Liberal Education

Improving Student Learning through Faculty Empathy in a Hybrid Course Community

The best college teachers think in terms of how their students will learn rather than what they, as instructors, will teach.1 Indeed, literature on higher education overwhelmingly advocates the idea of student-centered learning. However, institutions, particularly large research universities such as the University of California (UC), face numerous challenges in supporting faculty efforts to develop student-centered approaches. Enter the Provost Hybrid Course Award (PHCA) program at UC Davis. By sponsoring faculty through a technologically challenging and professionally supported workshop to hybridize one of their courses (through both online and in-class components), UC Davis provided an avenue for participants to develop empathy for the students they teach. That newfound empathy helped faculty participants identify and clearly state objectives, design appropriate learning modules, and build assessments that supported their goals. Empathy allowed them to center the work on their students.

The divide between faculty members’ positions as teachers and students’ positions as learners can be challenging to see, much less overcome. As experts, faculty may fail to provide appropriate entry points or convey specific goals, even when they think they are succeeding in these areas.2 Because they are rooted in their experience of teaching something over which they have mastery, they may not empathize with the student experience of learning the material fresh. Faculty may not even realize until assignments are graded that a significant distance exists between what they are asking of students and what students are able to do. This disconnect is problematic. Even faculty who are intentional in their teaching and dedicated to their students may lack opportunities to develop an empathetic approach that can support students’ academic success.

At UC Davis, we found an opportunity to overcome the disconnect and maximize learner-centered teaching in an unexpected place: a learning community designed to teach faculty to hybridize their courses. In hybrid courses, material that traditionally would be covered in class is delivered online, but the course still meets in person, albeit for a reduced amount of time.3 Hybrid (and online-only) courses are often understood as a means to address infrastructural concerns like limited classroom space,4 create more flexible learning and scheduling options for students,5 and support more interactive learning spaces.6 In addition, these forms of teaching should be investigated as powerful facilitators of mind-set change that lead faculty to create more student-centered learning experiences in person and online.

In this article, we explore four elements of the UC Davis PHCA program that contributed to participants’ ability to (re)design courses so they truly centered on students. First, faculty connected to each other as student-centered individuals within a community of practice. Second, through learning new technological tools in order to teach familiar material, faculty developed learner-centered thinking that changed how many approached teaching. Third, faculty developed greater intentionality about their learning goals for students. Lastly, faculty developed new empathy for students’ experiences by thinking through the technology involved in hybridizing course material within a supported and immersive environment. In spite of many faculty members’ concerns that online teaching would ultimately distance them from their students, participants frequently completed the PHCA program feeling more connected with their students and better equipped to teach.

Community of practice model

The provost’s office offered the PHCA program from 2010 to 2015. Each cohort had roughly five to seven participants, the majority of whom had limited prior experience using educational technologies in the classroom. For this study, we conducted one-on-one interviews and focus groups with twelve faculty participants from the 2013–14 and 2014–15 cohorts. All twelve shared the core experience: they met weekly as a group during one quarter and consulted individually as needed with pedagogy and instructional design consultants over the following quarter. They also could participate in monthly informal meetings after completing the program as they worked through designing their courses. Faculty who completed both the seminar and the course design received a stipend of $12,500 to cover costs associated with additional technology services, graduate student assistance, and other areas of support.

At its heart, the PHCA program was a “community of practice”7 where faculty developed a course in which students would learn material using educational technologies outside of the classroom, with the intent of enabling discussions and extensions of that material inside the classroom. The program offered an environment where faculty learned alongside peers from different departments. Experts in their own disciplines, they became novices as they struggled to learn new technologies and design a course in a foreign format. However, they didn’t struggle alone. Two experts from the UC Davis teaching and technology units guided participants as they developed learning activities and assessments aligned with student outcomes. Perhaps even more importantly, the faculty had opportunities to learn from each other.

