In Spring 2020, I piloted vocational exploration exercises in a 300-level biology course. Through the difficult journey of that year, I learned that vocational exploration served as medicine for a myriad of woes. Guiding students to explore their purpose supported students’ unmet deep needs.
According to the 2020 Faculty Watch Report, 65% of faculty members surveyed indicated that pandemic-influenced course structure changes had a negative impact on educational quality. Yet, seven in ten faculty believe that hybrid or flex models will continue. I am sure this does not come as a surprise given the Spring 2020 mass shift to remote teaching and learning. This was new territory for which we had little or no time to develop novel pedagogy. Many of us found ourselves in a place where we were delivering what we were able to provide—a “good enough” pedagogy. Did we discover some important components to retain? Did we discover critical elements that had not been as obvious in our previous offerings—either important support structures or course elements that need to be fixed?
For me, the many changes in my courses in Spring 2020 led me to better understand and appreciate the importance of interpersonal connections. I have been a biology professor at Muskingum University since 2004. Over these years my focus has been on teaching concepts and content with an underlying current of delivering a large amount of material. My shift in course delivery was in response to my immersion in the Teaching Vocational Exploration Faculty Seminar the summer prior. Through this seminar, I developed vocational exploration exercises I was piloting Spring 2020 in an in-person course with intensive lecture and laboratory meetings. I learned that the vocational exploration exercises allowed students to have a deeper connection to their professor and to the course. I found it easier for me to have more meaningful conversations with students about their lives and their futures. Beyond this I also noticed that this stronger interpersonal connection allowed the students to exchange more freely about course content. Truly, this pilot exercise seemed to provide a course-wide depth of interpersonal connection that I hadn’t appreciated was sorely missing.
Muskingum University is a member of the Yes We Must Coalition having 51% of our students as Pell eligible and a large first generation student population. Our student body is highly subscribed from the Appalachian region where MU is situated. The interpersonal connection developed resulted in students being more prone to ask questions in class and to engage with their professor in general. This was a monumental shift for our primarily Appalachian first-generation students. I was able to develop a depth of connection with each individual student in this class.
This class-wide connection that eluded me in previous course offerings became manifested in the two weeks into our instant pivot to Spring 2020 remote learning. In those first two weeks, students connected with me to provide updates and to vent, allowing opportunities for me to offer support and help navigate the unusual time in which we found ourselves. I believe students were comfortable connecting with me in this way in large part due to the interpersonal connections that had been developed through the vocational exploration piloted. Fortunately, student-student connection was fostered in the first journal assignment after pivoting to remote. In this exercise students were asked to comment on video posts their classmates shared on Blackboard—our LMS. In their posts, students generously encouraged each other and it was inspiring to see all the heart felt compliments in which they expressed admiration for qualities unique to each classmate.
HERO EXERCISE REFLECTION PROMPTS
Week 8: Examine several of the CNN Heroes at https://www.cnn.com/specials/cnn-heroes (no year limit is imposed). Select one Hero you admire. Prepare a 30 second video that describes what about this hero you admire and why you admire this Hero. Do aspects of this hero connect with your strengths and/or values? Which strengths or values do you two share? Would you consider incorporating the passions held by this Hero in your life’s efforts? Feel free to use journal pages to jot down notes or ideas for the creation of the video.
Upload this video on Blackboard—this video will be shared with and possibly viewed by your BIOL 336 classmates. Note that you do not need to include an image or video of your face/self but you do need to include your voice within the video. If you have any questions, unique ideas or concerns please speak with Dr. Santas.
Week 9: For your journal assignment, please view three classmate’s videos describing their CNN Hero and their possible shared strengths and values. After viewing each video, provide a comment on the discussion board.
The comment should include what you have learned about your classmate through viewing their video. Please comment on any strengths or values of your classmate that became apparent to you through the video they provided. Do your best to ensure that all classmates have comments on their discussion boards. After you have completed three posts, any extra posts you provide comments on additional classmates’ videos will be awarded three extra credit points for each additional classmate for which you provide comments.
Yet, the shift away from face-to-face interaction quickly took its toll. The mutual support between students seemed to disappear shortly after they provided immense encouragement via video post comments. The interpersonal connection with their professor also started to dwindle. I still provided the weekly vocational exploration journal prompts and had them submit their journal entries online. I did continue to provide comments but the students were not familiar with how the graded feedback was provided and therefore most students did not read the response I provided. Over time students did not attend the lectures or review sessions synchronously but rather opted to watch the recordings in isolation.
Spring 2020 had immense challenges yet upon reflection some clarity emerged. At the heart of what worked well was making sure students connected with faculty and with each other. I now appreciate that fostering interpersonal connections is of equal importance to covering the course content. Through the connections developed, I also have learned to respond to students in order to keep my course structure focused on learning and growth. In Spring 2020, I did alter the number of assignments and the amount of course material covered in favor of student development.
But I also became acutely aware that while offering support and encouragement to my students that I can begin to tire. Therefore, it is critical for students to support each other. To ensure I have the energy to mentor students in the course, it is critical that I foster student-student interpersonal connection as well. Such student-student interpersonal interactions developed through an exercise where students were charged to create a video describing a hero they admired. A subsequent assignment asked their classmates to view these videos and comment on the observed strengths and values of their peers (e.g. CNN Hero exercises above).
I intend to develop additional exercises to facilitate more student-student interpersonal connections in the future to provide needed support for both the students and their professor. Through the difficult path of the Spring 2020 semester, I have learned that a foundation of interpersonal connection is quintessential to fostering the learning environment and dialogue in my courses that I have been striving for throughout my career.
Related posts: On the importance of faculty-student connection, see Lessons from Humanism: Mentoring that Fosters Vocational Discernment, Mentoring for Vocation: A Form of Friendship, and Sharons Parks on Good Mentoring. On student-to-student connection, see With a Little Help from Our Friends. On the perils of exhaustion, see Resting into Vocation and these posts on vocation and self-care. On vocational reflection and the pandemic, see Vocation Matters in This Time of Pandemic (list of posts).
Amy Santas is Professor of Biology at Muskingum University in New Concord, OH. She presented on a panel at the 2021 NetVUE UnConference titled “Good Enough Pedagogy.” Amy was a member of the 2019 cohort of NetVUE’s Teaching Vocational Exploration Seminar. Click here to read her other blog posts on this site.