A Tough COVID-19 Semester: Using Negative Feedback to Advance a Critical and Honest Reflection of Teaching Practices

By Nina Powell, Department of Psychology

We must remember that glowing self-evaluations of our teaching inadvertently endorse certain teaching practices – the assumption is that what we’re doing is working. If we think that some things we do in our teaching are not working, or some trends and practices in higher education should be abandoned, we must bring those to light for our own professional growth and development, and for the betterment of higher educational practices.

NUS has put into effect temporary contingencies for our pedagogical and career goals in light of the rapid change to distance e-learning. This includes allowing colleagues to forfeit their teaching feedback from this past semester in the annual review so as to minimize the potential damage to our feedback records when it comes to contract renewal and promotion. While this may be necessary, I would also like to encourage colleagues to approach the annual review and other career development opportunities (e.g., teaching award applications) in an unconventional way that makes use of all of the feedback and valuable information that we have (both positive and negative).

I would urge colleagues to consider the merit in showcasing and highlighting not just what is working, but what is not working, and to construct a solid critical narrative around honest reflections of our teaching practices. I urge this for two reasons: 1) this is an opportunity to bring to light the inadequacies of initiatives like 100% distance e-learning so as to avoid the all too common tendency to acquiesce to a “new normal” in education without sufficient consideration of the drawbacks. And, 2) this is an opportunity to showcase not just your achievements through metrics and praise, but to showcase your insightful pedagogical knowledge and reflections on higher education.

Traditionally, annual review and career development has centered around self-promotion and showcasing of achievements, which encourages an overly positive spin on adopted teaching methods, especially those methods that might be considered innovative. If, for example, we want distance e-learning to depart with the threat from Covid-19 then we must deliver an appraisal of distance e-learning that includes the negative as well as the positive. We must remember that glowing self-evaluations of our teaching inadvertently endorse certain teaching practices – the assumption is that what we’re doing is working. If we think that some things we do in our teaching are not working, or some trends and practices in higher education should be abandoned, we must bring those to light for our own professional growth and development, and for the betterment of higher educational practices.

 I hope to encourage colleagues to be transparently critical, even transparently negative when necessary, about higher education initiatives. While this might sound like a rather curmudgeonly way of approaching reflection, I would like to offer a few important benefits to this approach.

We have an opportunity when we reflect to showcase and highlight our understanding of education and pedagogy by conducting a critical analysis of what has happened – in part to highlight our mastery of educational reflection and immersion with the pedagogical literature, and in part to bring to light the problems that might not have easy solutions and require more attention, discussion and consideration. For example, I have seen a somewhat disturbing, albeit well-intentioned, trend in response to the COVID-19 contingencies for NUS education which is to highlight problems with distance e-learning, and then immediately provide pat and overly-simplistic solutions – “you want more engagement with students? Try Zoom Chat!” While I can appreciate the need for some guidance in the short-term, we must remember that in the long-term, these more systemic problems with distance e-learning might need more consideration and ultimately could result in the discontinuation of such strong e-learning agendas.

The best way to approach this critical analysis and highlighting of problems/challenges is to use the feedback we have and write the narrative as we have experienced it. I would like to encourage colleagues to abandon the need for a glowingly positive appraisal of our own efforts and the tendency to shy away from negative feedback and experiences. Instead, I would encourage colleagues to highlight the negative aspects of this unprecedented situation, and teaching practices in general, in a thoughtful, well-constructed narrative centered around pedagogical insights and our teaching philosophies. I hope that this narrative can make up the bulk of some of our teaching award applications and reflections used in MAP, which collectively could help to raise awareness and encourage discourse around how we move forward without setting a precedent for education that we, as the educators, are not actually behind.

Before designing e-assessments: Reflections on webinar “Re-examining Teaching and Learning in Challenging Times: What are our assessment options?”

By Mihi Park, Centre of Language Studies

The webinar, Re-examining Teaching and Learning in Challenging Times was organised by the Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning (CDTL) and the Global Relations Office at the National University of Singapore, on 11, June, 2020.

From the webinar, I learnt and was reminded of few important matters in designing e-assessments.

1) Do not underestimate the non-education related matters while designing e-assessments.

There could be students who may encounter financial burden to afford a decent laptop, internet maintenance at home environment. In other words, a personal computer and the suitable home environment for the e-assessments (esp. synchronous test) may not be guaranteed all the time.

2) Reliability and validity of the test tool and the instructors’ fluency of the test tools are factors that we should re-think about.

