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Blog 205

The Unfamiliarity of the Familiar

As we embark on a new academic, year, I want to take this opportunity to welcome everyone back!

The return to class is always met by trepidation… and for me, it usually means dreaming again about not remembering my teaching schedule or showing up unprepared in the wrong classroom week after week. Thankfully, this is not how things go in real life. On a typical year, the chaotic dance of students moving from class to class gives me energy. The inquisitive mind of the learners sitting in my classroom fuels my motivation to try new pedagogical ideas. The conversations between students remind me that they live full lives outside of my course. This year, something else is just as real: the familiar feels unfamiliar. Many of us wonders, how safe will everyone be, both physically and emotionally, when sitting together in class? In our new normal, how will I manage absences, provide multiple ways of accessing to course content, ensure equity in assessment? How will students react to being paired up for in-class work?

While each of us will find answers to these questions through the same self-compassion and empathy for others that have carried us to this point, it is also worth pointing out that faculty have discussed many of the uncertainties related to going back to in-person teaching and how to address various challenges at the “Getting Ready for In-Person Teaching and Learning” event held at the end of 2021 at York. What follows are excerpts from the original post. Also, below, a few suggestions of pedagogical ideas for active in-class learning created by the Teaching Commons.

Geneviève Maheux-Pelletier

Director, Teaching Commons


“Getting Ready for In-Person Teaching and Learning” Excerpts

Some specific challenges as identified by faculty members: 

  • 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 ambivalence surrounding group work in person 

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 easier to follow for students.
  • 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 has been found to be a well-received gesture for those choosing to wear a mask.

Student Perspectives

In addition to the deep insights and questions faculty shared, a 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: 

  • 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 when possible
  • 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
  • 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)
  • 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 

The original post was written by Drs. Ameera Ali, Natalie Neill, and Robin Sutherland-Harris.