Academics and learning

Iowa State made a number of decisions to help students, faculty, and staff prepare for fall semester academic programming. More detailed information for faculty and staff is available on the Senior Vice President and Provost website.

Changes to the academic calendar

Fall classes began Monday, Aug. 17, a week earlier than planned, and the semester ends Wednesday, Nov. 25 (the day before Thanksgiving). The revised academic calendar includes:

  • Classes in session on Labor Day (Monday, Sept. 7)
  • Final exams from Saturday, Nov. 21, through Wednesday, Nov. 25 (excluding Sunday, Nov. 22)

This schedule provides the university with the best opportunity to complete the fall semester safely and successfully on campus, while maximizing face-to-face instruction, maintaining experiential learning goals, and completing final exams onsite.

Course delivery

Iowa State is offering a mix of in-person and online instruction, including classes that meet primarily face-to-face, classes that meet completely online, and classes that feature a blend of each.

Face-to-face: Classes offered in-person are similar to those offered traditionally in other semesters, but multiple changes -- such as physical distance between seats in classrooms, enhanced cleaning, and required face coverings -- will be made to improve safety and mitigate risk associated with exposure or spread of the coronavirus.

Online: Classes offered online have content that may be delivered asynchronously (students may access it at any time) or synchronously (during a scheduled class time with real-time instruction, questions, and engagement). Online instruction may be supplemented with discussion boards, group work, online apps, and other activities.

Hybrid: Hybrid (also known as blended) courses use a combination of face-to-face and online teaching, learning activities, and assessments. Online activities may include engagement with students and instructors meeting at the same time, and/or content delivered with participants accessing course materials independently. The particular mix depends on an instructor’s teaching strategies and the learning objectives of the course.

In some cases, students may be asked or required to attend an in-person class meeting one day, and participate in the next session online while other students experience the lecture in-person. This rotation will promote physical distancing, lower occupancy levels in classrooms, and benefit student and instructor safety. We placed a priority on preserving as many experiential learning opportunities as reasonably possible, including labs, studios, and other courses that use specialized equipment and spaces, while at the same time mitigating the risk of COVID-19 for students, faculty, and staff.

Laptop requirement

Laptop and coffeeThis fall, all students are required to have a laptop computer or other mobile device appropriate to their discipline and learning needs. This requirement provides two main benefits for students:

  • Improved access to online course content. Personal laptops provide more consistent access to course content and sets up students for success in online and blended learning environments. In addition, if the current course delivery plan needs to be adjusted due to student or faculty illness, or significantly increased levels of COVID-19 activity in the city or state, the contingency will be in place for students to quickly pivot to greater online instruction.
  • Health and safety. Personal laptops help reduce the risk of accidental transmission of the coronavirus between students who otherwise would have shared computers in open campus computer laboratories, which are closed this fall.

While the majority of students already bring their own computing devices to campus, students have the opportunity to check-out equipment, on a limited basis, for the duration of the semester from the University Library or academic colleges. Limited funding is available for students with financial need through the CARES Act.

Class schedules

Academic departments and colleges made individual decisions as to how each of our 7,400 fall courses will be delivered. These determinations were based on course size, room and instructor availability, and safety protocols to mitigate student and instructor risk. Class lists were made available on AccessPlus beginning Aug. 3. Classes began Aug. 17, and students were able to make schedule changes without instructor and/or adviser approval until Friday, Aug. 21.

Other key dates:

  • Midterm grade reporting opens Saturday, Sept. 26, and the deadline for submitting midterm grades is 2:15 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 9.
  • Midterm grades will be available to students on AccessPlus Saturday, Oct. 10.
  • The last day to drop a full-semester course is Friday, Oct. 23.
  • The final grade submission deadline is 2:15 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 9.
  • Academic advising for spring semester 2021 begins Monday, Sept. 28, with registration opening to students on Wednesday, Oct. 7.

Changes to class schedules

Class times on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays have been changed to allow students and instructors more time to move between classes. 

Originally scheduled times

New times

MWF 8:00-8:50

MWF 7:45-8:35

MWF 9:00-9:50

MWF 8:50-9:40

MWF 10:00-10:50

MWF 9:55-10:45

MWF 11:00-11:50

MWF 11:00-11:50

MWF 12:10-1:00

MWF 12:05-12:55

MWF 1:10-2:00

MWF 1:10-2:00

MWF 2:10-3:00

MWF 2:15-3:05

MWF 3:10-4:00

MWF 3:20-4:10

MWF 4:10-5:00

MWF 4:25-5:15

MWF 5:10-6:00

MWF 5:30-6:20

Tuesday and Thursday classes already have 15 minutes of passing time.

