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Teaching at a Crossroads: Meeting students where they are in a post-pandemic environment

~By Jennifer Proctor, Associate Professor of Journalism and Media Production; Member, Hub Advisory Board

This post is part of a series from the Hub Department Liaisons Program, Winter 2023 Focus: Offline/Online Teaching Strategies

If there’s one thing that’s patently clear from speaking with colleagues about teaching in a post-pandemic world, it’s that none of us have this figured out. 

This past semester, I served as a Hub Liaison with the Department of Language, Culture, and the Arts, focusing on strategies for integrating practice-based learning (PBL) in both online and in-person modalities that are responsive to the new post-COVID landscape we all find ourselves in. Specifically, I engaged colleagues in the department in discussions centered on the results of the Student Experience Survey conducted by our institution in 2022 which revealed student needs and desires for more flexible course scheduling options, more intentional and interactive in-person time, and higher expectations around quality, content, and course design in online and hybrid modalities. 

The shift to exclusively online learning during the pandemic has transformed how our very busy commuter students think about integrating schoolwork into their complex lives and how they expect us, as educators, to create the most impactful experiences for them with the time and tools we have available, whether in the classroom or on Canvas. Traditional lectures or discussion boards no longer cut it – in an online space on the verge of evolving from Web 2.0 to Web3, students expect rich, dynamic online experiences and their time in person to be hands-on, active, and engaged.

Meeting the needs of our diverse student body is challenging enough as we recalibrate our pedagogies in this new learning environment, but with the UM-D’s campus-wide adoption of PBL underway, we have the additional consideration of building in the collaborative, applied, messy, and transformative experiences that emerge from PBL.

The two discussions I conducted with colleagues were wide-ranging in providing ideas and examples while also identifying unresolved problems and concerns. A few key challenges and proposed solutions emerged.

1. Finding time in intro courses for hands-on or collaborative PBL work


Because introductory courses require foundational knowledge before students can begin the work of applying that knowledge, it can be difficult to find the time for PBL without sacrificing those fundamental lessons. 


PBL need not be a massive, semester-long project. Instead, there are lots of options for “mini-PBL” experiences. One language instructor creates a virtual exchange with students in another country where once a week, students have a brief conversation in their language of study with a native speaker, based on materials they’ve been studying in class. Another instructor asks students to do small group work in Google Docs or Wakelet, where student research and discussions can be done asynchronously but retain a collaborative framework. Finally, one other instructor offers students in small groups two discussion questions each week and allows them to choose which one to respond to. They do their responses collaboratively online to prepare for an in-class exercise, freeing up time for more concentrated in-person activities.

2. Designing semester-long PBL projects without burning out students (or ourselves!)


Major, semester-long PBL projects that involve work with a community organization or client can be transformational and high-impact, but they can also exhaust students, instructors, and the partner themselves.


A repeated theme that emerged in our conversations about PBL was the importance of scaffolding long-term assignments. Breaking the assignment into smaller chunks with clear deadlines and learning outcomes can increase the sense of accomplishment and progress, improve learning, and generally make a larger, more complicated project more manageable. 

Instead of a major, full-term project, students can also complete smaller, individual or small-group projects for a community organization. They might involve direct communication with that partner, but they don’t have to – if a partner provides an issue or problem that needs to be addressed up front, students can run with the assignment on their own, completing their own research or other hands-on work. PBL can also involve a hypothetical problem or issue for students to work on, without necessitating too much of a time commitment from an outside partner, if any at all. A journalism instructor, for instance, has students regularly analyze contemporary news articles from various historical standpoints throughout the semester, which builds historical understanding and analytical skills through smaller, but repeated, assignments.

Our own campus can also be a vital resource for smaller PBL projects. A writing instructor asked students to attend a current exhibit in the Mardigian Library’s Stamelos Gallery and use one of the works of art as inspiration for a poem. At the end of the semester, students shared works of poetry they had created for an audience in a Pop-up Open Mic on the University Center stage, so that students could see how their creative works could have a life beyond the classroom.

Lastly, providing options for in-person and virtual meetings with a community partner can ease the scheduling challenges for all stakeholders involved in a long-term project.

3. Building relationships and maintaining communication with students can be difficult, in both in-person and online classes.


Repeatedly, colleagues expressed concern about the hurdle of building strong communication channels with students, partly for such uses as providing meaningful feedback on their work, but also for ensuring they feel supported and included, especially when outside factors intervene in their lives. Such communication can be particularly difficult in asynchronous online courses where face-to-face interactions are less likely to occur.


Some instructors emphasized the importance of individual meetings with students, such as in offering critiques of student films or artwork, which can both help the student to better understand their feedback and strengthen trust between instructor and student. 

In larger classes (and even in small ones), these kinds of individual meetings might not be practical. Instead, instructors can use tools like Loom to provide audio or video feedback directly to a student, and encourage a student to reply, or Perusall, where students can annotate text, audio, or video, and the instructor can take part in the conversation.

4. Students are less prepared for class, resist doing reading, or simply don’t attend.


This final challenge is a more vexing and intractable one, but instructors observed an increase in these behaviors post-pandemic. Certainly, one of the key takeaways from the 2022 Student Survey was that students desire greater flexibility around the scheduling of their courses and attendance policies. But, for in-person classes, participation is essential – especially in a PBL context – and colleagues reported being at something of a loss of how to teach collaboration or group work when a student’s attendance is far from guaranteed. We have hit a dilemma: students desire more engaged learning experiences but greater latitude in participating in them. 


While strategies for meeting this challenge extend far beyond what an individual instructor can do, some instructors are seeking out ways of presenting material that don’t rely on traditional reading materials like textbooks, instead assigning videos or podcasts or other audiovisual materials. A philosophy instructor has implemented Visual Teaching Strategies (VTS) in her courses as another means for meeting students where they are while encouraging critical thinking and media literacy. Again, Perusall can be used to encourage closer, interactive readings of multimedia materials to encourage reading to be perceived as a more active, engaged activity.

Some instructors have implemented an “ungrading” approach to encourage greater participation and reduce anxiety around grades. Others have introduced projects that have a clear, meaningful connection to students’ lives, such as students doing an audit of their own use of plastics – complete with bringing a trash bag full of it to campus – as part of an environmental ethics class.

Certainly, we are still in a transitional period as we settle from the upheaval of pandemic and its aftereffects, as well as changing trends in enrollment that impact our teaching. As we move forward, both evidence-based approaches and trial and error will continue to inform our pedagogies. Importantly, though, continuing to seek out the voices of our students and their needs, hopes, and desires, remains a critical element in addressing this new normal. 

Image by Jan Alexander from Pixabay

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