Students Help Professors Develop More Equitable Classrooms
After a spring of COVID-mandated virtual learning, faculty partnered with students as part of a new summer program to revise courses and make them more inclusive and responsive.
For 14 years, Bi-Co Education Professor Alison Cook-Sather has led the Teaching and Learning Institute, an innovative program that provides forums for exploration of classroom practice for Haverford and Bryn Mawr faculty. One of its initiatives matches students with faculty partners to help them rethink their courses and pedagogical approaches. Usually, this is a semester-long endeavor during the academic year, but following a spring when every Bi-Co professor had to pivot quickly to virtual instruction due to COVID-19, Cook-Sather decided, for the first time, to run a summer version of the program. For the first ever Summer Pedagogical Partnership Program (SPPP), she paired students who had lost summer work due to the pandemic with faculty members eager to prepare more inclusive classrooms for the coming year.
"Adapting to a predominantly remote or hybrid-learning environment in the fall was going to be a big challenge, and one of the main goals with our partnership was to find ways to provide an equitable and inclusive form of learning for all our students, who will be working under a range of possible circumstances, some on campus and others remotely,” said Professor Karin Åkerfeldt, who was part of the Chemistry Department’s SPPP team this summer. “Approximately 250 students are currently enrolled in our introductory courses for the fall term. Working on the screen, how can we make the learning experience for these students, coming from a range of backgrounds and experiences, as equitable and personal as possible?”
Though the summer TLI initially began as a way to support planning for remote or hybrid instruction, as racial justice protests spread across the country in June, it became clear that an explicit focus on antiracist pedagogy was also necessary.
“The uprisings and protests increased awareness of inequity and attention to Black wellness,” said Cook-Sather. “So I just wove that in immediately in a more explicit way, because equity and inclusion are always a focus of the TLI.”
In the early summer, Cook-Sather hired 15 students to work with cohorts of faculty members in departments across the Bi-Co, including Haverford biology, chemistry, environmental studies, linguistics, math, and English. Over the course of the summer, the students met regularly with their intra- and inter-departmental and, in some cases, cross-college teams, talking through issues and developing resources—questionnaires, activities, assignments—for courses in the upcoming academic year. They also met weekly with Cook-Sather and the rest of the SPPP student participants to get support.
Bilikisu Hanidu ’23 was one of the students on the chemistry team that worked on the 100-level introductory course and 200-level “Organic Chemistry” with Åkerfeldt, Visiting Assistant Professor Milana Thomas, Associate Professor Fran Blase, and Lab Instructors Kelly Matz and Mark Stein. Despite Haverford’s in-person return this fall, those large, highly enrolled classes will be taught virtually. Hanidu felt that, as students who had taken or were planning to take the courses, she and the other student on the team, Roy Simamora ’22, were important parts of the pedagogy creation.
“We worked through each step of the process for both classes and labs,” she said. “This included revisiting the learning objectives and discussing ways we could revise the syllabus and class structure to make it more flexible and equitable. We aim for the classes to be as close as possible to an in-person class in regards to the quality of education, but we understand that students will not be able to do the same workload from home online or via Zoom. Anticipating the challenges that come with virtual learning, we worked to make avenues of supplemental support as accessible and efficient as possible.”
“The biggest issue is, for us, how to connect with the students” when classes are virtual, said Åkerfeldt. “How do we get to know them? How can we provide an individualized experience for all students where the students get the help they need? … With these goals in mind, our [team’s] discussions were centered around labs, course structure, community building, and student feedback.”
One of the major challenges was reworking the key laboratory components of the classes. One way they decided to convert the in-person, hands-on experience to a constructive online format was by filming Matz, Stein, and Simamora doing all of the labs. This will not only enable all enrolled students to watch the same processes and work with the same data sets, but it will also allow them “to get a taste of what lab would’ve looked like,” said Hanidu.
“The best experience for me has been giving students agency over how we are constructing our courses,” said Matz. “I have really enjoyed learning from them and seeing things through their eyes.”
That sentiment was true for teams across disciplines in this summer’s program.
“Working with the student consultants was incredibly generative,” said Sarah Wilma Watson, visiting assistant professor of English and another TLI participant. “It was especially helpful to have a window into how students experienced online teaching. They had many ideas for how to improve the online learning experience, ranging from technical suggestions—use Google Docs for peer review—to more conceptual ideas for facilitating conversation and creating class community. A simple, but I expect transformative, suggestion from the students was to acknowledge that COVID-19 and other current events are changing the way we live and learn, and to consciously build in class time for the students to share their thoughts, experiences, emotions, and reactions to current circumstances.”
Hanidu said the chemistry team also worked hard to create sensitive ways to acknowledge current events, especially this summer’s racial justice protests. After brainstorming with the chemistry team about possible ways to do this appropriately, without putting the onus on students of color in the class or making anyone relive trauma, the group settled on a multi-pronged approach that includes taking time to recognize Black scientists when studying their contributions to the syllabus and creating a speaker series in which working scientists of color share their experiences.
“Simply giving BIPOC scientists and researchers a platform increases the visibility of people of color in academia and allows students to know that there are people from various backgrounds doing this work,” she said. “We can show that a career in science is a realistic possibility for all students. Small things like that—it does make a difference. We thought that was an effective way of talking about racial inequalities and doing something to address them.”
If there is a small silver lining to the storm cloud of the pandemic, it is that it has forced conversations that have long needed to happen, disrupting “business as usual,” making space to question why and how educators do what they do, and building overdue recognition of the importance of building a classroom community where everyone belongs. For Cook-Sather, who first envisioned the TLI back in 2006, the way the SPPP has addressed such topics has been inspiring.
“I think part of what is very promising about the work that the students and faculty are doing through this summer program is that they are really addressing—in perhaps more explicit ways than might be the case under what were previously “normal” circumstances—community building and relationship building and access and equity in very intentional and focused ways,” she said. “I'm inspired that faculty are also thinking about how to structure assignments and are re-imagining how to invite students to engage with content in their courses in ways that are more equitable and inclusive.”
“Teaching remotely is, of course, not an experience any one of us working at Haverford had ever expected to be in,” said Åkerfeldt. “However, going online has also made me think about pedagogy more than ever, and this has been extremely rewarding in so many ways. I am optimistic that we will learn new ways to deliver our courses so that when we are back in-person, we have new tools at our disposal that will make the educational experience better for everyone, and I’m so grateful to Alison for developing this unique and transformative program. It is the way of the future.”