Choosing online courses

Some students, particularly those who may be at a higher risk for COVID-19, may prefer to take all of their fall classes online. Those students were encouraged to review the updated schedule of courses when it is released, and consult with their academic adviser to determine how best to maintain satisfactory academic progress, as not all classes (including most laboratories) will have an online option.

Completing coursework in quarantine or self-isolation

We want students to stay home when they are sick. It is likely that some students may need to self-quarantine or self-isolate during the semester. Many classes have an online option for students to stay current with the course work. For classes that do not, instructors may provide alternative options for classes and assignments that are missed.

Academic support and learning services

Iowa State continues to offer a complete menu of academic support and learning services for students.

Academic and Career Advising: We encourage you to schedule virtual appointments which enhance safety and create greater flexibility for both students and advisers. We are working to update our scheduling systems to enable students to specifically request virtual or phone appointments. In-person advising meetings may be scheduled in advance and will depend on available space to meet with proper physical distancing.

Learning Communities: We encourage virtual learning community meetings, whenever possible, to enhance safety for both students and instructors. In-person opportunities are included when feasible, following appropriate guidelines for room capacities, physical distancing, and face coverings.

Services of the Academic Success Center: Tutoring, supplemental instruction, and academic coaching continue to be offered, virtually in most cases and with some in-person sessions. A catalog of recorded “Coaches’ Corner” sessions are available to students to view online.

Accommodations for students concerned about their risk for COVID-19

Students at a higher risk to develop severe illness from COVID-19 based on their age or underlying medical condition, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control, were given preference for placement in online courses. Additional information on this process can be found on the Dean of Students website. However, it is important to note, we are not be able to offer all scheduled courses with an online option in cases such as labs where students use special equipment, or courses that feature a unique instructional experience.

Attendance policies

Changes to the fall academic calendar create unavoidable conflicts that delay a student’s arrival on campus or ability to start classes on Aug. 17, including scheduled work, internships, family commitments, or difficulty traveling to Ames. Some students were required to self-isolate at the very beginning of the semester to protect the broader community.

Students who needed to miss class during the semester’s first week were expected to contact their instructors prior to the beginning of the semester.

In collaboration with the Faculty Senate’s Executive Board, the validating enrollment registration requirement was suspended for the fall semester. According to this policy, students are typically expected to “validate” their enrollment in a course by attending the first or second class meeting. This temporary action provided flexibility and prevented course removal of students who were unable to immediately arrive on campus.

Faculty set their own policies on class attendance (Faculty Handbook, Section 10.4.1), and excused absences from class are handled between the student and instructor. In setting their policies and making decisions, faculty should consider the potential need for students to stay home when they are not feeling well, and to self-isolate if they are exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms or have tested positive for the virus. Faculty are asked to be as flexible as possible, and likewise, students are asked to be flexible if a faculty member becomes ill and unable to teach.

In addition to supporting students who are forced to miss class due to the pandemic, faculty should actively encourage students who are not feeling well, or who are self-isolating, to stay home without penalty for their absence. For the fall semester, compliance with public health recommendations (including self-isolating because of a positive COVID-19 test; waiting for a test result; or experiencing COVID-19 symptoms) will be considered a university excused absence. In some cases, students may need to temporarily leave the university for medical reasons to focus on their health.

Faculty and chairs/directors should work together to explore alternative arrangements for students having absences related to COVID-19, such as assigning a grade of incomplete and enabling the student to complete their coursework subsequently.  Again, faculty have authority and responsibility for these decisions, and should be flexible as they navigate the fall semester. 

Reducing campus density

Classroom prepIowa State is taking a variety of steps to reduce the density of students, faculty, staff, and visitors on campus during the fall semester. These include:

  • Offering online and hybrid classes, to bring approximately half as many students to campus.
  • Reducing classroom capacity to 50% or less to reduce density in the classrooms.
  • Office return-to-workplace plans have more staff working remotely than a year ago.
  • Enhancing WIFI access in outdoor space and tables to encourage students to spend more time outside.
  • Identifying small classrooms and their capacity as possible study spaces for students to take pressure off of the Library and other common areas.

Auxiliary classroom and testing spaces

The Academic Continuity Workgroup worked to identify nontraditional spaces for classes and exams. Examples:

  • Using Memorial Union spaces for lectures on Tuesday and Thursday, and Fisher Theater for theater classes.
  • Designating auxiliary exam sites such as Fisher Theater (evenings), Parks Library, Sukup End Zone, Lied Center racquetball courts and State Gym (finals).

