Reyhan Topal, the State University of New York at Albany, and Farzin Shargh, the State University of New York at Albany
The 2021-22 academic year was the first full year since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic that many higher education institutions transitioned back to traditional modes of delivery (Hartocollis 2021a). The transition back to in-person teaching, however, was not without its challenges. This has been especially the case for junior faculty and teaching assistants. Some of the difficulties we focus on here relate to additional expectations from teachers to monitor students’ compliance with the institutional Covid policies, requiring leniency towards students’ absences and their low levels of engagement, and the difficulties in utilizing classical methods of engagement that are expected in in-person teaching. We also propose helpful strategies for instructors and teaching assistants to overcome these difficulties.
While transitioning to mostly in-person classes in the Fall of 2021, most institutions adopted Covid precautionary measures to ensure the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff. While many institutions transparently relayed their Covid policies before the start of the semester, they also released new faculty guidelines that identify instructors’ new responsibilities to maintain a safe class environment and strategies to follow when there are uncompliant students (Walke et al. 2020; Hartocollis 2021b). In our case, we sometimes had to stop our lectures, student presentations, or class discussion to ask uncompliant students to put their masks back on or make sure their masks fully covered their noses and mouths. This additional role of “the Covid police” was not only a burden on us but also disrupted our class time and put further distance between us and our students, jeopardizing student engagement that was already scarce due to a year and a half of virtual learning.
To tackle the problem above, first and foremost, we strongly encourage all instructors and teaching assistants to consistently follow their institutions’ Covid policies. When some instructors tolerate uncompliant students or occasionally violate the Covid policies themselves, their students are likely to expect the same tolerance from other instructors. The discrepancy in the compliance levels of instructors negatively affects student engagement for two reasons. Firstly, it creates the impression that some instructors are deliberately stricter on their students regarding the Covid measures, which could deteriorate the relationship between those instructors and students. Therefore, students might be less enthusiastic about attending the lectures of those instructors or actively participating in class discussions. Secondly, students assume that if they violate Covid measures constantly, their instructors will ease the Covid measures in the classroom. While instructors warn students of these violations, it might be difficult to maintain the class discussion. To this effect, at the beginning of the semester, we conveyed to our students that we would commit to Covid policies consistently to ensure everyone’s safety and eliminate any ambiguities. We believe that announcing our firm commitment to Covid policies from the beginning helped our students adapt to the “post-Covid” class environment more quickly. Therefore, we could minimize the disruptions and maintain our class discussions more effectively.
The dynamics of Covid-19 required leniency when dealing with student absences, which was further exacerbated by the spread of Covid-19 variants throughout the year. Many students did not need to see a medical professional for Covid-19, especially with the prevalence of testing, including at-home rapid tests. Under these conditions, we had no choice but to excuse students’ absences, often without documentation. At times, the number of excused absences for a student would outnumber the days that they were present throughout the semester. From another perspective, the increased number of absences meant having very low classroom engagement and frequently lecturing to an almost-empty classroom. However, we also could not force students to attend in person, given the culpability of potentially spreading Covid-19 to others.
Given that at-home rapid testing is valuable in managing the spread of the virus, instructors cannot require students to see a medical professional to prove that they really have Covid. As a solution, we recommend instructors and teaching assistants emphasize in the classroom that trust is an important component of the student-teacher relationship. In the first meeting of the semester, we made a small talk about the role of trust and honesty in creating a positive classroom environment, which is more conducive to teaching and learning. During the talk, we emphasized that students should avoid falsely claiming that they tested positive for Covid for being absent because it was unethical and could worsen the pandemic anxiety of others, especially those who have been in contact with them. When our students grasped the consequences of falsifying a Covid case vis-a-vis others, they became more reluctant to use it as an excuse.
While many students requested to join the class virtually when they were unwell, we had to run a “hybrid” class most of the time, which was rather challenging. Almost always, we spent the beginning of the class fixing technical issues, such as admitting virtual students into the platform and making sure the audio and video systems were working as they should. Even on the days that the technology was cooperating, the students joining virtually could not see both their classmates and us at the same time, and the audio seldom picked up the sound of the whole classroom. From the other point of view, in-person students had issues like not seeing their virtual classmates while also seeing the presentation slides. Troubleshooting all these issues, if there was a solution, often took valuable time that we could instead spend discussing the course material.
