Professors are still struggling to adapt to the new realities of teaching during a pandemic. And even experts who focus on improving instruction are having to get creative to find approaches that work.
That’s the case for Bonni Stachowiak, dean of teaching and learning at Vanguard University and host of the long-running Teaching In Higher Education podcast. She’s also an EdSurge columnist, and she joined us last week for a live online forum to give tips on teaching during the pandemic, as part of our monthly EdSurge Live series.
Listen to the conversation using the player on this page, or read a partial transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: What has surprised you most about teaching during this pandemic?
Bonni Stachowiak: What has surprised me the most is that everything I’ve ever learned about gauging students—ways to tell how engaged they are in their learning—kind of has to go out the window. About half of my students don’t turn their cameras on. They have the option of whether or not they’d like to, and most of the time they keep themselves muted. And so the laughter just isn’t always there.
In the first part of my class, I’ll have them engage in activities where we’ll do a shared Google Doc so I can actually see their engagement and the thoughts that they’re having as they write words or add things to diagrams. But then I have this thing I started calling the “after party.” At the after party I help them with some of the reading. I condense some of the reading and do it orally.
One of the times I was doing a condensed reading of a chapter from Stephen Covey’s book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” And one of the things that they’re talking about is the difference between being a person who is dependent and becoming a person who is independent, and how important that is in human development. And I started telling a story about an ex-boyfriend from my younger days. And I literally feel like I’m just talking to myself at this point. And all of a sudden, on the little Zoom, from the emojis and the reactions that they can do I totally felt it was a student going, “Oh yeah, girl, I've been there.” So much was conveyed in the timing of that.
And I was so fed by that moment to try to find ways as a learning community to figure out when we are engaged. And also, we want to take more of the spotlight off of ourselves. You can make each other laugh. It’s just been like an interesting clumsy thing, but I still feel like when I ask students for feedback, they are really having a good time. I just can’t tell that they’re having a good time.
Many educators are wondering about whether grading policies should be relaxed because of how stressed everyone is, and with so many students facing tough life circumstances of tech access. What is your position on that?
To me, it starts with: What is the purpose of grading? And what I have realized is that grading really doesn’t work if our objective is to sort people. So if somebody demonstrated that they learned something, and they met the goals for the class, [some people worry that] “we can’t have too many A’s because what would happen then?”
Why are we worried about that stuff, instead of worrying about the learning? Are you having a curriculum that is regularly reviewed in terms of what we should be equipping our students to be able to do? And then how do we measure that?
And I also hope that we’re starting to think through the ways in which grading presents stress, which then has a negative effect on learning. … Unfortunately there are things like stereotype threat, in which the research will show that historically marginalized populations, when they go in there thinking, “Oh, I’m not good at math because of X, Y, or Z …, ” that stress of a high-stakes exam will, statistically speaking, have a negative academic effect on them.
Ken Bain, the author of “What the Best College Teachers Do,” talks about this a lot—this idea that failure is a part of learning. So there should be failure in all of our classes. And then I get feedback and I try again. And that’s the learning process. So can I grade and give feedback along the way?
After the pandemic ends, what are some things that you think professors and institutions are going to take away from this?
I think we could come out of this collectively with less care and less empathy—not just for our students, but I’m also very concerned about the contingent workforce. Too many of us take it for granted that students are going to have access to the internet. [Or to think that] it’s not a big deal if I put an hour-long video [lecture].
But one thing I am finding is I feel like I know these [online] students better than other students I’ve known from many past years of teaching. I know about their families.
One quick example. In my class about personal leadership and productivity, one of the things I was trying to test was to make sure that they knew how to have a digital calendar set up and also have it sync to their phone. So I had them invite me to a fictitious thing that they wish we could do together, but we weren’t really going to do together because of the pandemic.
[I learned things that] I would never have found out—these things about my students that are kind of ancillary to the assignment. I’m never going to forget that this guy in my class who is excited enough about The Mandalorian coming out, that he knows the date that it’s coming out. And I’m never going to forget that this young woman’s family cooks this meal and I’ve got a picture of it now in my head. Those are precious things that I would not have gotten if our main means of interacting was in a traditional classroom.
This is a partial transcript. Hear the entire discussion here.