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Flexible teaching in a crisis

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The most under-acknowledged miracle of the past year is the astonishing two-week period in which an entire educational institution traded lab stools for Zoom rectangles, chalkboards for Notability on the professor’s child’s iPad, and 8 minute C1 rides for 8 steps to a bedroom desk. The Keep Learning team truly brought together the best of Duke to spend generously and strategically to keep the gears turning by rapidly fixing unique challenges like sending laptops and mobile hotspots to students with insufficient digital access. 

But now, almost a year later, we are still predominantly learning, working and communicating from a distance. One fundamental question posed by COVID-19 is how long can a university operate in crisis mode? How long can people operate in crisis mode? We have transitioned into a steady state of teachers sending Zoom links, indoor dining being prohibited, and the purse strings being tightened, yet 56 positive tests in a week would have made us a top global hot spot in early 2020. Duke’s undergraduate program struggled throughout 2020 with the charge to teach during a crisis—but how do you teach like that for what will very likely be four semesters? Flexible teaching strategies have been crucial to student success during the pandemic. They must be continued.

Arguably the largest pedagogical shift in distance learning has been the sudden explosion of open-note exams. A very informal poll of friends (n=19) from varying years and majors showed a majority of classes with exams this semester offering some form of equation sheet, textbook use, or other aid. When asked about pre-COVID policies, the mean estimate was that around a quarter of their classes with exams had previously used open book methods. Though these estimates may differ from the true values, the increase in open-note policies is clear. This is no coincidence: as part of the rapid shift to online learning with little time to adapt, faculty and students alike favored open-note tests for two main reasons.

First, the quality of instruction and attentiveness of students initially suffered greatly from the rapid and unprecedented shift. Initial lectures over Zoom had glitches, muted professors, illegible notes and a lot of “so can everybody see my screen? No? How about now?” Students were terrified, having just been sent home with little advance notice—many of their belongings left behind—and with a lethal virus spreading across the globe. As motivated and studious as Duke students are, we are human and are not immune to bringing stressors with us into the classroom. Furthermore, the inequities in home life differentially impacted students' academic life unlike ever before. Toxic home situations, new-found caretaker responsibilities, unacceptable rural internet infrastructure in the US and a lack of resources to purchase a laptop are just a few ways some students saw their obstacles to learning and working increased.

This is absolutely not to say that faculty did not step up to the challenge, or that these problems were avoidable or unique to Duke. Duke Learning Innovation published extremely detailed, relevant and useful guides supported by pedagogical research. This increased difficulty of learning was often offset with more lenient examinations and grading. While this excellent study found little to no evidence for an across the board increase in performance between students in an open note and closed note section of a Biology course, Duke students wouldn’t think twice given the choice of taking the same test open vs closed-note.

Second, the open note logistics simply worked better. The elephant in the room with remote examinations was adherence to the Honor Code. Without the convenience of looking around the room to catch a wandering eye, proctoring became all but impossible. I believe the decision to not implement proctoring technology was one of the best recent policy choices. To treat students like suspects, with invasive and inequitable software, would have damaged our community’s trust. But with that said, students violated the honor code. It happened. The difference, however, is that when knowledge is treated as a secret a simple text with an equation translates to immediate points. With a well-structured exam, which requires original thought and demonstration of understanding of the underlying principles (think mathematical proof with a step-by-step explanation, not foreign-language flashcards), it is blatantly obvious if someone shared answers with a friend. Open-note exams worked great with 24 hour windows and open-ended problems, and my professors in Spring 2020 were so flexible and understanding.

I also want to talk about the effect testing has on our mental health. Learning is one of the best activities you can possibly engage in for your own self-improvement, but rote memorization tends to lead to a short-term mindset and high stress localized around periods of examination. In contrast, a holistic learning approach focuses on deep conceptual understanding and critical thinking as opposed to plug and chug equations. This becomes an actual asset to not just learning, but mental health when incorporated into a flexible, learner-centric classroom model. Duke Learning Innovation hosts a set of guides on course design and describes different ways to consider replacing closed-form assessments with open-ended projects. 20% of my grade for a course on materials was to pick a material that interested me and analyze it in terms of the framework of the class. As a result, I learned so much more about Aluminum-Lithium alloys than a quiz would demand.

My ask to faculty is this: please, keep up the flexible teaching. Nothing would make me happier than a permanent shift towards open-ended assessment and away from memorization, but the more urgent need is now. Some classes have reverted back to a closed-note format, and other faculty are on the fence between allowing a formula sheet or not as this first wave of midterms approaches. We are still in crisis mode, even if it feels normal at this point. We still cannot engage with our peers to process and synthesize information in the ways that lead to deep learning, we still often spend over 6 hours a day on Zoom, and we still can’t play basketball in Wilson after a rough day. We are told each year on LDOC that “it’s a marathon, not a sprint”. Can we treat this flexible teaching like a marathon?

Jackson Kennedy is a junior in Pratt studying mechanical engineering as well as a DSG senator of academic affairs.

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