Eleanor Vandegrift, University of Oregon
Key Statement: Post COVID-19, we have an opportunity to design learning environments that inclusively meet learners where they are, intentionally modify past teaching practices, and align practices with trauma-informed pedagogy as we create the future of higher education.
As an instructor and education program director, I’m comfortable in the role of teacher. Still, many of my biggest personal breakthroughs have come when I return to the role of learner. Often this occurs when I take on a hobby like adult tap dancing — something I’ve been dabbling in for the past decade — with lessons that weave their way into my classroom. Recently, I had a profound learning moment while attending a faculty workshop during that foggy period when we started re-entering society after lockdown. That workshop moment will shape my teaching now and into the future.
While learning to tap dance, like many university students, I find I am impatient to master the skills of experts, frequently dismayed by my inability to grasp what seems easy for others, and frustrated when I make mistakes. I’m really not good at tap dancing; however, with a very patient teacher and practice, I improve and even have fun. Sometimes I experience improvement during a class, and sometimes it’s several weeks before I notice my feet are following the patterns. Even with long breaks, some muscle memory is reactivated and reenergized when I return to a class. As a student, I’ve learned to love these moments of metacognition, noticing how my learning improves with practice spaced across time (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018). As an educator, I’ve tried to bring my own learning experiences to my teaching and educational development work (Vandegrift et al., 2018; Vandegrift & Cavanagh, 2019). As an educational developer, I spend much of my time thinking about such experiences to apply to how students learn and provide opportunities for educators to reflect on their teaching.
New Reality of Readiness to Learn
After 18 months away from campus, I recently stepped back into a physical classroom as a learner to attend an all-day workshop with my peers. I expected to be excited to learn something new and exciting, engage in conversation, and be in a familiar classroom setting. I anticipated that being together with others would help re-establish a sense of belonging, ease my campus reentry, and allow me to focus on the workshop content.
However, that wasn’t my experience. My attention was absorbed by a wide range of emotions I was experiencing, learning again how to read three-dimensional body language, communicating with others, staying focused in a live setting, and judging appropriate ways to participate. I teach with group activities because classroom social interactions are important for student growth and development, a sense of belonging, and learner psychological safety (Clark, 2020; Sandstrom & Rawn, 2015). As a learner, I struggled to engage in social interactions and was disoriented by how different I felt compared to the last time I was in a classroom. Having spent 28 years—my entire adult life—in higher education, I found that I was not comfortable in this learning environment, which brought a sense of order, normalcy, consistency, and structure to my academic and professional life. I could recognize my past privilege and psychological safety in these learning spaces. It was jarring. Much like learning to tap dance, this was an insightful moment. I know that I am not alone in having strong emotions about returning to seemingly mundane activities (Wolfe, 2021). It caused me to rethink everything I’ve learned about inclusive pedagogy, educational development and wonder how higher education will continue to change because of the pandemic.
This classroom experience ended late on Friday afternoon, and the next faculty workshop I was scheduled to lead—with my educational development hat back on—was 8:00 AM Monday. I was powerfully aware that I had to modify my plans. I could not continue as if everything was the same pre-pandemic-normal. I made some minor changes to my workshop:
1. I acknowledged at the beginning the place we occupy in history, the reality that
our learning environments are likely forever changed, and the reality that we may
all experience changes in different ways.
2. I expanded the time and opportunities for faculty to engage in quiet metacognitive
prompts, self-reflection, and make a specific plan for their teaching.
3. I intentionally modeled and discussed more ways to provide feedback to learners
with polling questions pulled from participants’ own words, exit tickets,
collaborative slides for recording breakout room conversations, and expanded
time for conversations to address learners’ questions and concerns thoroughly.
While I already use many of these strategies regularly, I felt a renewed responsibility to be
transparent about my teaching design decisions and — hopefully — create opportunities for faculty to feel a sense of
belonging in the learning environment. But I was also embarrassingly aware that I must continue to learn more about trauma-informed pedagogy and measure how — even when I’m using best practices — I unintentionally exclude learners. Additionally, I need to monitor my privilege and learn about ways the pandemic is reshaping learners’ experiences.
Design Classroom Communities That Incorporate Inclusive Pedagogy
For the first many months of the pandemic, I created content for others (Withers et al., 2021), focused on my family’s safety, and navigated new work patterns. I did not find opportunities to attend to my professional development. Now that I have taken moments for reflection,
I’m beginning to realize what expansive changes we are already experiencing in higher education and acknowledge we’ve just started to unpack this. As my campus returns to in-person learning and I step back into the role of learner and observer, it is time for renewed growth and learning to respond to these new paradigms that will frame my work as an educational developer and teacher. It reminds me that we all have an opportunity to learn and grow, to reshape our collective work, to support student learning and success in higher education. Like my experience as a learner with tap dancing, we need to give ourselves and each other patience and grace as we continue to navigate this changing landscape of our learning environments.
1. Student Welcome: How do we welcome students back (or onto campus for the first time) into our campus learning spaces when many do not have the same level of comfort with higher education, learning, and academic routines as educators? How do we make room for the many varied responses and reactions to these learning spaces in the short- and long-term?
2. Educational Developers: The pandemic has dramatically underscored learners’ historical and emerging needs. How can educational developers more deeply understand these needs so that we can provide appropriate development experiences to our learners?
3. Pandemic Lessons: What are the lessons of the pandemic (for students, faculty, institutions) about the structure and value of higher education? How do we learn from the lessons of the pandemic to improve academic experiences?
Clark, T. R. (2020). The 4 stages of psychological safety: Defining the path to inclusion and
innovation. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2018). How people learn II:
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Sandstrom, G. M., & Rawn, C. D. (2015). Embrace chattering students: They may be building
community and interest in your class. Teaching of Psychology, 42(3), 227-233.
Vandegrift E. V. H., & Cavanagh, A. J. (2019). Building student literacy and metacognition
through reading science in the news. CourseSource.
Vandegrift, E. V. H., Mulnix, A. B., Yates, J. R. & Chaudhury, S. R. (2018). Workshopping a
workshop: Collaborative design in educational development. To Improve the Academy, 37(2), 207-227. https://doi.org/10.1002/tia2.20080
Withers, M., Monfared, M., Fung, F. M., Lee, V. W. Y., Lucio Ramírez, C. A., Mendoza, M. A. F.,
Zhou, C., & Vandegrift, E. V .H. (2021). Teaching in virtual environments: Global
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pandemic. Transformative Dialogues, 14(2).
Wolfe, J. (2021, October 1). Coronavirus briefing: What happened today: 700,000 deaths and
Covid social anxiety. New York Times.