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Our teaching-and-learning experts give you insights on what works in the classroom. Delivered on Thursdays. Teaching is written by Beth McMurtrie and Beckie Supiano. We love hearing from readers, so please don’t hesitate to reach out to us directly. You can also read more articles about teaching and learning.

From: Beckie Supiano

Subject: Teaching: A College Helps Students Confront the ‘Big Problems’ of 2020

This week:

  • I describe Barnard College’s plans for offering students a meaningful semester online.
  • I pass along some data from a new report on Guided Pathways.
  • I share a thoughtful Twitter thread about pandemic teaching, grief, and creating new habits.

Making Sense of 2020

Back in April, I interviewed Jody Greene, associate vice provost for teaching and learning at the University of California at Santa Cruz, about a frustrating limitation she’d noticed in colleges’ fall plans. The conversation was focused on how colleges would deliver content through the pandemic, Greene said — and paid little attention to how the content itself could change to meet this moment.

I’m not sure that things have changed too much since then. While I’ve talked to instructors who’ve incorporated the pandemic — and our national reckoning with racism — into their courses in various ways, we haven’t heard much about colleges taking this on institutionally.

So I was interested to hear about some changes Barnard College has made. Like most colleges, Barnard had planned for an in-person fall. But in mid-August it announced that, partly due to New York state’s quarantine requirements, it would instead hold all undergraduate courses online and close campus housing. While the announcement came just a few weeks before the fall semester began, Barnard had already taken steps to shore up students’ online experience.

For starters, Barnard —like the rest of Columbia University — broke the 2020-21 academic year into three semesters to provide more flexibility. Each semester is further split into two sections, allowing students to take a mix of shorter, intensive courses and semester-long ones — in part because shorter courses can work well online. The college has also rolled out a virtual co-curricular program meant to help students take action addressing the challenges of the pandemic and racial justice in their own communities.

A number of courses across the college will address the pandemic in various ways, including one, “Big Problems: Making Sense of 2020,” that’s required for first-year students. The course is built around a series of remote guest lectures from speakers including authors Roxane Gay and Linda Villarosa, which are open to the broader Barnard community. The first-year students are assigned to discussion sections which will prepare for each lecture and craft questions for the speaker. The questions posed in the Q&A portion of each lecture will be selected from the ones they write.

Barnard already requires all of its first-year students to take a first-year writing course and a first-year seminar. The team of professors in charge of those courses designed “Big Problems” in part to help new students connect with one another — and the college — from afar. Each section of the course will be led by a pair of trained upperclassmen, giving the first-years a point of connection to established students — and the more advanced students a leadership opportunity. And as part of the course, students will work collaboratively to make a zine, connecting them to the college’s zine library.

Beyond that, the course is intended to help students make meaning. As Wendy Schor-Haim, a senior lecturer in the English department who directs the first-year writing program and is part of the team behind the new course, put it: “We thought of this as an opportunity to do the thing that we as a college can do, which is give students different intellectual contexts to help them put what can feel like an overwhelming, almost just vortex of craziness into perspective.”

Are you hoping your course will help students make sense of the events of this year? How can providing intellectual context help, and what are its limitations? Share your example with me at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com, and it may be included in a future newsletter.

Guided Pathways

Colleges that have adopted Guided Pathways — a model in which students follow a structured academic plan — can point to some success, according to a new report from the Center for Community College Student Engagement.

More than two-thirds of entering students at participating colleges reported they had to meet with an adviser before selecting their classes, for instance. A similar proportion said they had to follow an academic plan.

The report also points to places where the program could improve, including faculty engagement. More than a third of faculty members whose colleges participate in Guided Pathways said they had no involvement in the program; nearly half said they needed further professional development about their role.

You can read the full report here.

Finding Your Way

Since classes moved online in March, many instructors have felt a particular kind of loss. “Pedagogically, many of us had to let go of ways of teaching that meant something to us — structuring lectures, activities, exams,” Melissa Beers wrote in a recent thread on Twitter. “Now,” she continued, “much of that is gone.”

In her thread, Beers, who oversees two large psychology courses at Ohio State University, describes what she’s learned from grieving the recent loss of her husband and how it applies to the professional loss she’s feeling during pandemic teaching. “You have to leave the old path to find your way,” Beers wrote. “Some steps you have to take on your own, but in many places you will find others near you to help along your way. Take their hands.”

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com or beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.

-Beckie

Learn more about our Teaching newsletter, including how to contact us, at the Teaching newsletter archive page.

Beckie Supiano writes about teaching, learning, and the human interactions that shape them. Follow her on Twitter @becksup, or drop her a line at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com.