In virtual classrooms, learning fellows have a unique perspective on remote learning.
In a normal "Engineering Sciences 20: Introduction to Scientific Computing" class session during a normal term, "ENGS 20" head learning fellow Mer Anderson '21 would spend much of her time circulating around the lecture hall, encouraging pairs of students as they solved coding problems posed by Professor of Engineering Petra Bonfert-Taylor.
A computer and mechanical engineering major, Anderson first learned to code in just such a class, an engineering prerequisite. "The way coding works is the way my brain works," she says.
She liked it so much that she applied to become a learning fellow—one of the 47 undergraduates hired as "near-peer mentors" for students in classes across the institution. That experience "made me realize that eventually I want to be a professor," she says.
Of course, this spring has been anything but normal, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced all Dartmouth courses to follow a remote teaching and learning model. And the Learning Fellows Program—a joint initiative of Learning Design and Technology and the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning (DCAL), now in its fifth year of helping faculty extend opportunities for active learning in the classroom—has had to adapt quickly to the new reality.
Breakout Rooms and Icebreakers
Now Bonfert-Taylor has organized the virtual version of "ENGS 20" around Zoom's breakout-room feature, which allows assigned groups of about four students to collaborate. Learning fellows, who use Slack channels to communicate with each other and Bonfert-Taylor outside of Zoom, are assigned to work with each group.
The changes took intensive planning, and the course has continued to evolve throughout the term. "We meet every week with the learning fellows to brainstorm new ways of engaging students, " Bonfert-Taylor says. "After the first week, students weren't really talking to each other in the breakout rooms, so the learning fellows had the idea to do icebreaker activities."
Among the activities: Groups have had to find three things each member has in common, or find out the most interesting thing they each learned that week outside of class.
"I'm the biggest proponent of silly icebreaker games," Anderson says. "We have to be intentional about creating connections, because we've lost the more natural way of creating them. One of the things that the learning fellows have been trying to do is to make class worth coming to."
A Unique Perspective
As both students and members of course instructional teams, learning fellows have a unique window into Dartmouth's unprecedented transition to remote teaching and learning, says Grace Goodwin '23, a learning fellow in the "Latin 3" section taught by classics department learning program director Jenny Lynn.
Goodwin, who plans to major in classical languages and literature, is also enrolled in classes of her own this term—intensive ancient Greek and a first-year writing seminar on food and agriculture. Despite some "Zoom fatigue," she says, the term has gone "better than I expected. Everyone's a little tired of being at home, but for the most part, people seem to be doing well—we're all kind of situated now."
Of being a virtual learning fellow, she says, "It was surreal at first. In the physical classroom there's so much camaraderie, so the thought of not having that online was a little disheartening. But Professor Lynn did a great job of adapting the course and including us in that process."
Lynn's Latin class—one of four "Latin 3" sections currently being offered—meets three times a week on Zoom. Like "ENGS 20," in each session small groups collaborate in breakout rooms, working on translations and other exercises that they submit via shared Google docs, which Lynn can monitor as they work. Lynn and her learning fellows circulate in and out of the breakout rooms, keeping the conversations vibrant. (Read more about Lynn's remote Latin class on the DCAL website.)
"I'm surprised at how energetic the small groups are and how people seem to be enjoying it," Goodwin says. She and other Latin learning fellows also staff a weekly Latin help desk—a chance for students to study together and build community across what can be vast geographic distances.
Learning Fellows Make 'All the Difference'
Lynn considers Zoom a necessary compromise. "I love being in the classroom; I don't love being on Zoom—but having a team of energetic learning fellows to bounce ideas off of has made all the difference. They have good ideas, and the students find them super valuable."
Bonfert-Taylor agrees. Of remote learning, she says, "Students are finding it hard, but I hear from them about how much they're enjoying the class, and that keeps me going. The learning fellows are a big part of that—they're changing the atmosphere, bringing the class together as a community."
Adrienne Gauthier, a learning designer and program manager for the learning fellows program, says that, just as for a typical term, learning fellows and faculty still participate ongoing weekly huddles, facilitated by learning designers.
"The team huddles are so important—the learning fellows can talk about the student perspective, and the faculty can hear about their experience in other courses, " Gauthier says. "It's unique to have professors talking with undergraduates about their course design. They're learning, too. It's a robust, genuine conversation about teaching and learning."
"The learning fellows are all 100 percent behind me, and I'm 100 percent behind them," Bonfert-Taylor says. "I hope I tell them enough how much this class wouldn't work without them in this format—and what a difference they're making in the students' lives this term."
Courses that featured learning fellows this spring include:
During the summer term, four courses will include approximately 20 learning fellows:
For the latest information on Dartmouth's response to the pandemic visit the COVID-19 website.
Hannah Silverstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.