What Are We Learning from Students about Effective, Mission-Driven Teaching During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

A hallmark of Jesuit education is a commitment to a style of teaching, known as Ignatian Pedagogy, which emphasizes the personalization of learning, the social context in which learning occurs, and the ultimate goals of education: serving each other and the common good. The paradigm of Ignatian Pedagogy, which flows from Jesuit spirituality and features a dynamic inter-play of the five stages of Context-Experience-Reflection-Action-Evaluation, is not a rigid one-size fits all manual for teaching but rather a spur to deeper consideration of students as whole persons in the learning process. The paradigm’s often overlooked fifth stage, evaluation, offers all of us at Georgetown an opportunity to comprehensively reflect on what we have learned from our teaching and working during the last two months so that we might proceed with a better understanding for how to more effectively journey together as we meet the challenges before us.

Taken from “Ignatian Pedagogy: An Abridged Version,” Ignatian Pedagogy is five inter-related stages and ends with evaluation. How are we evaluating the experience of teaching and learning in the pandemic?

This year’s Teaching Learning and Innovation Summer Institute (TLISI) conference, an annual conference hosted by the Center for New Designs in Learning & Scholarship after spring semester ends, provided rich opportunities to more deeply evaluate what we learned from educating in the virtual environment from March to May. TLISI is always an engaging experience of cross-campus, peer-to-peer sharing, and SCS has contributed significantly to the conference in the past few years, offering a number of mission-related sessions (including here, here, and here). Two panels stood out at this year’s all-virtual conference: one session led by students and another session led by Georgetown’s Deans.

This year’s TLISI conference offered several opportunities to reflect on what worked and what didn’t in our teaching, working, and learning at Georgetown in the final months of the spring semester.

Evaluation, in the context of Ignatian Pedagogy, needs to be understood as broader and deeper than simply assigning a numerical score for performance. Rather, evaluation in the Ignatian style involves taking a deep look at how teaching encouraged “fuller human growth” beyond simple “academic mastery.”  Did this learning experience foster opportunities for “further reflection” beyond simply transmitting knowledge or skills?  I was so heartened to hear a range of student voices reflecting on what worked and what didn’t in their virtual learning. These insights, some of which I summarize below, provide important reminders about how much traditional methods of teaching need to adjust to this unprecedented moment:

  • One-on-one faculty engagement with students matters now more than ever. Students reported that their sense of belonging and community deepened when faculty members reached out to check in on them. A relationship of trust between teacher and student helped learners stay connected to the content of their courses.  This one-on-one commitment also reinforced a sense of solidarity and mutuality between students and faculty during a time of crisis.
  • Faculty conducting virtual classes need to mix up their learning activities and provide space for students to actively engage the subject matter and each other. 20 or 30 minutes is probably the maximum time a student can sit through a synchronous class session without being invited to share a reflection, ask a question, or actively explore the class material. Students shared that they were more likely to stay engaged if they were drawn into active participation by faculty. The students also emphasized that flexibility is crucial as some students might not be as disposed to participate actively in class due to adverse conditions in their home learning environments.  

The panel of Georgetown deans offered similar insights as they shared lessons learned from managing their organizations during this time. While each school operates in its own unique context and faces different challenges and opportunities, the panel reflected many things held in common. The deans emphasized several shared themes about the need in this time of crisis to:

  • Deliver clear and well-coordinated communications to their students, staff, and faculty.
  • Cultivate structures of community (amongst faculty, staff, and student groups) in which the bonds of personal and communal connection can help withstand feelings of dislocation and separation through self-growth opportunities like the SCS Daily Digital Meditations.
  • Embrace change and adaptability about existing ways of doing business. This crisis actually invites new ways of proceeding that will ultimately improve the management of Georgetown’s operations.
  • Express gratitude for the gifts of our community, especially the heroic and inspiring actions that our students, staff, and faculty are taking to uphold the mission of Georgetown University.

There is still much to ponder as we evaluate the experience of closing out the spring semester by learning and working in an all-virtual context. But I am hopeful that the valuable reflections at TLISI provide a helpful foundation for deeper discernment about how we are called to meet this moment. Our unique mission and values as a university present a depth of resources for how to proceed in our learning and working at Georgetown. As Mara Brecht notes in a recent article in America Magazine, COVID-19 invites an even fuller commitment to our Jesuit mission and heritage:

” Overrun hospitals, a halted world economy and a pervasive aura of fear and anxiety turn abstractions about mission and identity into reality. In this moment, need becomes nakedly apparent: our own existential and economic needs, the need of people who are sick and suffering for compassion and care, and the desperate needs of the poor and vulnerable among us. Responding to need, in its wide range and many manifestations must become our starting point for assessing the distinctively Catholic nature of our institutions.”