Making Adjustments for a Better Learning Experience

After a semester of hybrid learning while navigating through a pandemic, a common theme in Loras College faculty’s thoughts focused on how effective the virtual teaching resonated with students. To find an answer to that concern, Loras hosted the COVID-19 Teaching Conference to share thoughts and ideas on how to provide Duhawks with a better experience in the second semester.

The conference originated from a conversation by Sarah Cassella, Ph.D., assistant professor of neuroscience, and Jake Kurczek, Ph.D.assistant professor of neuroscience and psychology, as they reflected on the challenges the pandemic had presented to both students and faculty in the fall.

“The idea came from Jake and I chatting about how we needed to create a space for everyone to come together and learn about our semester experiences,” Dr. Cassella said. “We knew that faculty and staff had been talking to each other in smaller pockets, but a larger event would be the most advantageous. We also knew it’d be critical to hear from students about their experience. From there, we kept brainstorming about the best way to do this and created this event.”

The result was a virtual gathering of faculty and students sharing their impressions of the previous four months to improve the spring semester’s learning experience.

“We wanted to have an eye on constructive improvement knowing that we had such a fast turnaround from fall to spring,” Dr. Kurczek explained. “We wanted to create an opportunity to incorporate the student and faculty experiences of what worked and what needed changes into a day of reflection and exchange so that we can make a positive impact on the spring. Fall was a tough semester for everyone, and we hope this makes the spring at least a little better.”

The full-day virtual event provided a mix of presentations and break-out discussions that provided students a chance to talk about the positives and negatives of the semester and answer questions about how the experience could be better both in and out of the classroom.

Daniel Feldhake (’21) was one of the students who participated. While initially surprised by the number of faculty that took part, he realized that this engagement matched his entire Loras experience.

“These are faculty members who have helped me succeed and showed their dedication to my success throughout my three and a half semesters at Loras. It didn’t surprise me that they were deeply invested in hearing feedback and experiences to improve campus learning in a more virtual world. I think I had a response to just about every question posed, meaning they were relevant and thought out,” he said.

For Erin Rankin (’24), she recognized the difficulty that teaching in a pandemic presented and was encouraged by the opportunity to share her impressions with the faculty.

“This year has been hard for everyone with online learning and COVID-19 adjustments,” she said. “I feel like all the faculty were very involved and interested, and it was nice to have the opportunity to share how I felt and what changes could be made. I feel like sharing what I did really helped bring change with the staff that were involved.”

Both students are already seeing the positive impact of this conference early into the spring semester.

“I think a lot of the adjustments that I shared were minor, and they have already made a world of difference to me and other students at Loras,” Feldhake said. “I greatly appreciate it when professors are understanding and courteous about our situations on Zoom. We are all exposing ourselves in a slightly different way this year, so when professors share their understanding of the situation, yet also want to express their desire to interact with us, the feeling of appreciation goes a long way.”

The conference provided an excellent opportunity for faculty to get feedback from students and each other as they shared efforts that worked well or needed adjusting. For Katrina Neely Farren-Eller, Ph.D., assistant professor of public relations, it meant a great deal that this conference was faculty-driven.

“It was clear that faculty truly care about creating an environment for students to learn, which means that we are always seeking out more effective ways to teach, especially during this stressful time,” she said.

Dr. Farren-Eller explained,” Hearing from students about their experiences with the hybrid model was incredibly useful as we prepared for our spring courses. Students continue to want to be pushed past their comfort zones, even in a virtual environment, and Loras students always excel when they are challenged to do so. As challenging as COVID has been for all of us, it’s also allowed us to see how innovative, creative, and resilient we can truly be.”

As students and faculty continue to work their way through this unique learning experience, the commitment to improve has not been lost on Rankin. “I think that there have been positive changes made even though no one can perfectly handle college during a pandemic,” she said.

About Loras College
Founded in 1839, Loras College leverages its historic roots as Iowa’s first college, the second oldest Catholic college west of the Mississippi River and one of the nation’s 10 diocesan colleges to deliver challenging, life-changing experiences as part of its residential, Catholic setting. In 2019, Loras was the second-highest ranked Catholic college in the state of Iowa according to College Consensus, the 16th Best Regional College in the Midwest by U.S. News & World Report and one of America’s Top 200 Most Loved Colleges/Universities by Forbes Magazine for the third consecutive year. Loras students ranked No. 2 in the world as part of the global Peeptrade Investment Challenge while a second group ranked No. 4. For the 10th consecutive year, Loras Media Studies student-led television station (LCTV) was named the TV Station of the Year by the Iowa College Media Association (ICMA).