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Blog 191

Blog 191

Getting Ready for In-Person Teaching and Learning

By Drs. Ameera Ali, Natalie Neill, and Robin Sutherland-Harris

On December 21st, the Teaching Commons together with the LA&PS Committee for Teaching, Learning, and Student Success hosted a half-day event engaging faculty, staff, and students from across the university in conversations about supporting teaching and learning while navigating the anticipated return to campus. The event featured opening remarks from Lucy Fromowitz, VP Students, and Daniel Kikulwe, LA&PS Special Advisor on Student Success, which highlighted the value of approaching this shift from a student-centred perspective. A panel of faculty members with experience teaching on campus in Fall 2021 kicked off the discussion, which was continued through drop-in lunch sessions on tech support for teaching and on flipped classroom strategies. We wrapped up with a panel of students who shared their insights, experiences, and concerns about their return to York campuses. 

Here we have identified the main themes that arose at the event, as well as common challenges and strategies identified by both faculty and students. To view a recording of the event, please click here

Faculty Perspectives

Broadly speaking, some common themes that arose in faculty conversations during the event included the need for flexibility, issues surrounding accessibility, and concerns for the wellness of students and faculty (particularly contract faculty). As such, the urgency of kindness, empathy, and communication was highly underscored amongst faculty members, with many posing questions about how to engage in this effectively. 

To provide more detail and context, we list below several specific challenges as identified by faculty members: 

  • Concerns about being heard and understood while wearing masks
  • The issue of one’s glasses becoming fogged up while wearing a mask, thus obscuring vision
  • Forgetting basic aspects of technology in the classroom (for example: recalling the console code; remembering how to connect the microphone) after a year and a half of being away from a physical classroom
  • Uncertainty regarding how to respond to behavioural challenges in class and offer mental health support to students
  • A desire to support course learning adjustments (for international, first, and second year students in particular)
  • Navigating student confidentiality during Zoom recordings
  • Ensuring accessibility regarding the use of microphones and sound (particularly when masked)
  • Navigating ambivalence surrounding group work in person (for example: challenges with maintaining distance) 

This discussion led to many faculty members sharing excellent suggestions and lessons learned including the following: 

  • The use of auto-transcript on PowerPoint can help to make lectures (while masked) easier to follow for students.
  • To prevent one’s glasses becoming fogged while wearing a mask, consider a mask with bendable clips at the nose, and also place glasses over the top of the mask rather than underneath. 
  • If possible, arriving at the classroom ahead of time to practice with technology and refresh one’s memory on its use can be helpful.
  • Expect that students will feel emotional about returning to face-to-face learning (some faculty members discussed observing students sobbing in class).
  • Acknowledging the challenges students (and faculty) may be experiencing and making space to talk about them can be highly beneficial. 
  • Being honest with students about one’s own challenges can increase empathy (for example: saying “let’s take a break because I think we all need one”; or “I am having trouble with my mask”).
  • Providing more frequent breaks than usual and ending lecture early can help to ease the adjustment back by being mindful of not overwhelming students.
  • For group work, sending students outdoors for a walk (if accessible) can be helpful.
  • Similarly, having ‘walking’ office hours may be helpful (if accessible for both faculty and students).
  • Consider a flipped classroom approach whereby materials (i.e. lecture recordings and text readings) are engaged with prior to coming to class and active learning is emphasized in person.
  • Students can use Google Docs to create group notes to help students who miss classes due to COVID (or for alternative reasons).
  • Keeping extra masks handy for students (in case their elastic breaks, or if they have forgotten or lost their mask) has been found to be a well-received gesture.
  • The use of a straw to drink water while wearing a mask can help quench thirst and prevent mask removal in the classroom.

Student Perspectives

In addition to the deep insights and questions faculty shared, our student panel also offered some thoughtful insights from students themselves. In general, students welcomed the return to class and enjoyed being back on campus this fall despite the accompanying challenges. They also expressed appreciation and sympathy towards faculty members, understanding that this is an experience that is truly challenging for all. 

A few specific challenges as identified by the student panelists are as follows: 

  • Difficulties with breathing while masked and experiencing claustrophobia (this student expressed the need to take regular breaks outside to unmask and breathe)
  • Feelings of awkwardness in the first class(es) after being online for so long
  • Students reported feeling stressed about the uncertainties regarding the commencement of in-person learning; this is especially challenging for students who are currently not in Toronto and do not know when they will need to return.
  • Concerns regarding academic integrity and technology (for example: WhatsApp groups and academic dishonesty) 

Further, following up on these critical points, the students outlined helpful strategies instructors employed in the Fall 2021 term to support them, as well as gestures they appreciated. These included the following: 

  • Asking students to keep one empty seat between each person to help with social distancing
  • Taking the time to ask students to secure their masks (in instances where masks had fallen off or slipped below the nose) so that this effort did not fall onto students
  • Providing frequent updates and communications to students
  • Engaging in (fun) icebreakers during the first class to help students feel more comfortable in the in-person environment after having been engaged in remote learning (on Zoom) for a long time
  • Taking the time to check in with students
  • Communicating proactively, disabling the Zoom chat during exams, and creating new exam questions to mitigate academic dishonesty

Students also provided some thoughtful suggestions about strategies instructors could adopt and/or continue to implement as we move forward to more in-person learning (and transition back to face-to-face learning environments): 

  • Increasing flipped classroom approaches or having one asynchronous day per semester
  • Sharing preferred personal pronouns (for example: introducing this practice to students and talking about any concerns/challenges with this approach)
  • Asking students to ensure their masks are on securely (students felt that instructors should be the ones to initiate this) 
  • Considering the quality of interactions and discussions versus the quantity of these (for example: asynchronous forum discussions versus synchronous Zoom discussions)
  • Making time for Q&A during lecture time 

Special thanks to all who attended this event and contributed to these rich conversations. In particular, we would like to thank our speakers and panelists: Genevieve Maheux-Pelletier, Lucy Fromowitz, & Daniel Kikulwe (opening speakers); Davis Vallesi, Ganaele Langlois, Farimah Zadeh, Maria Lieggho, & Simin Seury (faculty panelists); Linda Carozza, Jason Verbovszky, & Rob Finlayson (lunchtime drop-in hosts); Shakiba Abedini, Constance Anson, Monique Attrux, Emily D'Aguanno, Maria D'Aguanno, Davood Dehghani Firoozabadi, Shephali Gupta, & Shukria Yusuf (student panelists). 

Have a response or additional suggestion to share? We would love to read your insights. Please feel free to continue the conversation in the comments below!