Spring 2020 is often denoted with an asterisk. The asterisk means different things to different people. For many people it means, “Things will never be the same.” COVID-19 has changed the venues from which we teach, but not our commitment to continually improve our teaching. We have adapted our lectures, labs, and office hours to online platforms to keep students and ourselves safe. I am no seer, but once classes moved online in mid-March I knew this would be a long haul from which I must learn and never forget. After submitting final grades, I asked myself, “What have you learned? Which practices will you continue to implement to create a better learning environment for students irrespective of world health status or platform?” My asterisk on Spring 2020 is community.
For Spring 2020 I was assigned three sections of an upper level exercise nutrition course and one section of basic exercise physiology. Each was a critical course. Kinesiology majors must pass exercise physiology before any other upper level kinesiology course; this was a new course for me. The exercise nutrition course, which I taught the prior semester, includes an in-class presentation with a hefty point value; it also is the departmental assessment tool for communication skills. Over the last several years the level of stress and anxiety among undergraduate students in my physiology courses has been progressively increasing, nearly choking their joy of learning. Colleagues in other fields observe similar trends. The majority of students taking physiology courses seek careers in health professions. Given the competitive nature of the respective training programs, students are driven to earn that A. Add to that the worry of paying for tuition, rent, food, books, computers, and transportation and complicated academic and social transitions from high school to college. Their family expectations loom over them. Some students are full-time students, but also full-time parents. For first-generation college students these circumstances may bear even greater weight. Thus, while preparing for Spring 2020 I decided to approach that semester with greater compassion for students. This led to my forming a community of learners in each class a priority. Ultimately, this helped me better meet the needs of my students during that first phase of the pandemic.
Webster defines compassion as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” In preparing for Spring 2020, I identified aspects of each course that presented major challenges for students and represented sources of stress, anxiety, frustration, and discouragement. I hoped to address those challenges and thereby, alleviate a source of stress. Most exercise physiology students had not taken biology or basic physiology; thus, I had to teach them basic cell biology and basic physiology so they could better understand the significance of acute responses to exercise. Based on my past experience teaching the exercise nutrition course, students needed more confidence speaking in public. Furthermore, any given student might have known just two or three other students by name and were hesitant to speak in general. I had to help them feel more at ease so they could talk and think out loud among their peer group. We each want to belong to a community. We value our individuality, but we are social beings. Students must feel accepted and comfortable in class, so they can ask and answer questions within a small group or entire class. A critical component of learning is not answering a question, but verbally defending that answer and exchanging ideas with others. Many are afraid to answer incorrectly in front of others. The classroom must be a safe place. As the teacher, I am responsible for creating a sense of community. While I did a great job getting to know my students’ names, faces and fun facts, I wasn’t helping students know each other. For both courses I decided to include more activities that required students to talk directly to each other and become accustomed to speaking out loud. With 20-25 students per class, it was feasible. I would sacrifice class time and not be able to cover as much material. So be it. Students would master the fundamentals, learn to apply the knowledge, and have a shot at enjoying learning and becoming life-long learners. Coming to class and learning might even become a reprieve from other stressors.
How could I create community among unacquainted 20+ students? Provide opportunity to interact as a class or in pairs or groups as often as possible. I had to be persistent, kind, and patient. The first day of classes I explained my intention was that students become familiar with each other, so that they were comfortable asking and answering questions and contributing to discussions. This would facilitate learning and help me better gauge their understanding. This also might help them find a study partner or even make a new friend. I told them I made it a point to learn everyone’s name as soon as possible and would call on each student numerous times. I made it clear that I know when people are shy; I promised to be kind and not call on them until they were ready. Each day I arrived as early as possible and cheerfully greeted each student by their preferred name and asked open ended questions, e.g., ‘How are your other classes going?” At least once a week, students worked in pairs to complete worksheets or quizzes; we would reconvene as a class and I would call on different pairs to answer. I called on different pairs each time, so every group had chance to speak. I encouraged them to work with different classmates for different in-class activities. Initially, there was resistance, but I consistently commended them for their efforts. Gradually, more students would proactively raise their hands to be called on, and it could get pretty loud.
