Connection and inclusion in the (virtual) classroom
This article is the first in a series featuring innovative teaching practices in the College of Humanities and Sciences.
When Zooming into assistant professor Ching-Yu Huang’s introductory biology seminar, the first thing you might notice is the music. Huang plays music, paired with a quote, for 15 minutes before class; it’s a ritual that she started back in the fall of 2018.
“I love and play all types of music. It’s a great way to get the class pumped up and ready to learn,” she says. It’s also a time for students to talk with one another and Huang before delving into the lecture. “Under the enormous stress and uncertainty this past year, we crave human connection and a meaningful relationship. This time is when we share how we feel that day or what’s happening in our lives. ”
It’s this belief in connection that guides Huang when designing her large lecture classes. She starts off every course by sharing her own inclusive teaching statement. “Even though VCU has its own diversity and inclusion statement, a personalized, inclusive teaching statement from instructors has a lasting impact on students. I also address how I will support their individual learning needs to ensure an equitable learning environment and reiterate that regularly throughout the semester. And I make sure to communicate my belief that every student has the capacity to learn and ability to succeed in this class, regardless of their preparedness prior to the course, their accessibility to resources or their identities.”
For many students, the addition of Huang’s own inclusive teaching statement makes a real difference. “The inclusion statement, as well as Dr. Huang's consistent motivation, actually really encouraged me and made me feel like I can have a place in this field as a woman of color,” wrote one student on Huang’s recent evaluations.
Once Huang’s lecture gets underway, she uses a variety of activities to engage with her 200+ person class. “I get bored when sitting and listening to an hour-long seminar, and so do my students,” she explains. “In order to engage my students in their learning, I mix up small lectures (10-15 minutes) with self-assessment activities (Top Hat) and group collaboration (Google shared documents). I also like to quiz students in the midst of the lecture, and they share their thoughts in the Zoom chat.”
"As a first gen student, an international student, an immigrant and a female scientist, I see my young self in my students.”
Huang has developed case studies to spark and engage students’ interests in content subjects, as well as to help students connect what they learn to the real world. This array of activities keeps students interested and also deepens their understanding of biological concepts. It’s no surprise that in 2020, Huang was one of three finalists for the 2020 Top Hat Most Innovative Educator Award.
Outside of the classroom, Huang remains accessible to her students. She frequently hosts coffee hours or lunch dates, allowing students to drop in and chat, whether it’s about the most recent assignment or a more personal issue. And recognizing that sometimes students feel more comfortable around their peers, Huang recruited former students to serve as preceptors. They participate in weekly training sessions and serve as mentors, tutors and coaches for the rest of the students. Every student signs up to work with one of the preceptors.
“Preceptors are the bridge that strengthen my connection with my students. They keep me updated with students’ concerns, feedback and their learning process. For students, preceptors provide a safe and relaxed place to talk about their struggles and worries,” she says.
Ultimately Huang believes that the key to her students’ success lies in communication. “We all care deeply for our students. But students won’t know it if we fail to clearly communicate with them where we stand and how we would like to help,” she says.
Huang feels this is especially important for underrepresented student groups. “It may sound ridiculous that we need to remind students that we are here for them, but underrepresented student groups often feel reluctant to reach out or seek help due to their unfamiliarity with campus resources, academic structure and school culture. In this time of enormous stress, uncertainty and isolation, a meaningful and supportive relationship with their professor and their peers is what our students need the most.”
Huang is currently a faculty fellow in inclusive teaching in the Office of the Provost. She leads many workshops for the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence, including one on February 5, 2021 entitled “What Makes Teaching Inclusive to Student Learning?” Sign up for a workshop.