Fresh Perspectives Interview with Dr. Kelley Danahy

Building Community in the Classroom

Kelley Danahy, Instructor

Class: Organic Chemistry I & II, 5.12 & 5.13
Semesters: Fall 2020, Spring 2021
MIT Department: Chemistry

Key Takeaways

  • Coffee breaks or similar informal gatherings can help build connections between students and their instructor and among students in the class. 
  • Even in in-person classes, students may struggle to connect with their peers and form study groups unless instructors make time for such connections. 
  • Asking for and implementing student suggestions about the class can increase student engagement in their learning.

Interview Transcript

00:00 How did you modify your teaching practices to support students during the pandemic?

One thing I did last semester and I’m doing again this semester was have two 30-minute sessions per week where students can come by through Zoom and just– we can talk and get to know each other as people. At least from what I’ve heard from students, it’s easy to just feel like they’re just like a number trying to earn a certain number in a course.

So that was a change I made to try to at least bring back a little bit of humanity in our completely virtual world. And I think that’s something that could translate back when we hopefully are back in-person where– I call them coffee breaks, and in the future, maybe I’ll actually be able to buy you coffee.

As the semester went on, they became attended less and less because students were busy studying. But at the beginning, we had– I want to say it was like 10 or 12 students who showed up and they got to meet each other and talk. So I think that was nice for them, because it’s a lot harder to meet people and form study groups now online than usual.

There’s always a few students who don’t have anyone. And I think that’s creating moments where they can meet someone if they want to or at least feel like they’re valued as a person and get to know other people. I think that could help them and help the classroom camaraderie.

But if I think back to like when I was an undergraduate, I did my best learning with my peers. So getting to know– or having times where I can get to know my peers better, I think that’s worth creating a space or a time for that, at least to me it is.

02:18 What role did student feedback play in your teaching experience?

We have been encouraged to get student feedback a lot more throughout the semester and listen to students a little bit more than would otherwise be done. And I think that’s actually really valuable, because I feel some instructors and professors may have this fear that if I listen to the students, they’re going to say, “don’t give me any exams” and “I don’t want to learn.”

I don’t think that’s actually the case. The students want to learn, they’re here, but I think actually getting their feedback on, this works really well, this– the way this worked, I don’t like. I think that’s helpful to listen to. At least if it were me, I would be more excited to learn in the class of a professor or instructor who I know actually values me or my perspective enough to change something that’s not working or really implement something that the class liked.

Class was held live, but videos were posted later. We usually did communications where I would make an announcement like there will be an important poll in lecture. So if you can show up for the first five minutes, even if you have something else going on at the time, that would be really helpful.

We had an exam that was scheduled around election day, which was not recommended for reasons of high stress. So what we chose to do was, OK, we’ll just do a poll and listen to what you guys want to do, and they chose to move the exam, so we did that. And being flexible about that was, I think, helpful for building community, because I, at least, hope it made the students feel like, I actually do care about you guys and I know you can’t learn if you’re really stressed out.

04:23 What were your main takeaways from teaching remotely?

The human aspect to learning was what really got highlighted to me. Community-building, listening to students. I think the importance of taking students’ home circumstances and mental health into consideration really got highlighted. It’s a small thing, but instead of using a Zoom screen background, I’m like, this is my home. It’s a mess, but I’m a human being with a home. To at least make myself a little more approachable.

Another thing we put on our syllabus that– it wasn’t specific to online, but I think it should be something that is mentioned going forward, is hey, no grade is worth your mental health. You do not have to tell me exactly what’s going on, but if you were having a problem, please feel free to communicate straight away. I will try my best to accommodate and help you as best I can.