Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

Poorvu Center Faculty Newsletter

William Nordhaus (pictured wearing a blue shirt and plaid blazer) and Katie Wang (pictured wearing a coral shirt and gray blazer)
May 17, 2021

Welcome to the first issue of the Poorvu Center Faculty Newsletter! We aim to disseminate teaching ideas from Yale faculty along with thought-provoking educational research and timely resources. Starting next academic year, look for two issues per semester in your inbox.

What will be different about post-pandemic teaching and learning at Yale? Despite major disruptions around the world and our campus, we observed that the heart of a Yale education persisted. Yale faculty demonstrated creativity and resilience and are now equipped with new skills and teaching tools. Looking forward, the Poorvu Center will help instructors build upon the lessons we learned and avoid a false choice between in-person and remote instruction. There are many ways to prioritize student learning with an intentional blend of both in-person and online components. As we prepare to return to campus, we present recent lessons from Yale faculty (William Nordhaus and Katie Wang, pictured), research that may inform your teaching, and campus events to inspire and support your work.

We applaud all instructors and students for their extraordinary efforts in the face of COVID-19. We look forward to continuing to support your teaching vision.

Jenny & Lucas

Jump to:

A reflection with William D. Nordhaus

A reflection with Katie Wang

Educational Research: A new way to assess participation

2021 Spring Teaching Forum Summary

Antiracist Pedagogy Resources

William D. Nordhaus

William D. Nordhaus, Sterling Professor of Economics and Professor in the School of the Environment, believes the last three semesters reinforced the importance of student participation and building connections with students. He also plans to incorporate quizzes and digital tools in future courses after proven success during remote instruction.

“The major lesson for me was the need to pay more attention to student involvement,” said Nordhaus, who taught two new courses during the last year. “I knew that in principle, but the current experience drove it home.”

Nordhaus shared enthusiasm for connecting with students in new ways by using breakout rooms, polling, and online office hours. He also reflected on the importance of studying the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve, which states that people start to forget new information unless they review the learned knowledge over time.

During the Fall 2020 semester, Nordhaus taught Economics of Social Catastrophes: Climate Change and Pandemics. In the spring, he co-taught Global Catastrophes: From Pandemics to Climate Change with Nicholas Christakis. The courses aimed to help students connect learned knowledge to their lived experiences.

“The courses included pandemics, which I knew little about before 2020, as well as climate change, conflict, population crises, resource depletion, and other topics,” said Nordhaus. “I love teaching new courses because it gives me the occasion to learn new material – although this was a little further outside my line of work than in other cases.”

“Students were fascinated by learning about pandemics in the middle of one. Many of them were working on aspects of pandemics and developed amazing papers integrating epidemiology and economics,” said Nordhaus, who shared that teaching two new courses in the remote environment reinforced common missteps that occur due to the “1.0 syndrome” — often described as the adjustments one makes to a new course after teaching it for the first time.

Additionally, Nordhaus has gradually replaced fewer higher stakes assessments with more frequent lower stakes assessments over the last two years. He continued to rely on this approach for the new courses and believes this change resulted in successful learning experiences for students. Further, he found that more assessments eased the burden of addressing complaints following high-stakes exams.

“I probably will continue to use Zoom tools in the future for occasional lectures, recordings, office hours, and other facilities,” said Nordhaus, who shared that he “had virtually no experience with remote lecturing” before the pandemic.

Moving courses online presented challenges — figuring out the best equipment to use, monitoring multiple displays, securing Zoom settings, and launching online quizzes — but Nordhaus relied on resources at Yale to adapt to the new teaching environment.

“I found it an exciting experience and one we can experience only once in a lifetime,” said Nordhaus, a sentiment shared by many faculty members.

Further Reading:

The following sources provide additional information about student engagement, learning, and assessment:

Katie Wang

Katie Wang, Assistant Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Yale School of Public Health, believes small-group discussions, alternative methods of participation, flexibility, and lesson “chunking” will prevail as effective pedagogical strategies in the classroom after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.

“I am an introvert, myself. I know class participation can be challenging,” said Wang, who included a statement and rubric on her syllabus to assess class participation for her fall 2020 course, Stigma and Health. “The fall 2020 semester allowed me to learn that we have multiple ways to participate and make students feel comfortable. They can comment on discussion boards, talk to each other during small-group breakout rooms, or upload oral presentations.”

Wang, who taught Stigma and Health twice before the pandemic, found that prioritizing her course objectives allowed her to “filter” her teaching strategies and identify the best way to teach online for the first time.

“When I was looking at the syllabus and thinking about how I could be more flexible for my students in response to the pandemic, my course objectives were helpful” said Wang, who worked to ensure students accomplished necessary learning without undue stress. “I think having my course objectives helped me filter out exercises and identify what was necessary and what I could drop without worrying about compromising my course.”

