Dr. Katherine Segal, PhD, LCSW
Lecturer in Social Work at the Columbia School of Social Work
Dr. Segal teaches the MSW first-year Social Work Research and the second-year Adult Psychopathology and Pathways to Wellness courses; these courses range in enrollment from 14-50 students. Although Dr. Segal was teaching in the online program before the remote shift in Spring 2020, that pivot required rethinking student engagement in the online course. Dr. Segal met the moment by reimagining class time to support student learning and prioritizing student partnerships and community building. Read on to learn more about what Dr. Segal did in her course, what lessons and experiences she’s carrying forward, and the advice she has for other instructors at Columbia. To learn more about Dr. Segal’s innovations with mindfulness in the classroom, read her CTL Voices of Hybrid and Online Teaching narrative.
Reimagine Class Time to Support Student Learning
My biggest lesson from pandemic teaching and learning was to question what is really the best use of the students’ in-class time. I’ve always been a proponent of not using our shared time to tell the students what’s in the readings. In my opinion, if that’s all I’m doing, then the students who attend don’t need to do the readings, and the students who read don’t need to attend. So my goal has always been to create an experience of application and clarification that they can’t get from only reading the textbook, or heading to Youtube to watch an existing video.
I also questioned how some of the in-class activities that I thought were essential could be shifted asynchronously. For example, I can record and post short videos on the content that I know is not in the reading or that applies what’s in the reading. I can have students submit their questions, and then record or type out answers and put those on CourseWorks (Canvas). I can shift small group activities and other discussion prompts to a discussion board. The goal of moving activities and content to be asynchronous is not to replace or eliminate the need for synchronous in-class experiences. The goal is to foster a sense of freedom, as using these tools allows us to use our time differently. We can be more creative in how we use our class time by drawing on the resources we have access to.
An important aspect of this approach is to seek out feedback from my students, then reflect on and incorporate that feedback moving forward. We know no two students are the same, and so no two classes are going to be the same. In honoring the individuality of each class, I try really hard to balance that flexibility with providing structure and consistency. With that said, when the pandemic began, I leaned back into those guiding principles. I reflected on what I felt was most important to keep during the live sessions in order to create an experience that was meaningful and worthy of the students’ time, effort, and tuition.
Overall, I feel less rushed. The class ends on time and whatever we really need to do, we’re going to do it, and if it doesn’t happen today, maybe it shifts to next week, maybe it shifts to CourseWorks (Canvas), but it’s going to be okay. I think shifting my mindset has helped me and also helps settle the class.
Prioritize Student Partnerships and Community Building
I think the biggest impact of the pandemic on my classroom routine has been to focus more on community building during the live sessions. I’ve always focused on creating a mindful learning environment for my students that has looked like being purposeful in what I choose to include during the class sessions–like within the lectures, small and large activities, and mindfulness practices–as well as just bringing in a calm and mindful presence so I can demonstrate mindfulness principles through how I show up for class and interact with the students.
Prior to the pandemic, I felt pressure to pack in as much content and as many activities that I could. I was hoping that some of that community building was going on outside of class. When it came to holding space for class check-ins, I would worry if this was a good use of our time, and I would consider how much content we needed to get through. So the classroom check-ins were more or less rare.
After spring break in March 2020, I decided we needed to put the course content on pause. The students needed to share, question, and overall connect with each other. During spring break, I thought about how this would impact the schedule and thought of other ways to deliver the material so that the students would have time in class to connect without feeling that it was at the expense of learning. I remember introducing that check-in differently. Instead of “let’s take a few minutes” I said that we would “take all the time we needed” and that I would record mini-lectures and write out answers to their questions to post to CourseWorks (Canvas) as needed. I opened the floor for students to say what needed to be said, rather than limiting them to a topic or keeping their thoughts related to our class. That check-in lasted through the first hour of class at which point we still took our normally scheduled break, and when we were returned, we discussed as a class how to best use our time for the remainder of the session.
