Penn State instructors connect across commonwealth at virtual events

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Hundreds of faculty from across Penn State have attended recent events meant to support teaching efforts and provide a place for colleague connections.

Many more events to support instructors and advisers are scheduled through the end of February at More than a dozen events for instructors will also be offered through February from the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence.

At a Jan. 12 symposium called “Commonwealth Connections: Instructor Day,” Jen Keagy said 375 instructors from the Commonwealth Campuses attended the day-long series, which featured 62 faculty presenters and was supported by the Commonwealth Campus instructional design community. Keagy is the senior director for statewide instructional design for the Commonwealth Campuses and the director of the Center of Teaching Excellence at Penn State Harrisburg.

“This was a chance for instructors from across Penn State’s Commonwealth Campuses to gather and share best practices across teaching modes, motivating and encouraging one another” (as they prepared for the spring 2021 semester), Keagy said. “This was also a way for the community of instructional designers at our Commonwealth Campuses to support faculty as they explored solutions to novel classroom experiences.”

Sessions covered faculty well-being, fostering learning and engagement, assessment and academic integrity and considering the student’s experience. Many of the recordings are available from the Commonwealth Campus Faculty Development page.

In December, the two co-leads of the newly formed Faculty Advisory Group wanted to give instructors a place to connect in a more relaxed, informal setting, while still getting insights into tips and tactics their colleagues have developed for teaching in remote and mixed-mode environments.

Josh Wede, teaching professor of psychology in the College of the Liberal Arts, said the event drew about 75 participants from across Penn State for an informal discussion on the positives that emerged from a challenging semester.

“It’s just good for everybody’s wellbeing,” he said of such events. “I think one of the things to come out of this will be the ability for faculty to connect across the commonwealth.”

Marly Doty, lecturer of human development and family studies at Penn State DuBois and co-lead with Wede, said feedback from the event showed faculty are hungry for opportunities to connect.

“Events like these are important because faculty need the opportunity to connect with other colleagues,” she said. “They need the opportunity to commiserate, to swap stories and also to learn from each other.”

Instructional designers stepped in as notetakers when faculty broke out into smaller groups during the event, both to allow faculty the opportunity to participate without worrying about gathering information and for the generation of a tip sheet that could later be shared.

Faculty shared numerous ideas on how to engage students before, during and after class. Among the suggestions for the start class were icebreakers and check-ins with students in smaller classes to ask how they are doing. For strategies during class, tech tutors and teaching assistants were lauded for their help in building remote and mixed-mode learning experiences. It was also suggested that polling and Zoom reactions were helpful in keeping more students engaged during remote sessions. And of course, faculty shared their strategies in encouraging students to turn on their cameras to reduce the numbers of “black boxes” during class.

Another suggestion was that faculty stay after class — as they would in a brick and mortar setting — to give students the opportunity to talk. Other suggestions included creating a “virtual office,” as Wede himself did, with links to resources and the ability to ask questions of the instructor.

Doty said the success of such events will likely change how faculty connect with one another.

“I really think we've broken down some barriers to cross-campus communication,” she said. “I hope following the pandemic we build on this, because these connections are how we thrive.”

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