Spring semester 2020 started like most do in late January. I was gearing up to teach three courses that term: Psy 206, Cognitive Psychology, Psy 353: Cognitive Development, and Psy 416: Cognitive Science. Prepping my course syllabi, as usual my thoughts were on what topics to cover, how much time to allocate to each, what active-learning techniques I would use with which class, and importantly, what the final exams and/or projects would look like. While I’d been following the news of the outbreak in Wuhan, China, I was not yet concerned about an imminent pandemic that would change so much, so rapidly.
Classes began, and each class took on it’s own rhythm. My plans were whirring and buzzing along, just as I’d hoped. I was enjoying my students and all was well. Of course, we now know that this sense of complacency didn’t last long. By mid-February word of the Corona Virus spreading was all over the news, and we (my family and I) were starting to take heed. By mid-March, the pandemic was in full swing and life as we knew it had irrevocably changed.
With the national call to stay home to flatten the curve, Pacific University reasonably gave us faculty two weeks to prepare for the change from face-to-face teaching to distance teaching and learning. In those two weeks, after managing some of my own anxiety about what was to come, I dug in and started to adjust. On our last face-to-face days together, I surveyed students on what they most wanted to preserve as we changed to a distance format and I used that as a jumping off point.
Despite the fact that cognitive development was my specialization both in graduate school and in my post-doctoral research position, Spring 2020 marked just the second time in 18 years that I’d taught Psy 353: Cognitive Development and I was eager to share with students my excitement for the topics. My plan for the semester was to hook students in to the study of cognition and its development with examples of social issues, and then discuss how cognition bears on sociability. Following the theme of application, in addition to studying for exams, students were challenged to take what they were learning about “cognitive development basics” and use that information to “take a side” in a current debate about best practices in parenting and in education. The idea of using scientific information to settle a debate is by no means novel (indeed a prominent publishing house – McGraw-Hill – has an ongoing text book series called Taking Sides), though the debates I created reflect actual conversations and discussion I’ve had over the years as a professor and parent with folks in various walks of life. Rather than use a published series of debates like that noted here, I chose to write my own debates so that the papers students ended up writing were both grounded in actual experiences and that were connected to the material covered in my particular course. A key goal for this class was that upon course completion students would be able to use course material authoritatively, when in conversation with a stakeholder who would benefit from learning about current empirical developmental science topics, and these papers were the way in which that learning outcome was met.
When it came time to adjust my course plan for distance teaching and learning, I knew just what to do with this course. I had originally planned to use a standard formula for course accountability: 3 exams, 3 papers, and a final exam to take one last pass through the material. The adjustments I made entering into distance learning were minor from one view, but they made a major impact on enhancing students’ achievement of the course learning outcome noted above. I shifted the emphasis away from “summative” indices gleaned from high stakes exams and “one and done” papers and instead gave students the opportunity to fine tune their positions and their writing. Students still wrote 3 papers (one for each unit), but they additionally chose their favorite 2 of 3 papers for inclusion in the course e-book. The first round of feedback on the papers was delivered in a “formative” (rather than summative) manner, so that students could revise accordingly. At the end of the term, students submitted their revised essays for a second round of feedback from their peers. By revising their essays multiple times students not only got to revisit course material repeatedly, but they got to fine-tune their writing as well. As such, this issue of the “The Covid_19 Keepsake Series” reflects work the students are proud of, and importantly, the advice they proffer is sound. I hope you agree that these essays show quite clearly that all students met the learning objectives with flying colors.
The collected works here represent the efforts of a diverse group of undergraduate students, whose enrollment status ranged from Sophomore to Senior, with declared interests in 6 different majors and a wide array of career aspirations. In this group, some students (17%) reported that this course marked the first time they had written an application essay in college and most of the students in this group had never participated in a collective class project like this (83%). Creating the works you see here was no small undertaking, and something we are rightly proud of. Please read and enjoy, and give these student-authors a round of applause. Their work is commendable, especially considering the conditions of this unprecedented time of learning during the first wave of Covid_19.
~ Professor Erica Kleinknecht, PhD
Department of Psychology
Pacific University Oregon