Several participants noted that in ten years of teaching on campus, they had “never felt this kind of community.” For one, “just hearing from each other and seeing what everyone else was doing and what they were struggling with” was what brought her back week after week. As another put it, “there aren’t a lot of opportunities to work collectively on teaching,” because for new professors who have been assigned a course, “it’s easy to kind of do it on autopilot.” Faculty rarely have the opportunity to reflect on goals and approaches, and typically are not encouraged to really take a course apart and rethink it “from its foundation.” For participants, even after the fact, there was a palpable sense that these sessions sparked a connection among faculty and a respect for one another’s way of thinking, even though the disciplines that were represented ranged from the humanities to veterinary medicine. “I don’t think a single day went by that I didn’t think, oh wow, that’s so smart,” remembered one participant. For many, this was the first time they had connected intensively with others who cared deeply about instruction.

This connection is at the core of what makes communities of practice valuable, especially at research universities where opportunities to deepen one’s understanding of teaching in community are rare. Such communities of practice transform teaching from a solitary exercise that receives few overt rewards into a research-based collective endeavor supported by staff and funding.

The PHCA cohort was united in the desire to experiment with a teaching method that might improve the effectiveness of the course learning experience for a new generation of students. Some found it a “waste of everybody’s time” to lecture about materials when students could just as easily watch a video on their phones. Some found that they themselves could no longer pay attention to lecturers for lengthy periods of time, so weren’t sure why they would expect students to do so. Some simply felt that the world had changed and they should change with it. When one faculty member was on maternity leave, she found an “incredibly compelling” online application for language learning, something she’d previously done face-to-face. The experience made her want to modernize her classroom approach: “Why not try something different? The ways we were taught to learn are not the ways they [students] were.”

Learning to learn through technology

The PHCA group had specific tasks each week. These included defining learning outcomes for a course, designing an assignment, and learning specific technological tools that students could use to engage with course material. Participants especially remembered the last of these as bonding the group. With two exceptions, faculty in the PHCA program had little to no prior experience with the educational technologies introduced through the program. One recalled that in the beginning “we were all very enthusiastic” about learning the tools and options, but as they turned from ideas to hands-on learning, many were intimidated. One participant even characterized the PHCA community as a “support group” where everyone was “in it together,” sharing an environment where expert teachers became novice students.

The majority of participants described their low points in the PHCA program as those when they were overwhelmed by technological tools. Many found it frustrating that the program’s staff would not simply tell them which tools would be best for their projects. One week, for example, faculty were told to select an online tool from a long list of possibilities, determine through trial and error how it could be used to support learning in their class, and share the opportunities and challenges the tool presented. Speed-dating style, they then had to present the results of their experimentation to their colleagues. “It was generally presented to us that if you have X problem or X goal, there are four or five different programs that you could use and this one’s free and this is not very expensive and this works well and you guys can play around with it,” one participant explained. This wasn’t a message that he liked: “I work at a university because I like environments in which you get taught stuff, not, like, go experiment—be a free spirit.”

There were two levels of challenge. In the first, participants had to discern which tools fit what course activity. In the second, they had to try to make the tools work. “Oh, Adobe Connect,” recalled one faculty participant, “I thought I was going to pass out with Adobe Connect.” The phrase “pass out,” while an exaggeration, does reflect the purposeful gap PHCA staff created between their guidance and faculty mastery. Developing scripts, recording raw footage, reviewing and preparing footage for editing, embedding quizzes or mapping tools on interactive platforms—all these activities consumed more time than any participant expected. For some participants, the time they dedicated to course-making encroached on time for research and writing. As one faculty participant explained, “I realized I had signed on for a tremendous time commitment . . . [and] I recognize the system won’t reward me for it.”

