Never Going Back: What Online Teaching in the Times of COVID Can Add to Our Teaching Toolkits – Diana Heney
Teaching Students, Coaching Thinkers:
Diana Heney, Assistant Professor in Philosophy
Dr. Diana Heney joined the Department of Philosophy in Fall 2019. Having been a coach before starting her teaching career, her teaching has been formed around the idea of helping people discover their potentialities and ways to actualize them. In an interview with the CFT, she shared with us how teaching in the time of COVID-19 has helped her develop new approaches to metacognitive teaching, increasing student participation, and teaching writing courses.
Starting her job at Vanderbilt in 2019, Dr. Heney had already had several years of experience at two other universities. However, regardless of previous experience, it would be challenging for any instructor to have to face a sudden transition into an entirely new teaching avenue. As Dr. Heney sees it, this challenge formed an excellent experience that bridged her past pedagogical training as a graduate student at the University of Toronto and her work with undergraduate and graduate students at the moment of transition. At the center of this experience lies her work with the Center for Teaching during the summer intensive course of Online Teaching Institute. The first point that she retrieved in her pedagogy from her earlier training due to online teaching demands was to make the course material as clear as possible for students, taking a meta-cognitive approach. In this approach, the modular structure of online courses on Brightspace helps Heney to clarify why every given assignment or activity has been designed and how it will help them learn and retain the course material more effectively. This strategy provides the students a clear idea of the focal points of every module of the course , what they are learning, and how this specific way of learning builds toward course goals. That is the first takeaway of online teaching for Heney’s teaching after the COVID times.
For many teachers, stimulating maximal participation in class activities is a concern in in-person classrooms. This problem became more of a challenge with the shift to online teaching. However, Heney has found the challenge paying off not only for her online courses, but also anticipates that it will work for later in-person ones. Her use of Perusall soon proved a success in creating a more inclusive and engaged classroom. “In any class where you have 30 students, you are going to have some students who never really talk in class. That is their preferred way of being in class. But with something like Perusall, they can participate fully and get credit for it without speak. I think it is helpful for thinking about what participation means.”
Writing courses tend to intimidate students who do not feel confident enough about their writing skills. This may be an even more serious problem in Philosophy courses because of the vast varieties of majors of the students who take them. Before turning to online teaching, Heney used to check-in with students on this point during office hours and brief one-on-one conversations at the end of class as needed. With COVID barring this option, however, finding an alternative was in order. This consideration added a new element to her teaching that can very well serve future in-person classes: a completion credit self-assessment of students’ writing. “That is more about writing than about philosophy. A lot of the time people think that they cannot write or that they are not good at writing, or someone told them in the past that they were bad at writing, or they think it is a talent, and not a skill that you build up to. Asking them to do a self-assessment helps me to get a feel for where they are in their writing practice.”
The idea behind this activity is a keen pedagogical observation. “When a student is feeling unhappy about how a course is going for them, there is a good reason for it, and they can sometimes figure out what it is while it might not be obvious on the instructor’s side.” Based on this idea, this self-assessment aims to have students articulate what they find themselves good at and what they find difficult with regard to writing. “One of the questions I asked in the self-assessment in my introduction to medical ethics class was whether they felt their writing conveyed their understanding accurately and there was a significant percentage of students who said ‘no, I understand this so much better than I am able to explain in writing.’ Then it would be time to say ‘well, now let’s talk about that: what do you understand, and what are you trying to say, and how we can bring those things together.’ A lot of the time, it is just that people have been taught about writing in a very rudimentary way or they have been taught technical forms of writing that are appropriate for their discipline. Just taking ownership of their views in their own voice feels weird! Helping them learn to do that sometimes just identifying where the struggle already means that now we can do something to help them.”
Ongoing communication with students, helping them observe their own learning process and letting them actualize their potentialities that they do not see has helped Heney work through the crisis of COVID-19 successfully and ready to get back to teaching in person with new insights.