Faculty Spotlight

Faculty Discuss How Pandemic Transformed Their Teaching

Posted Dec 09 2022
top: Norman Bartczak, Thomas Groll; bottom: Sarah Holloway, Harold Stolper
Top: Norman Bartczak, Thomas Groll; bottom: Sarah Holloway, Harold Stolper


On March 8, 2020, Columbia president Lee C. Bollinger announced that the University would be shifting to online instruction “for the rest of this week.” At the time, few understood just how long the pandemic would endure, and how much the world of higher education would change.

More than two and a half years later, Columbia’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) has published Teaching Transformations: Faculty Reflections and Insights on Pandemic Practices, a digital guide highlighting the creativity of Columbia faculty and the teaching innovations they developed during an unprecedented time. Many of the strategies faculty used to adapt to online and hybrid teaching, writes senior vice provost Soulaymane Kachani in the guide’s introduction, “are now even being carried forward to uphold excellence in in-person instruction.”

The guide, in the words of CTL executive director Catherine Ross, aims “to open classroom doors, virtual or real, and allow everyone to benefit from the innovations and ideas of others.”

Among those who contributed narratives are four Columbia SIPA faculty members – Norman Bartczak, Thomas Groll, Sarah Holloway, and Harold Stolper. Below are excerpts from their stories.

Norman Bartczak adapted his large lecture-based courses to fit the new teaching and learning environment by redesigning his course structure to meet student needs, partnering with TAs to share roles in the course, making course content relevant and connected to real world examples, and leveraging teaching communities and available resources.

“I value learning my students’ names because I am a social person and I like to come into class and chat with the students. I would ask them in class, ‘How’s it going?’ which sometimes scares them but also surprises them that I would know their names. I connect with my students in that way, and my relationship with them becomes much more social in addition to professional. It takes effort and time, and these seemingly little things like warm calling and learning students’ names, are incremental actions that add up and make all the difference in the world in my teaching.”

Thomas Groll had to rethink how students could actively engage with macroeconomic course materials by streamlining his course content to support student learning, experimenting with new approaches to teaching, and providing students with multiple ways to engage.

“What we learned from our remote teaching during the pandemic is that with online or hybrid classes, to teach them well, they require quite some resources and more preparation than the traditional in-person classes, because there is less flexibility on the fly and we are bound by the technology. We may have been a bit too optimistic about this before the pandemic, but now that we have done it, we know that it is possible, and to do it well, we have to do much more planning and much more preparation in advance.”

Sarah Holloway embraced a flipped classroom model and prioritizing connection — between students and instructor, students with each other, and the course content with students’ lives — across several courses varying in format from lecture to workshop.

“What was really interesting about COVID and our foray into online teaching was that I thought that my teaching was clunky and improvised, and yet, I received some of the best student evaluations of my career. What had changed was that I had brought a lot more of my personal life into my teaching out of necessity and because it was obvious — I was home with my dying cat on my lap, for example. And my teenage daughter would float in and out. Somehow this “reality” made the students feel more connected.”

Harold Stolper included statements about anti-racist teaching and inclusion in the syllabi of his quantitative analysis course as a way of intentionally creating an inclusive classroom climate.

“For the anti-racist lesson in our last class, I use a musical interlude containing excerpts from a TV interview with a British activist to frame the material and facilitate discussion. I think it’s important to root this discussion in the words of Black individuals discussing their perspectives and lived experience. It can be difficult to balance the quantitative focus of the lesson with such a wide range of student experiences and perspectives, but each time I do this class, I learn something new about how to approach this discussion as well as students’ perspectives.”

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While the pandemic has persisted in many ways — revealing fault lines in our social fabric, economy, and national politics — it has presented an opportunity to advance pedagogical lessons learned to transform the learning experiences of Columbia students and revolutionize teaching and learning.

By sharing their educational and instructional technology innovations, Bartczak, Groll, Holloway, and Stolper – along with their many colleagues on SIPA’s faculty — provide a template for faculty who might be looking to make changes in their own courses, both online and in person.

Faculty wishing to share their innovations or nominate a colleague to do so, may email [email protected].