On the first day of the nutrition classes I also announced the presentation assignment and that we’d get started on it the 1st week of classes by forming pairs and by becoming accustomed to talking in front of the class. To let them know that dread of public speaking is shared by all, I confessed to feeling nervous before every lecture; however, I love teaching and channel that nervous energy to keep the lectures upbeat. I explained they might never get over the nervousness of public speaking, but they can learn nothing is wrong, being nervous is expected; it will become easier. The trick is to start small. So, at the start of every class period, one or two students would be asked to stand up, introduce themselves, and tell the class what they found most interesting from the last lecture. The other students would give the presenter their undivided attention. For shy students, I spoke directly but quietly to them before class and suggested that they could focus on me while they spoke. After each introduction I cheerfully thanked students as positive re-enforcement. These introductions also served to highlight what was covered in the last class. Because each nutrition course class met 3 times a week for 50-minute sessions, students interacted frequently. For the exercise physiology course, students worked in pairs to complete a ‘1-2-3 plus 1’ worksheet with questions on three key concepts from the previous lecture and one question on new material in the upcoming lecture. They worked on questions for 5 minutes, and then I would call on different pairs to answer questions and explain sticking points for about 10 minutes. It also was the transition into that day’s new material. This class met twice per week for 80 minutes each session; thus, plenty of time remained even after the 15-minute Q&A. They were grasping the integration of cellular mechanisms at the cellular and systems levels. The time and effort to plan and execute these activities was well worth it. Students were learning and enjoying class, as well as getting to know each other. By late February communities had formed. Each class had a friendly and inclusive feeling, and attendance was nearly perfect. Even shy students began echoing my greetings or waving and smiling at classmates arriving to class. Individual classes had their own running jokes.
The week before Spring Break universities were discussing whether or not students would return to campuses after the break. COVID-19 was here. The Thursday and Friday before Spring Break were the last days I met with students in person. I confirmed the rumors. Students would not return to campus after the break, and all courses would be entirely online. I clarified that I would present lectures ‘live’ at the regularly scheduled class times. I opened the floor to discussion. If I knew their concerns, I’d have a better chance at maintaining the sense of community. Students were completely honest. Seniors were sad, because graduation would be cancelled. Students were hoping they could keep their jobs here in town to pay rent. Athletes on scholarships worried that if the season were canceled they’d lose funding. Others would be learning from their parents’ homes, which had no Internet access. The most common concern was whether they would be as successful learning online. They were worried about the lack of accountability. One student feared he’d stop attending lectures and miss assignments; one reason he came to class was that I called him by name and talked to him every day. Another student doubted I’d have any personality when giving online lectures; I took this as a challenge. Students in the nutrition classes were worried about presentations, which were taking shape and now had to be presented somehow. They were scared. Now, I was scared for them – but had the wherewithal to not say that out loud. One student outright asked, ‘Is this even gonna’ work?!” I admitted it would be a challenge, in part because I had never taught an online class, and this was my first pandemic! They laughed nervously. What a relief to hear them laugh! Then, I remembered my goal to practice compassion and let that guide me. I calmly stated the following, “This is not an ideal situation, but we will make it work, and I mean WE. I will do my best to not make this situation any more difficult than it has to be. I will communicate with you regularly, so read my emails. If you have any problems or questions you must let me know immediately, so to give me a better chance to help you. It will be ok.” That this was the last time I would see my students in person. It was a sad day.
I took my students’ concerns into account and still made my priority community. If I could maintain that sense of community, they would be more likely to login to lecture and learn. I kept it as simple, direct, and familiar as possible. I already had been posting all lecture notes and materials on the university’s learning management system (LMS) and using the drop box for homework submissions. Thus, I opted to use the real-time video conferencing tool in the LMS to deliver, record and save lectures and hold office hours. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I established the practice of sending each individual class a weekly email on Sunday afternoon that listed the week’s lecture topics, specific links to each lecture and office hours, due dates for quizzes, upcoming exams, announcements, and miscellaneous reminders. The very first email included step by step instruction for logging into the LMS video conferencing tool (which had been proofread and tested by a colleague), and I attached the revised syllabus. I kept these emails as upbeat as possible. On the class website, I also posted important announcements, along with links to the live and recorded lectures. I kept the class website uncluttered and organized to make it easy for students to find what they needed. In the middle of a pandemic, it was absolutely essential to keep my promise to my students and myself and not to make learning or teaching online any more difficult than necessary.