Wang chose to have students work in small breakout rooms throughout the semester. Each breakout group focused on a specific stigmatized identity or health condition, allowing Wang to facilitate and organize classroom discussion. Many students took it a step further by creating learning communities to ask each other for help and brainstorm paper ideas.

“It’s really important to mix things up so students stay engaged, and that was especially true when we moved classes online. It’s hard enough to pay attention for two hours when you are in person; it’s almost impossible to do this when you’re on Zoom,” said Wang, who adopted the lesson “chunking” strategy after participating in the Poorvu Center’s Summer Institute on Course (Re)Design. “I structured the course so I was never lecturing for more than 45 minutes without sharing a video clip, listening to an NPR segment, or adding a discussion activity.”

Wang found that her combination of teaching strategies produced an engaging, productive, and respectful learning environment. She was impressed by her students’ abilities to adapt during a difficult year and to resiliently form a community.

“We are a community, and when we come together and address challenges collectively, we can do really well,” said Wang.

Further Reading:

The following sources provide additional information about rubrics, class participation, and student learning:

Educational Research

A New Way to Assess Participation

Researcher and instructor Alanna Gillis, an assistant professor of sociology at St. Lawrence University, provides a new approach to assessment of student participation in college-level courses in her article, “Reconceptualizing Participation Grading as Skill Building.” Gillis explains that her motivation to reconsider how she gives credit for participation stemmed from a desire to create a more equitable learning experience. According to Gillis, “common ways of assessing participation are not sociologically informed and can reproduce inequality in classrooms.” Gillis proposes a framework — the multifaceted skill-based participation system — centered on student goal setting, self-assessment, and instructor feedback. She notes, “participation is a skill rather than a personality trait.” Gillis assesses five dimensions of participation to improve students’ skills and learning outcomes by encouraging them to monitor progress throughout the semester. Although she acknowledges limitations such as challenges for larger courses (above 50 students), the results of her study of two sociology courses at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill demonstrate improved participation skills for 98% of students. Learn more about the multifaceted skill-based participation system and how you may adapt it to your courses by reading Gillis’ article in Teaching Sociology.

Poorvu Center Programs and Research

2021 Spring Teaching Forum Abbreviated Summary

For more than 20 years, Yale University has hosted a Spring Teaching Forum. The event brings together members of the Yale community — faculty, staff, postdocs, and students — to consider a particular theme related to teaching and learning. The McDougal Graduate Teaching Fellows from the Poorvu Center planned this year’s forum to reflect on our shared experience with remote instruction. A group of multidisciplinary faculty served on a discussion panel, and then participants discussed the theme in breakout rooms.

“I’ve been working to foster an emotional connection, even though we’re still stuck behind computer frames and… thinking about more ways to give power to students,” said Dr. Mira Debs, Executive Director of the Education Studies Program and Lecturer in Sociology, during the panel.

Dr. Crystal Feimster, Dr. Howard Forman, and Dr. Reina Maruyama joined Debs on the panel. Together, they noted the need to reflect on their teaching to make critical decisions related to maintaining academic rigor and building community. Instructors relied on their course goals as a mechanism for prioritizing what to teach during class and what students could learn asynchronously. By recording lectures, instructors repurposed time during class to examine hard questions more closely, solve problems, and apply knowledge. In the coming year, instructors voiced a desire to keep communication open so that they can respond to students’ needs and understand how their lives outside of the classroom affect their learning.

“When I go back to the classroom, I will no longer think about myself creating safe intellectual spaces, but what I call now brave intellectual spaces … it takes courage for students to speak in the Zoom box, to speak from where they are in a given moment,” said Feimster, Associate Professor of African American Studies, of History, and of American Studies.

The Poorvu Center will publish a report from the Spring Teaching Forum in the coming weeks. Look for updates on our website this summer.

Antiracist Pedagogy Resources

The Poorvu Center offers recently curated resources on antiracist pedagogy. The webpages feature approaches used by Yale faculty, along with research and considerations to guide reflections on your teaching choices. Becoming an antiracist educator differs for each of us based on our power and privilege; the journey for white instructors is different than the one for instructors of color (Singh 2019). To be antiracist is to recognize the unearned power and privilege of some in our culture and to work to redistribute that power more equitably. This means going beyond inclusive teaching strategies to reconsider which voices are heard, who counts as an authority, and what kind of discourse is valued in the classroom. Read more on this topic.


Subscribe to the Poorvu Center Faculty Newsletter by visiting Yale’s subscription center:

  1. Go to http://subscribe.yale.edu/
  2. Log on using your Yale NetID or a non-Yale email address
  3. Go to the “Departments, Centers, and Programs” section
  4. Locate “Poorvu Center: Faculty Teaching Newsletter”
  5. Click “Subscribe”
  6. Scroll down and click “SAVE”