learn remotely on other days. Many faculty expressed great appreciation for this model, so that, for example, on days when the students would break up into small discussion groups, a class that normally meets in the classroom can meet online, because breaking up the students into multiple small groups in a classroom while remaining socially distanced can be a challenge. However, many of you expressed challenges with these classes, and that it was often not clear from day to day whether you would be meeting in the classroom or participating online. We are exploring a variety of mechanisms to allow your instructors to make the schedule clearer for you.
There are some requests in the survey responses that we will not be able to accommodate. Several of you said that you wanted the class to meet in person but asked to attend class remotely whenever you like. Several other universities have tried such an approach, and found, unfortunately, it is un-workable. As more students make the choice to participate remotely, eventually there are too few students to sustain the in-class experience and the class becomes fully remote, which is inconsistent with the design of the course and the overall initial desires of the students.
There were also many calls for us to offer unlimited Pass/Fail options for students, the way we did last spring. As we communicated this past summer, our normal grading policy will be in place this semester. The current semester is a very different circumstance than last spring, when our students found themselves working from home, which was completely unexpected, and alternatives were not available.
Too much Homework
Many of you reported that your faculty are assigning more work than they have done in the past. This is a surprising message and something we will have to look at more closely and discuss with the faculty.
Even with these frustrations, challenges, and desires for improvement, the responses were, overall, very positive. Many of you identified as your greatest successes some version of (and these are actual responses) “Coming back to campus,” “the in-person classes,” “Being able to be back in a classroom!” “Working hard; making friends; joining clubs,” and “Making new friends and meeting new people from all around the world.” Comments included “My professors are amazing,” or “I love my professors.” In fact, the faculty identify as their greatest success that their students are amazing. As long as that remains true, we are going to have a great semester together, and – since we’ve learned so much this semester – the spring will be even better – both academically and socially - than the fall.