This week:

  • I talk to students who are “pedagogical partners” on their campus, to hear their thoughts on effective teaching practices.
  • I share resources on how to create student-professor partnerships on your campus.
  • I alert you to two conferences on teaching.
  • I point you to readings and a survey about teaching you may have missed.

When the Student Is Your Partner

I’ve written recently about the pandemic-driven teaching innovations that professors want to keep even after campus life returns to normal. That includes such things as a flexible syllabus and making more of an effort to connect with students. So it was nice to hear from a reader that many of those changes are also things that students want to keep.

This particular reader, Maria Bohan, a senior at Bryn Mawr College, speaks from experience. She’s part of a program at the Pennsylvania college that connects students with faculty members to help them strengthen their teaching. The program, Students as Learners and Teachers, or SaLT, has been around since 2006, but the pandemic, along with the social-justice movements of the past year, spurred participants at Bryn Mawr and nearby Haverford College to compile recommendations for instructors on topics such as equitable assessments, antiracist pedagogy, and remote learning.

I spoke with Bohan and another SaLT participant, Hurum M. Tohfa, about what they want professors to know about the student experience, and what makes for effective teaching.

Bohan said that if she had an overarching message for faculty members, it’s this: When designing your course, remember students’ humanity. For many professors, the pandemic shined a light on how much their students have to deal with outside of class. “Their flexibility is what helped students during this time,” Bohan said of professors who adapted to the moment. “And that’s what students want to see when things go back to normal times.”

To that end, she said, professors should ask themselves what is truly important for their students to know. Many instructors scaled back content this past year because people had so much else going on in their lives. In the process some found that their students benefited intellectually as well, because they weren’t racing through the curriculum and had more time to absorb what they were studying.

Bohan also noted that a so-called rigorous curriculum can sometimes penalize students who have many other responsibilities, such as a job. Not everyone, in short, has unlimited hours to devote to studying. “Scaling back content and giving students more time to engage,” she said, “can help level the playing field.”

Bohan, who is majoring in English, minoring in education, and aiming to become a public-school librarian, said her professors were flexible and accommodating this past year. That hasn’t always been the case, she noted, especially in STEM disciplines.

Tohfa, a physics and mathematics major at Bryn Mawr, agreed. She has been involved with SaLT for several years, working with professors before and during the pandemic, to help them address the challenges facing STEM students, especially those who are first-generation or students of color.

A first-generation student from Bangladesh, Tohfa wants professors to understand that students don’t all come to science and math classes equally well prepared. Some may have graduated from high-performing high schools or completed internships, and are well equipped to handle the expectations of a college classroom. Others, like her, spend their first semester in college just playing catch-up.

“The way things are taught here, some students already know how to study and how to ace an exam,” Tohfa said, “whereas a student whose family never went to college, they expect it to be like high school, and it’s not.”

Tohfa has helped professors, at both Bryn Mawr and Haverford, to create more-inclusive classrooms in chemistry, biology, and math. Students of color are often underrepresented in STEM fields, she noted, making it easy for them to feel as if they don’t belong from Day 1. She and another Bryn Mawr student put together a resource guide on STEM pedagogy and remote teaching. It includes quotes from students describing their experiences at Bryn Mawr and Haverford.

Here’s one that jumped out at me, in a section that discusses the assumptions professors can make that favor the better prepared:

“I asked a professor about a formula I was unfamiliar with, the professor said ‘you should’ve learned this in physics’ in front of other students. I became hesitant to ask questions for the rest of my time in the class. It was a casual offhand comment, but I was humiliated. Taking physics in high school wasn’t an option for me because of how ill-prepared my school was to teach it. I felt exposed to my classmates as they were now aware of the lack of preparation I had to take a rigorous STEM course. It confirmed my doubts of being unworthy to be in such a prestigious space.”

Tohfa said she recognizes that STEM courses are different from the humanities, where, for example, professors can change content around, depending on students’ interests. “It’s not some discrete set of ideas helping you to grow,” she said. ”It’s that these ideas are all connected with each other. It’s hard for STEM profs to be forgiving in that way, but it’s still possible to be inclusive and redefine how we think of rigor in STEM.”

For students who are less prepared than their peers, Tohfa suggested that simply acknowledging that difference in class early on, and treating it as normal, can help mitigate those tensions and students’ fears.

