The College of New Jersey

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Teaching during COVID-19: How an experimentalist teacher mindset helped to navigate disruption

The College of New Jersey’s Chemistry Department and School of Science have been strategically transforming our teaching, learning, and mentoring environments for over a decade through programs that are targeted toward “new majority” students: low-income, first generation, and historically marginalized races and ethnicities. Recently, we shifted from programs that target a small number of students to focus on systemic and structural changes to create inclusive excellence. We formalized our work in a Theory of Change (ToC) that emphasizes mechanisms for our faculty to depart from traditional pedagogy to become experimentalist teachers who use evidence-based practices and data to support our student success. The ToC is built on three pillars: (1) gaining empathy and understanding of our students, (2) a changing toolkit of acceptable pedagogical practices, and (3) a process to create shared language and values and an understanding of our responsibilities to our students. By focusing on mechanism, we do not prescribe a single pedagogy but instead are flexible for different course contexts. Department work on the ToC allowed our faculty to pivot instead of panic during the shift to online instruction. The students noted smooth transitions to remote learning, and more importantly, departmental discussions regarding pedagogy helped faculty to support each other with suggestions and sharing of best practices. As a department, we learned a great deal during the pandemic that furthers our collective work toward inclusive excellence and believe our ToC is transferable to other institutions.