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Dr. Thomas Groll, PhD

Senior Lecturer in Discipline of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs

Dr. Groll teaches core courses for Macroeconomics in the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). Prior to Spring 2020, these large courses were in-person and lecture-based. With the shift to remote teaching and learning, Dr. Groll had to rethink how students could actively engage with course materials. Dr. Groll met the moment by streamlining his course content to support student learning, experimenting with new approaches to teaching, and providing students with multiple ways to engage. Read on to learn about what Dr. Groll did in his course, what lessons and experiences he’s carrying forward, and the advice he has for other instructors at Columbia. To hear more about Dr. Groll’s innovations, watch his CTL Voices of Hybrid and Online Teaching presentation.

Streamline Course Content to Support Student Learning   

During the onset of the pandemic, I knew that students would become more distant and potentially have a higher threshold barrier to ask questions and reach out as opposed to what they would usually do in class, so I had to change and streamline my course and my presentation of the class. I had to make it easier to find course materials online. I used CourseWorks (Canvas) more intentionally and guided students through the course materials there. I thought much more about how the topics in different course modules are connected to each other and how I could present them clearly to the students. I showed them where the slides and notes are, how they could be used as a preview of what we would be doing in the next class session, what the takeaway messages were, and how practice quizzes could be used to review a specific topic. Once I made it very clear that these different components were a part of the entire course structure, there was higher student response and engagement.

Experiment with New Approaches to Teaching 

At the beginning of the pandemic, we taught, albeit in a forced circumstance, in new, experimental ways. It was a completely different teaching environment, and it was exciting to experiment with new things because there was often no right or wrong. There were no best practices at the time, and everybody was adapting and experimenting in such a stressful and continuously-developing environment. There was patience and understanding, and I am pleasantly surprised that a lot of what we did at the time actually worked out in the end. I would attribute the success of our remote and HyFlex teaching to not having the pressure that everything has to be perfect and that we have to do better than what we did before.

Before the pandemic, there was a lot of optimism about where we were going with online learning and technologies. Once we all had to do it during the pandemic, we made it work and there were some pedagogical advantages in recorded lectures and virtual office hours. But we also hit the technological limitations very quickly, and we had many challenges with effectively presenting class materials, preventing fatigue of constantly being online, and integrating different course components into Zoom and other platforms. Looking forward, it will be interesting to continue to wrestle with these technological challenges because there are certainly pedagogical benefits of online learning that could be maximized in more controlled environments. So teaching in a hybrid environment is not the same as simply walking into a classroom. The pedagogical potential of new technologies is exciting to think about, and we should continue to experiment and work with the technological boundaries we hit during the pandemic.

Provide Students with Multiple Ways to Engage

I used EconPractice (an open-source learning toolkit for authoring and interacting with economics concepts) in my courses as a way to allow more individual practice and feedback for students. I started using this before the pandemic and, over time, I have expanded the use of it. EconPractice has been an especially great learning tool for students during the pandemic because it allowed an easier way for students to self-practice. I embedded it in the course with low-stakes multiple choice questions, and I could see that students were actively engaging with EconPractice.

To help students prepare for the new exam format we had to implement during the pandemic, I gave more multiple-choice questions that students could use to practice and review course concepts. EconPractice proved to be a great learning tool that leveled the playing field for students because it provided an alternative way to bring more students to similar preparation levels in the class. Not every student will learn best through lectures or recitations. Some students may need a different learning tool to simply practice by themselves, and EconPractice did just that. It reached those who I normally would not have been able to reach pre-pandemic in a 250-student course. It became another mode of learning for students to engage with course materials.

Advice for Instructors and the Future of Teaching at Columbia 

Exchange and share knowledge around new technologies to stay up to date. 

I appreciate in-person teaching even more now because remote and HyFlex teaching was challenging and draining. But one practice I would carry forward is keeping an eye on new technologies and incorporating them into my courses when relevant and beneficial. For example, I have been using the camera to record my lectures for students to review after class. Also, there are some apps like Notability that can be a great learning support for students with note-taking and even linking notes to timestamps of a recorded lecture. The knowledge of these kinds of technologies is still niche and not widespread. The CTL has certainly done some of the exchange of such knowledge by spotlighting faculty who presented tools like Perusall and how they used them to teach their classes, and it would be important to continue to stay up-to-date on the new technologies and how their use can be complementary to the way we teach.

Implement innovations with intentional planning and communication with students.

Innovations are always an experiment. When instructors want to try something new, they might consider starting with an already established, structured class with some room to incorporate innovations. Having some fallback options to address unexpected situations would lessen the stress of doing something new. It would also be important to communicate with students about  the why and how of the innovations, because they have their expectations for learning and they don’t want to be guinea pigs in some sense. They appreciate knowing that the innovations would be implemented in a controlled manner and their learning will not be negatively affected in any way.

What we learned from our remote teaching during the pandemic is that with online or hybrid classes, to teach them well, they require quite some resources and more preparation than the traditional in-person classes, because there is less flexibility on the fly and we are bound by the technology. We may have been a bit too optimistic about this before the pandemic, but now that we have done it, we know that it is possible, and to do it well, we have to do much more planning and much more preparation in advance.