We are used to use the test formats such as an MCQ, and an essay without worrying about the reliability and validity of them if those are conducted pen & paper-based. Likewise, while running those pen & paper based tests, the fluency of instructors in using such tools is not the considering matter. Now, however, in virtual environment, we need to consider those factors in the selection of the test tool, particularly to ensure reliability and validity. In line with the consideration, you may want to consider alternative assessment tools, such as collaborative assessment, portfolio-based assessment, and project-based assessment. These alternative assessments allow us to evaluate the students’ learning progress as well as the outcome. For those who hope to find out more, please look out for the workshops by the CDTL.

3) ‘How to’ information should be provided as well as ‘What to do’ to prepare students and academic staffs for e-assessments.

For students, we need to provide good practices of how to study in online environment, e.g. how to be successful in online class, how to manage own learning more independently, and how to prepare for online lessons. This should include ‘how to use the e-assessment tools’. I would conduct a dry-run if I run a synchronous e-assessment. It equally applies to academic staffs to teach ourselves ‘how to’, such as how to conduct online lessons effectively, how to conduct non-face-to-face e-assessments, and where to get resources.

4) In the design of e-assessments, we could be flexible and create opportunities for community conversations, meaning we may want to hear form the students, as active evaluators of their own progress.

My 5 Takeaways from E-Learning Symposium: Teaching in the Time of COVID-19

By Kamalini Ramdas, Department of Geography

The e-Learning Symposium was organised on behalf of the Office of the Senior Deputy President and Provost (SDPPVO) by the Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning (CDTL) and Centre for Instructional Technology (CIT).

1) Even as I prepare for online teaching this semester, in the long-term I should also use the opportunity to plan ahead for how I might combine e-learning and face-to-face learning to enhance student learning. Some questions I now want to consider more closely as I plan ahead:

  • How might I better include students as co-creators of content/syllabus through e-learning?
  • How might I better assess e-learning’s impact on student learning?
  • How can I bring together the strengths of face-to-face learning and e-learning to improve student’s overall learning experience?

2) Safe distancing does not mean social distancing. This served as an important reminder to find ways to connect with students and create opportunities for them to also connect with each other. Students may miss the classroom interaction and being in the same physical space with their classmates. There is a sociality to learning face-to-face that I want to recreate online. This may mean better use of breakout rooms, and perhaps even getting teaching assistants to participate in breakout rooms. I could also create online groups via FB or Instagram that allow students to connect with each other to share what they are learning and check-in with each other more regularly.

3) Teaching innovation does not only refer to the use of technology. Instead it is useful to think of innovation in terms of creative problem-solving given my personal limitations. I was reminded that it is okay to find a solution that fits my skill set and abilities and is also in line with my teaching philosophy and learning objectives. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the universe of software, applications and new technologies out there. Innovation is also about trying to figure out what works for me. And innovation does take time, and trial and error. I want to pay close attention to teaching feedback and try to figure out what didn’t work and why in the previous semester.

4) There are physical limitations students face in terms of lack of technological infrastructure (e.g. quality laptops, stable WIFI, or even a room they can work from). Part of my challenge is also to create opportunities for learning offline. Learning whether face-to-face or online is also about what happens after the class. How can I create achievable learning goals each week that will incentivise students to keep asking questions, keep reading and thinking? These are important pedagogical questions whether my module is conducted via e-learning or face-to-face.

5) Today’s symposium reminded me that there is a community of educators out there who are trying out new strategies and there are people and resources I can turn to for help. I sensed that there is a genuine desire to work collectively to overcome our individual struggles and limitations. You can check out the CAFÉ blog but also the CDTL and CIT websites for more ideas/resources.

Teaching Philosophy as Online Guide

By Kamalini Ramdas, Department of Geography

The teaching semester has come to an end, and I welcome the opportunity to reflect on my COVID-19 teaching strategies during the long break and how I might do things differently in the semester ahead.

Looking back, I have to say I was fortunate that my classes were small (under 50). This meant I did not have to switch immediately to online teaching. Instead, I could transition slowly and this was important given my lack of online teaching experience.

Frankly speaking, my use of technology for teaching has been limited to basic functions on LumiNUS and its predecessor, IVLE. The gentler transition meant I could develop some simpler tactics that did not require me to learn anything new. I will be sharing some of these tactics during my CAFÉ session (‘Lower Tech’ Online Strategies) on 24 June so do join me then.

When reflecting on this past semester and my plans for next semester, I have found it useful to revisit my teaching philosophy. As a feminist geographer, I believe that the classroom is a ‘generative space’ (Huang and Ramdas, 2019) where educators and students not only learn about the spatialities of gender-based inequalities but are also encouraged to think about how they can advocate for change.

