17th annual Teaching and Learning Conference looks beyond the pandemic

Nearly 600 participants from more than 150 institutions registered for the conference hosted by the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning (CATL) and Teaching and Learning Technologies (TLT) and held Thursday, June 10.

Coming on the heels of an academic year that saw drastic shifts and numerous adaptations in the ways teachers and learners engage, the 17th annual Teaching and Learning Conference at Elon explored a broad range of topics focused on those lessons learned and strategies for the future.

With the theme of “Teaching and Learning Beyond the Pandemic,” the 17th annual conference held virtually on Thursday, June 10, by the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning (CATL) and Teaching and Learning Technologies (TLT) drew close to 600 participants from more than 150 institutions in the United States and five additional countries. Deandra Little, assistant provost and CATL director, said the conference committee was intentional in the words it chose for the theme, working carefully to avoid the impression that the pandemic is over and that no new challenges remain.

“We are beginning to think beyond the pandemic,” Little said at the start of the conference’s opening keynote. “What are some of the changes to teaching and learning and higher ed as a result, and what are some of the things that we might carry with us?”

Participants explored answers to those questions in a far-reaching offering of sessions led by Elon faculty as well as faculty from other colleges and universities. The day included 60-minute evidence-based, interactive virtual workshops focused on imagining and reinvigorating the pedagogy teachers will use in the post-pandemic era as well as 30-minute virtual presentations highlighting innovative pedagogical strategy and evidence of its impact.

The keynote address was delivered by Professor James Lang, director of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence and author of five books focused on teaching in higher education.

Laying the groundwork for the day was the opening keynote address by Professor James Lang, director of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence and author of five books focused on teaching in higher education.

Lang’s research into attention and distraction is particularly important during a period in which many have been learning virtually, with their connection to their peers and instructors taking place through laptop cameras and screens, and smartphones becoming more deeply integrated into daily life. He’s explored those issues and potential responses in his newest book, “Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It.

With many faculty working from their homes and students tuning in for class from their homes or their dorm rooms, “distractions loomed very large in our minds this year,” Lang said.

However, Lang noted, being distracted is a more natural state than being focused in and attentive. “A distracted mind is just a human mind,” Lang said. “All minds are easily distractible — not just now. That’s always been the case.”

It’s been common to lamenting the role that entertainment and technology can in distraction, with that handwringing stretching back centuries if not millennia, Lang said.

“We were never in some attentional Garden of Eden where we could focus as we wished for as long as we want,” Lang said. “We have always had distractible minds. … Distraction is like the ocean in which we’re always swimming and attention is like the island that rises out of that ocean when the circumstances are right.”

The role of the teacher is to take those distracted minds and orient the attention of students to the essential elements of a concept or course, Lang said. he encouraged participants as teachers to focus on the structure of the classroom experience, methods to renew attention after it flags and what policies might be put into place within the classroom to avoid technological distraction.

Thinking of the classroom experience as composed of elements rather than as a singular whole allows for transparency about the structure of the class time while providing the opportunity to shift the sequence of those elements to keep class time engaging, he said. For instance, students may be more likely to remain engaged if they have an expectation that a mini-lecture will be 15 minutes of class time instead of wondering if it will be twice or three times as long. Using low-stakes assessments can help students re-engage with class after a segment during which their attention may have waned, Lang explained.

“We as educators need to think deliberately about how we are helping students achieve attention,” he said. “Attention is hard. It’s hard for all of us.”

Following Lang’s keynote, participants were able to select from a variety of 30- and 60-minute workshops offered throughout the remainder of the day, with breaks in between.

Shannon Duvall, associate professor of computer science, was joined by her husband, Robert Duvall, lecturer in computer science at Duke University, in a session that explored “small inclusive teaching.” The workshop focused on small but significant actions and approaches that can have big impacts on promoting diversity, equity and inclusion in the classroom. Shannon Duvall explained that many institutions have broad and complex approaches in the realm of diversity, equity and inclusion, but teachers should realize that they can also make an individual and direct impact upon their students in this area.

“I want to make sure I leave space for other types of identities to come in and have their voices be heard as well,”  she said.

Duvall laid out a number of strategies she has deployed in her classroom, but also opened it up via a shared document for participants to share their own approaches to use this. The sharing exercise ensured that all participants could come away from the workshop with ideas they might be able to implement once they return to the classroom.

For instance, Duvall discussed the importance of using inclusive language, and how that means going beyond learning students names and how to pronounce them and using the preferred pronouns for students. It also means being sure to explain jargon and to stay away from inside jokes or references.

For instance, Duvall asks her students to use a hand signal if she uses a word or phrase that they don’t understand. That communicates to her that she needs to circle back to explain, and provides a way to communicate that without disrupting the class.

In a later session, Assistant Professor of Arts Administration Wen Guo was joined by community partner Shineece Sellar, executive director of the African American Cultural Arts & History Center in Burlington, for a session on cultivating arts leadership through a student-led arts management consulting project. Students in Guo’s senior seminar took the lead in developing a plan to offer consulting assistance to the center with a particular focus on creating a handbook for the center’s board members and a consulting report on board governance.

“I’ve had the pleasure of working with these students and they’ve been able to help us in our growth,” Sellar said.

Guo said part of the success of the seminar and the partnership was giving them the latitude to explore what the organization may need and determining what value they could bring. That led to the addition of the consulting report. “I left room for the students to decide what else the organization needs and what they could offer them during the semester,” Guo said.

More information about the conference is available here.