Spotlight on Teaching and Learning: Strategies from CTL’s Educators in Conversation Spring Workshop

February 15, 2022

At the start of the Spring semester, 22 educators from across campus gathered to discuss lessons learned from their experiences teaching during the pandemic. We noted a commonality rather quickly: our tried-and-true pedagogical strategies produced unexpected learning outcomes as students faced new and protracted challenges. Many of us found ourselves innovating existing strategies, trying new ones, or dusting off previously-shelved strategies to use in our classrooms last fall. What surfaced from the discussion were key lessons learned about responding to your students’ needs while the course is ongoing and helping students to navigate the unexpected while simultaneously experiencing unprecedented change in our own professional and personal spaces. Provided below is a description of two discussion themes from CTL’s Educators in Conversation gathering and select strategies from Berkeley educators who found themselves refining their teaching practice over time.

Theme 1: Creating Community in a Remote Class

A common concern expressed in our discussion was the difficulty in replicating the sense of community and relationships of a traditional on-campus class experience within the online course experience. We collectively wondered: “How do we reach the students who learn best in person?”

Among our discussion participants, several faculty members had made attempts at addressing this issue in their courses by using structured activities, such as group work and small group discussion in breakout rooms, pausing lecture for quick breaks (e.g., to stretch, grab coffee), and leveraging bCourses for discussion boards and low-stakes assignments. Some of these attempts are supported by evidence gathered in research on this issue. The numerous resources that address the question of creating a sense of community in the online classroom each tend to recommend practices that go beyond creating grading opportunities as motivation for engagement and instead focus on crafting opportunities for engagement or collaboration through active learning strategies.

Active Learning” is the catch-all term among pedagogical theorists for learning activities that promote heightened student engagement and collaboration. These activities each align with specific needs, i.e. some will be more effective in small-number class groups, while others will be effective in large-number class enrollments. Among commonly-recommended active learning strategies are:

  • Peer-to-Peer Learning (Gokcora, 2). This concept goes beyond merely creating group work; rather, it is defined as activities in which students teach each other through collaboration. Examples may include:

    • Large classes: designing learning activities within groups with particular roles or responsibilities.

    • Small classes: incorporating GSIs as mentors, guides, and facilitators.

  • Replacing passive lectures with active learning activities (Deslauriers, et al, 12). Rather than asking students to simply observe a recorded lecture, this approach would consist of creating interactive activities, such as free response opportunities, quick check quizzes, or otherwise responsive actions students can take while observing recorded lectures.

  • Creating “technology-rich” learning environments to facilitate instruction (Penrod, 13). This approach is often misunderstood to imply a heavy use of external or third-party engagement  tools. In fact, a “technology-rich” environment can be a simple bCourses site that emphasizes interactivity. This can be achieved with some external tools, such as live polling or online corkboards, but it can also be achieved through free response discussions or quick-check features that are already built into the bCourses site. The primary function of this strategy is to provide students a chance to physically interact with the learning environment without being graded for their participation.

  • Peer Review: learners collaboratively assessing each other (Koohang, et al, 17). This approach is a common-used tool to foster engagement. bCourses sites include a Canvas-built Peer Review feature for certain written assignments. The same approach can be achieved with synchronous group activities or asynchronous branching scenarios or “table-top” activities.

  • Developing curricular materials in many media so that learners can select one or more ways to approach the subject matter (Howell, 3). This approach may be both the most effective and least utilized of the list. There is convincing data to support the notion that students who are allowed to engage with the content on their own time, with varying options of interactivity, even with options of assessments, can have a fuller and more long-lasting learning experience. At the same time, this does not endorse a fully “free” approach to learning; it requires an attentive and intentional instructional design plan to ensure that students come away from the course achieving the intended learning outcomes.

Leverage Peer Learning

Breakout rooms (group work) has really been a great opportunity to give them tasks that anchor them a lot better. Noticed they were talking a lot more in the foreign language than they were doing before. Almost created an online safe space that empowered them to speak a bit more.
Instructor, Department of Scandinavian

Take a Pause

Stopping as a class to stretch together (turning on camera, doing something together), great opportunity to build community within the classroom while making students take a moment to take a break so they can re engage with the group and the material.
Instructor, Cognitive Science

Engagement leads to a community of learners, and incorporating active learning activities such as the ones listed above will go far in creating a learning space in your online classroom that can facilitate the deep connections and senses of engagement that students have come to expect in their college experiences.

