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Rethinking Instruction

College faculty members and their students adapt to a world transformed by the pandemic

By Christina Nunez

Fall | Winter 2020

This fall, students in Rebecca Benard’s “Anatomy and Physiology” course asked questions and found relief from stress during her office hours in a lecture hall. Photo by Matt Shiffler.

During a typical fall term, students in Steven Hauck’s introductory geology lab would be handling rock and mineral samples together in class. Rebecca Benard’s anatomy and physiology students would be gathered around a model skeleton during her office hours, asking questions. Peter Shulman would be taking his advanced history students as a group to Cleveland-area archives.

The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, has made such activities more complicated for now. In response, these faculty members and many others at Case Western Reserve University spent a busy summer redesigning courses, simulating classroom experiences and even learning new ways to teach.

“The entire summer was dedicated to preparing for fall,” says Benard, senior instructor in the Department of Biology. Along with Shulman, associate professor in the Department of History, and Hauck, professor and chair in the Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences, Benard represented the college in one of several university-wide initiatives that grappled with questions about the coming semester. Which courses would be in-person, and which would be remote? How could faculty members get the support they needed to teach virtually? Most important, how could the university foster collaboration and active learning in a world now boxed within Zoom screens?

Already, both students and faculty had formed impressions from a trial-by-fire transition to remote learning in the spring, when the campus closed in response to the first wave of the pandemic.

The reactions were varied. Some of Shulman’s students told him that without the need to hustle from building to building, time management became simpler. And in large classes, Hauck found it easier to hear his students over Zoom than in big lecture halls. 

But across departments, teachers and students yearned for more interaction. And faculty members wanted to ensure that their courses were both safe and engaging.

Rethinking the Norm

Roughly half of CWRU’s undergraduates, mainly those in their first and fourth years, were allowed to reside on campus in single-occupancy rooms this fall, while most others pursued their studies from home bases around the world. But all students, wherever they were, engaged in remote learning to some degree.

In this virtual environment, some faculty members still gave lectures or led discussions in real time—an approach known as synchronous instruction. Others preferred an asynchronous model, in which students watched recorded lectures, posted to online discussion boards and participated in other course activities at times of their own choosing. Finally, some faculty members combined elements of the two methods into a hybrid format, having their students work independently but building in time for live interactions as well.

Sensitive to her students’ varying circumstances and their dispersion across different time zones, Benard converted her spring “Anatomy and Physiology” course to an asynchronous model. However, she conducted a second course, “Development and Physiology,” as a hybrid. She soon found she preferred the latter option.

“What I learned from spring was how important it was for me to place my eyes on my students at least once a week,” Benard says, “even if it was virtual.”

Without the ability to chat with students in real time and spot confused expressions, she found, “it took me longer to catch the ones who were going off track in the asynchronous world.” When she surveyed her students at the end of the term, more than 90% agreed it was important to have a mandatory live session each week. So she turned the fall version of “Anatomy and Physiology” into a hybrid course as well, combining independent learning with live online sessions and office hours. She also adopted a Zoom code of conduct: Students’ cameras had to be turned on unless there was a technical problem; no pajamas or logging in from bed allowed.

For Hauck, the first challenge heading into fall was rethinking his geology lab course. How could he teach geological properties to remote students who wouldn’t have access to rock and mineral samples? And how could he make the lab environment safe for students participating in person?

Over the summer, Hauck created more than 200 short demonstration videos for different samples, showing classification activities like scratching a rock’s surface or testing reactivity. Once the semester started, the class took place online and in two campus classrooms simultaneously, but the videos allowed Hauck to provide instruction to everyone at once. The on-site students, socially distanced and equipped with masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, were each paired with a remote student on Zoom as they worked with a sample.

“The remote students weren’t just following along,” Hauck explains. “They were learning from the videos and asking questions of the on-site students carrying out the activity.”

Hauck was already accustomed to preparing some video material for his courses. Before the pandemic, he, Benard and many of their colleagues had started pre-recording their lectures for viewing before class. Then, students would devote their class time to collaborating on projects, with the faculty member on hand to answer questions. This instructional model, known as the “flipped classroom,”encourages active learning.

Until this semester, however, Hauck had never created videos to guide students while they engaged in their projects. His new approach was a success. Students liked being able to consult the videos as they worked, and anyone who missed a class could use the material to catch up. Hauck says that even after the pandemic ends, he’ll continue providing the videos to students for this purpose.

In addition to the lab, Hauck taught a fall course on planetary geology. He usually conducts the course in a lecture format, with plenty of breakout sessions in which small groups of students work together at whiteboards. Once these sessions migrated to Zoom this fall, students took notes on their activities in Google Docs they shared with Hauck online.

“It was great, because I could drop in on each of their breakout rooms and see what they were working on, but I could also see how work was progressing in all of the rooms pretty quickly by whether changes were happening in the documents,” Hauck says.

Lending a Hand

Computer tools have been instrumental in hosting classes remotely, but even the most tech-savvy faculty members needed support in thinking through exactly how and when to use them. For larger courses, a transition to remote teaching was inevitable, as lecture halls built to hold more than 500 students had their capacity slashed to ensure safety. Even many smaller classes that could theoretically meet in person needed alternative teaching options for off-campus students. And regardless of group size, professors had to figure out how online curricula could be made as digestible as possible.

