Dr. Norman Bartczak, PhD, MBA
Lecturer in the Discipline of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs
Dr. Bartczak teaches large lecture-based courses in the School of International Public Affairs (SIPA) and the Columbia Law School. With the shift to remote teaching in Spring 2020, Dr. Bartczak had to adapt his course to fit the new teaching and learning environment. Dr. Bartczak met the moment by redesigning his course structure to meet student needs, partnering with TAs to share roles in the course, making course content relevant and connected to real world examples, and leveraging teaching communities and available resources. Read on to learn more about what Dr. Bartczak did in his courses, what lessons and experiences he’s carrying forward, and the advice he has for other instructors at Columbia.
Redesign Course Structure to Meet Student Needs
In March 2020, when the university told me that we would be teaching using Zoom, the first thing I did was to buy a whiteboard for my office at home. While teaching at home with a whiteboard, I could stand up and go up to my board with some markers. Much of the feedback I got from students was that although it wasn’t the same as being in the classroom, it replicated the look of being in a classroom as much as possible.
I also changed the frequency and length of each class session. I used to teach double sessions for two days a week from 1:00pm to 4:00pm. But with the pandemic, I thought that students would not be able to concentrate very well by Zoom for accounting classes. Instead of teaching on Wednesdays and Thursdays, I taught Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday for an hour and a half each time, which worked well. Students could focus for an hour and a half via Zoom as opposed to three hours. Even though I had never been so tired in my life, the reason I’m still doing what I’m doing is that I’m one of those lucky people who found what they like to do a long time ago. I keep teaching because I like it.
In my courses, I usually have an attendance list where I mark those who are present and absent each time. I ask my students to let me know in advance if they are going to be absent, and after two absences, students need to obtain my permission for additional absences. During pandemic teaching and learning, if students’ family members became ill with Covid, I certainly told them to do what they needed to do to take care of their family members, but in general, I expect my students to attend class. If I notice a student missing class more than twice (and I ask my TAs to also monitor and let me know), I send the student an email and check in on the student. I have been keeping attendance like this for a long time, and students appreciate that I want them to be there and I am invested in their learning.
Partner with TAs to Share Roles
During remote teaching and learning, I had two teaching assistants for my SIPA classes and two other teaching assistants for my law school class, and they helped me monitor the chat when I taught on Zoom. I told my students that I would be focusing on delivering my lectures while my TAs responded to student questions and comments in the chat. I also allowed time to pause and check in with students in between my lectures so that they get the opportunity to ask me questions. Sharing roles between my TAs and myself was critical because it allowed me to concentrate on my teaching without being too overwhelmed while the TAs provided support on Zoom.
Make Course Materials Relevant and Connected to Real World Examples
In my courses, I don’t use textbooks anymore because they are so expensive. After teaching for so many years, I write class notes that I compile into a PDF file, and I share it with the students who are signed up for my class. The PDF file includes everything they need for the course, including case studies, class notes, and other materials. For example, in my accounting course, all of the materials are financial statements, and I always use the most current ones from real companies, such as Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft. I update them every semester so that the materials that my students use are not from ten years ago, and students respond positively and appreciate that they are not looking at only generic statements but actual up-to-date ones from existing companies. They are quickly engaged with course content, and they draw connections to what they see and know of in the world.
Leverage Teaching Communities and Available Resources
At the beginning of the pandemic, SIPA was very good in organizing faculty meetings, and it was during one of these meetings where a professor shared a tip about using two different devices to connect to my Zoom class sessions as the host and as a student. On my desktop computer, I would be the host of my Zoom sessions, and on my other personal laptop computer, I would join as a student so that I could see what the students were seeing on their Zoom screens. When I did the sharing of materials or used other features on Zoom, it’s amazing how I messed up so many times. As I talked on the desktop computer, I also monitored my laptop to make sure my students were seeing what I wanted them to see on their screens. If I was not doing something right, I would be able to catch it quickly on my laptop and fix the issue right away.
During the faculty meetings, a lot of the faculty also asked me where I got my whiteboard that was sitting behind me, and I shared how I purchased it (which my school reimbursed me for). These faculty meetings proved to be a valuable space where we could share with each other tips and resources for remote teaching during the earlier part of the pandemic. Such a community was extremely important for supporting each other’s teaching and ensuring that we did not make big mistakes during teaching.
Advice for Instructors and the Future of Teaching at Columbia
Practice warm calling.
When I was teaching in person before the pandemic, because I had so many students, I had a call list that I would use to call on students to ask questions. They didn’t know that they were going to be called on, and my rationale was that I wanted everybody to prepare for the class. With Zoom, though, I didn’t think my usual call list was going to work and decided to try warm calling as opposed to cold calling. So two days before class, the students who were on my call list would receive an email from me that informed them that they were on the call list for the next class session. This worked very well, because if for some reason they were going to be absent, they were going to be late, or they had something else that they couldn’t prepare, they would communicate back to me. I could then replace them with somebody else and update my call list. At the same time, I did not limit my interaction with only students on the call list and gave other students the opportunity to ask questions and engage with me.
The call list was a very important part of my teaching because I could give physical reactions to my students’ responses. For example, when somebody gave a really good answer, I would give them a fist bump on my screen, and students have shared with me that they never thought a double fist bump via Zoom would be cool. I responded to the situation I was in and I did what I could to make it work because I love teaching, and it seemed to work.
Learn students’ names.
In my courses, I have memorized all the students’ names. Currently, I have 150 law school students and 180 students at SIPA, but by the third or fourth week, I will have memorized all of their names. I certainly take advantage of the seating chart at the law school, but I also take the time (usually during my commute from Boston to New York) to memorize everyone’s name. Although it has been challenging to do so when students are masked in the classroom, I value learning my students’ names because I am a social person and I like to come into class and chat with the students. I would ask them in class, “How’s it going?” which sometimes scares them but also surprises them that I would know their names. I connect with my students in that way, and my relationship with them becomes much more social in addition to professional. It takes effort and time, and these seemingly little things like warm calling and learning students’ names, are incremental actions that add up and make all the difference in the world in my teaching.