Flexibility & Choice: Student Suggestions for Teaching Approaches to Retain from AY20-21

What Should We Carry?

Just about every backpacking narrative begins with a story about the choices to keep or discard items that add to the weight of the pack. For example, Bill Bryson’s (1998) A Walk in the Woods relates the story of his Appalachian Trail hiking partner, Katz, who threw pepperoni, rice, brown sugar, Spam, and even coffee filters off the side of a cliff in an effort to decrease the weight of his pack. In contrast, in Cheryl Strayed’s (2012 p. 38) Wild, about her Pacific Crest Trail hike, she writes at the beginning of her trip, “I thought about what I might take out of my pack, but each item struck me as so obviously needed or so in-case-of-emergency necessary that I didn’t dare remove it. I would have to try to carry the pack as it was.”

During the last academic year, instructors engaged in similar exercises: discarding some things from a course to make room for new approaches, or intentionally maintaining those elements that are important to bring forward in a syllabus. Through our own journey back to residential teaching, what should we continue to carry?

This newsletter focuses on the pedagogical shifts that students recommend carrying forward. Previous Sheridan Center newsletters reported on the innovations that Brown instructors described making to their courses last academic year, captured by April 2020 and December 2020 faculty surveys. In Spring 2020, Brown instructors quickly moved to online and remote instruction, generating an array of creative responses to the rapid shift in modality, such as lecture recordings, breakout discussions, and increased 1:1 contact with students. In Fall 2020, faculty had the benefit of more lead time and support to plan, and some also taught in hybrid format. With the Fall Term survey, we saw more substantial changes to classroom instruction, often noting a rethinking from the “ground up” approach. While breakout discussions were also described frequently, other strategies included increased use of “written discussions” (e.g., Canvas discussions, Google Doc, Zoom chat), alternative assessments (e.g., collaborative tests, capstone problem sets, and oral exams), and the use of new media for reading and feedback (e.g., podcasts, using video-based feedback).

How did Brown students respond to these changes? Although overall course feedback, in both online and hybrid formats, was very strong, student feedback on specific changes can help inform strategies to carry forward. This newsletter reports on four Brown student surveys, administered by the Office of Institutional Research at the end of the 2020-21 academic year1. In each case -- undergraduates, MAs and MFAs, and doctoral students -- students responded to the following prompt: “In the online/hybrid course that was MOST EFFECTIVE for your learning this past academic year, how helpful were the following?” There is some variety in response choices (described in more detail below) by educational level. Overall, however, the findings present a strikingly consistent picture about instructional changes that students suggest we carry forward to our return to residential instruction in AY21-22. 


In our Fall 2020 newsletter, Jonathan Collins (Education) reflected, “Flexibility was key.” Strikingly, for Brown students of many levels, the change that found to be most helpful is flexibility about when key assignments and assessments are completed (e.g., choices on deadlines, take home/open book exams).

Nearly all undergraduates (94%), MFAs (95%), and doctoral students across candidacy and divisions (92%) value having fewer time-dependent deadlines and take home exams. The vast majority of master’s students (91%) also indicate that such flexibility is helpful for their learning, but two other adaptations were rated more highly (please see below).

I benefited a lot from the flexibility of course content and deadlines. I was allowed to customize my own learning rate and choose what fit within my schedule and interest, which improved my learning comfort and efficiency.

-Cheng Zheng, PhD candidate in engineering

Emmajane Rhodenhiser ‘22, Neuroscience Concentrator, notes how open book exams and oral exams “pushed me as much, if not more, than standard exams.” She adds, “I was not only being tested on Neuroscience and Physics, but on how to use spoken language to communicate my knowledge effectively, and how to approach problems for which my open notes were a small aid and the solution was intentionally far from reach.” 

Multiple Ways to Engage with Class Content 

In AY20-21, many faculty reported that they developed recorded lectures to accommodate students’ dispersion across 20+ time zones, technical barriers, and personal challenges. In Fall 2020, Professor Judith Bender (BIOL 2150, Scientific Communications) observed that she would carry forward this change, noting, “I think the Zoom recordings on our Canvas site provided a great way for students to review the material. Next year I will set up to capture all our lectures for the course regardless of whether we have in-person or remote teaching.”

For both Brown undergraduates and master’s students, the second most frequently named positive adaptation is video recordings of live class sessions (94% and 93%, respectively, found helpful). For example, Abby Perelman ‘22 (Cognitive Neuroscience) comments, “I greatly appreciated my professors' video recordings from live class sessions as they allowed me to feel more connected. This strategy encouraged learning based on what was most beneficial for each student.”

This option is also very highly ranked by some doctoral students, namely pre-candidates in the physical sciences (92%) and life and medical sciences (92%), but it is also generally well-regarded by all doctoral students (84% overall). (One important exception is MFAs’ preferences. Not surprisingly, because of the hands-on learning that often characterizes MFA coursework, a majority, or 69%, of MFA students report that recordings are useful -- but this was not among the most highly ranked items.) 

Videos have a positive impact on learning, particularly when they complement an interactive or active learning environment (Noetel et al., 2021). Recordings are valuable when students have to miss a class, such as due to illness, but they are also appreciated by those who attend the course, allowing review and a self-adjusted pace for watching (Noetel et al.). According to additional research cited in a previous Sheridan newsletter on podcasts, ​​students primarily use recordings to review concepts covered in class or revise their notes, rather than to substitute for class attendance.

Recordings really gave me a chance to revisit the content of the courses and make notes afterwards.

-Bowen He, Computer Science master’s student

Although commonly used last academic year, Zoom recordings are not the only way to help students revisit course content. In Fall 2020, some faculty reported switching to text-based options, such as posting lectures or sharing student-generated collaborative notes. Although asked only of undergraduates, a majority of this student group (74%) found that audio transcriptions of discussions and presentations were very helpful as well. 


