Michelle Yao

Student, Columbia College; and CTL Student as Pedagogical Partner

A Remote Community

Like many students, I have spent a majority of my time at home with my family since the pandemic began. Since I actually didn’t have a proper “desk” or “private space”  to work in, I was originally apprehensive about how I would take exams, attend synchronous classes, and do presentations for projects without any distractions. However, I quickly realized that I have a support system around me that I am able to ask for advice and ideas on how to adapt to the new learning situation. This includes my family, my friends and classmates, and my professors and TAs. I worked with my family to designate specific rooms for office space and identify overlaps in our school/work schedules; I expanded my definition of a “desk” after taking inspiration from my classmates over Zoom, particularly in using chairs/sofas as tables/writing surfaces, and my bed as a comfortable cushion; I motivated myself with encouragement from friends in both the same and different classes, and found accommodating professors and TAs that allowed students to delay exam times and assignment deadlines based on personal needs. Other ways that professors and TAs can show their understanding include sending fun/caring announcements via Canvas to check in with students during this tough time, as well as potentially creating a “questions/concerns” box that students can use to provide anonymous feedback throughout their time in an online environment. 

Classes (synchronous)

Having done video calls with friends in the past, I figured that Zoom classes would basically be the same way: a really long video call. For the most part, I think the essence of that is there, but what I was not expecting was Zoom to have multiple other features that could help to change up watching professors lecture on a screen all the time. I have actually found the “Breakout Room” feature to be pretty helpful in engaging me in classes. For example, in two of my smaller foreign language discussion courses, I am still able to share ideas and opinions about the texts with my classmates, just like in regular classroom group work. But I also find myself talking to more people in class that I might never have if in person. I think that randomizing breakout rooms has really allowed me to get to know many more people in my class, which has further enriched my experience of discussions as a whole. When students are more comfortable with each other, discussions become more of a multi-way conversation, as opposed to a dialogue between only professor and student. Online lectures have also allowed me to be more bold with asking questions. In my large chemistry seminar, I find that without the expanse of an entire lecture hall, I am able to just “unmute” and ask questions to my professor whenever I am unsure of something. This is a rare way that I feel like I am able to engage in large lectures, even if there are hundreds of other people as well. Also, students being able to ask questions in real time over Zoom, or ask to have something repeated immediately after a concept is explained, allows for active recall and understanding of challenging material. Instead of thinking about lectures as long periods of time spent talking nonstop about material, they should actually be “flexible conversations”, where professors take short breaks in between concepts to allow students time to process and ask questions. On another note, I definitely find it easier to ask questions if my professor sounds genuinely excited when teaching the material–it makes me excited to learn why a particular concept is so intriguing. I also find that different digital resources in the online learning environment also help further understanding. In my small foreign language discussion course, my professor uses videos, songs, and various images to illustrate concepts we are focusing on. As a visual learner, I find this to be very helpful in comparison to the chalkboard in the regular classroom. I feel that incorporating more multimedia into the in-person experience will help to further enhance the way students understand the material!

Classes (asynchronous)

I’m working on homework after class, and suddenly find myself stuck. My friends are all in different timezones, so it’s difficult to ask them for help, and no one is having office hours either. Where do I go? PIAZZA! And lecture recordings! Normally on campus, I would ask my friends and classmates for help on problems I don’t understand, but now online, the forum Piazza, and lecture recordings have basically become my go-to. Since Piazza allows students to post questions anytime and anywhere, it’s a wonderful resource to use when I’m unable to go to office hours to ask questions. A particularly effective use of Piazza is demonstrated by my science lab course. Students not only ask questions that many other students happen to have, but also post funny messages that encourage conversation. I think this type of engagement happens in part because my TAs and professor use their senses of humor when replying to messages. Another major difference between online and in person learning is that we now have Zoom recordings of lectures to refer back to. Though these are absolutely vital for people in other timezones, I think that the recording of lectures should be something that carries over to in person teaching. In the same science lab course, I am able to revisit/skip to parts of the video recording that allow me to refresh my memory and understanding of a particular concept without having to perform an extensive search on Google or reread an entire chapter in the textbook. This helps me to better narrow in on what my professor would like the class to focus on, and also allow me to be more efficient in my studying and when working on assignments. This is something that I see benefiting students even beyond the online classroom. 

Tell your story. Learn from others.

What is it like to teach and learn at Columbia in 2020-2021? Share your hybrid/HyFlex or online teaching and learning experience.