Teaching and Learning at UW-Madison:  Building connections with our students

The following post was jointly written by Chancellor Blank and Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Karl Scholz. 

Welcome to 2021. Both of us are happy to see the end of 2020. The holiday break gave us time to reflect on the unusual year that has just passed. We are extraordinarily grateful for the outstanding work of our staff and faculty instructors during this unusual time, keeping the educational mission of UW strong. We are both impressed by the work required to make an instant pivot to online instruction in March, as well as the instruction done in the Summer and the Fall.

Through one channel or another, we have heard of many outstanding examples of teaching and learning this past fall. Of course, as is true every semester we’ve also received reports of not-so-good experiences by students.  With the pressures of the pandemic, these perhaps were a bit more common this fall. We owe it to our students to continue to find ways to be even better educators in the semester and year ahead.

Spring and Summer 2021

Starting in mid-January Safer Badgers, our extensive new testing program, will further enhance our ability to monitor and control the presence of COVID-19 on campus. While there are many reasons to expand testing, one reason is to further minimize risk for students and instructors in our many in-person classes. We would like to give a special thank you to the instructors teaching those in-person, on-campus classes this spring. Students have consistently mentioned their desire for in-person engagement. As is appropriate, faculty and staff teaching or otherwise working in group settings on campus will be prioritized for campus delivery of COVID vaccinations this spring.

Of course, a substantial number of classes will continue to be delivered remotely during the spring and summer.  Through our recent student survey, feedback from student groups and fall term course evaluations, we have learned a great deal about what went well in fall (a great deal did!) and about where we can continue to improve.

Relationships with instructors and classroom peers motivate and make learning more engaging and meaningful.  Students have consistently reminded us of this, which has two implications as we launch the spring term:

  • We need to ensure that student-instructor interaction is strong in all modalities, with particular attention to this in remote instruction classes. In too many remote classes student-to-instructor connections have been minimal or non-existent. Students indicate they miss meeting with instructors, particularly in remote courses, and are struggling with the material.  We encourage all instructors to find ways to meet with or communicate with their students regularly outside class lectures, and to encourage students to take advantage of office hours even when virtual.
  • Students are looking for more opportunities to learn together in courses. The informal gatherings, such as before class, at the library or other campus places to study or work together on homework, have been disrupted with physical distancing. We need to build new opportunities for students to learn together. We encourage all instructors, but particularly remote instructors, to facilitate study groups and course discussion outside class, perhaps helping seed this activity more than what is needed for non-remote classes.

We have learned that remote instruction should not simply involve teaching the same course in the same way via a digital tool.   Remote instruction often requires restructuring a course and making changes in teaching style.  Put differently, a remote presentation with “voice-over PowerPoint” can be deadly boring and rarely leads to great teaching and learning.  We have also learned that remote instruction is more fragile than in-person instruction. It takes more planning, structure and course design to work well. Given that most of our courses this spring will still be remote, it is imperative that remote courses are designed in a way that works best for student learning.

If you have not previously engaged in professional development around remote or online instruction, now is the time to do so before the spring semester begins. Please take advantage of one or more of these campus professional development opportunities for remote instruction.

Looking Forward to Fall 2021

With a couple of vaccines now in use and others on the near horizon, we are planning for a resumption of primarily in-person classes for fall semester 2021.  While forecasting is always inexact, we expect that everyone who wishes to get a COVID-19 vaccine will have been able to do so by the beginning of the fall semester. Moreover, while any changes to course modality are clearly disruptive, it is easier to pivot from in-person to remote than it is from remote to in-person. Consequently, in planning for fall, remote instruction – in person classes delivered remotely —  will not be offered as a modality option for course scheduling as we seek to re-establish in-person instruction across campus. We will of course adapt, as we have done in the past, if things do not go as planned.

We recognize that returning to campus after a long time away will be an adjustment for many. But being back together allows us to utilize the strength and richness of our world-class residential university – it allows students and faculty to interact more frequently, it makes it easier to get to know colleagues and students, it allows students to benefit from the rich set of activities and people across campus, and it allows researchers to come in contact with others who they might not otherwise meet and who become new collaborators.

Furthermore, all instructors on campus have had to reimagine their teaching over this past year. Many of you have tried new techniques and learned some new technologies.  That means that in-person classes will be different after the pandemic, with faculty and instructors employing a wider range of teaching methods, hopefully keeping those new approaches that allow them to encourage more active learning and student engagement. We will be initiating conversations this spring with instructors about what we can learn from the forced move to remote classes that will improve in-person classes when they resume.

Change in 2021 will come more slowly than many of us hope. The pandemic is far from over and vaccinations will take time.  But if we are proactive in identifying lessons from this experience, we can emerge stronger as a university as we exit the pandemic and find new ways to serve our students and further strengthen the outstanding teaching and learning at UW-Madison.