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Professor Sarah Holloway, MPA

Senior Lecturer in the Discipline of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs; Director, Leadership, Innovation & Design Specialization at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs; Senior Fellow for Social Impact, Columbia Entrepreneurship, Innovation & Design

Professor Sarah Holloway teaches several courses at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), varying in format (lecture to workshop) and enrollment size (20 to 60 students). Prior to the shift to remote teaching in Spring 2020, these courses were fully in-person experiences, and thus required rethinking for a fully digital offering. Professor Holloway met the moment by embracing a flipped classroom model and prioritizing connection: between students and instructor, students with each other, and the course content with students’ lives. Read on to learn more about what Professor Holloway did in her courses, what lessons and experiences she’s carrying forward, and the advice she has for other instructors at Columbia. 

Embrace the Flipped Classroom Model 

I co-teach a course called Design for Social Innovation with Adam Royalty (Designer-in-Residence at Columbia Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Design). During pandemic teaching and learning, we made a series of videos and flipped the classroom, so that students learned on their own and then class time was about implementation. This worked well, especially when we returned to a hybrid classroom. For example, students had a week on interviewing skills. Instead of us spending the whole class talking about interviewing, students watched a video and then the class time was more about supporting their work around interviewing and helping them prepare for interviews. This shifted our role from teachers and lecturers in the classroom to more guides to their processes–fostering dialogue, and constructive teaching vs just instructive. As a result, students felt more supported in the content because we devoted a lot of class time on their project-based work versus simply delivering content while they passively listen. Class time as a result has become a lot more active and supportive, which we love!

Prioritize Connections For and With Students 

Being forced online helped us get a little more creative about instructional design, how we connect with students, and how to connect them with each other. It made me realize how valuable those connections are to students and their need for not only connection, but reassurance–especially as we were all going through uncomfortable and, in many ways, unfamiliar times. 

One thing I found valuable about online teaching was that, for the first time, all of the students were in the front row. Not only that, but I also knew all of their names, which in a 60 person class takes weeks and weeks. In many ways, it was much more intimate than in a classroom. I loved the increased connection with students, and we all got through it together. We supported each other. It was reciprocal. The format shifted, but what else shifted was the need to find creative ways to keep students engaged, to me, and to each other.  

Connections: Students to Instructor 

Before Covid, I typically rushed out of the classroom after class to meetings or other work. Students would want my time, and it was hard to make time either on the run or standing in the hallway outside of class. During early Covid when we were purely online, I knew that students were struggling (as was I) and that I needed to create time in my day to simply be there for students. Something as simple as letting students know that I’d join class 15 minutes early and also stick around after class so that they could come talk about anything that was on their mind had a huge impact. This was really powerful for many students who needed to connect with me as a person versus their professor and someone who was grading them. My no-judgment-zone time before and after class was as much for them as it was for me; I also wanted to connect with them in an informal way. Often students who did not speak up in class normally would come as it was a time for them to chat with me without having a room full of colleagues watching. 

Another thing I started doing out of convenience, but that is something I will continue, is hosting group office hours. Early on in the pandemic, students were really worried, not only about school but about whether they would find a job or internship, and they looked to me for comfort. At some point I realized that I was having the same conversation over and over and perhaps it would benefit all if I started hosting group office hours around themes like “how to get an internship during a pandemic.” This worked amazingly well and it is something I have stuck with; although I did go back to 1:1 office hours, I still end up hosting themed office hours frequently when issues come up that clearly impact a significant number of students. 

What was really interesting about Covid and our foray into online teaching was that I thought that my teaching was clunky and improvised, and yet, I received some of the best student evaluations of my career. What had changed was that I had brought a lot more of my personal life into my teaching out of necessity and because it was obvious–I was home with my dying cat on my lap, for example. And my teenage daughter would float in and out. Somehow this “reality” made the students feel more connected. Obviously, I’m a person and they know this, but there’s sometimes an intimidation factor. The Zoom glimpse into my life was really humanizing, and that resonated with students. I continue to be  more open with students as a result. Everyone has their own stuff going on, and it’s important to let students know that you’re there for them and, most of all, that you empathize. I’ve reframed for students a shift from judgment to support: I’m not there to judge them, I’m there to support them; I want them to learn. I’ve heard this from a lot of students: they tell me about the importance of humanity. They’re so excited when they remember that we’re real people. 