I continued teaching the fundamentals and worked to maintain that sense of community. I opened and logged into the virtual lecture room 10-15 minutes before lecture started and would allow students to do the same. I would still greet them as they entered, asked them to turn on the video at least once, so I could see their faces and make sure they were doing ok. They would also greet each other. I encouraged them to ask questions or comment directly using their mics or in the chat message feature. As I lectured, I kept track of questions and answers to my questions; I would address students by name just as I had in person. They learned quickly that they could use the chat feature to communicate with each other, sometimes not about physiology or nutrition. I didn’t mind. I also knew they missed being on campus and seeing classmates and friends, and they were isolated. For the exercise physiology course, we continued the practice of starting each lecture period with the 1-2-3 plus 1 worksheet and still spend about 15 minutes on that activity; the students really valued this activity. Because the practice proved to facilitate learning, I posted these questions on the class website, but also emailed the class a copy the day before to be sure they had a copy – a 5-minute task to keep them engaged and coming to class. For the nutrition class, I offered an extra credit assignment, ‘Who is this?’ For one class, I had a list of 10 walk-up songs from different students; students had to name the artist and tell me the full name of the student who claimed that as their ‘walk-up’ song. Another class had to name the student learning online the farthest distance from campus and name the student whose birthplace was farthest from campus; they also had to list the exact city, state or country and distance in miles. The third class had to list the first and last names of all graduating seniors in the class and their career goals. For extra points, they all participated. It was meant to encourage them to stay connected and think about something else.
We had a share of glitches and mishaps, but my students stepped up to the plate. The lack of equal access to the Internet could not be more painfully obvious. One exercise physiology student informed me that his only access to the Internet was his cell phone. He took the initiative to asked whether I would accept images of hand-written 1-2-3 worksheets sent to me by email. He never missed an assignment and made arrangements to borrow a friend’s laptop for exams. A nutrition student, I will call Brett was learning from home in a small town about 2 hours from the nearest ‘real’ town; his family home had no Internet and a poor mobile phone signal. He emailed to explain that once his dad got paid he would buy the equipment and he would be online soon. He was concerned about missed quizzes and the respective points and missed lectures. What do you say to that? When you know you have all the power, you must use that power to do good and not make anyone’s life harder than it has to be. I re-opened quizzes and sent him links to the recorded lectures; he wasted no time catching up. Then there was the matter of the nutrition presentations. Another lifeline. Students continued to work together, sending presentation files to each other and to me. Students taught themselves to use Zoom, Google Slides, and the LMS video conference feature. No one complained. Multiple pairs wanted to present during the same session, so they could be an audience, lend moral support, and ask questions. The presentations were impressive. Students were so enthusiastic. However, my favorite presentation was by Brett and ‘Josh’; they presented via the LMS conference feature. Brett’s Internet cut out completely on second slide; he tried to reconnect to no avail. I remained calm; they remained calm. They decided Brett would call Josh; Josh would hold his cell phone to the mic on his computer so I could hear Brett narrate his part of the talk. Teamwork! Let your students inspire you.
I left time at the end of each lecture to offer encouraging words and reminders to stay safe and take care of themselves. I also would state that I looked forward our next meeting. As the semester was winding down end-of-lecture discussions and questions become more serious. Across all classes the basic questions were similar. “Will I graduate on time? How will this impact my career plans? Do you think this will be over by the Fall? Do you think they’ll have a cure soon?” There was no sugar coating this. I would validate their concerns and offer my honest opinion in a kind-hearted manner. My last virtual lecture was on a Friday in May. I decided to name each graduating senior, so the class could congratulate and applaud for them. A student asked me to give a commencement speech. She was serious. I remembered what my gut told me back in mid-March, and so I began. “I cannot tell you how proud of how hard each of you has worked and how well you worked together. Life is hard. It’s ok to be scared. You have risen to the occasion. Keep rising. Learn all you can from this situation. You are meant to do great things, however subtle or grand. You will fall and make mistakes. You will need help along the way and must help others on their journey. It has been a privilege to work with you. I will think of you often and wish you well.” Spring 2020* *Helping my students form a community, an inclusive safe place to learn, think out loud, be wrong, correct mistakes, and help each other. That is the practice I will continue to implement to create a better learning environment for students irrespective of world health status or platform.