In fact, she said, many of the lessons of pandemic teaching, such as being flexible with deadlines, offering alternative assessments to high-stakes tests, and creating a welcoming environment for all students, are also foundational to inclusive teaching practices, through which all students are encouraged to feel that they have the ability to succeed.

“I hope those kinds of practices we really try to hold onto as our new normal,” Tohfa said.

For more insights, students at Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and several other institutions with pedagogical-partnership programs put together a list of teaching practices that can make remote teaching more effective. You can find that here.

And here are two other resource documents from those students:

Student-Generated, Annotated List of Resources on Trauma-Informed, Antiracist Pedagogy and Remote Teaching and Learning

Equity in Assessment

Have you collaborated with students to help make your classroom teaching better? If so, drop me a line, at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com, and your story may appear in a future newsletter.

Starting a Pedagogical Partnership

I spoke to Alison Cook-Sather, director of the Teaching and Learning Institute at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges, who conceived and co-created the SaLT program, about student-professors partnerships.

SaLT works by bringing together a professor and a student who is not in his or her class, and maybe not even in the same major, to bring a fresh perspective to the professor’s teaching and classroom dynamics, Cook-Sather said. The student attends one class per week, takes notes, and meets with the faculty member to discuss what she or he observed. Cook-Sather also holds weekly meetings with student partners as a group, to discuss the challenges they are working to address. Common questions that draw professors into the program include: How do I get students to talk more with one another? How can I get them to dig more deeply into content? How can I make my classroom more inclusive for students from all backgrounds?

The students are keen observers, Cook-Sather said, noting that a disproportionate number come from underrepresented groups and are aware of the things that do, and don’t, work for them. Those insights can spark good conversations with the professor. “The point is dialogue,” she said. “It’s not, Here comes a student who will tell you what’s wrong and how to fix it.”

Student partners benefit as well. “They think about teaching and learning more than they would otherwise,” she said. “So they become better learners than they would have otherwise.”

Interested in starting a pedagogical partnership on your campus? Here are some resources suggested by Cook-Sather:

Pedagogical Partnerships; A How-To Guide for Faculty, Students, and Academic Developers in Higher Education (free download), by Alison Cook-Sather, Melanie Bahti, and Anita Ntem. A companion resource guide can be found here.

Promoting Equity and Justice Through Pedagogical Partnership, by Alise de Bie, Elizabeth Marquis, Alison Cook-Sather, and Leslie Patricia Luqueño

Checklist for Developing a Pedagogical Partnership Program

Partnering With Students Is Critical Now More Than Ever,” by Tracie Marcella Addy, Alison Cook-Sather, and Peter Felten, in University Business

Building Courage, Confidence, and Capacity in Learning and Teaching Through Student-Faculty Partnership: Stories From Across Contexts and Arenas of Practice, edited by Alison Cook-Sather and Chanelle Wilson

Talking About Teaching

On May 18, Beckie and I will moderate a virtual Chronicle forum, “Active Learning for a Post-Pandemic World.” I’ll be talking to Eric Mazur, a Harvard physics professor and evangelist for active learning, about why he thinks online classes can be even more effective than in-person ones. Beckie will be speaking with Chandralekha Singh, director of the Discipline-Based Science Education Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh, and Lindsay Masland, assistant director for faculty professional development at Appalachian State University, about what active learning will look like in a post-pandemic world. Register here (it’s free).

If you’re curious about learning analytics, Indiana University at Bloomington is hosting a free, virtual learning analytics summit this week for people interested in bringing data-driven analysis to their campus. (The summit runs May 12 to 14, and recordings of earlier sessions are available to those who register.) I wrote about some of the work they and other campuses are doing in this 2019 story.

ICYMI

  • For another take on what students want from technology-enhanced teaching, read Flower Darby’s latest Chronicle advice column, “7 Dos & Don’ts for Post-Pandemic Teaching With Technology.”
  • A new research paper by two Cornell University biology instructors maps out the reasons students give for not turning on cameras in class, describes how they differ for students from underrepresented groups, and offers an “equitable and inclusive” plan to encourage camera use.
  • In a Chronicle advice piece, Christine Siegel, provost of Fairfield University, encourages administrators to listen to the faculty as they prepare to reopen their campuses.
  • A recent survey of more than 3,000 students by TopHat shows a correlation between instructors who care, provide timely feedback, and create a sense of community, and students who feel engaged and motivated in their coursework.

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.

—Beth

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