A college professor says, “I gave my first exam based totally on online instruction last week and the results highlighted my own inadequacies as an online instructor.”

Professor: Most students failed part of my exam in new online format. Problem was me, not them.

J. Tom Morgan is the former DeKalb County district attorney. He now is a full-time professor at Western Carolina University where he teaches undergraduate students law-related courses.

In this guest column, Morgan describes his struggles with converting his courses to a digital format in response to the closing of his campus due to the pandemic.

He believes other professors are also grappling with the shift and says it’s unfair  to hold students accountable with letter grades when instruction may be lacking.

As DeKalb DA for 12 years, Morgan was the lead prosecutor in the case against DeKalb County Sheriff Sidney Dorsey, who was convicted of corruption and murdering his opponent Sheriff-elect Derwin Brown 20 years ago. 

Morgan is author of “Ignorance Is No Defense, A Teenager's Guide to Georgia Law.” 

By J. Tom Morgan

There are several reasons college students who were in a classroom setting during the first half of the semester and who are now taking the remainder of the semester online are having difficulties. These obstacles include lack of reliable internet service, competition with siblings and parents for the only computer in the home, textbooks which had to be left on campus after spring break, no study groups with fellow students, no classroom participation, and the stress of lockdown in the home.

However, another reason that is seldom mentioned is the inability of professors to provide adequate online instruction.  

I was formerly an adjunct professor at Georgia State University where I taught in the undergraduate school and law school. Now, I am a fulltime professor at Western Carolina University where I teach undergraduate students law-related courses. At the end of spring break, the faculty at the University System of Georgia, and the North Carolina University system were told that all classroom instruction would be moved to online instruction.

Professors had seven days to prepare online instruction for classes we had never taught online, and for most of us we had never instructed an online course. 

I teach four different classes that are lecture based, but are supplemented with PowerPoint slides. The slides, which are basically my lecture notes, help me and the students stay focused on the material they need to learn for the next exam. Although I do not use the Socratic method of instruction, I sporadically question students to make certain they are understanding the material. I also find myself interjecting war stories from my years of practicing law to illustrate a point or concept.

Former DeKalb District Attorney J. Tom Morgan

When I recorded my first lectures after we went to online instruction, I was shocked by how short the recordings were that I posted to the students. Immediately, I realized that a great deal of my classroom time is spent interacting with the students. 

I promised myself when I started teaching fulltime at WCU I would for the sake of my students never teach an online course. Online instruction is an art, and it takes a particular talent to design an online course with online exams. Furthermore, instructors who teach online courses will tell you that it takes several semesters of trial and error to develop a quality online course that provides good instruction and comprehensive exams. 

I am also a dinosaur in a digital age. I never even heard of Zoom until last month. Good online courses utilize graphics, web links, instant feedback, and audio and video techniques that are far outside my wheelhouse.  

When our department head called a meeting to inform us that we were not going back into the classroom this semester she made a point that we were not teaching online courses, but rather we were taking our classroom courses online and to try to do the best we could under very difficult circumstances.

My colleagues and I had the same reaction. How were we going to instruct material we had heretofore always taught in the classroom, and how would we fairly administer grades at the end of the semester? 

I gave my first exam based totally on online instruction last week and the results highlighted my own inadequacies as an online instructor. There were areas on the exam that usually the vast majority of the students answer correctly, but instead this time were only answered correctly by a few. For example, the insanity defense is a difficult legal concept, even for law students.

Last week, most of my undergraduate students failed that part of the exam. I know that if I had taught this area of law in the classroom, I would have known by the students’ answers to my questions I needed to spend more time explaining this material. 

The question therefore is how do professors assign grades to students when the wrong answers on the exams may be more the shortcomings of the professor’s online instruction rather than the failings of the students? And what do you do with the students’ grades who are adapt at comprehending the material online and do well? 

The Faculty Senate at WCU has made a proposal to the administration that tracks what other public universities are doing in North Carolina. This proposal will require professors to assign a letter grade at the end of the semester, but it will also allow the student after receiving the grade to take a pass/fail in lieu of the letter grade. This will allow students who do well to maintain, or even elevate, their grade point average.

It will also allow students who perform better with classroom instruction not to be penalized as long as they make a C or better in the course. It our understanding that the administration will adopt this policy as other schools have in the North Carolina University System. 

The University System of Georgia is maintaining there will be no changes to the grading system this semester-business as usual-and students will be assigned letter grades in all their classes. This policy decision fails to recognize the uniqueness of this semester and it is penalizing the student when the problem may be with the professor, not the student.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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