Out of necessity, faculty have creatively transformed their classes since the pandemic began. In this series, West End Learning celebrates their efforts and shares best practices, lessons learned, and recommended resources that extend into the future of higher education.
Dr. Jessica Hoffman (Northeastern University)
Dr. Jessica Hoffman is a Professor in the Department of Applied Psychology at Northeastern University, where she trains students to become school psychologists. Preparing for the 2020-2021 academic year, Dr. Hoffman wanted to build community and effective learning experiences into her three very different graduate courses. She taught a year-long doctoral seminar organized around student fieldwork, a lecture course in assessment for first year Master’s students, and a new course, a small seminar focused on school-based interventions to promote social and emotional well-being in children.
Establishing a Flipped Classroom
Prior to COVID, Dr. Hoffman had experience teaching and researching online classes, so she knew she would adopt a flipped classroom format. This required students to review material independently, then use synchronous meeting time in class for discussions and activities. Still, it took a lot of effort and creative problem-solving to meet COVID’s challenges. “It was still quite a bit of work to get all the materials in a format that would be engaging and organized and accessible,” she said in a recent interview.
She thought carefully about how to present the material to her students. “I was very cognizant of not wanting to just dump lecture material online and have that be everything that there was for the students. I knew that that would not result in a good learning environment for the students.”
Like many academics, Dr. Hoffman relied on her peers to share information about newer topics. Several reached out to her to share their syllabi and assist her with the development of her new seminar. “The focus of this course was on prevention strategies to promote students’ social, emotional, and behavioral well-being in schools. There was no textbook for this, either, so I relied on journal articles to put together the reading, and there was a best practices handbook where I used many chapters.” She plans to share her course design with others in her network too.
Next, she recorded her lectures, working around her children's schedules and the fact that they couldn’t go to summer camp. Recording generally took place when they were either out of the house or sleeping. “That takes just so much time. I think students don't appreciate how long it takes to get online content put together.”
The push to online learning coincided with transitioning to Canvas, increasing her learning curve on the technology front even though she had support from Northeastern. "I took a two-day workshop on how to use Canvas, and the university had a helpline. It was nine to five, five days a week. I would build the class, and when I would get stuck with something, I would just call into the Zoom line and have my questions answered."
In addition to the recorded lectures, Dr. Hoffman planned for the remaining in-class time. She took advantage of the online format by having a discussion board for questions from the students, and answering their questions during the same session. “In that way, the lecture and the in-class time were more connected. As they had questions about something that came up in the lecture, they didn't need to wait to ask.”
Throughout her planning, Dr. Hoffman focused on encouraging student interaction to create community online. Her goal was to develop activities that could be assigned to small groups so that the students would work together to compile the information and present their findings. For one class, “I divided the students up into four discussion groups of 10 students each that met throughout the whole semester. And that was the way I tried to build connections with me and the TA and with each other.”
She also faced the challenge of creating assignments that could be done by school psychology students in the absence of physical access to the elementary, middle school, and high school students they’d normally work with. Instead, students assessed their sites, buildings, and in some cases, their districts to determine what evidence-based practices existed by conducting interviews with school staff, including administrators. Once the data was collected, students critiqued the programs. Another assignment allowed groups of students to do a deep dive into established social emotional learning programs, then present their findings to the class.
Including Underrepresented Voices
Finally, her interaction with students throughout the past year was influenced by current events outside of the classroom, and she invited students to open discussions about difficult topics. “In addition to the COVID pandemic, there is the pandemic of racism that many of my colleagues, my students, and I have focused on much more this year than we have in the past. For many people like myself, there was an awakening to many systemic injustices that I am now more familiar with."
Her future curriculum choices will be influenced by her evolving understanding of systemic racism and the need for diverse voices and materials in academic studies. “There was a lot of professional development that I did through readings, through critical analysis of the readings on my reading list, and seeing the extent to which it was very much white-centered, and how can I think about centering Black voices and other voices in the curriculum. That, I think, is something that needs to continue to evolve throughout my teaching.”
After overcoming challenges and adapting to changes in the age of COVID, Dr. Hoffman is grateful for the lessons she learned—and recorded—along the way. Going forward, she has options to present material that didn’t exist before, perhaps to supplement her in-person teaching or allow students to learn on their own time in the event of a weather emergency. “It'll continue to be an experiment,” she said in reference to her recorded lectures. “It's nice to know I have those resources available.”
Keep updated on new posts from this series and news from West End Learning.
Know a faculty member who should be featured? Let us know!