Teaching Today

5 Things We Must Do Better When This Thing Is Over

Matthew Wright offers suggestions for fellow Zoomed-out faculty instructors.

May 19, 2021
 
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One of my faculty friends is giving a talk today on more effective teaching on Zoom. I can imagine that her workshop will be a very helpful, positive learning experience, but -- and this is going to sound callous -- I just can’t do it. I am in between two Zoom classes and have a Zoom meeting to attend later. A Zoom meeting about better Zoom teaching is not where my head is at today.

Are we really going to stay on Zoom after the pandemic is over? And is the pandemic totally over? Of course, many of us want the answers to be “no” and “yes,” respectively. But the reality is still unclear. That said, I do believe we have turned the corner and a new normal awaits us. It’s time we start moving away from making online teaching better to figuring out how to be successful in a new world, with new rules and new challenges.

Not that I think Zoom is going anywhere. As chair and associate professor of physics at Adelphi University, I was teaching online with my stylus and iPad years before the pandemic. If anything, the last year has improved my ability to offer effective virtual learning. But next year, I will be back in the classroom and will use Zoom only for one-off things.

Here are the five strategies I will be employing and recommend for my fellow Zoomed-out faculty.

  • Help our students relearn how to work together. Push all the mundane parts of the class online and get students together working on the whiteboard to solve problems in class and working in study groups outside class. Rearrange the classroom to force group interaction. Make them problem solve together, study together, take exams together. Collaboration is a vital soft skill. We have to build it back.
  • Prioritize hands-on labs and hands-on learning. Get the students to do short-term labs. Get the students to do long-term labs. Get the students working in the lab every way possible. Have them connect what they are learning to what is out there. Promote in-person discovery in every way you can think of. Hands-on learning is the cure for a year of overly virtual learning.
  • Provide students with career development. We should take time out of science and other academic programs to give students an opportunity to connect with the possibilities awaiting them after college. For some reason, this tends not to be a popular idea. But at my university, we have started a corporate advisement team to connect students to jobs. We bring in speakers from companies and hope to later invite them to job fairs. This has led to some terrific career-building partnerships, like one with Brookhaven National Labs. Career work is not beneath academic work; it is an essential part of our teaching mission.
  • Flip your classroom. You now have a library of worked-out problems, mini-lectures, worksheets, activities and computational labs that you developed over the past year. Use them to get off Zoom. Before the pandemic, I was slowly moving to a fully flipped classroom, generating more and more content the students could do online before class. In the past year, the content gap has closed almost completely. After the pandemic, I will be ready to go fully flipped. Spend your limited classroom time doing what you’re good at: teaching.
  • Don’t ignore mental health. The last year of stress is going to be with us for a while. We experienced ups and downs and some very scary moments. Here in New York especially, many students lost family members or know someone who did. And everywhere they have been masked and socially distant for over a year. Take time to address how stressed-out students are. Offer more office hours. Connect them to campus resources. Walk them to counseling if you need to. And watch your own stress levels in the classroom. Build fun activities into classes. Destress as you teach. Use micro-affirmations in your class to offer a few words of encouragement to keep students engaged.

Opportunities for major overhauls in higher education don’t happen very often. Now that we are about to transition to a new normal, we all need to move past strategies for teaching during the pandemic -- and start rethinking how to succeed in the post-pandemic classroom.

Bio

Matthew Wright is chair and associate professor of physics at Adelphi University in New York.

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