Agile Pedagogy

Designing an Agile Pedagogy

In recent years, faculty members have time and again been called upon to adapt their teaching to accommodate change. The COVID-19 pandemic required a quick transition to online instruction for many instructors. Social, political and generational shifts demand that instructors reassess course materials and approaches to engaging students. Change is inevitable. The information below will help you think proactively about how to build an agile, disruption-proof course that can weather any challenge that the semester may bring. Agile courses -- ones that can pivot successfully -- are rigorously planned, can respond to student needs, and are resilient against interruptions and challenges to their environment. 


Rigorous teaching begins with clearly defined learning goals. Assessments, assignments, and class activities then align with those goals: assessments allow students to show evidence they are progressing, while activities and assignments give students the practice and feedback needed to reach these goals. As closure, sickness, or public events pressure your course, you can revise while your evergreen goals remain in focus, using them to keep students engaged in a process that leads them toward course goals.

To develop rigorous pedagogy, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are the top three or four goals for student learning in my course? When you write these goals down, use active verbs like define, discover, apply, develop, and create to ensure your goals remain student-focused. For assistance, see this EDvice Exchange blog post on how to think about learning goals.
  • How will I know students have achieved those goals? Regardless of the modality you start, change to, or end with, what skills, habits of mind, or thinking do you want your student to demonstrate, and how can you measure their progress in any setting?
  • What can my students do to practice and make progress towards these goals? Many activities can be accomplished anywhere, like discussion, case analysis, or visual critique. What activities are you most interested in your students practicing, and how might they do so in various modalities?


If we remember that students’ social and emotional lives influence their ability to connect and learn, we will be more responsive to their needs. Sarah Cavanagh reminds us, for instance, that anxiety disrupts student performance by hijacking part of one’s working memory capacity via worrying thoughts, leaving fewer cognitive resources to direct to the problem at hand (The Spark of Learning, 184). Anxiety over challenges in their personal lives, specific socio-political events such as a national election or more general stressors such as social inequity or climate change may make it difficult for your students to focus on the work of learning and connecting in class. Attention to these needs can go a long way towards helping them to be successful in your classroom:

  • Create opportunities for students to connect with you and each other at the outset of the semester. Icebreakers, introductions and getting-to-know-you activities can help. Ask them to send you information they wish for you to know, including any barriers that might affect their learning or help you understand how to support them in class.
  • Open communication channels with regular reminders (how to reach you via email, office hours, or a more anonymous channel).
  • Depending on the size of your class, host monthly individual or small group check-ins with students.
  • Clearly post university resources (e.g. Student Success Center, Wellness Resource Center, Tuttleman Counseling Services) so neither you nor students have to search too long for solutions.
  • Plan for alternative assessments (flexible deadlines, different modalities) to make sure your students have accessible ways to demonstrate their learning.
  • Plan for alternative activities in case of student illness or inability to attend class.
  • Consider revisiting your participation policy in a way that acknowledges the fact that some students may find themselves in position where traditional classroom participation is difficult or impossible.


A resilient pedagogy is one that is built in such a way that you can pivot more easily if a disruption occurs. Rigorous and responsive pedagogy helps to craft a resilient pedagogy, but additional strategies will also strengthen the resilience of your teaching, course materials, and student experiences:

  • Recognize serendipitous situations: Embrace the positive and generative aspects of change. New circumstances may create novel and innovative ways of looking at your content, your students, and your classroom environment. Remember that your students are showing up wanting to learn, so embrace that hopeful way of being.
  • Prepare for and respond to unexpected circumstances: If you plan proactively with the possibility of disruption in mind, your course will be more resilient. Here are some strategies that can help build in resilience:
    • Design your course as a blended course, choosing materials and activities that are capable of being pivoted to a new modality. If you establish asynchronous materials early on, you’ll have them to fall back on should the occasion arise.
    • Provide a variety of ways for students to engage with the course, access information, and show evidence of what they’ve learned. Doing this also makes your class more inclusive and less boring.
    • Maximize opportunities for students to interact with and practice new material: ensure there are multiple ways for students to, for instance, join a discussion, create a video or presentation, consider a case, complete a problem set, or respond to a peer.
    • Provide periodic reminders and points of connection among content covered across a topic area, different modalities, and the entire course (Byrnes, 2008). Helping students see the larger picture of your course helps them situate and contextualize individual learning moments.



Byrnes, J. (2008). Cognitive development and learning in instructional contexts (3rd edition). New York, NY: Pearson. 

Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The spark of learning: Energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion. Morgantown, West Virginia : West Virginia University Press.