A short time ago, we asked faculty members from our member colleges in the GLCA and GLAA to ponder the year-and-a-half – the “COVID long year” – gone by (and, in many senses, still under way). We asked:
- Are there things you discovered during last year’s teaching that led to an enhanced conception of what is possible to achieve in supporting student learning?
- What techniques do you expect to apply again, in place of some you had previously adopted from habit?
- What new insights did last year’s experience of technology offer for increasing the power of undergraduate learning – such as team teaching with colleagues within or across institutions to enrich course content by drawing on the expertise of different faculty?
Here are some of the responses we received
“When the Writer Stopped By…, Kunal Ray (Assistant Professor, Literary & Cultural Studies, FLAME University, Pune, India)
The pandemic posed several challenges to the teaching community. At the same time, it also presented us with interesting opportunities to experiment with what and how we teach. As part of a course on Contemporary Indian Writing that I usually teach every year with great enthusiasm, I decided to invite writers to Zoom with my class. This course involves reading a comprehensive selection of Indian writers writing in English and other Indian languages (in English translation) who are also conversant with the realities of the country and representative of the constantly evolving literary landscape in India. Several authors very kindly agreed to join the conversation about their writing which we were reading in class, often listening and responding with great patience to student comments and my long questions about the nuances of their craft and the politics of their writing.
This would have been a difficult task to accomplish in real time and space with several logistical challenges involved to execute such interactions. However, with the online mode, almost every second week, we had a writer in class chatting about writing, their process and taking up various issues for discussion. We also got a little peak into their homes – their writing space, study, library or the desk they often work from. Some also agreed to read and respond to student work which was infinitely kind of them to do. I also learnt a lot through these exchanges. Online teaching can feel very lonely. The author’s presence energized the class, motivated the students into participation and broke the monotony of our digital dialogues.
While inviting the author was not intended to determine authorial intention behind the writing of the text or the authenticity of our reading experience because every experience is authentic and valuable, it however helped to create a more engaging and insightful conversation around reading and writing. The students further benefited from hearing from practitioners themselves. This also enabled my students to engage with primary voices beyond the usual academic writing that is often fostered upon literature students in our attempt to teach them tools of literary analysis. I am not suggesting that one is more important than the other but both ought to co-exist and it is important for our students to engage with both voices. I feel this course was a small step in that direction.
“Enhancing Engagement: Lessons for the Transition from Online to In-Person Learning,” Dean Snyder (Associate Professor of Political Economy, Antioch College)
As the pandemic reared its ugly head in the spring of 2020, educators were left scrambling as we entered a brave new world of online learning. As many instructors quickly realized, the time-tested techniques we use in face-to-face teaching cannot be carbon copied to the digital classroom. Out of necessity, the pandemic required us to leverage educational technology to meet the needs of students whose college experience was upended – a challenge amplified for students from underprivileged backgrounds. Despite some early struggles, I’ve taken away three pedagogical lessons from my online teaching experience that will enhance student engagement in my in-person classes moving forward.
1) The flipped classroom is here to stay. Prior to the pandemic, I never considered prerecording lectures. My lecturing style had made explicit space for dialog, which I feared losing in the flipped classroom. But live online lectures cannot generate that same type dialogic engagement we experience in the physical classroom. Moreover, listening to a live online lecture for 50 minutes often left students enervated for the discussion that followed. After I began posting prerecorded lectures to Google Classroom, students remarked that they appreciated the flexibility of viewing lectures ahead of class or reviewing them multiple times. This flexibility was essential for students who struggled with balancing online course work and the responsibilities of home life. The flipped classroom also opened up class time for other course activities – an added bonus that enhances both the online and in-person class experience.
2) Online, in-class writing exercises are a great way to vary instruction. At the start of each online class period, I took time to field questions and clarify any outstanding issues with the day’s reading and lecture. Then, I instructed students to open a Google Doc (accessed via Google Classroom) that contained a writing prompt with one or more critical thinking questions. Students would write responses for about 30 minutes, which I would review in real time. Key insights, questions, and comments gleaned from the responses would be integrated into a discussion agenda, which would give form and function to the remainder of the class period (more on this below).
While making space for online student commentary during class isn’t new, purposefully constructed in-class writing exercises allow for a more substantive level of learning that isn’t possible with chat box comments or tweets. And, on more than one occasion, I altered the writing prompt immediately before the start of an exercise in order to more squarely capture the concerns students expressed at the start of class. Allowing students a degree of agency over their assignments enhances engagement. This holds true for smaller in-class exercises as well as larger assignments.
