Turning Hardships into Strengths: Advancing Learning During COVID-19

Turning hardships into strength with person pushing rock up mountain

In spring 2020 the world faced an unprecedented emergency situation in the COVID-19 pandemic. Many instructors who normally teach face-to-face had to pivot overnight to teach remotely. There was little time for preparation and often little support. Many of these instructors had no previous online teaching experience, and many are still confused by what is meant by “remote” teaching and how and why it differs from teaching online.

While we hope that our students and instructors may never have to experience another COVID-19 outbreak, we can be certain that other emergencies will occur in the future. Therefore, it is important to document what instructors learned from the emergency pivot, which will have a long-term impact on their teaching and their students’ learning.

As an instructional designer working in a US public university, I am aware that instructors throughout the country and world are doing a lot of praiseworthy work, often under limited circumstances. And as a faculty professional developer, I am interested to know what pedagogical innovations did faculty use to enhance their students’ learning during this time? And what lessons did instructors learn which will impact their future pedagogy and course design?

To demonstrate how some faculty used pedagogical innovations, I would like to spotlight an instructor at Boise State University, Serena Hicks. Hicks leveraged the hardships posed by dire circumstances into pedagogical strengths that advanced student learning.

Big challenges

Hicks is a teacher educator with more than 20 years of teaching experience in public education, mostly in face-to-face classrooms. In spring 2020, she taught an undergraduate learning and instruction course for secondary teacher preparation students. She also facilitated a graduate seminar for student teachers nearing graduation. One of the biggest teaching challenges she faced was how to maintain her agency as an instructor when the tools she had used to design instruction and facilitate learning suddenly changed to a format where she felt less effective. She could no longer use proximity to increase engagement and build relationships; use pacing to maintain engagement and motivation; model best-practice pedagogies like active learning and collaborative learning; or respond to “in-the-moment needs” of students. It was difficult to monitor students who were at risk, including low grades, unsafe living situations, financial stress, and mental health struggles. Because the shift was so fast, Hicks had limited ability to match instruction to target learning outcomes. Lack of time reduced her ability to determine what mobile application, software, or process could be a replacement for the strategy or process used in the face-to-face classroom.

Students underwent challenges to learning, too. Most felt disconnected from the community and culture of the classroom learning environment, and others missed the pacing of the lesson, the fun, and the collegial relationships. This led some students to feel that they were learning alone. In course evaluations, students specifically noted that they couldn’t see how teaching was being modeled anymore, and it made them wonder if they would be ready for the classroom or ready to take a job based on what they missed. Some students lost their jobs and had to move home, and often struggled to put themselves on a schedule.

Transmuting hardships to strengths

Networking with like-minded colleagues and mentors helped Hicks transform her teaching techniques, as did taking in feedback from students on how to best help them learn. Meanwhile, self-care in the form of regular exercise helped her fuel this journey.

Specific things she did to adapt her teaching under the changing circumstances included:

  • Reducing the activities and assignments on the syllabus to only what was necessary
  • Changing remaining assessments to pass/fail
  • Including “one pagers” for assignments or assessments that were annotated documents hyperlinked to additional resources, readings, videos, and examples
  • Differentiating the format of assignments and assessments so that students could make more choices about how they shared evidence of their learning
  • Immediately moving to asynchronous instruction to allow for flexibility
  • Pushing out a survey to ask about access, ensuring students had what they needed to be online
  • Scheduling optional Zoom meetings for connections and clarifications
  • Personalizing instruction and creating instructor presence through short videos explaining class content, as well as to reach out to students
  • Using mobile apps that students were already accustomed with, so that students weren’t learning new processes and content at the same time
  • Encouraging students to pick a “Thinking Partner” and complete assignments together

Some gains, some losses: Lessons learned

Hicks learned that there were useful tools beneficial to any teaching mode: face-to-face, online, and hybrid. Being forced to look at options, she found ways to expand her teaching toolbox and model even more strategies to respond to students’ jagged learning profile and to the students these student teachers would eventually encounter.

Key takeaways from expanding the teaching toolbox:

  • There is no alternative to extensive and intentional lesson planning and course design.
  • Technology needs to be organically embedded in teaching and learning, not merely be an add-on support to the face-to-face classroom experience.
  • Maintaining connections with students is key. Use appropriate technology to enhance instructor presence and increase student-student and instructor-student interaction.
  • The most important resources are the people and groups who understand pedagogy first, and then technology.
  • All face-to-face teaching and learning experiences cannot be transferred into the remote mode. It is alright, as long as learning outcomes are met.
  • Be kind and listen to student feedback.
  • Have flexible deadlines and assessment methods.
  • Necessity is the mother of invention – teaching is about tenacity more than tools.

Closing thoughts

Emergencies may come and go. Some emergencies, like COVID-19, may take away our collegial support, and the informal “hallway meetings” or collaborations that we had previously taken for granted. But we can certainly come out better and stronger as a result of this hardship. We can transform our teaching and our students’ learning, through our purposeful preparedness, patience, kindness, and our willingness to be flexible. Together we will seize the opportunities to improve our pedagogy. Let our students’ needs guide us.

Devshikha Bose, PhD, is an instructional design consultant at the Center for Teaching and Learning, Boise State University.

Serena Hicks, PhD, is a clinical assistant professor at Boise State University. She teaches in the College of Education and serves as Faculty Associate in the Center for Teaching and Learning.