Findings from the Spring Teaching Forum, April 30, 2021
Suzanne Young, Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning*
As we return to in-person teaching, it seems useful to see what we can learn from the Spring Teaching Forum held on Zoom. During a half-day forum at the end of a remarkable year-and-a-quarter of online teaching, we paused to reflect on what we had learned about ourselves and our students. The 87 instructors who joined the conversation included faculty, graduate students, and staff from across the University. The featured speakers Mira Debs, Crystal Feimster, Howard Forman, and Reina Maruyama shared their experiences with the group before we broke into small-group discussions. Through the theme of “looking back, looking forward,” instructors reflected on how online teaching had made them rethink their in-person teaching. While everyone acknowledged the challenges of teaching online—the distance created by the screen, the difficulty of “reading the room,” the challenge of creating community—participants also noted that teaching online brought a genuine re-examination of teaching methods. This report summarizes the experiences of faculty, graduate students, and staff with teaching online and reflects on the dispositions, strategies, and tools we hope to bring back to in-person teaching.
Making different decisions about how to use class time
The fundamental question, “what is class time for?” was raised in a new way by the move to online teaching. Instructors rethought their assumptions about how to spend instructional time, breaking down the traditional distinction between “classwork” and “homework.” They looked to their learning goals for students to guide them when making decisions about what should be taught synchronously and what could be done asynchronously. Instructors found that by recording lectures, they gave themselves time during the synchronous class period to work with students on answering hard questions, solving problems together, and applying knowledge. Instructors saw how important it was to do pair and group work in any setting.
When we are back on campus, instructors hope to:
- Use the artifacts they have created (recorded lectures, guides, collaborative notes) to make different decisions about how to structure class time:
- Some will use a combination of recorded lectures and live lectures, using the extra time during scheduled class time for questions and problem-solving.
- Others noted that because the recorded lectures would not include interaction, having more time for interaction during the class meeting might encourage more students to come to the live lecture.
- Many wondered about continuing to record their lectures, even when we return to in-person teaching, since students can use the recordings to learn and rehearse material.
- Do pair and group work in the lecture hall, with creative uses of the space.
- Instructors noted that “turn and talk to a neighbor” is a useful strategy for pair work in the lecture hall.
- For group work, some instructors considered having students move to different parts of the lecture hall.
- It was widely agreed that doing pair work during lecture is an important way for students to consolidate learning.
- Offer a hybrid course in which some elements (occasional classes, office hours) would be offered on Zoom to take advantage of the breakout rooms, polling tools, and the accessibility of the online format for students.
- Bring guest experts into the in-person classroom, as instructors had done with relative ease on Zoom.
- Create a more democratic space in the physical classroom, as was relatively easy to do on Zoom, where there is not front and back to the classroom; for example, instructors considered having students or the instructor take new seats each class period.
Using multiple streams of communication with students and TFs
Instructors learned to use parallel, simultaneous streams of communication with students during online teaching, which allowed for continuous feedback and adjustments to teaching in the moment. They used many strategies for continuous communication: During lecture classes, graduate students answered undergraduates’ questions in the chat and forwarded questions to the professor during lecture. Instructors frequently used polls as a way to gauge student learning and adjust their teaching on the fly. They stayed in closer contact with their Teaching Fellows during lecture, monitoring what was happening using a chat in Zoom or Slack and working as a team to make the class a success. They also used multiple ways to stay in touch with students outside of class, including email, virtual office hours, and feedback tools on Canvas.
Instructors said that in the coming year, they would:
- be more flexible about technology in the classroom because they do not want to lose the immediate source of feedback from students about how they are learning;
- continue to rely on multiple communication streams by using a chat tool during class, communicating directly with students and with TFs who monitor the chat;
- maintain a group chat with Teaching Fellows outside of class to share information and teaching ideas and to create community on the teaching team;
- continue to use Zoom for many teaching purposes, including to hold office hours and to convene groups of undergraduate students for additional meetings.
Using collaborative tools to promote learning
Instructors noted that they learned to use a number of online tools for collaboration during online teaching: Google docs and other tools for collaborative note-taking; digital discussion boards during Zoom sessions; annotation tools like Perusall and VoiceThread to allow students to annotate texts, images, and video outside of class; and the digital discussion board in Canvas to promote conversation about the material before the start of class. Instructors observed how important these tools were for keeping students engaged and giving them an active role in their learning.
Instructors said in the coming year, they would:
- use Google docs or other tools for collaborative note-taking during lecture and small group work;
- use a collaborative tool to share resources during class, for instance, by live-constructing a bibliography with students;
- use annotation tools in a live setting to engage with texts, including annotating images and texts together or editing shared documents together;
- assign students to do lightning research—five minutes of collaborative online research—as a way to introduce a new topic or go deeper into one already introduced;
- use collaborative tools for pre-class work, including discussion boards and annotation tools, to spur students’ thinking and provide feedback on how students understood the material;
- create a class Slack channel or external Zoom chat to share ideas and collaboratively answer questions outside of class.
Greater awareness of student well-being and the importance of accessibility
Instructors reported connecting more directly with students and feeling a greater sense of community in their classes. They got to know more about their students’ lives and showed more of their own lives, as well, because we were teaching and learning from home. Instructors also felt more attuned to accessibility issues: They thought about students’ study spaces and ways of taking notes, students’ access to technology and their locations in different time zones. Instructors recognized stress points during the year and the likelihood that outside events would impinge on students’ ability to focus and work successfully. They saw that we don’t need to “power through” when we or our students are sick, but should be understanding about disruptions to the routine.
When we are back on campus, instructors hope to:
- keep communication open so that they can respond to students’ needs and understand how students’ lives outside the classroom affect their work in the class;
- continue to give opportunities to connect the classroom with students’ lives and allow students to bring their whole selves into the classroom;
- focus on accessibility in the face-to-face classroom, welcoming the role of technology in particular to make the class more accessible;
- keep in mind the ways in which Zoom made classes more accessible (recordings, transcripts, questions in chat, shared google docs) so that accessibility became an essential aspect of the class, not a special accommodation.
Becoming students again
The stresses of the pandemic and the need to teach and learn from home humanized the classroom, making more room for emotion and lived experience in academic spaces. As we learned to teach online, we became comfortable with risk-taking and mistakes, and welcomed the way that Zoom tended to slow classes down, giving people time to engage thoughtfully and listen to each other. In returning to the classroom, instructors hope to find ways to humanize the institutional spaces of the university and continue to signal their care for students’ well-being. How can we use the tools of online learning to extend the space of the traditional classroom? How can we help students feel comfortable bringing their whole selves into the classroom? Learning to teach online put us in the role of students again, a role that was sometimes uncomfortable, always challenging, and ultimately rewarding. Many instructors at the Spring Teaching Forum hoped to continue in that spirit of exploration when we return to in-person teaching.
August 24, 2021
*Many thanks to my wonderful colleagues at the Poorvu Center: The McDougal Graduate Teaching Fellows and the members of the Faculty Teaching Initiatives team who co-facilitated the event and gathered participants’ ideas for this report.