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Keeping It Personal

Our campus community has rarely faced a greater test than this spring, when the abrupt closing of on-campus operations required us to shift all of our teaching, learning, support, and administration online.

A community that thrives on close faculty-student relationships, dedicated staff support, and peer-to-peer learning in a residential setting had to quickly pivot to an environment in which isolated students, faculty, and staff could only interact through technology. If you were planning a laboratory experiment designed to test the basic elements needed to sustain an educational community, you couldn’t have come up with a better study design.

What did we learn?

First, that personal connection is not just an extra dimension or nice to have, it is fundamental to the education we offer. Faculty recognized how much they rely on seeing their students in person to gauge, through their body language and demeanor, their level of interest and understanding. They are accustomed to checking in casually with students who seem confused, or offering a few words of affirmation after class to a student who was unusually engaged. Without these additional touchpoints, many faculty relied on individual phone conferences or casual emails to stay tuned in to individual student learning.

Students, for their part, reported greater success in their classes when they felt more connected to their faculty members and to each other. They also felt the absence of outside-of-class conversations, which research shows play an important role in solidifying knowledge acquisition. Some faculty responded to this by setting up smaller discussion groups within a larger class to provide those opportunities, while some students organized study sessions on their own.

Second, that the structure of a dedicated academic environment plays an important role in student success. During spring semester, students could and did access all of the formal services usually available to them. Faculty held virtual office hours, the HUB offered robust tutoring and support, librarians at Skillman Library continued to provide research assistance. Nevertheless, students noted that studying was much more difficult in their varied home environments. Some students experienced specific challenges in terms of internet connectivity or other home resources. Without classmates to discuss homework with or friends heading over to the library in the evening, many found it was harder to stay focused and motivated. Some students found that the workload seemed more onerous than it had been before, while many faculty found they had to provide more individual coaching and reminders to help students stay on track. Without the usual cues and structures in place, it took more deliberate planning and outreach to accomplish the semester’s goals.

Distance didn’t stop Rosie Rivera ’20 and her mentor Markus Dubishar, associate professor of classics and associate dean of the curriculum, from maintaining their connection.

Third, we learned that technology is most useful when it recedes into the background and becomes secondary to the course material and personal relationships. This does not mean, however, that technology is not important. On the contrary, teaching is most effective, and learning most successful, when faculty and students both are comfortable with the technology employed. Many workshops through the Center for the Integration of Teaching, Learning, and Scholarship helped faculty become familiar with a wide range of new tools and techniques this spring. This summer, we are making significant new investments in technology, and faculty are working on course designs that will reflect our enhanced capabilities.

Everything we have learned from student survey data and informal conversations among faculty and administrators over the last several months has informed our efforts to prepare for the fall semester. We are planning to bring the community back to campus to begin instruction on Aug. 17, but we know that some students will need to study from off campus, and that some faculty and staff will need to work remotely. Hence, we are preparing for a hybrid approach to learning, where most courses will have technology built into their design to accommodate individual needs. We hope that we will spend the entire semester together, but in the event of a need to pivot to online learning again, we will be better prepared.

I am proud that we passed the test presented this spring, and am optimistic that we will be even more successful in the fall. We often tout the role of liberal arts in teaching flexibility and breadth. Every member of our community has had to call upon those skills in this crisis. In true Lafayette fashion, our students, faculty, and staff have risen to the challenge.

The support of parents, alumni, and friends also has been critical to our ability to navigate this dynamic set of circumstances successfully. My thanks to all of you for your continued commitment to the College, and best wishes for a happy and healthy summer.

Alison Byerly Signature

Alison Byerly