Students want e-learning features in the ‘new normal’

While they value in-person interactions, undergraduates want to retain some of the adaptations developed when teaching online, including submitting assignments online and answering questions digitally, according to survey results.

“We absolutely have to realize that we are not going back to the old normal,” said Mark Sarvary, Ph.D. ’06, director of the Investigative Biology Teaching Laboratories at the College of Agriculture and Science in life (CALS).

“It’s a difficult realization, because we’ve developed our courses and our learning goals in this old normal, and we’ve grown accustomed to certain teaching methods,” said Sarvary, first author of “Undergraduates’ Experiences With Online and In-Person Courses Provide Opportunities for Improving Student-Centered Biology Laboratory Instruction,” published April 7 in the Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education. “I think many instructors expected to go back to this and be done with all this technology. But we are not the same people as before the pandemic, and the students are not the same as before the pandemic. Instead of complaining about it, let’s see what we can learn from it.

The study’s co-authors are Frank Castelli, postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Neurobiology and Behaviour, and Mitra Asgari, associate professor at Arizona State University.

Transitioning from an entry-level investigative biology course online was hard enough, but Sarvary was surprised to find that returning to in-person teaching was even harder: During the first semester, referrals in mental health and special accommodation requests from students quadrupled.

“It’s the cumulative stress of the pandemic – the loss of family members, illness, stress, the loss of social contacts – but it’s also students who have never experienced a ‘normal’ college class” , did he declare. “We want to find solutions that support students while meeting our learning goals.”

Sarvary and his colleagues surveyed students in a roughly 350-person course about their preferences for specific components of online and in-person instruction. They found that while students enjoyed in-person interactions that create a sense of community, such as group work and in-person lab sessions, students also enjoyed and wanted to retain many of the adaptations developed during the pandemic, including online assignment submission, office hours, recorded lectures, raising your hand and answering questions via technology during large online lectures and exams with flexible deadlines.

“I think what the pandemic has taught us is that we can easily accommodate people,” said Dawson Postl ’24, a former student and undergraduate teaching assistant in the investigative biology course at Sarvary. “Almost everyone enjoyed being back in person and having that sense of community, but Zoom and other technologies are still powerful tools in our arsenal.”

For example, he said, recorded lectures help people with disabilities, people who miss class due to illness or family emergencies, and students who want to revise while studying.

The return to in-person teaching required creative adaptations to accommodate the ways students want to learn, said Joseph Ruesch, Ph.D. ’22, who worked as a graduate TA for investigative biology. He mimicked Zoom’s “raise your hand” feature by asking students to put up a folded paper triangle when they have a question or need help. It removes the embarrassment of physically raising your hand and leaves students’ hands free to continue working while they wait for a TA, he said.

Sarvary said he hopes instructors will review all the tools in their instructional toolkits as they move through the “new normal.”

“As I consider what to keep online and what to collect in person, I wanted to involve all stakeholders, and among the most important stakeholders are the students themselves,” said said Sarvary. “We can have both compassion and academic rigor.”

This research was funded by the CALS Active Learning Initiative grants program.

Krisy Gashler is a writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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