I continued to open each session that semester with a class check-in, trying to remove the barriers of feeling rushed or feeling off topic. The conversations covered their personal lives, questions they had about navigating other classes, and questions about navigating their internships—such as how to talk to supervisors or how to handle difficult situations in the field. I was able to share my thoughts and experiences along with sharing Columbia School of Social Work (CSSW) resources and other students stepped up to voice support and solidarity. Hearing that you aren’t alone in feeling overwhelmed doesn’t exactly change the situation, but it can lessen that feeling of isolation that is walking hand in hand with the overwhelm, and that can make a difference. I’ve continued to do class check-ins though those have morphed a bit. One thing that I do now before the check-in is to put up a poll and ask my students: “Would you like a check-in today?” and give some options: “yes, 10 minutes,” “yes, 5 minutes” or “no, not today.” The class votes and we go from there. When we get to the end of the time, another poll asks: “Do we want to extend this conversation for another 5 minutes?” So again, allowing that flexibility and reassuring the students: you will get your content. You will get the activities. This isn’t at the expense of those.
The students would also publicly share gratitude for each other. For example, a student might say “I was feeling really overwhelmed this week, and I want to thank Suzanna for being a good friend, and just talking to me on the phone when I’m sure she was tired, too.” Or “I had to miss class last week, and Suzanna went out of her way to type up her notes and send them to me.” I think these acts of collaboration, connection, and gratitude made a huge impact on the experiences the students had that semester.
Advice for Instructors and the Future of Teaching at Columbia
Be honest with yourself and know your limits.
As the instructor, be honest with yourself: what do you have time to do? And then be honest with your students. For example, when I’m saying I will answer student questions in CourseWorks (Canvas) posts it’s because I have the time to do it, that’s why I’m giving that as an option. If I don’t have the time, then I don’t want to give that as an option- that week or that semester. That sense of honesty came up this past semester when I experienced a health issue and was transparent with my students. I told them, “this will impact when I get to your emails, this will impact when I get to grading” and for at least one of the classes, I let them know I’ll be turning off my camera. I let them know I was available, but that there was a boundary.
In the past, pre-pandemic, when this happened, I felt the pressured. I’d tell myself, “I can’t do that. I can’t honor my needs. Honoring my needs is disruptive to the learning process. I need to suffer in silence, and just go, go, go.” That shift in mindset to “what needs to get done will get done” allows me to show up more authentically and fully.
Recognize your students and yourself as whole people and be responsive to student needs.
By opening up that honest dialogue with students, I want to honor that they are full, complete people when they come into the classroom. They don’t just have my class and nothing else going on for the rest of the 24 hours, the rest of the week. I can’t give them all the readings I want, and all the assignments I want, as if they don’t have friends, families, jobs, or other classes. Instead, I want to acknowledge that they’re a complete person in how I treat them and the expectations I set for them. I also want them to see me as a complete person, acknowledging that some days I’m going to do better than others, and I’m going give myself that grace. The hope is that they’ll step up and give me the grace even if I don’t answer their specific question or give the same level of detail in grading feedback that I used to when I was only teaching one class a semester. They’re getting feedback. Only I know that the level of detail has changed and that how I deliver that feedback has changed. It’s still okay.
I hope we don’t go back to business as usual. If it was good enough during the pandemic, that was really always good enough. We were pushing ourselves way too hard and beyond our limits, which is why we were sick, tired, and stressed. As we have a little more breathing room, I invite us to breathe into that space and continue to reflect on what kind of experience we want to create for our students. Instead of saying “now that there are fewer check-ins, let’s go, go, go, go,” we can ask ourselves “how else could we use class time?” In answering that question, I shift some responsibility to the students to take a collective voice in how we are going to shape our time so that it is more responsive to their needs. I want them to be creative and collaborative within my boundaries as the instructor. What were we doing just because that’s the way it was always done? Do we need to keep those, or can we take a more collaborative stance as we think through what really needs to happen in each class and over the semester?
Rethink course policies to shift the culture.
