Designing flexible teaching materials for an uncertain fall that engage students

By Dr. Paul Blowers
University Distinguished and Full Professor
Chemical and Environmental Engineering
The University of Arizona

I don’t know if you feel the same way I do, but I’m terrified about what I may face when my institution returns to “campus” this fall. There has been intense discussion, socially distanced and remotely, with colleagues about how we can teach effectively in a highly uncertain environment that might need to pivot in the middle of a week, day or hour.

During the transition this spring, I found that the part I missed most in my teaching was the interactions with students face-to-face. I normally teach in a collaborative active learning room that seats about 120 students at tables of four. I used to have the ability to walk around and listen to what the students were saying, see what they were writing, and get a sense of what the students understood and did not understand. It was not unusual for me to hear a student say something or for me to see something written that allowed me to make a correction in my teaching that would help all students avoid a misconception or to move past a sticking point.

In the move to online and remote, I lost all my abilities to discretely collect information that allowed me to responsively teach. With the students’ help, we were able to discover many ways of communicating that allowed me to do formative assessment and refine my explanations in real time.

Clicker questions allowed me to build in expected misconceptions. Chat and emoticons became critical ways of me knowing how to respond to students and how to pace my lectures. I found myself exploring tools in real time and students were great at helping me pivot so that my teaching could remain responsive and I could become better at helping them master difficult content.

Personally, synchronous class meetings helped me tremendously this spring. In the fall, I intend to teach synchronously, possibly with some of the students in class and some remote. The only way I can engage students fully is with electronic tools that allow us to communicate easily, remotely and with stability. In my three classes in spring post-pandemic, technology only failed us twice out of 58 class meetings. On the other days, everything worked flawlessly and class felt the same, other than the complete silence on my earphones.

My goal this summer is to explore technologies with my colleagues who care deeply about student learning. We have a campus culture of having Faculty Learning Communities, which convene groups of four to 15 faculty in discussions surrounding teaching and learning in a biweekly manner for a semester.  I am so worried about this coming year that I’m leading a summer FLC where we all get to explore how to synchronously and electronically support learning with all the bells and whistles that might be available to us this fall.

If I can make, break and take away lessons from what I learn this summer, I’ll be stronger on the first day of class. For me, TurningPoint has been pivotal in helping me gauge student learning with planned questions. I am upping my game to layer on the unplanned. I hope you join us in this webinar to help me explore the modes we’ll use so that we can take everything we learn in our discussion back into our own classes in the fall.

Paul Blowers, University Distinguished and Full Professor
Dept. of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, University of Arizona

Paul Blowers received his B.S. degree in Chemical Engineering from Michigan State University in 1994 before moving to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he earned his M.S. in Chemical Engineering in 1997, followed by his Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering in 1999. He moved to the University of Arizona in 1999 and began his academic career. Blowers has received numerous teaching awards at the local, regional and state levels for his innovative approaches to helping students master complex content while transitioning into becoming successful independent learners. His research is currently on sustainability topics and retention of students.