Flexible Learning in the New Normal

Supporting Your Learners

Both educators and learners are coping with uncertainties and interruptions due to the pandemic. To help envision what providing flexible support for learners might look like during the semester, we provide a range of strategies to help you support your learners during unexpected–and even prolonged–absences. These include:

  • Strategies for fostering a sense of community
  • Strategies for organizing and assessing student learning
  • Strategies for supporting learners who cannot participate in person, but can participate online (synchronously or asynchronously)

These practices complement the course design and planning ideas in Teaching in the New Normal: 5 High-Value Course Practices for Flexible Teaching.

Strategies for fostering a sense of community

Consider ways of intentionally fostering a sense of community with and among your learners. The first years of the global pandemic taught us how important the feeling of personal connection can be during remote and online learning experiences. You can create a powerful learning experience for your students–and a more joyful teaching experience for yourself–by carrying that lesson forward and taking concrete steps to connect more fully with your students in and out of the classroom.

Here are some practices that you can use at the beginning and throughout the semester:

  • Acknowledge the reality we are all facing. Students find it extremely helpful when educators directly acknowledge stressful events that we are facing together (Huston & DiPietro, 2007). Consider sharing in classes, meetings, and Canvas announcements about the options that you can give your learners in case they cannot join in person or are absent for an extended period of time. For example:“You may need to miss a class because of illness or some other reason. We are all in this together, and I want everyone to succeed.If you feel well enough to participate but are isolating, please let me know before class so we can discuss modality options for you to stay engaged with the course.If you do not feel well enough to participate, please let me know. When you feel better, reach out to me as soon as possible so we can discuss how you can catch up.”
  • Create an opt-in peer system for students to support each other. Creating pairs or triad groups can help students form valuable connections with their peers, who can help with notes, questions, and course materials they may miss. You can connect students with each other via email or an online spreadsheet. You can also do this on a discussion board in Canvas, which gives students the opportunity to introduce themselves to the class in ways that can contribute to a sense of community in person and online.
  • Use group office hours. Consider setting aside some of your office hours for students to attend in groups to catch up, instead of many students coming individually at different times. If you have set up a peer or “buddy system” among your students, you can encourage students to attend together.
  • Regularly check in with your students. Checking in not only enables you to keep your finger on the pulse of student learning, but it also communicates that you care about your students, which is important to their emotional experience of learning in your class—a central consideration of Trauma-Informed Educational Practice (Davidson, 2017). Even if everyone physically attends class, we are all dealing with a uniquely challenging time in history and the experience is different for everyone. Consider how you build in flexibility and responsiveness using technology to learn where your students are and how you can help them stay engaged. Check out our sample check-in and feedback surveys that you can use throughout the semester.

Strategies for organizing and assessing student learning

  • Be realistic about student “need-to-knows.” Identify the most important concepts and material that students have missed so that you and your students can focus your time wisely. Ask yourself, “What must my students know in order to continue on in their program or course sequence? What ‘big ideas and enduring understandings’ will they most draw upon in later work?” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).
  • Leverage the benefits of students working in long-term groups. Working in long-term groups creates deeper relationships (Sweet & Michaelsen, 2007), giving students opportunities to make up for unexpected or long absences. For example, a student who was absent during the first phase of a group project can take the lead on the final report. In fact, you can use this as an opportunity for students to learn and practice communicating explicitly with their groupmates about their intended contributions and availability.
  • Offer alternative ways for students to show what they have learned. Students may miss too much group work or other course experiences for them to realistically jump back in. For example, if a student missed several weeks of group work, the student could complete individual work that demonstrates enough of their learning for you to assess their achievement. Flexibility in assessment can not only accommodate unforeseen circumstances but it can also create a greater sense of empowerment in the learner (Wanner, Palmer, & Palmer, 2021).

Strategies for supporting learners who cannot participate in person, but can engage online (synchronously or asynchronously)

  • Use Zoom or Team meetings, as appropriate. Setting up a Zoom or Teams meeting can make it possible for a student to continue participating in synchronous class sessions, even if they are not able to join in person. Academic Technologies has created instructions on how to create a Zoom meeting for a single student and how to create a one-on-one meeting with a student in Teams.
  • Record synchronous class sessions, as appropriate. Class recordings can be a valuable way for students to review materials and activities from your class sessions, including when they were not able to attend in person or at all. Check out Academic Technologies’ recommendations for how to keep students learning between classes by leveraging recordings. For technical support while you are in the classroom, email requests for help with Teams, Zoom, or Panopto to [email protected], including the building name and room number in the subject line for rapid dispatch. If you teach in our global campus network, you can reach technical staff by emailing [email protected] with your classroom information.
  • Set expectations for how students can participate. When some of your students are participating in person and others are joining online, monitoring questions and contributions across modalities can be challenging. Explicitly communicate and problem-solve with your students about how students can best participate in any modality. Possible options include designating specific times for asking questions and interacting, asking teaching assistants to signal you when any student has a question or raised hand, or inviting student volunteers to highlight when one of their peers wants to contribute.
  • Benefit from students’ preference for virtual office hours. Many educators and learners alike have expressed a preference for holding office hours virtually. This virtual approach gives your students more equitable access to you when some students may not be able to meet in person.

University resources

  • For students who need formal accommodations due to health-related or other ADA circumstances, please refer them to Northeastern’s Disability Resource Center.  
  • To keep students and their advisors updated on mid-course progress, instructors in many colleges at Northeastern use the Navigate system. Instructors in the College of Professional Studies use the FACT system for the same purpose.  
  • Consult Northeastern’s Spring 2022 Frequently Asked Questions page for other questions that you and your students may have.


Davidson, S. (2017). Trauma-informed practices for postsecondary education: A guide. Education Northwest. https://educationnorthwest.org/sites/default/files/resources/trauma-informed-practices-postsecondary-508.pdf

Huston, T. A., & DiPietro, M. (2007). In the Eye of the Storm: Students’ Perceptions of Helpful Faculty Actions Following a Collective Tragedy. To Improve the Academy, 25(1), 207-224. https://www.wiley.com/en-us/To+Improve+the+Academy%3A+Resources+for+Faculty%2C+Instructional%2C+and+Organizational+Development%2C+Volume+25-p-9781933371085

Sweet, M., & Michaelsen, L. K. (2007). How group dynamics research can inform the theory and practice of postsecondary small group learning. Educational Psychology Review, 19(1), 31–47. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-006-9035-y

Wanner, T., Palmer, E., & Palmer, D. (2021). Flexible assessment and student empowerment: advantages and disadvantages–research from an Australian university. Teaching in Higher Education, 1-17. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2021.1989578

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005).Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development. https://www.ascd.org/books/understanding-by-design-expanded-2nd-edition?variant=103055