Elliot Posner, professor in the Department of Political Science, taught “Introduction to International Politics” this fall as a “dual-delivery” course. While some students attended lectures in person, others, visible on the screen behind him, logged in on Zoom. Photo by Matt Shiffler.

This is where the university’s Teaching and Learning Technologies (TLT) team came in. The team helped troubleshoot issues, offered advice and gave feedback on faculty members’ ideas for integrating technology into their courses. In collaboration with the University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education (UCITE), the team also ran a “summer camp” for faculty, aimed at getting everyone comfortable with basics such as broadcasting and recording lectures and setting up digital resources for students.

“Faculty and students need to be able to concentrate on teaching and learning, not on having to learn many new technologies,” says Tina Deveny Oestreich, TLT’s senior director and an adjunct instructor in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures. “Our goal for the summer camp was to help faculty think of ways to adapt their courses to our current environment with technologies that are widely used and supported on campus.”

Along with resources that faculty members could access at their convenience, the summer camp offered a series of weekly sessions guiding participants through a curriculum on facilitating student learning with technology, says UCITE Director Matthew Garrett, associate professor in the Department of Music.

The program also encouraged faculty members to reconsider how they design their courses. They were advised to work backward in three steps: identify what students should know or be able to do by the end of the term; decide how to measure their progress; and develop assignments to help students achieve the goals. This framework, called “Understanding by Design,” is a departure from more traditional approaches, in which teachers often begin by choosing the material they will present in class.

“It shifts the focus from what the teacher does to what the teacher wants the student to do,” Garrett says. “When faculty members transition from in-person to remote instruction, it is particularly helpful to focus on the students’ learning in order to determine what objectives, associated assessments and learning activities take priority.”

Other summer efforts included the Coronavirus Technology and Pedagogy Leaders Group, an initiative by the Office of the Provost that recruited faculty representatives from every unit of the university. Its members worked with TLT and UCITE to help improve resources and workshops available to faculty, and they served as consultants to colleagues seeking advice. Separately, the Faculty Senate Committee on Undergraduate Education (FSCUE) convened subcommittees with a total of about 50 faculty members to evaluate best practices for a range of class types, from large lectures to performing arts courses to nursing clinical rounds, running classroom simulations in the process.

“That was the first time I’d been in a room with any colleagues since the middle of March,” says Shulman, a FSCUE member, of the classroom simulations held in June. “I had forgotten how valuable and special this is.”

A Desire for Community

A sense of connection wasn’t lost on campus this fall, even with social distancing. Benard, for example, hosted weekly in-person office hours in a lecture hall that ordinarily holds more than 200 students; now, attendance was capped at just 24. Along with asking questions about the course material, students could just hang out together and engage in fun activities; Benard even brought adult coloring books to the sessions. The relaxed format signaled that the office hours weren’t just about getting academic support—they were also about being physically present with others.

“Most of the class was made up of first-year students, and for most of the day, they were cut off,” Benard explains. “They might say, ‘I haven’t seen another person in 3D for three days.’”

In other cases, faculty members tried to maintain social and cultural opportunities that are built into the CWRU undergraduate experience. For example, Shulman and his first-year students took a physically distanced group tour of the Cleveland Museum of Art. (Visits to the museum and other University Circle institutions are a standard feature of a SAGES First Seminar, the introductory course in the university’s general education program.) In addition, Shulman broke the class into thirds for weekly in-person discussions to complement Zoom sessions. And, when the weather permitted, he held classes outside.

Some of the usual outings weren’t possible. As part of a course for history majors working on their senior research projects, Shulman typically takes the students to Cleveland’s Western Reserve Historical Society. But access was limited this fall, and some of his students weren’t on campus. So Shulman put out a call to his university colleagues and on Twitter, seeking digitized collections of archival documents. He wound up with more than 100 recommendations, which he compiled into a new resource. Those collections, he says, became “the core of most students’ papers.”

Even though no one would have chosen this disruption to the familiar routines of in-person learning, it has produced positive, and potentially lasting, changes. 

Last spring, for his class “The Cold War: U.S. and the World,” Shulman told his students they could submit their final project either in writing or as a podcast. A podcast is certainly no less work than a traditional paper, but it potentially allows for more creativity, he says.

“A project that would cover the same content and be more fun seemed like a win under the circumstances,” Shulman explains. He repeated the experiment in a summer seminar, “Conflicts and Controversies in American Science and Technology,” and plans to offer the podcast option in future courses as well.

“Our faculty are very thoughtful not just about academics, but also about the fact that this is a really stressful time for everybody,” Oestreich says. “They are looking for ways for students to connect meaningfully with each other as well as with them, both in and outside of class.”

The desire for community drew people back to campus when possible, and it sustained them in the midst of uncertainty and worry. Research shows that students won’t necessarily remember a specific class or book after they leave college, Garrett notes; they are more likely to remember their peers and instructors.

“Learning is a relationship between a teacher and a student,” he says. “That was true before the pandemic, it’s even more true now during the pandemic, and it will remain true afterward.”

Page last modified: December 13, 2020