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Students and educators return to in-person interactive learning

Labs, discussions and other hands-on courses have been able to meet face-to-face once more under the University’s current guidelines

Fourth-year Engineering student Tae Chang and fourth-year College student Eric Su practice their swings on the driving range during Golf class.
Fourth-year Engineering student Tae Chang and fourth-year College student Eric Su practice their swings on the driving range during Golf class.

It’s no surprise that the near year and a half of pandemic guidelines and online classes has had a major toll on University operations, even as the new normal of the fall semester begins. Some classes were hit harder than most when the University first shut down — namely those that are heavily centered around physical interaction.

Classes in the kinesiology program, labs and small discussions were thrown off when the pandemic first hit in the spring of 2020. With a heavy reliance on movement, interaction and close proximity to other students, professors conducting interactive classes had to adapt their teaching styles to an online and socially distanced format.

Assoc. Politics Prof. Jennifer Rubenstein has always welcomed close interactions and fluidity among her students in the classroom, but she feels as though that sense of closeness was quickly lost over Zoom. For Rubenstein, a major part of a comprehensive and meaningful class discussion involves various body language movements and nuanced gestures that occur during face-to-face interaction.

“I really find that whether it's just discussion, or the whole group is talking, or whether its small groups or whether its people sort of demonstrating a position on an issue … it's really helpful for the vast majority if students do something with their bodies or involved, whether they're talking or whether they're moving,” Rubenstein said.

Although thankful for the chance to resume her usual teaching style, Rubenstein is making efforts to utilize the few positives she has encountered over Zoom within her small classroom to build a comfortable environment for discussion once more. One feature that she is currently working on translating back into a classroom setting is the Zoom hand raise function.

“I was really surprised that students like the ‘hand raise’ feature,” Rubenstein said. “Past [students] have said they liked it because they could get on the queue and then sort of forget it for a bit. What I'm trying this semester is we have these little name cards — you turn the name card vertically so you don't have to sit there with your hand up.”

Discussion-based classes such as Rubenstein’s all faced similar challenges regarding close connections these past few semesters but have been able to resume normal activity this fall. Leaving behind choppy conversations, technical difficulties and abnormal participation levels is nothing short of relieving for professors and students returning to the classroom.

Second-year College student Gabrielle Castro Calderon experienced science labs both during and following the peak of the pandemic. Labs are typically conducted in person and, more often than not, require a lot of physical work as a form of learning and practice. However, last year, most labs were conducted entirely virtually.

“I was in lab last year, specifically for biology, during the peak of the pandemic,” Calderon said. “My lab experience was very fixed, the same teaching procedure and work process was done every lab session. There were times where no one would talk or interact with one another.”

According to Calderon, the transition from a virtual first year to an in-person second year has already made a big difference in how she learns. For a student who has only ever experienced online University classes, the switch has been daunting at times.

“I am optimistic in the sense of being able to learn more from lab experiments,” Calderon said. “However, I am equally hesitant that labs are going to be more demanding and stressful due to in-person instruction.”

Similar to these discussion and lab-based classes, the University’s hands-on and physically interactive kinesiology classes have had to make adjustments now that students are back in person and on Grounds.

The University’s golf class was offered with a hybrid option during the online semesters. Even after taking into account the $250 all-inclusive class fee that each student must pay at the start of the class, turnout has still grown from an average of 12 students to 24. 

For fourth-year College student Carmen Mew, the opportunity for students to enroll in in-person kinesiology classes again has provided a refreshing change of pace. 

“Especially at U.Va. — where a lot of students are pretty ambitious and driven — there's definitely a mindset to overload your classes or to get ahead of other students,” Mew said. “Even though golf is tiring, it’s hot outside, and it’ll eventually be cold … I think it's a fun class for me to just destress and learn something new.”

Regardless of department, interactive learning is again taking hold across the University's many departments, offering an intriguing change from simply listening to a lecture. These classes might have been disrupted by online learning, but they are now moving forward with both a new knowledge of different learning styles and a restored confidence that Grounds can return to normal.

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