3) Structured discussions are more impactful than open discussions. Early into the pandemic, I became frustrated with prolonged moments of silence and muted cameras during class discussions. My attempt to resolve the problem was to craft discussion agendas that covered key concepts and phenomena while incorporating student comments gleaned from their in-class written exercises. Salient insights or questions would be added to our discussion agenda under specific topics or subtopics, along with the names of the students who articulated them. I shared the agenda with students at the start of our discussions, which would run about 50-60 minutes. By following the agenda, students knew at what point they would be called upon to orally elaborate on their comments, which eliminated unnecessary dead time and kept the discussion moving at a healthy pace. Students also felt more ownership over the discussion itself, since their comments and questions were central to shaping it.
The pedagogical techniques outlined above can easily be transitioned to in-person instruction. Prerecording lectures generates more time for face-to-face class activities. Online writing exercises administered in the physical classroom gives the instructor insight into students’ thought processes in real time. And incorporating insights drawn from those written responses into a discussion agenda keeps class dialog on-point. Of course, there are limits to the number of responses an instructor can review during a given course period. But for smaller lecture classes and seminar discussions, these techniques create flexibility, vary instruction, structure discussion, and enhance engagement. As one of my students put it in a course evaluation, the overall strategy “did a lot to prevent burnout and provided time for serious reflection on the topic at hand, which in turn allowed for in-depth and well-supported discussions.”
“Be Invitational,” Daniel Woolsey (Professor of Spanish, Department of World Languages & Cultures, Hope College)
One of the highlights in my teaching last year was embracing the idea of being invitational in my teaching. As technology use increased in courses, and as students came in and out of the classroom, both physically and emotionally, it was inevitable that my carefully planned and controlled instructional approach gave way to something more flexible and student-driven. I found myself having to release my tight-fisted grip on the in-class experience and on the integrity of assignments, and having to trust that students were doing the work and participating in the semester-long learning process. I had to be invitational in my approach. I had to convince students that the work we were doing in the class was worth doing.
My fears, of course, were that students would take advantage of the flexibility, that they would slack off in my class and not engage. These fears were especially acute in the second-semester, general education Spanish courses I taught last year. But loosening my grip on some areas gave me the time and energy to be more intentional and creative in others. My invitation to learn was clear and repeated throughout the semester. We had two primary goals–to advance our oral language proficiency and to increase our cultural competency–and I beat on those drums throughout the semester, ensuring that they remained front and center for both my students and myself. I also designed and implemented assessment tasks that could not be short-cutted: I graded homework primarily for completion, but our unit exams were oral, real-time demonstrations of students’ ability to express themselves in Spanish around topics we had explored in class. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I invited students on a learning journey that I, too, was willing to undertake. A colleague once said to me that as humanities professors, we are the product that we are selling to our students, and, to my mind, an essential part of that product is modeling the learning process for students. If I was truly present and engaged in the learning process along with them, my students were also engaged in the work at hand.
Readers may suspect that rigor in my courses flew out the window, but I did not find that to be the case. I found that my best students continued to thrive, but that my weaker students also found success, remaining engaged with course content and growing in their language proficiency. The expectations for the course were not lowered, but they did shift. I tried to make every assignment purposeful, building toward the larger assessment, their usefulness to students obvious. This freed me from feeling like I had to assign a grade to everything students did, trusting that the process would get students to where they needed to be. And my energies and efforts also shifted, moving away from micromanaging the daily experience of students toward more creative, and in the end more impactful, planning around course topics, assignments, and in-class interactions.
I will admit that I have been leaning in this direction for a number of years. From general education courses, to major/minor requirements, to elective courses, my experience has been that students rarely respond to an antagonistic relationship with their instructor. The few that rise to the challenge in that context are those that will always perform well, no matter what instructional approach we take. However, I have found that by being invitational, a much larger percentage of non-high-achieving students remain engaged in the course content, and are able to succeed. Regardless, in the end, learning is always an invitational endeavor; there is actually no way to force a student to learn, at least not in the transformational sense of the word. This past year has not only required me to be more invitational in my courses, it has also confirmed in my mind its effectiveness for post-COVID teaching.
What these contributions all reflect is not just how these instructors pivoted into the new environment with the intention of providing the greatest support to their students’ learning, but the ways in which the lessons learned will continue to shape their pedagogical approaches in the future, whether face-to-face or online. What about you? What did you learn from the past year-and-a-half that you’d like to share with your colleagues?