These comments raise the question: Why did participants keep coming to class? Part of the motivation was practical, as faculty were required to complete the course in order to receive in-kind or direct funding, which they could use to hire a graduate assistant or pay for technologies. At the same time, none of the faculty were required to complete the course by their colleagues or the university. After seeing how much time and effort were involved in learning the technological tools and building each course component, they could have walked away. Yet all participants completed the class, and most who participated in this study characterized the experience as rewarding. One professor, who was asked by his department to participate, noted that “I did not want to do it. I’m a very busy guy”; afterward, however, he reported that the experience “was so worthwhile.” Evidence suggests that much of that reward came in the form of a dramatic shift in mind-set about teaching.

“It forces you to be precise”

Participants frequently talked about the PHCA program inviting them to fundamentally rethink their approach to student learning. Several, including senior faculty, shared that they had never previously been trained to teach or thought much about how to present information to students. “The hybrid model is a fundamental radical change that just invites reconsideration of everything you’re doing,” explained one participant. A particularly large part of that radical thinking was developing learner-centeredness: figuring out what they really wanted students to learn.

Faculty working on hybrid courses have to be very clear about what they want students to learn in each segment of their online materials. Part of this is practical: a great deal of work goes into producing and captioning short videos, for example, or creating specific texts to annotate. Each element of an online course has to be produced, often by the faculty themselves, and no one wants to have to recreate materials. Additionally, while a typical lecture might be an hour, a typical segment is five to six minutes—so one can’t approach online and in-person materials in the same way. Selecting and producing materials for short, time-limited segments involves a level of intentional thought that could be missing in a typical lecture.

Several participants mentioned that the PHCA program helped them develop “more clearly articulated purposes” or more “course objectives.” One senior faculty member, who saw the PHCA program as the first time he had thought about teaching “carefully,” reported not knowing that before creating a course, one should establish objectives that guide what one includes. Program participation invited many faculty to fundamentally rethink what they were covering and how—an experience that some found liberating. One participant from economics recalled realizing that once she looked at her assignments and thought about her overall learning outcomes, she could make changes. “Oh my gosh,” she recalled thinking, “I can get rid of two assignments that I don’t like and keep the one I’m interested in.”

Focusing on course objectives not only changed how participants approached the material they taught, but also shaped the kind of testing they used. One participant who had routinely tested students to make sure they did the reading found that he wanted instead to assess the overall learning objectives, making sure students “understand what are the important things.” Another completely jettisoned her exams after she tried to convert them to the online format and link them directly to her learning outcomes: “I don’t think that’s a useful sort of testing for the thing I want them to do.” None of these decisions depended on the community format of the PHCA program or staff guidance; certainly, faculty could have made these changes on their own. However, the PHCA program’s unique combination of support, challenge, limited space and time, and encouragement to connect course products to clear learning aims enabled faculty to change their mind-sets and practices. Recalling that some participants were senior faculty members who had had decades to rethink their teaching, it seems that something uniquely advantageous occurred frequently in the PHCA program that did not happen without it.

Developing greater empathy for students

Before entering the PHCA program, most participants expected that they could form deeper connections to students by hybridizing their courses. What they meant by this, however, was that they expected to benefit from increased time for face-to-face in-class interaction as they moved their lecture materials online. Interestingly, many also found that they connected imaginatively to students through the process of putting material online. Ultimately, the PHCA program seems to have helped many faculty members acquire a new sense of how students thought—almost an empathy for student learners—that they had not previously experienced.

One reason for this was the format itself. Participants realized quickly that they could not simply video record their lectures; as one put it, “It really is not engaging to watch someone talk for an hour.” Once they realized this, participants had to think in new ways about how to make material accessible, how to decide what could best be done in person and online, how to present information online (including length and format of segments), and what information to present given time limits. Making these decisions required them to put themselves in their students’ shoes. According to one participant, “You have to imagine your learner constantly, and you are working through these technologies too.”