Theme 2: Facilitating Student Participation When Together, and Apart

The second challenge expressed by faculty participants is an ongoing one: how do we know whether students are learning what we expect them to? As instructors, we collect evidence of student learning and gauge participation in several ways. Grades are naturally a significant source of evidence. However, course grades measure learning outcomes, leaving no room for adjustments as students have already exited our courses. Other indicators of learning include in-class participation, student performance on homework assignments and higher-stakes assessments, and engagement with online learning tools (e.g., bCourses, Piazza). What participants found, though, was that these measures were no longer enough to get a strong sense of whether students were learning what we expected them to and, if they missed the mark, where these gaps were occurring.

Prior to the pandemic, faculty could check in with students before and after class, or “read” the room as an additional learning check. The shift to remote learning, however, made it difficult to collect evidence of participation and active engagement, particularly attendance. One breakout room of participants reported a shared experience of “...students dropp[ing] off and watch[ing] course lecture capture... only a few students showed up for in person class meetings.” This challenge raised an important question: “How do we… convince students that they can benefit from live, instructor guidance?”

Participants agreed that lack of student engagement – indicated by participation, attendance, or completion of coursework – was low in Fall 2021 compared to previous pandemic semesters. There are many reasons for this; recent studies suggest that young adults experienced disproportionately elevated rates of stress, depression and anxiety (Varma et al. 2021). Students are also experiencing sleeplessness, loneliness, hopelessness, and disruptions in their development, all related to factors of trauma, grief, and financial distress (Giuntella et al. 2021). These factors impact students’ ability to focus, learn, and demonstrate their learning in class, just as they are likely impacting our ability to teach, research, and serve our community.

Fortunately, the Fall 2021 Berkeley Student Pulse Survey suggests that rates of depression and anxiety were lower in Fall 2021 compared to previous semesters. However, a majority of undergraduate Berkeley student respondents continue to experience obstacles to remote learning; finding it difficult to actively engage in remote courses (e.g., asking questions), difficulty finding quiet learning spaces, and limited access to the internet, both on campus and at home.

How did Berkeley faculty mitigate these barriers to student learning? Some faculty focused on leveraging formative assessments to scaffold students' learning while others redefined student participation to promote equitable and inclusive learning opportunities. These practices align with many evidence-based strategies, some of which are described below:

  • Engage with students’ values and goals to foster intrinsic motivation. Use values affirmation and social belonging interventions to support student learning and self-acceptance (Miyake et al. 2010, Walton and Cohen 2011). Research suggests that affirming both independent and interdependent values can improve student performance for all students and mitigate barriers to learning for first-generation students in particular (Hecht et al. 2021).

  • Design flexible learning experiences by flipping your classroom. “Flipping” the classroom refers to course designs that require students to significantly engage with instructional content prior to attending class. Class time is then dedicated to actively engaging with instructional content through activities such as discussion, debates, case studies, and problem solving. For tips and strategies on how to effectively flip your classroom, see CTL’s “Flipping Your Classroom” resource.

  • Develop transparency in your course design, assignments, and expectations for student success. Communicate clear expectations from the first day of class by designing an effective syllabus. Use a transparency framework and support learning for all students by promoting student awareness of how they learn best (see the Transparency in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education project).

  • Activate students’ prior knowledge and experiences. Incorporate prior knowledge and recall opportunities, such as brief quizzes and writing activities, in your lesson plans to build a stronger foundation for learning in new contexts. Similarly, consider starting the semester by assigning ungraded concept tests or self-assessment probes to gauge students’ level of understanding on specific topics and concepts (see Carnegie Mellon University’s Eberly Center resource).

Leverage Formative Assessments

Weekly writing assignments in all classes. Smaller, incremental assignments... Flexible deadlines.
Instructor, College Writing Progams

Redefine Student Participation

Got rid of attendance grade – called it engagement. Giving students a grade for engagement to bCourses analytics , office hours/discussions, did they speak in class. Students could put all notes/analysis/etc in a google doc so if they did not speak, they could still get full engagement.
Instructor, Film & Media Studies