Among undergraduates, flexibility about how key assignments and assessments are completed (i.e., choice in assignment type) rounds out the top three adaptations that were found to be helpful (87%) to their learning. Interestingly, this is the #1 feature of effective courses among master’s students (94%). For doctoral students in aggregate, choice is also very favorably ranked (88%), although there is some variation by discipline and candidacy status (e.g., ranging from 69% for social science candidates to 91% for physical science pre-candidates).

The variety of communication, including synchronous tools such as in-class check-ins and office hours, as well as asynchronous tools such as email, discussion boards, and by appointment, provides flexibility and allows clear and frequent interactions with professors. 

-Zhuoya Zhang, MPH student

In last year’s faculty surveys, a frequently noted innovation was to allow students more choice in how learning would be assessed. For example, Ruth Colwill (Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Sciences) offered “a lot of variety and choice in online assignments,” with options such as a “Fun Final Project,” which asked students to get creative with course material by creating a game, writing a children’s story or Public Service Announcement, or creating a new course assignment. Another example of an assignment type heavily oriented around choice is a “Pink Time” assessment (named after author Daniel Pink) (Baird et al., 2020). With this approach, an instructor would use class time to design and engage in self-directed activity about a topic or learning goal (e.g., read a journal on a topic, meet with an expert in the field, compose a piece of music) and self-assess based on a rubric for self-regulated learning (available here). However, as Zhuoya Zhang’s quote demonstrates (see above), a repertoire of more traditional assignments also can create a choice-oriented learning environment.

How can choice-focused assignments be assessed? Bruff (2019) offers a sample analytical rubric, as well as a way to engage students in “crowd-sourcing” the rubric. (Bruff’s chapter on multimodal assignments is available online in Brown’s library and is also cited below for non-Brown readers.) Sheridan’s 2018 newsletter on Fostering and Assessing Equitable Classroom Participation also offers options for participation feedback and grades. 

What Shall We Carry?

For Brown undergraduates, master’s, and doctoral students, there is striking consistency in the approaches that they found most helpful for their learning, underscored by choice and flexibility in how new ideas are learned, how learning is assessed, and when assignments are completed. (For MFA students, there is some variation, and the top three for this group of students are flexibility in deadlines (95%), alternative grading systems like contract grading (88%), and “backchannel” discussions like chat (86%).) Such findings are not surprising for students who have chosen to study at an institution known for its Open Curriculum, but they underscore the importance of intentionally planning a course around equity and inclusion, especially in the challenging times in which our students are learning. Choice and flexibility are course features that contribute to equitable and inclusive classrooms (Fuentes, Zalaya, & Madsen, 2020; Laird, 2011; Odom et al. 2021).

Although the student survey results suggest that choice and flexibility are key frameworks to carry forward, Brown students responded positively to nearly all of the survey items. These include other changes that were frequently identified by Brown faculty, including: 

  • More opportunities for feedback, such as through more frequent, but smaller, “low-stakes” assignments
  • Small-group discussions, such as Zoom breakout rooms and in-person active learning strategies like jigsaws or think-pair-share
  • Backchannel discussions, such as the Zoom chat feature
  • Use of multimedia for feedback, like video feedback on written work
  • Alternate assessment systems, such as contract or mastery grading
  • Asynchronous discussions, like Canvas discussion posts 

Across all levels, a majority of students name these as helpful features in the hybrid or online course that was most effective for their learning in the past academic year. 

How Can We Help?

We look forward to meeting you to talk about how to make your own choices about what to carry forward in your classroom. To set up a confidential consultation about any of these ideas, please email [email protected].

Additionally, the Sheridan Center’s “How I…” series features practical strategies from many Brown instructors who are using these ideas in their courses. These recorded roundtables are available at any time upon request and topics include: 

  • Asynchronous discussions 
  • “How I grade” (mastery learning and portfolio-based approaches)
  • Hybrid teaching
  • Educational media
  • Community building
  • Teaching with podcasts

To subscribe to the Sheridan Center newsletter, please link here.

Thank you to Mary Heather Smith, Brown Office of Institutional Research, for assistance with data analysis.



Baird, T.D., Kniola, T.J., Carlson, K.A., Russell, D.G., Hartter, J., Rogers, S., & Tise, J. (2021). Adapting Pink Time to promote self-regulated learning across course and student types. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 32(1): 49-63.

Bruff, D. (2019). Intentional tech: Principles to guide the use of educational technology in teaching. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press. 

Bryson, B. (2010). A walk in the woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. New York: Broadway Books.

Fuentes, M. A., Zelaya, D. G., & Madsen, J. W. (2020). Rethinking the course syllabus: Considerations for promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. Teaching of Psychology, 48(1): 1-11.

Laird, T. F. N. (2011). Measuring the diversity inclusivity of college courses. Research in Higher Education, 52: 572-588.

Noetel, M., Griffith, S., Delaney, O., Sanders, S., Parker, P., Cruz, B.d.P., & Lonsdale, C. (2021). Video improves learning in higher education: A systematic review. Review of Educational Research, 91(2): 204-236.

Odom, S., et al. (2021). Meta--analysis of gender performance gaps in undergraduate natural science courses. CBE - Life Sciences Education, 20:3. Available: https://www.lifescied.org/doi/full/10.1187/cbe.20-11-0260

Strayed, C. (2012). Wild: From lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail. New York: Vintage Books.


The Enrolled Student Survey was distributed to Brown undergraduates and had a 42% response rate. Graduate data are from the Doctoral Education Survey (54% RR), Master's Education Survey (56% RR), and MFA Education Survey (48% RR). All surveys are administered by Brown’s Office of Institutional Research.