Field trips

The transportation logistics and the site visits themselves for class field trips will be reviewed, approved, modified, or denied on a case-by-case basis at the college level, taking into account such factors as pedagogical value, risk management, and safety protocols.  In compliance with Board of Regents and State of Iowa policies, the university could have travel restrictions in place for some or all of the fall semester. Because policy permitting or restricting travel may change with little or no advance notice, alternatives and contingencies for fall field trips should be considered. Additional safety protocols include:

  • Complete the appropriate field trip participant agreement from ISU Office of Risk Management
  • Follow university guidance on use of university vehicles
  • Ensure all participants have appropriate PPE for the setting
  • Outline expectations for field trip participation in the course syllabus, including PPE and physical distancing requirements
  • Ensure field trip destination can accommodate university COVID-19 safety expectations (e.g. PPE, physical distancing, disinfecting surfaces, etc.)
  • Organize schedule for limited group/class size based on field trip destination capacity
  • Develop processes to inform students of alternate course options. Options may include delaying registration to a future semester or choosing another course, since many experiential learning activities cannot be effectively replicated in an online format

Instructional support

All courses for the fall semester are required to be developed within Canvas. To support faculty in developing online, blended, and in-person courses, the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) provides the ISU course template through Online Course Essentials. Individuals, as well as entire departments, can sign up for training. Consistent use of this template across campus will improve the overall experience for students and ensure that best practices for online teaching are implemented in all of our courses.

Graduate assistants

The changes to the fall 2020 academic calendar will not affect the stipends of graduate students who are appointed to assistantships. The appointments of international students who graduate in fall 2020 must end by the last day of the semester, Nov. 25. Some appointments already processed through the Graduate College include less than a full monthly stipend for August. Because instruction begins earlier this year, appointing units have the option to adjust those appointments to increase the fraction of the total term stipend dispersed in August.

Absence due to illness and back-up instructors

Faculty who are ill are never expected to work. University policy provides sick leave accrual for all employees, and sick leave should be used for those day(s) when a faculty or staff member is unable to work due to illness.

Department chairs, in communication and coordination with faculty, should identify back-up instructors and prepare continuity plans in the event of a significant outbreak in the fall. By doing so, departments can facilitate substituting instructors for a course should that become necessary.


The Office of the Vice President for Research has been working since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to maintain research continuity, and to ensure essential projects may continue. Thanks to VPR efforts, there has not been a significant slowing or curtailment of research to date. Fall 2020 guidance for research spaces and activities is below.

Research spaces

Research laboratory spaces should follow return-to-work plans that were outlined with scheduling time in research spaces to maintain physical distancing.

  • Research service facilities: Continue to drop samples off for analysis; animal facilities continue to operate as in the summer
  • Shared equipment spaces: Use the scheduling tool to maintain density similar to that in individual group lab spaces, maintaining a 6 ft distance. Clean/disinfect spaces and equipment before and after use. Post guidelines and safety expectations.

Provide signs for use outside shared equipment rooms showing it is “in use” or “occupied” to limit the number of people going in. This complements and supplements other uniform signage that provided across campus regarding the use of face coverings, etc.

Buildings with teaching and research spaces

Faculty and staff should avoid classroom areas when classes are dismissed. Consider reducing faculty and staff density (up to 50% if possible) in buildings with large classrooms on days with heavy classroom use, and work with other building occupants to establish different entry and exit points for buildings and stairwells, as described in the ISU Building Common Area Standards.

Graduate student office spaces

Academic departments should consider plexiglass partitions between adjacent desks/cubicles for graduate students in large office spaces with multiple graduate students, as well as more even distribution of graduate students on different floors, or in different spaces. Small classrooms that are of less value at 50% capacity may also be considered for reducing graduate student office density.

Information Technology support

IT professionals are supporting instructors and instructional support staff in numerous ways, including:

  • Upgrading numerous classrooms to support remote and hybrid learning
  • Evaluating the impact of cloth face coverings and face shields on audio quality
  • Upgraded network infrastructure to support increased demand
  • Partnering with colleges to provide remote connection into computer labs – including 500 computers – which allows students to access specialized software and computer resources  specific to their academic programs
  • Collaborating with the Library and Student Financial Aid on a laptop checkout program
  • Coordinating with colleges to create a single place for students to go to find information on computer configurations for their major
  • Enhancements to university testing Centers, including off-campus proctoring, test scheduling, and increasing capacity
  • Support for all courses being offered in Canvas
  • Conducting an inventory of departmental classrooms and their capabilities to support hybrid and remote instruction
  • Making registration adjustments for fall 2020, including semester start dates, class meeting times, schedule processing, and course delivery modes

More information