Faculty and staff both cited an increase in empathy for students—the ability to think from a student perspective about teaching—as a key takeaway from the workshops. PHCA coordinators noted that while they initially prompted faculty to think about how students needed to learn rather than how they wanted to teach, participants soon took this approach on their own. “By workshop five [they] are asking each other, ‘But how will that tool promote student engagement?’ I don’t even have to ask,” a coordinator recalled. Evidence suggests this was not a small shift, but rather one that took consistent personal and emotional reframing. “In the end, you need to feel their pain,” explained one participant; “you need to empathize with them.” Another recalled one of the coordinators “saying, ‘This is not about you. This is about the students.’ [P]utting your thumb exactly on how the students will receive this is extremely difficult, and you do have to filter through all the different technologies and all of the ways in which they can interact with the material in order to pick the best way. That was my scary moment.”

Indeed, it can be scary for faculty to put aside the ways they present information to students and dig in—class by class, concept by concept—to how students experience that information and ultimately learn. The PHCA program, by design, gives research faculty a place to express and overcome that fear. And the rewards are significant. As one faculty member put it, “I like to think I’m in the business of touching people’s lives with information. I’ve entertained them, because they rate me very well as an instructor, but that’s different from giving them information that touches their lives.” When done right, hybrid and online learning can enhance the ability of faculty to touch students’ lives in this way. With the right guidance and collaboration, faculty can use what some might see as “distancing” technologies to develop precision and empathy in their approaches to teaching, enhancing their connections with students even with limited face-to-face contact. “My whole approach is different,” concluded a senior faculty member. “It’s now what can I do as a professor to give them opportunities to learn.”

This was ultimately our most surprising and exciting finding when exploring the PHCA program’s impact on faculty. Faculty who went through the experience ended up thinking differently about students. Their mind-sets changed. Instead of considering chiefly what they wanted to teach, they found themselves thinking increasingly about what students needed in order to learn—a distinction that scholars of education argue is key for successful teaching.8 This shift toward greater empathy with student learners is not usually associated with hybrid or online learning. More often than not, these platforms are regarded by suspicious faculty as a means of minimizing contact with students in the name of profit or convenience.9 Our findings challenge that assumption. By asking participants to break down what they are doing in lecture, work through technological platforms they do not know, and take on the role of student, hybrid course learning communities “graduate” faculty who can see their subject matter from a student’s point of view.

Creating academic environments in which all students, regardless of background, can succeed will continue to be a chief challenge for higher education. We cannot address this challenge without greater learner-centered empathy, especially among faculty. For this reason, if for no other, course-building opportunities like the PHCA program should thrive.

Notes

1. Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).

2. Susan Ambrose, Michael Bridges, and Marsha Lovett, How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010), 98.

3. Margie Martyn, “The Hybrid Online Model: Good Practice,” Educause Quarterly 26, no. 1 (2003): 18–23.

4. Paul Baepler, J. D. Walker, and Michelle Driessen, “It’s Not about Seat Time: Blending, Flipping, and Efficiency in Active Learning Classrooms,” Computers & Education 78 (2014): 227–36, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2014.06.006.

5. Bassou El Mansour and Davison M. Mupinga, “Students’ Positive and Negative Experiences in Hybrid and Online Classes,” College Student Journal 41, no. 1 (2007): 242–48.

6. Martyn, “The Hybrid Online Model.”

7. Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

8. See Ambrose, Bridges, and Lovett, How Learning Works; and James Lang, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2016).

9. Thomas Wanner and Edward Palmer, “Personalising Learning: Exploring Student and Teacher Perceptions about Flexible Learning and Assessment in a Flipped University Course,” Computers & Education 88 (2015): 354–69, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2015.07.008.

To respond to this article, email liberaled@aacu.org with the authors’ names on the subject line.


CAROLYN THOMAS is professor of American studies and vice provost and dean for undergraduate education at the University of California–Davis. JENNIFER SEDELL is a doctoral candidate in geography at the University of California–Davis. The authors would like to thank Kem Saichaie, Cara Theisen, and Cheryl Diermyer for supporting the development and implementation of the research project described here; Brianna Banks and Catherine Garoupa-White for supporting data collection and analysis; and Cara Theisen and Dan Comins for sharing material and insights related to the Provost Hybrid Course Award.

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