COVID-19 teaching changes continue to benefit Lafayette

Portable+labs%2C+sent+home+to+students+during+the+pandemic%2C+have+become+a+permanent+fixture+of+the+engineering+department.+%28Photo+courtesy+of+Alexander+Brown%29

Portable labs, sent home to students during the pandemic, have become a permanent fixture of the engineering department. (Photo courtesy of Alexander Brown)

When courses went online for over a year because of the pandemic, the Lafayette community, just like the rest of the world, grappled with a sudden change in how students were educated. Despite the numerous challenges students and faculty faced, the lessons they learned and new methods they tested continue to have a positive impact on pedagogy at Lafayette. From miniaturized lab equipment to late-night office hours to personalized data projects, Lafayette faculty have implemented new ways to learn.

“I think the pandemic gave me the cover to try something that I’d always been flirting with,” math professor Trent Gaugler said. “[The pandemic] was just an amazing sort of period of experimentation where you could try things.” 

Professors from across campus used the pandemic period to reflect on their teaching and experiment with new methods. 

“I’m always trying to improve my teaching every year so I believe that maybe in some ways Covid helped me kind of just crystallize certain things that were important for delivering a high-quality education,” mechanical engineering professor Alexander Brown said. “I think it made us think as instructors about what was truly important for our students to get out of a class.”

With the pandemic providing the necessity for change and confidence to trial new theories, professors began implementing many techniques which have now become permanent. For one of Gaugler’s courses, he has employed the flipped classroom approach, where asynchronous videos provide instruction and the students work on problem sets in class. 

“I got uniformly positive comments [on the flipped classroom approach] … because it’s a class that is teaching coding, and having the videos of me coding allows students to pause,” he said.

Sebastian Wallach ‘23 shared that compared to his first year of courses, he has seen a couple of key changes. 

“I think the greatest difference is that almost all the assignments are virtual now. You don’t have to hand anything in, in paper anymore … [which] has positively benefited me because it’s given me the ability to [turn in] code … or just type up answers instead of handwriting massive paragraphs,” Wallach said.

Brown was quick to innovate as well when the pandemic hit. His lab courses require large, expensive equipment for students to experiment with.

“I designed a lab rig for that class that had all the same pedagogical function [as the large equipment] but was way cheaper and could be mailed in a USPS flat rate box,” Brown said.

With this new equipment, Brown has continued to provide his students with personal testing rigs, facilitating work outside the lab without the worry of students accidentally disturbing each others’ work.

Another way in which faculty changed their teaching methods was with increased technological awareness. Computer science professor Christian Lopez adopted new Moodle organization techniques.

“That was something that I learned while we were doing a bunch of training for the pandemic,” he said. 

Provost John Meier shared that many of these new teaching methods were being discussed pre-pandemic. “It’s probably another example of something that was accelerated by the pandemic,” he said.

Another major change for learning at Lafayette is that faculty have embraced a greater understanding of individual student situations, developing new policies for accommodating needs. 

Psychology professor John Shaw has a new assignment policy he tested during the pandemic and now has permanently instituted. Students who cannot make a due date are allowed to choose a new one, but then have to adhere to it. This is one of a few ways that Shaw has “made an even better effort to allow for students’ lives.”

Meier shared that on a campus-wide scale, he has seen similar trends of greater sensitivity to individual student needs. Tracie Addy, director of the Center for the Integration of Teaching, Learning, and Scholarship, echoed these statements.

“Covid has opened [professors’] eyes to more of the inequalities that students can face in teaching and learning environments,” Addy said.

While professors have innovated ways to be more accommodating of students, they are finding that students have experienced varying degrees of setbacks from the pandemic.

“A lot of people really struggled during Covid in terms of remote learning and things, and not everybody has come out of that,” Shaw said.

“We need to be patient with the process because you can’t just expect people to come back the same way they left when this happened … One of the stressors though right now is there’s a boundary between flexibility but also students have to complete the courses,” Addy said.

The pandemic also forced faculty to reflect, modify and innovate on forms of assessment in the classroom. 

“In my 300 and 400 level classes, I’ve eliminated traditional classroom tests,” Shaw said. 

Opposite to Shaw, Gaugler has kept “pencil and paper” exams in his higher level course but since the pandemic, now uses oral exams for his intro classes. 

“I think so often we write these great learning outcomes and syllabi, and then our assessments are things that don’t actually measure those,” Gaugler said. “I want [the students] to understand broadly what is going on and how to interpret what’s happening … So in that sense, the oral exam, I think, is a great thing.”

Brown also aims to help students develop skills in the process of problem-solving and not just memorize facts.

“I went to open notes for a couple of my classes for the first time during Covid and I have not gone back,” Brown said.

The use of technology has been a highlight of pandemic adaptation and Zoom has now become integral to teaching. Nathan Kornfeind ‘23 has found greater access to Zoom office hours helpful. 

“Freshman year … [there was] no such thing as [online] office hours. I think professors can choose to hold more office hours because they can be on Zoom,” Kornfeind said. 

Gaugler, Shaw and Addy all concurred that the greater flexibility provided by Zoom has allowed students to receive more support. This flexibility has enabled Gaugler to assign projects that require more one-on-one time with students. 

“When they leave, they’ve gotten more out of that class because we had that individualized [instruction],” Gaugler said.

Zoom has now reduced barriers for students to attend conferences and facilitated speakers connecting with students from around the world.

“Those [conferences] are kind of at your fingertips,” Kornfeind said.

While students and faculty innovated throughout the pandemic and now see those benefits continuing, the consensus is that in-person learning is clearly better.

“Remote learning was a shadow of what we do in class,” Shaw said. 

The faculty recently passed a resolution that the college would no longer do fully remote instruction unless needed for emergency circumstances or winter sessions.

“We can see why someone who wants to be home in California with their family doesn’t particularly want to fly back and live in a dorm in Easton during that period. So it gives us greater flexibility in those moments,” Meier said.

Students agree that remote learning should be the exception and not the norm.

“Please never let us go back online fully,” Wallach said.

Disclaimer: Editor-in-Chief Nathan Kornfeind ‘23 did not contribute writing or reporting to this article.