Pandemic-era course shift fuels students’ academic and personal growth

Professor Nicole Campbell empathizes with the challenges her students face in remote learning.

Nicole Campbell can empathize with students feeling the weight of personal and academic stress involved in remote learning.

And because the professor of physiology and pharmacology has been there – and come out the other side – she is committed to designing courses that help build students’ success as scholars and as people.

Campbell was living in Toronto with her family when she landed her teaching job at Western in 2015. Her son was still an infant, her daughter four, and she had just started a Master’s of Education degree. Also, her husband couldn’t leave Toronto right away, so for three months she and the kids stayed in Stratford with his parents – a 60-kilometre commute to and from work.

Juggling a new career in a new city with two young kids was tough enough; trying to maintain  her grades in a remote learning situation at the same time was downright stressful.

“I felt extremely overwhelmed,” said Campbell, who teaches at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.

Campbell feels solidarity with her students, many aiming to get into medical school after completing the fourth-year Interdisciplinary Medical Sciences capstone courses she teaches.

“I cared about my grades even though I didn’t need them to get into another program. I saw myself in my students,” she said. “I started to have a lot of empathy for them. I was thinking, ‘they are doing this – times five.’”

It’s why she has spent years emphasizing the importance of building community and of incorporating lessons on time management and other transferable skills into her course curriculum.

It’s also why she devoted this summer to redesigning those courses, creating innovative online activities and sharing what she learned with other Western instructors, who are also pivoting to emergency remote teaching.

And it’s why she launched a class Facebook group and started posting video messages to her students last June, months before classes were scheduled to begin.

“While some of you might be nervous about what to expect for the upcoming year, I want to provide you with a little bit of reassurance,” Campbell said in one YouTube video.

I want to encourage you to (think) . . . about, how is this year maybe going to give you opportunities or skills that are going to be necessary for your future career that we otherwise wouldn’t have had a chance to get?” ~ Professor Nicole Campbell

Skills including online communication expertise, for example, and navigating web conferences and remote teamwork.

“Absolutely, it’s going to be different, but you may actually find that in some ways you prefer certain aspects.”

Meant for community-building and not for sharing course content with the class of 150 students, the Facebook group nevertheless had more than 120 members by mid-August; and each post this summer has been viewed more than 100 times, said Campbell.

Sometimes she starts threads by asking members about their weekends. In a recent post, she asked them to share time management tips.

“It’s just for people to acknowledge we are all human,” said Campbell. “Students love it.”

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The COVID-19 pandemic is often framed as a setback for students, but it does present an opportunity to learn some relevant professional skills, said Campbell.

We are going to see more online engagement with careers, so why not teach that to our students?” she said. “We need to make sure we are instilling best practices – How do you send a Zoom invite? How do you take good notes? How do you get to know your team?”

“I believe that teaching transferable skills is a way to mediate some of the general stress and anxiety that lingers with the school atmosphere.”

Through Western’s Centre for Teaching and Learning this summer, Campbell has been sharing best online practices with other teachers, and she hosted a workshop on how to lead engaging and efficient live sessions.

While she encourages teachers to know when it makes sense to sacrifice some elements of a course – for Campbell it was certain performance-based lab tasks, and attendance management – she’ll do what’s needed to keep team-building activities, such as her annual escape box challenge. 

Traditionally, groups of students work to solve puzzles that help them unlock boxes and doors.

This year, to comply with COVID-19-era physical distancing guidelines without losing the valuable activity, summer interns built an online escape room.

“The goal was to create an activity that served the same purpose as the original escape room, but in a safe way,” said  intern and fourth-year student Cameron Hick. “A big thing with going online is . . . you have to figure out how to do group work, be able to coordinate being in an online environment and getting those social cues.

Helping to create online resources has reassured her that remote learning might be OK, said Hick. “Even though everything will be different it will be a positive and successful learning environment.”

information graphic with five online teaching tips

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