Learning to Learn
in A Pandemic
Never before have educators and their students faced a challenge where simply finding ways to learn has been a struggle.
Since the early part of March 2020, the education system has found itself adapting to an ever-changing set of guidelines in a COVID-19 world and Williams Baptist University has not been immune to these changes.
The classroom setup is different. Students are spaced for social distancing and required to wear masks. Professors must also wear masks or face shields while teaching, which can present their own set of problems.
The changes have brought about new ideas in the classroom that have helped students ensure that they do not have to miss a lecture if they are unable to attend class. Professors now stream each lecture through Facebook Live and course work is turned in through e-mail or other options as deemed by the instructors. Group presentations have been presented through virtual calls and guest speakers also interact through those same platforms.
However, these ideas are not perfect and often present unforeseen issues.
“Not being able to see my professors’ faces when they are talking has been difficult at times,” said Kyla Hudson, a WBU senior from Cleveland, Tenn. “I never realized how much I rely on being able to see what they are saying. I know that sounds crazy, but now I have to focus on what is being said in class to make sure I am hearing it correctly.”
The same is true for professors, who often use non-verbal indicators to check for understanding among students.
“When I look across the lecture hall now, all I see areeyes staring back at me,” said Dr. Blake Perkins, department chair and associate professor of history. “It can be difficult to know if they have truly understood the message or have questions that they just do not want to ask.”
For students, the task has been equally as difficult from the learning side. When attending an in-person class, they can ask questions immediately when something is not clear, but such is not the case when watching through a livestream and students must follow up with their professors after class through email for a better understanding.
A key component throughout the entire process has been communication by students and professors. Perkins said that being available to answer emails or jump on a Zoom call with a student is something that he now makes part of his daily routine, even going as far as doing it when he leaves campus for the day and goes home to be with his family.
“I often answer emails from students up until I go to bed in the evening,” Perkins said. “It was more hectic at the beginning of the school year because everything was new, but by the middle of the fall semester things seemed to calm down as we all fell into a routine that was normal for the situation we are in.”
Melinda Williams, assistant professor for speech, drama and journalism, said that she too often answers emails from students outside her office hours, but added that is part of why she has loved working at WBU for her entire teaching career.
“If I ever get to the point where I find it a burden to help a student, then I don’t need to be teaching anymore,” she said.
From the student side, Hudson said she feels that her peers have to take a more active approach to their learning and simply cannot rely on traditional means as they have in the past. From her view, that is good because it made her feel more engaged in her learning process.
In the beginning, the senior said that she struggled between in-person and virtual instruction because each setting felt very different. She had to force herself to continue to pay attention when sitting in her room by herself listening to a lecture because the temptation to pick up her phone or look up something on the internet was incredibly high.
“It is something I think a lot of students struggle with,” Hudson said. “When you are in-person you are in an environment that is familiar to the learning process and while you might daydream or lose focus, you can quickly snap yourself back into it. However, when you are in your dorm room you actually have more distractions than you think and you can easily spend 15-20 minutes not paying attention to a lecture and then you will have to go back later to see what you missed.”
An unexpected obstacle that professors have faced is the task is keeping attendance for excused absences and non-excused absences. Often because of the complex nature of the quarantine process, instructors may not receive notification that a student is in quarantine before the start of class. If a student is in quarantine they are still required to attend class through the Facebook Live setup, but even that can be a cumbersome task for both professor and students.
“Personally, I often struggle to keep up with who should be in class, on Facebook Live or just who is absent for one reason or another,” Perkins said. “It has been a balancing act, but the students have been great about adapting to our needs and that is something that has not gone unnoticed by me and my colleagues.”
While Perkins has been able to adapt and overcome in a traditional lecture-style class, Williams has faced her own set of stumbling blocks in her performing arts classes, which require students to interact with one another.
When classes returned for the fall semester in August, Williams found herself with 30 students in her theatre workshop class that focuses on acting out scenes from plays and musicals, and she struggled to figure out how best to adapt the class to the new breed of instruction.
What transpired has been part inspiration, part ingenuity and a whole lot of throwing ideas against a wall to see what would stick.
To properly social distance the students but still take part in a production style class Williams and her students came up with the idea of a radio show where each student would read a radio program on stage with props and instruments at their disposal in their performances. Students read and performed excerpts from Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds”, the Grand Ole Opry, Fibber McGee and Molly and many others.
The “Old Time Radio Theatre” made its debut during homecoming week in Startup Chapel to a socially distanced audience.
“It was one of the most unique and rewarding performances that we have done,” Williams said. “I think it forced all of us to think outside of the box and come up with a creative way to present something different. I was extremely proud of the work the students put into making this happen.”
Both Perkins and Williams noted that while this new world of hybrid teaching has been difficult at times, it has also sharpened their skills as instructors.
Williams said it keeps her on her toes and ensures that she does not become complacent in what she does in class and in many ways, this has made her a better instructor and has allowed her to zero in on her teaching.
“I’ve been teaching for 37 years and in a lot of my classes it is just second nature how I do things,” she said. “I’ve been teaching a speech class since I first arrived here on campus and while things do change, 75 percent of what I teach is mostly the same, so my technique on how I present it is down to a science. Now, however, it has almost felt like I am starting over from year one because I have to be so aware of the virtual component and the in-person kids at the same time, but that is not a bad thing.”
The students of WBU have adapted, as well, and in some cases are already looking at ways they can improve upon techniques in the next stages of their life.
“I’m going to be a teacher and I think going through this now will give me an advantage when I go in for an interview,” Hudson said. “I feel a lot more confident that I will get a job just knowing what I’ve gone through and knowing what my students are going to be going through. I have been immersed in virtual tools and things that my professors are using now that I can use myself. Virtual is here to stay and that’s something that we all have to embrace.