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Learning How to Learn: Why Faculty Should Re-Think Learning Objectives as They Approach Final Exams

If colleges and universities are truly ‘student-centric’ then we should be re-thinking our course learning objectives during these final weeks of the semester. We must recognize that classes may not be the most important thing in our student’s lives during this pandemic.

Most university professors (myself included) are learning how to conduct online courses as we go. At the same time, our students are learning how to learn in this virtual environment as they get assigned new material each week. This is analogous to teaching an individual how to drive in the middle of a race or teaching an individual how to swim when their ship is sinking. Most of us are simply doing the best we can with the hope that our students will learn and retain at least some portion of the required material.

More than ever, we must be aware of additional factors in our student’s lives. We don’t know if and how a student’s friends and family members have been affected. It is easy to forget this fact when we are trying to develop materials to achieve our courses’ learning objectives. If a student’s mother or father lost their job or an extended family member is ill with COVID, then it is unreasonable to expect them to concentrate on learning at this time. We must also recognize that social distancing can be emotionally and mentally exhausting for all of us, which makes it even more challenging for students to succeed in this environment.

Dr. Thomas Mattson

So what should we do? We should be giving our students credit for being an empathetic neighbor, caring for their fellow classmates, building an online sense of community on a social media platform, or simply persevering during this troubling time. Inevitably, my students will forget my wonderful course materials related to machine learning a few weeks (possibly a few hours) after they take my final exam, but the lessons that they learn during this period of social isolation will stick with them for the rest of their lives. They should not be punished by getting a GPA killing grade in any class because they prioritized other, more important, aspects of their lives or had a difficult time concentrating.

Many traditional college aged students have never taken or even thought about taking an online course before they were forced into this situation due to this pandemic. Online learning is a natural fit for certain topics and certain types of students but not for others. Certain non-traditional college students, such as those who went back to school after a long hiatus, have developed different life skills that make online education a natural fit. Most students at my institution, the University of Richmond, a primarily residential liberal arts college, have never taken nor even thought about taking an online course, so this “new normal,” as many call it, is a foreign concept to them. Asking them to learn and excel in this new environment while the world is chaos is simply not fair.

At many universities, students place an unreasonable amount of pressure on themselves to get an abnormally high GPA. Earning a ‘B’ grade is considered a failing grade in today’s college environment. In fact, I have students who are putting undue pressure on themselves to earn an ‘A’ in a learning environment that they have zero experience working in because anything less is an awful outcome. Coupled with the external events related to the crisis, I think we are not doing the students any favors by requiring faculty to assign grades. I’m pleased to see that many institutions, including UR, have implemented policies providing alternatives to grades, yet some students are still choosing the more traditional grading route.

In business school, we teach our students that to build an effective organization, business owners should hire a diverse team of smart, curious, and ambitious individuals and get them to talk to each other on a regular basis. In higher education, we typically follow a similar process. We hire talented faculty members and admit a diverse group of intellectually curious and ambitious students. Then, we get them to talk to each other in our face-to-face classroom environments. This type of learning environment cannot be emulated with zoom sessions with overly stressed-out students.

If colleges and universities are forced to shift to online education in future semesters, we are going to have to think about how to replicate these informal interactions between our intellectually curious students. It probably starts by figuring out ways to both reduce the stress level of our students and help  instructors gain more experience facilitating virtual discussions. Just as it took most faculty several semesters to figure out how to optimize a face-to-face classroom discussions, we should expect a similar timeline for the switch to online modes of instruction.

This is not going to be perfected in five short weeks with a single transition week. Our students need time to process world events and to learn how to learn in virtual environments while faculty members need time to perfect the craft of online teaching. In the meantime, students and faculty will continue to press on with the hope that we return to a sense of normalcy in the fall. Meantime, as we close in on final exams, we can all revisit our expectations, set realistic goals, and give ourselves and our students some grace during this unprecedented time.

Dr. Thomas Mattson is an assistant professor of management in the University of Richmond Robins School of Business.

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