Seminar explores post-pandemic learning and teaching

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University of Michigan faculty, staff and administrators discussed how experiences from the past three years, including COVID-19 and the renewed focus on racial equity, will affect learning, grading and student well-being in the future during the fall Provost’s Seminar on Teaching.

More than 180 attendees gathered in person Dec. 5 at the Michigan League with 10 people joining via Zoom.

Malinda Matney, managing director of the Center for Research on Learning & Teaching, which co-sponsored the event, said she was excited for faculty members to engage and brainstorm ideas surrounding the theme, “What’s next?”

“We have learned a lot in the last three years as we’ve navigated a pandemic, an ongoing racial reckoning, and what is going to continue with us as challenges of mental health,” she said.

From left, deans Anne Curzan, Michael Solomon, Elizabeth Moje and Alec Gallimore participate in a discussion of the seminar’s theme, “What’s next?” It was moderated by Thomas Finholt (right). (Photo by Daryl Marshke, Michigan Photography)
From left, deans Anne Curzan, Michael Solomon, Elizabeth Moje and Alec Gallimore participate in a discussion of the seminar’s theme, “What’s next?” It was moderated by Thomas Finholt (right). (Photo by Daryl Marshke, Michigan Photography)

In his opening remarks, CRLT Executive Director Matthew Kaplan said this year marked CRLT’s 60th anniversary and he was looking forward to discussions about the future.

“We hope that the insights that come from this event contribute to ongoing conversations across the university since this topic will no doubt help us for several years to come,” he said.

Thomas Finholt, vice provost for academic and budgetary affairs, moderated a dean’s panel to discuss the theme of “What’s next?” Panelists included LSA Dean Anne Curzan, Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering Alec Gallimore, School of Education Dean Elizabeth Moje, and Rackham Graduate School Dean Michael Solomon.

Curzan and Moje spoke about how switching to online teaching during the pandemic gave them a new perspective about the correlation between learning and grading. They emphasized the need to focus on student learning and development rather than simply “tell then test.”

“Well, 2019 was a lot like 1919. Our teaching hadn’t actually changed that much in those 100 years or maybe even the 100 years before. So, our real goal is to push ourselves to think out of the box and think about the kinds of resources that they need to reorient their teaching,” Moje said.

The panel challenged the concept that rigorous courses were those where only a few students received A’s. They discussed the definition of “rigor” and how faculty can have a rigorous course that encourages students to learn without added stress and anxiety.

Curzan said large classes known for their difficulty and high percentage of failing grades — commonly referred to as “weeder classes” — often disproportionately weed out first-generation and underrepresented students.

The College of Engineering used to face a similar problem, Gallimore said. Having students start their engineering curriculum with calculus contributed to an inequitable access of students to engineering. Now, the newly established Robotics major begins with linear algebra to provide a clean slate for every student entering the program.

Solomon said the disruption to teaching over the past few years showed him that exams and mastery assessment should be developmental rather than evaluative. The only question now, he said, is how to carry this thinking forward.

Gallimore said that piloting and experimentation will be necessary, as well as ways to incentivize faculty. The panel agreed that reevaluating teaching practices would allow faculty to place a greater focus on student well-being and mental health.

“We know that in that first year, some students really, really struggle. And then they spend the next three or four years trying to recover from a first year that we could have predicted was going to be hard. So why are we doing that?” Curzan said.

The panel said resources are needed to give first-year students the momentum to succeed throughout their undergraduate years. Possible ideas included staffing the different units with wellness advocates, giving credit for co-curricular activities, and encouraging relationships with faculty mentors.

“When we think about the overall success of the students, we should start from day one,” Solomon said.

Participants broke into smaller groups to discuss topics and strategies related to the seminar’s theme. (Photo by Daryl Marshke, Michigan Photography)
Participants broke into smaller groups to discuss topics and strategies related to the seminar’s theme. (Photo by Daryl Marshke, Michigan Photography)

Following the panel, attendees were given the choice to attend one of four sessions expanding on the panel discussion:

  • Reimaging Course Design to Promote Equity
  • Initiatives to Promote Student Well-Being and Mental Health
  • Grading Practices: Pandemic Lessons and Innovative Approaches
  • Using Data to Promote Equitable and Effective Learning Environments

Faculty members then gathered with members of their units to discuss how they could propel these ideas forward within their schools and colleges.

Suggestions included creating a course to introduce students to university life and give them resources to succeed, adding more graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants, and creating exams where students earn points rather than lose points.

The seminar is a collaboration between the Provost’s Office and CRLT with the goal of providing opportunities for dialogue across disciplinary boundaries about a wide range of teaching and learning issues.

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