Connections: Students to Students 

Every term, I send out a survey to students about things like hometown, background, experience in the subject I am teaching. I started to ask more personal questions like favorite food, favorite NYC tourist spot, or something that is not Googleable about you. These seemingly minor details were actually great icebreaker conversations for students in Zoom when I would send them into breakouts to discuss something. A great way to get to know each other was telling that story about their love of toast (my favorite food) – it not only brings up personal stories but also lots of questions as to why, which leads to more storytelling. 

I found the Zoom environment, particularly the breakout rooms, a helpful way to break the ice and get people in small groups to connect and get to know each other. It’s hard to do that in the confines of a classroom. I probably did more group work teaching online because I felt the Zoom platform helped to facilitate small group discussion. I also loved using group work to get their creative juices flowing. I do an activity where I give students an as-yet-unsolved problem –like women and equal pay, or food insecurity. They have something like 20 minutes to figure out the problem and come up with a solution–why the problem exists, zoom in on what’s solvable, come up with a possible solution, and then, in one minute, pitch to an audience. They’d use the whiteboard feature on Zoom to synthesize all of their content by drawing. Drawing forces you to synthesize. While this format started on Zoom, it is something that carries over in person and that I now use at the end of the semester as a tool for students to synthesize all they have learned and done for 13 weeks. But it does not look all that different when done in 13 minutes. Sometimes the more time we spend on something, the less clear it is.  

Connections: Course Content to Students’ Lives 

Every week, instead of jumping into content and getting through my lecture, I spent a lot more time connecting the content of the class to what was happening in the world–from public health to other areas of inequity, rather than worrying, I have to get through all this content. I have 47 slides today! I felt that the class needed to be more grounded in immediate reality and the slides became secondary.

In addition to tweaking content, I also adjusted what I was teaching,  meaning that sometimes a focus on what students needed and wanted to talk about took precedent. Each week, I invited students to send in themes or articles they wanted to share and the first 15 minutes of every class was focused on whatever theme was introduced. It was clear that students needed to feel more connected to the content. Instead of just push, it was more about push and pull – drawing from their interests and integrating into the teaching and learning. Part of it is that the world is changing so fast, and the content of my classes which revolve around global problems and problem solving has to change. There is no choice. Adding in student interests and anxieties only enhanced what I was teaching and has really made me rethink how I design content and how to balance the need to impart knowledge and skills and address what is going on in the heads of our students. 

Covid was maybe the first time in history that we were all going through the same thing simultaneously. We were all experiencing the world as it was changing by the minute and there was no way not to bring that into the classroom. Although this is an obvious best practice, it took a pandemic to make this front and center. 

Advice for Instructors and the Future of Teaching at Columbia 

Keep your course content fluid.

Many of us are married to our syllabi. We work hard on them. We update them all the time. But sometimes we need to be a little more fluid in terms of content. Depending on what you teach, there are going to be things that come up every week that students need to talk about, have questions about, or we at least need to acknowledge are happening. This requires having a little wiggle room in your course plan. 

Proceed with empathy. 

Sometimes being empathetic when you are trying to get through the semester and treat everyone equitably is challenging. But teaching and leading with empathy is one of my greatest tools. Students cannot thrive if we do not understand that first and foremost we need to meet them where they are, individually and collectively. This does not mean we don’t challenge them. But it does mean that if they are struggling–and many of them are–that we need to understand that and reach out. We want to educate them, we want to give them a rigorous education, but we also have to acknowledge where they are. Everyone has something going on. Be open to that. Whether they are showing up or not, we have no idea what is actually going on for them. It doesn’t mean your content shouldn’t be rigorous, it just means that we need to acknowledge that all these students have a lot going on and might not be able to show up in the way we are used to pre-2020. Show them you get it and find out how you can help.