Teaching Lessons from the Pandemic: What to Keep and What to Leave Way Behind

Credit: iStock.com/LeoPatrizi
Credit: iStock.com/LeoPatrizi
Before 2020, we thought students coming to class in pajamas was unprofessional but also a “college thing.” Last semester, Tom recorded a student taking an exam shirtless while lying in bed. Sarah’s student had technological difficulties during a test. When she told him to just come to her office, he said he wasn’t dressed appropriately. Really? That’s when we knew this pandemic experience was unlike anything we’d encountered in our combined 58 years of teaching. Therefore, we want to examine our teaching experiences and tell you what we’d like to keep and what needs to never return again.

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Before 2020, we thought students coming to class in pajamas was unprofessional but also a “college thing.” Last semester, Tom recorded a student taking an exam shirtless while lying in bed. Sarah’s student had technological difficulties during a test. When she told him to just come to her office, he said he wasn’t dressed appropriately. Really? That’s when we knew this pandemic experience was unlike anything we’d encountered in our combined 58 years of teaching. Therefore, we want to examine our teaching experiences and tell you what we’d like to keep and what needs to never return again.

Let’s dump the “Lone Ranger learner.”

The Lone Ranger learner has nothing to do with a silver bullet, a horse named Trigger, or a friend named Tonto. It does, however, have something to do with the classroom learner hiding behind a mask and maintaining a safe, social distance during the pandemic. The presence of the mask made class interaction, the sharing of ideas, and active learning extremely challenging in 2020–2021. Students were content to sit back and endure the 50-minute lecture so that they could return to the safety of their dorm room or off-campus housing. Quite often, students didn’t even know the names or backgrounds of their classmates and were afraid to share or discuss anything in class through the muffled effect of their masks. We need to be more proactive in preventing this from happening again.   

Pedagogical action: Even if you and your students are still wearing masks, get the students involved in icebreaker activities the first day of class so they can get to know each other and you as their instructor. Put the students in think-pair-share groups or partner quizzes on various topics so students begin to understand that the learning environment has changed and their approach to learning needs to shift. While the lone ranger student may be more reluctant or dismissive then ever of such “silliness,” building a classroom culture that expects interactions on the first day will set the stage for the remainder of the term.

It’s time to address the “lazy learner.”

Many of us experienced students who were underdressed, consistently had “log-in troubles,” seemed to take a long time to respond to questions, or kept leaving the Zoom room without permission. They often acted as if they had just woken up five minutes before class began—no preparation, no review, no problem. What began as a necessary technological convenience soon became a crutch to Zoom in but tune out.

Pedagogical action: Implement consistent, low-stakes assignments or assessments before and after class periods. These not only motivate learners to stay on task but encourage constant review of the critical content. Simple, auto-graded quizzes in your learning management system on assigned readings are great for before class, and any number of end-of-class activities—muddiest point, biggest takeaway, name three—can be employed for these low-stakes assignments. You should clearly spell out these assignments in the syllabus and start them on the first days of the semester so students know what they will be required to do.

Keep the new techniques that worked!

Did the pandemic force you to get creative and reinvent your course in a way you couldn’t even imagine a year or two ago? Tom would have never imagined online test taking with the Lockdown Browser in Blackboard but now thinks it’s the greatest invention since the Scantron. Assignments that open and close with the click of a button allow for incredible convenience as well as consistent time-saving assessment. Additionally, we have both found that test reviews can easily be done via Zoom in the evening without leaving the comfort of our homes, which our students greatly appreciated. From the land of virtual labs to recorded lectures to flipped classes to polysynchronous delivery, we squeezed every bit of creative juice from our pedagogical brains and developed courses that looked very different from anything we’d ever done before.

Pedagogical action: Continue to practice, practice, practice so that you don’t lose the valuable skills you’ve learned over the past 18 months. Many of the new online tools that took hours to learn and to master should continue to be a part of a professor’s toolbox. Keep analyzing how technology can benefit your pedagogy in a variety of helpful ways. Stay in touch with the latest and greatest, and don’t be afraid to try out new technology. It keeps you fresh and motivated.

Caring and understanding are more important than ever.

We all learned the real meaning and value of words like empathy and compassion. The phrase “everyone is in this together” rang so true throughout the previous school year. We definitely saw and experienced together the challenges (both mental and physical) the pandemic brought to those with whom we interacted on a daily basis. 

Pedagogical action: As professors, we need to continue monitoring and adjusting to the difficult day-to-day stresses affecting the lives of our students and address them on a case-by-case basis rather than abide by any follow hard-and-fast rules. When that email excuse from that procrastinating student reaches your inbox, take a deep breath, reflect on the situation, and maybe consult a colleague before overreacting and hitting send. Life continues to be full of trials that we need to consider before deciding on an appropriate course of action.

Let’s keep talking!

Did you find yourself communicating more consistently with your students over the past year and a half? Did this help you stay organized? We did! Emails, Zoom meetings, chat rooms, and so on all enabled us to stay connected to our students, and that’s a good thing. Often, the students who were extremely hesitant to come to our offices found it more comfortable to stay connected through Zoom.

Pedagogical action: Keep it up!  Find more and better ways through syllabus quizzes, test review sessions, Zoom office hours, and blackboard announcements to let your students know what’s coming up and how they can better learn your course material. Don’t consider this “spoon feeding” a needy generation but instead think of it as a better way to keep yourself and your students organized and on top of your daily grinds. They will appreciate your attention to detail.

Conclusion

Tom’s grandsons recently returned from a fantastic trip to Cedar Point Amusement Park, where they rode rollercoasters for the first time. Their mix of excitement and trepidation showed in their FaceTime call. You probably didn’t need to travel to a theme park this past year to experience those ups and downs; teaching was enough. Nevertheless, if you take a moment to reflect, you’ll likely find that you have learned how to use new innovative tools, how to empathize better, and how to reevaluate what the most crucial aspects of your teaching are. You didn’t want to take the ride, but at the end you can smile from your progress and be willing to go for another challenge—just maybe something more docile, like the merry-go-round.

Resources

Doyle, T., & Zakrajsek T. (2019). The new science of learning (2nd ed.). Stylus.

Harrington, C., & Zakrajsek T. (2017). Dynamic lecturing: Research-based strategies to enhance lecture effectiveness. Stylus.

Muir, T. (2017). The epic classroom: How to boost engagement, make learning memorable, and transform lives. Blend Education.


Tom Saleska, PhD, is a professor of biology at Concordia University Wisconsin. Tom has taught for 28 years at CUW with a main research interest in cognitive learning theory and is a big proponent of active learning in the classroom.

Sarah B. Lovern, PhD, is a professor of biology at Concordia University Wisconsin. Sarah teaches anatomy and physiology as well as leads undergraduate students in research on aquatic ecosystems.