To address these issues, we suggest that instructors and teaching assistants divide the class discussions into two parts. For the same discussion questions, we let our students in the classroom collaborate, while virtually participating students discussed the same questions in the break-out rooms. We also assigned a discussion leader to each break-out room to ensure that all students in the same room contributed to the discussion. After the discussion time ends, we listened to the answers of the students in the classroom and asked virtual participants to comment on their peers’ responses, while students in the classroom did the same for the virtual participants. This way, we managed to have our students actively engage with one another and listen to the ideas of their classmates.
Returning to mostly in-person classes seemed like the revival of the pre-pandemic times; however, the 2021-22 academic year was still far from a normal pre-pandemic academic experience. One of the benefits of holding in-person classes is being able to utilize traditional methods of teaching and engagement within the classroom. However, the reality of Covid-19 spreading, and infecting people restricted instructors from using many teaching tools that would benefit the students. Perhaps most significantly, small-group activities were still viewed as dangerous. Students, and instructors, were not too comfortable interacting in small groups, knowing that they could increase the chances of Covid-19 infection. Another restriction was in activities such as poster presentations that are often popular with undergraduate students. While poster presentations are a good practice to get students used to academic conference poster sessions, arranging students around the class, and making students walk around the room and interact with the presenters was not wise knowing that Covid-19 could easily be transmitted among students.
We believe an engaged class environment is crucial to mitigating any Covid-19 learning loss. Instead of eliminating in-class activities due to the safety concerns mentioned above, we advise instructors and teaching assistants to modify their in-class activities. As educational games have proven to improve student engagement (Asal 2005; Torney-Purta 1996), we used role-playing and simulation games to keep our students engaged with limited physical contact. For example, in a world politics class, we assigned a country role to each student, asked them to prepare a one-minute-long speech on a given topic, and told them to criticize another country’s policies on the topic. In doing so, we encouraged each student to have a say and interact with their classmates while social distancing. Our other effective strategy was “peer assessment” on poster presentations to improve communication among students (Weaver and Esposto 2011). Given that holding poster sessions in a small classroom poses a safety risk, we asked our students to prepare their posters online and had one student present their poster at a time. After each presentation, students gave constructive feedback on the posters, which also increased student engagement.
Returning to in-class teaching has been a challenging transition for instructors and teaching assistants who work hard to re-engage students without jeopardizing their health. In this post, we underlined some obstacles to student engagement and proposed our strategies to tackle them. Despite the ongoing risks and challenges, we are hopeful that instructors can reignite students’ engagement in a “post-pandemic” world.
Asal, Victor. 2005. “Playing Games with International Relations.” International Studies Perspectives 6(3): 359-373.
Hartocollis, Anemona. 2021a. “Some colleges and universities are planning for a ‘more normal’ fall semester.” The New York Times. February 27. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/26/world/universities-colleges-reopening-covid.html.
Hartocollis, Anemona. 2021b. “The Masked Professor vs. the Unmasked Student.” The New York Times. September 7. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/07/us/professor-unmasked-students-delta.html
Torney-Purta, Judith. 1996. “Conceptual Changes Among Adolescents Using Computer Networks in Group-Mediated International Role Playing.” In International Perspectives on the Design of Technology Supported Learning Environments, edited by S. Vosniadou, E. DeCorte, R. Glaser, and H. Mandl. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Walke, Henry T., Margaret A. Honein, & Robert R. Redfield. 2020. “Preventing and Responding to COVID-19 on College Campuses.” Journal of American Medical Association 324(17): 1727–1728.
Weaver, Debbi & Esposto, Alexis. 2011. “Peer Assessment as a Method of Improving Student Engagement.” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 37(7): 805-816.
Reyhan Topal is a Ph.D candidate at the State University of New York at Albany.
Farzin Shargh is a Ph.D. student at the State University of New York at Albany.