Dr. Felicia Mensah, PhD
Professor of Science and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University; Chair of Department of Mathematics, Science and Technology at Teachers College, Columbia University
Dr. Mensah teaches Introduction to Qualitative Research Methods and Critical Voices in Teacher Education courses at Teachers College. During the pandemic, these courses were offered asynchronously online and synchronously online, respectively. This shift to online teaching required Dr. Mensah to rethink community and engagement in the courses. Dr. Mensah met the moment by leveraging multimedia and instructional technology to support student learning, providing students with resources, support, and community, and taking risks to encourage playfulness. Read on to learn more about what Dr. Mensah did in her course, what lessons and experiences she’s carrying forward, and the advice she has for other instructors at Columbia.
Leverage Multimedia and Instructional Technology to Support Student Learning
Leverage instructional technologies.
When I taught the Critical Voices in Teacher Education course online, I needed to make sure that students continued to be highly engaged in their learning. Because each synchronous class session was two hours long, I used the Google Suite apps like Google Docs, Google Slides, and Jamboard to make class sessions more interactive. Teachers College also hosted a technology workshop for teachers and introduced ThingLink, an educational technology platform where images, videos, and other media forms can be used interactively to engage students. I had my students use ThingLink to complete their final project which was about producing a professional development workshop for teachers. It turned out to be a great opportunity for students to try out a new platform and see whether it is something they could adapt and use in their own classrooms, since most of my students are teachers themselves. Using these technologies and tools made the learning process a lot more interactive and allowed students to be able to share their learning in new ways that are not bound by paper and pencil.
Provide multimodal instruction and feedback through a podcast
This past summer, I taught an asynchronous online course called Introduction to Qualitative Research Methods. To provide students with more support, I created a podcast, which was risk-taking for me because I had no previous training or education on creating podcasts. I started by simply recording the podcast with an app called Anchor on my cell phone; I called it Baby Qual Podcast.
After initially playing around with the app and accidentally putting a recording on Spotify, I started to plan the recordings more professionally by typing up a script for each of the podcast episodes. I then recorded every two or three days so that students had the podcast in advance and put them on Spotify for students to listen to.
I paralleled each week’s lesson with a podcast where I talked as if I were in the class with the students. Because this was for an asynchronous online course, I wanted to give students the experience of my talking with them and guiding them through the course, and the podcast allowed me to do that. I also aimed to give students additional feedback through the podcast and have more interaction with the students in the asynchronous online setting.
Students have shared with me that they really appreciated hearing my voice and that listening to the podcast allowed them to focus better on the course readings. Students also found the podcast calming and re-affirming, especially for those who were just starting to learn about academic writing and conducting research. For some students, this was the very first class they took as graduate students. It was helpful for them to get this support and feedback early in their graduate school experience, as it would prepare them for the coursework they would be doing later in the fall semester, especially for academic writing.
Creating a podcast was valuable because it was another way of sharing information to broader audiences even beyond my classes. I shared my podcast with a few colleagues at other institutions who listened to it and thought it would also be helpful for their students. I encouraged them to freely share it with their students. The podcast served as a resource for students beyond my classes to provide the foundational support in doing research in their early years. I plan to use the podcast for my doctoral-level Introduction to Qualitative Research Methods course this fall.
Provide Students with Resources, Support, and Community
Create additional support systems for students.
In addition to the podcast, I developed further support systems to help students succeed in my course. I divided the class into smaller groups, and my three course assistants each met with their assigned group of students to discuss and answer questions. That way, students had someone else to talk to and get support from besides myself.
I also coordinated one live office hour session mid-semester (in addition to my regular office hours) where all the students in the course could come and talk with me about their progress in class. Because students do not regularly attend office hours, I encouraged them to attend this live office hour session by making it more like a meet-and-greet session for the course assistants, students, and me. It was an opportunity for students to meet their class members and ask questions and share any concerns they might have about the course.
Additionally, I have learned to be more sensitive to students and what their needs are. In my remote teaching, I still held very high expectations for the students, but at the same time, I accommodated students’ needs. If they needed more time for an assignment, I gave them more time without any penalties. I made myself more readily available to them through office hours and appointments as they needed me.
Build community through course activities.
I love music, so for every session in my synchronous online Critical Voices in Teacher Education course, I started 5 minutes early and opened up with some music that gave us time to say hello and casually chit chat (similar to hallway conversations) about anything, like the weather, the background music, how their day was going, and other topics they wanted to talk about. Sometimes, students would make requests for music and I would find it and play it for them. Music not only set the tone for the class but also allowed us to share our interests and build community with each other through informal conversations.
I also used activities at the beginning of each class to help students get settled and oriented to the class session. I gave prompts through true/false questions and images, or I showed scrabble tiles and gave students a minute to produce as many words as possible. These very quick, 2-3 minute community engagement activities were important because I teach about race in this course. This is a heavy topic, so I wanted students to feel more comfortable getting to know each other in the process of being able to learn together.
To help students ground themselves in the course content, I had them keep a journal where they would do their 5 minutes of pre-writing at the beginning and 5 minutes of post-writing at the end of class. For example, for the 5-minute pre-writing, students would look at an image of affinity group spaces where people are talking with each other and respond to the given prompt, like: “what do you think they are saying in their affinity groups related to race and teacher education?” This was an opportunity for students to reflect individually before engaging in class activities.
At the end of the semester, students would go back to their journal and read all of their pre-writing and post-writing, and write a final paper based on those entries. This way, I was able to see the development in their writing and evaluate what kind of transformative and reflective learning they had over the course of the semester. They too noticed great learning and transformation of their ideas over the semester. I engaged with their writing by asking questions and made the process as interactive as possible. Having this personal dialogue with my students in their writing also helped me build relationships with them.
Take Risks to Encourage Playfulness
My biggest takeaway from the pandemic is to be a risk taker. I had never thought of myself as an online instructor and have always taught face-to-face, so remote teaching was a risk for me. I wanted to have some in-person-like elements in my remote teaching, so I worked to develop a sense of community in my online classes. Now that I have taught online and tried something new, I am thinking of ways to translate some of the online teaching strategies, like playing music, into my face-to-face classes as another way to build community.
As an instructor, I have also learned to be playful in trying new strategies and building community with students. I challenged myself to present course content in different ways. As I look ahead to the upcoming semester, I am excited about what I can carry forward from my pandemic teaching and how I can continue to challenge myself as an instructor, advisor, and support to students. I want to foster an even greater sense of community for my students. Several students shared that my learning and calling every student by their name made them feel seen in the class. I also want to ensure that every student has a chance to speak and engage with each other so that I hear every voice and I remember it. I value knowing who my students are and cultivating a strong sense of community with them, especially in the online format.
Advice for Instructors and the Future of Teaching at Columbia
Communicate with students and solicit their feedback.
Continuously communicate with students and solicit student feedback. I always ask students about how they are doing in class and for feedback on my teaching. My advice is not to take student feedback personally, but use it to improve your instruction and your students’ learning. If some students share that they didn’t like a particular assignment, I explain to them my rationale for that assignment and why I’m doing what I’m doing. I communicate with them my intentions behind the choices I make to design my course and hear from students what they might have gotten out of those assignments. I use their feedback in the moment and for future courses. Talking with my students and listening to their feedback helps me look at my course from a different angle and opens more room for further improvement.
I also try to be transparent with my students about how I do not know everything and how I am learning alongside their learning. Rather than setting up a hierarchy between me and my students, I value building a relationship with my students in which we support each other and learn from each other.