In response to students saying “we need more time,” “we can’t make it to every class,” and “there’s a lot going on” during the pandemic, my school implemented a policy that allowed students to have three absences during a full semester class. Students didn’t have to do any make-up work for these three classes, and those absences would not count against them. For the remaining classes, the instructor decided how they will calculate the rest of the attendance. I actually went back to my pre-pandemic CourseWorks (Canvas) courses to see what my attendance policy was. I allowed one absence for which students could make up some of the points by watching the class recording and submitting a 2-page paper before the next class; any absences beyond that went into the gradebook as zeros and could have a dramatic impact on the final grade. My attendance policy was informed by the practices used by the professors I TAed for, so it was in line with conventional standards. But, I’m almost embarrassed now, having experienced the three absences policy with no makeup work required. The world didn’t stop, everyone was fine, students continued to learn, and in many ways were more engaged. I ask myself: why wasn’t my policy like that before?
I think we should continue using the new attendance policy and that it teaches them a valuable lesson. It’s not teaching them that school is not important; it’s teaching them that they are a full complete person and that school is not their only responsibility. When they go out in the real world and they have a job, they’re allowed to take days off, they’re allowed to be sick and not come in, they’re allowed to go on vacation, they’re allowed to just be tired and take the day off. We need to shift that culture of hustle, hustle, hustle.
Social workers have the reputation and personal expectation that we are going to be there no matter what because our clients need us. Looking ahead, if we are going to transform “hustle culture,” we need to make space to be full and whole people. To support our future social workers, hopefully, we’ve taught them how to provide resources to their clients which can be used when they are not available to meet. As an instructor, I set the boundary that I’m only available to my students during set working hours and I already know I’m not going to have the answer to every question. But we are going to maximize how we use our time together in class, foster problem-solving skills they can use between sessions, and build a supportive community. As they move forward and work with clients, I hope they set boundaries on their availability, maximize the work that is done during each session, and develop their client’s problem-solving skills and connections with a wider network of supports.
Overall, my hope with shifting school culture and traditions, questioning how best to create a meaningful experience, and transforming my teaching style and policies, is that I am helping to prepare our students to do the same as they enter the workforce.
Learn more about Professor Segal’s innovative approaches and how they use mindfulness in the classroom, create a mindful learning environment, use polls to guide class check-in time, and incorporate chair yoga in the online classroom to minimize stress and increase body-mind energy. Full references below.
Marquart, M., Marshall, L. W., Chung, R., & Garay, K. (Eds.) Designing Engaging and Interactive Synchronous Online Class Sessions: Using Adobe Connect to Maximize its Pedagogical Value. EdTech Books. https://edtechbooks.org/designing_engaging_interactive_synchronous_online_classes
Segal, K. (2022). Creating a mindful learning environment using Adobe Connect. In Marquart, M., Marshall, L. W., Chung, R., & Garay, K. (Eds.) Designing Engaging and Interactive Synchronous Online Class Sessions: Using Adobe Connect to Maximize its Pedagogical Value. EdTech Books. https://edtechbooks.org/designing_engaging_interactive_synchronous_online_classes/mindful_learning
Nair, M. & Segal, K. (2022). Chair yoga in the online classroom: Minimize stress and increase body-mind energy. In M. Marquart, L. W. Marshall, R. Chung, & K. Garay (Eds.), Designing Engaging and Interactive Synchronous Online Class Sessions: Using Adobe Connect to Maximize its Pedagogical Value. EdTech Books. https://edtechbooks.org/designing_engaging_interactive_synchronous_online_classes/chair_yoga
Segal, K. (2022). Using polls to guide class check-in time. In Marquart, M., Marshall, L. W., Chung, R., & Garay, K. (Eds.) Designing Engaging and Interactive Synchronous Online Class Sessions: Using Adobe Connect to Maximize its Pedagogical Value. EdTech Books. https://edtechbooks.org/designing_engaging_interactive_synchronous_online_classes/using_polls_to_guide_check_in