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Since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the University of Michigan campus last spring, U-M classes have been conducted almost entirely online with few exceptions. Professors have had to completely reimagine courses they have taught for years, while students have been forced to shift their learning and studying habits to adjust to the previously uncharted waters of online academia.
Now, as COVID-19 restrictions become less stringent in the state of Michigan and at the University, the U-M community is preparing to adapt once again. For the Fall 2021 semester, 89% of classes are expected to be fully in-person, with only large lectures — those with 150 or more students — remaining completely virtual.
After frustration surrounding the University’s reopening plan for the Fall 2020 semester, students and faculty alike have shared both excitement and concerns over the prospect of jumping back into face-to-face instruction.
LSA junior Alexa Krugel said she is optimistic about returning to face-to-face classes, as long as professors are understanding that underclassmen — who may have yet to experience college in person — might need a bit of time to adapt to the sudden pedagogical shift.
“As an incoming junior, I experienced both in-person classes and online classes, and I really enjoy being in the classroom and interacting with others,” Krugel said. “However, for the incoming sophomores, this year will be their first year attending in-person classes. Professors need to understand this and maybe take it a little slower than they normally would to allow everyone to adjust.”
As U-M faculty members begin to construct their Fall 2021 syllabi, concerns are pressing about how to best structure courses to support students as they readjust to in-person learning, according to several University professors who spoke with The Michigan Daily.
Engineering professor James Juett said the general stress of the pandemic has caused him to be more understanding of unforeseen events that may impede a student’s academic capabilities. Going forward, Juett said, he will focus on practicing empathy in the classroom even when the pandemic comes to an end.
“During the height of COVID there, I think a lot of professors were more open to the expectation that students have more disruption in their life and we cannot necessarily expect that they have as much expendable time to spend on schoolwork,” Juett said. “There have been a few parts of the course that we’ve found are the least critical things that we can cut and save students a little bit of work here or there, to just take some pressure off.”
Though Art & Design professor Andrew Thompson teaches a completely different discipline than Juett, Thompson told The Daily he also plans to be as flexible as possible with his students this coming fall. First and foremost, Thompson said, he wants to ensure his students feel welcomed and comfortable as they transition back into the physical classroom.
“So there’s some students that all I know of them is the sound of their voice, if anything at all, so I’m going to be really annoying in person. I’m going to wave and shout at people I recognize and be really dorky,” Thompson said. “I’m going to be overly friendly, because that’s something we definitely missed. I can’t wait to be in person and … to make students feel like they belong.”
Lisa Martin, UM-Dearborn and UM-Ann Arbor LSA professor, also said the pandemic has made her more inclined to make time for regular verbal check-ins with students in order to gauge their overall well-being and what they are academically retaining from each lesson. According to Martin, teaching during the pandemic has made her more sensitive to the individuality of learning.
“I’ve learned that whatever assumptions I make about how I think students are doing are usually wrong, unless I ask,” Martin said. “If you only hear from the vocal students, you’re missing part of what the other students are experiencing. There never was one way to study, never one way to prepare; people have different learning styles.”
Juett, Thompson and Martin also agreed that overall, U-M faculty members are working to reevaluate their expectations for students in regards to exams and assignments. After over a year of online, open-note exams, all three acknowledged that exams purely rooted in memorization were not as conducive to encouraging critical thinking skills as some other methods of assessing student performance.
In particular, Martin said the pandemic forced professors to reckon with their past teaching methods, realize which aspects of their curriculum might be less effective when students have the internet at their fingertips and make the necessary changes.
“I also just think that we learned that asking students to memorize stuff and regurgitate it, for a lot of classes, was never the best assessment or tool, and so there’s no need to go back (to pre-COVID academics) 100%,” Martin said.
Daily Staff Reporter Emily Blumberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org