Feminist pedagogical practices are committed to creating a safe space where educators and students can engage in productive but potentially difficult conversations about inequality by being sensitive to their privilege and positionality.

How can I replicate these classroom conversations online? How would I create a safe space? What sort of principles and rules might I need to put in place?

In Semester 2, these were not questions I had even thought to ask. My main concern was how was I going to deliver the syllabus in time if I had to move everything online? I was concerned that taking the debates online might be challenging as I did not know much about online etiquette and felt that I might not know how to control a chat if the discussion got out of hand.

In the coming semester, I want to think more carefully about how to manage chatroom discussions. And how to develop interesting discussion topics that we can productively engage with in a chat environment.

I believe that some students are likely to be more candid while chatting online than they might be speaking face-to-face in a classroom setting. This may also mean that I will have to do more facilitation and moderation. Does the fact that I am not physically there make a difference to how they might behave?

I am also concerned about students who may not have access to technical support and equipment, good Wi-Fi connections or a safe space at home in which to engage in discussion and debate. How can I ensure that those without resources can also participate?

Perhaps pre-recording lectures rather than streaming them LIVE on Zoom is one solution. Students can download these lectures and watch them at their convenience. I have also decided to write-up summary points of chatroom discussions and pose questions that allow me to better direct the learning after the chat discussion.

My key takeaway from this past semester is that going slow isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is okay to take the time to process and think things though. I hope to take this ‘slow movement’ into my online classroom.



Huang, S. and Ramdas, K. (2019), “Generative Spaces of Gender and Feminist Geography in Singapore: Entanglements of the Personal and Political”, Gender, Place and Culture 26(7-9): 1233-1242.

Online Courses in the New Normal Time

By Mihi Park, Centre for Language Studies

I taught LAK2201 (Korean 2) last semester during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was my (and many colleagues’) first time converting the course into online in the middle of the semester. It was not a simple change from A to B, but it required a new design of the entire procedure of teaching and learning.

My module was a foreign language module, and was originally designed as a flipped course, meaning the students were required to prepare themselves with the e-lecture to participate the in-class lectures. After the conversion, I continues to provide a similar weekly routine; a self-preparation with the e-lecture (recorded and asynchronous), two real-time online lectures, and a self-reflection note to review their own learning. The weekly workload was designed to encourage ownership of learning and autonomy among the students so that they participate the online lectures actively.

In addition, I provided a guide to co-lecturers regarding a tool management skill for effective online lecture delivery, and conducted few demonstrations of online lectures with them via Zoom. Such efforts ensured all the co-lecturers in the module speak the same language in a same manner.

However, assuming my students experienced a fully online language module for the first time at NUS, I expected anxiety to a certain extent among students. The anxiety was, indeed observed time to time: students asking more questions than face-to-face lectures, getting nervous about the assessments, or not wanting to speak up in a target language. Such anxiety will be reflected in the NUS official feedback, particularly due to a short notice of the conversion. Also, the students’ feedback is often influenced by the rapport between the teacher and students, or among the students. Online course made it challenging to build a constructive rapport within the class, and thus the students missed peer support, teacher’s assurance, and timely feedback, that would be impactful in the official feedback.

To address this point, I plan to compare the students’ feedback with the one of the same module from the previous semester, so that I can understand in which aspects the students are impacted, e.g. the mode of learning, assessment, or contents itself. Moving forward, the feedback will allow me to learn how it could be improved and revise the approach in coming semester.

Despite the challenges that we’ve gone through, the four-week online course became a reminder to me that learner’s autonomy and teacher’s facilitation are equally important to achieve the intended learning outcomes, particularly in online learning mode. Based on my observation, the biggest roadblock in conducting online lectures was the unpreparedness of some students and the expectation of the instructor’s full responsibility. In other words, ownership of learning must be addressed to the students. Therefore, in coming semester, I will dedicate one or two lectures at the beginning of semester to enforce the students’ roles and how to manage learning in my LAK4201 (Korean5).

In fact, this kind of training could be done at university-level, because such a skill is considered a general academic skill that the students should be equipped with in higher education. Each module may adopt different approaches to accommodate online teaching, but students’ involvement in learning should be highlighted to achieve a greater learning outcome.

Providing a flipped course would be another way to ease the barriers to online lectures. LAK4201 has been a flipped course for the past few years, and I will continue to provide the e-lecture prior to real-time online lectures, with a hope to encourage students to participate the online lectures actively based on their preparation.

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