Planning your teaching in uncertain times

Summer is upon us and, with it, planning for fall semester teaching. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the world these days vis-à-vis the COVID-19 pandemic – which has contributed to some uncertainty in planning for curricular delivery. At the School of Medicine, we have permission to run some learning activities face-to-face (such as clinical skills) with new restrictions in place to maintain social-distancing, but our traditional classroom-based teaching will be impacted as well.

The Education Team is here to support Course Directors and all teaching faculty as we face these new challenges. While we don’t have all the answers yet about room assignments and scheduling, there are still many things we can do right now to help with your planning and preparation for both your synchronous (all students learning at an appointed time, either in a classroom or via Zoom) or asynchronous teaching (students provided with learning materials that need to be completed by a certain deadline, but otherwise, they can learn on their own schedule and own pace). If we don’t have solutions to your queries, we’ll help find them.

Things we can help you with now:

  • Discovering options for asynchronous teaching

Course Directors have been asked to consider different avenues for asynchronous learning. While this already exists in many courses in the form of Directed Independent Learning electronic modules, there are other options, too. If you would like to increase the amount of asynchronous learning in your course – or just explore possibilities – we can help with this.

  • Learning techniques for interactive teaching via Zoom

We learned a lot from our two-and-a-half months of remote teaching using Zoom from March – May. If you’re concerned about how to keep your teaching engaging and interactive while “talking to a box”, we can help with this – and provide some practice opportunities, too, so it’s not so intimidating. Tools you may already be using in the classroom, such as videos and polling, are easily leveraged on the Zoom platform.

  • Exploring approaches to assessment

Your current assessment plan may be just fine, but there may be things you’d like to tweak given the logistics of remote delivery. We’ve sorted out quizzes, graded team assignments (GTAs), and proctored exams already, so we can address these and any other concerns you have and make any appropriate modifications.

  • Guiding you to resources

We can point you towards Faculty of Health Sciences and campus-wide faculty development opportunities and services that are available and talk about which approaches already fit with the UG program, and navigate through other possibilities.

  • Brainstorming and problem solving

While the landscape may have changed with the COVID-19 pandemic, our goals as your Education Team remain the same: we’re here to help you prepare for, deliver, and improve your teaching and assessment.

Please get in touch:

Theresa Suart theresa.suart@queensu.ca

Eleni Katsoulas eleni.katsoulas@queensu.ca

Rachel Bauder rachel.bauder@queensu.ca

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Zooming our way through pandemic remote teaching

On March 23 – coincidentally immediately after our students’ March Break – Queen’s UGME moved its classroom-based teaching to all remote learning to comply with social-distancing measures put in place as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic..

This also coincided with the majority of faculty, and administrative and support staff moving to working from home, except for those deemed essential to university operations.

By the end of May, we’d conducted close to 250 learning events via Zoom that would have ordinarily been taught in our classrooms by dozens of faculty members. The Meds Video Conferencing (MedsVC) team, led by Peter MacNeil were instrumental in making this possible, providing technical support for every learning event.

Lectures were recorded to accommodate students who found themselves in different time zones (many having travelled home for March Break and subsequently stayed there rather than engage in unnecessary travel) and those with family responsibilities, for example.

Instructors faced the same challenges most have read about regarding online conferencing. As Dr. Jenna Healey, Chair in the History of Medicine, describes: “Technical issues, navigating the software, making sure there were no interruptions on my end—like my very loud cat meowing!”

Faculty sought creative solutions to previously-scheduled in-class sessions. For example, in MEDS 246 Psychiatry, there were two expanded clinical skills sessions scheduled which each included a Standardized Patient actor (SP) to help demonstrate aspects of psychiatric interviews. Course Director Dr. Nishardi Wijeratne led both sessions – the first before the switch to remote delivery and the second one via Zoom. Each session was 50 minutes.

Standardized Patient actor Mike Campbell and Dr. Wijeratne at lower left window, conducting a psychiatric interview demonstration for students, via Zoom.

“Having taught both at the SOM and fully zoom, I did not find a significant difference between the two as a teacher,” Dr. Wijeratne says. “Given that my clinical practice as psychiatrist has moved to mostly virtual care right now, the Zoom version actually felt closer to my daily clinical practice right now.”

She noted three aspects that helped greatly with the session:

  • MedVC staff to help with tech issues
  • Connecting with the SP about 10 minutes before the session to discuss goals and structure
  • Assigning tasks to the students ahead of the session to maintain engagement thoughout the 50-minute classes. Students observed the psychiatric interviews and documented mental status, identified risk factors, and considered possible differential diagnoses.

In addition to his own teaching, MEDS122 Pediatrics Course Director Peter MacPherson pitched in with a solution to a Clinical Skills session – about half the class missed their opportunity to complete a toddler observation session because of the pandemic restrictions.

“Usually, the medical students get down on the floor and play with a toddler while they infer the child’s real age based on their developmental achievements,” he explains. “We were able to cover the same curricular objectives remotely. The students were able to observe and interact with my toddler via Zoom in his ‘natural environment’ (aka our playroom) and do a similar assessment.

“It was a lot of fun to teach while playing dress up with my child!”

Dr. MacPherson shared his Zoom toddler development session experience on Twitter.

One part of the classroom experience that’s more challenging to achieve remotely is direct interaction with students as a class. “In particular, it is rather difficult to judge the level of understanding of the class,” MEDS245 Neurosciences Course Director Stuart Reid notes. “It cannot provide the personal contact that comes with in real life interaction.”

“On the other hand, it has been an invigorating challenge.  We introduced more online learning modules and sought creative approaches to making distance learning both active and interactive,” he adds. One such creative approach was a “Jeopardy” style game in place of a hands-on expanded clinical skills session. It didn’t replicate the face-to-face session, but it actively engaged students in the session.

Dr. Healey echoes Dr. Reid’s comments about missing that face-to-face factor. “I very much miss interacting with my students in class. As an instructor, what I have found most challenging is not being able to see student’s faces. I didn’t realize how much I relied on non-verbal communication to adjust my pacing or gauge the level of student’s interest or understanding.”

Dr. Healey started encouraging students to use the Zoom “raise hand” function more often in her classes. “I want students to feel comfortable interrupting me if they have questions or comments.”

Dr. Reid speaks for all of us at UG when he notes that the students were a key factor in the success of our remote curriculum delivery: “They have been patient, accommodating, and enthusiastic enablers of our altered circumstances. Many thanks to them!”

At the end of the semester, the Education Team conducted several focus groups with Year 1 and Year 2 students to get additional feedback on what worked well, what didn’t, and suggestions for improving this type of remote learning. This, combined with the course evaluations (which included additional questions about the new required remote learning activities) will be used to inform teaching decisions in the coming academic year, as the COVID-19 pandemic situation continues to evolve.

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The Legacy of George Floyd – What will it be?

We watch, horrified, recordings of the last few seconds of George Floyd’s life. We hear his last words– “I can’t breathe”. The symbolism of the white, uniformed figure whose knee is at this neck, unresponsive to his pleas, could not be more stark. For many, George Floyd is the most recent, most poignant example of a history of racial subjugation, mistreatment and killing that spans the past four centuries. For many, it’s a sad reminder that similar crimes and protests of five decades ago were not the final expression of that discontent. For us all, it forces a confrontation with the reality that the dream of Martin Luther King “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” has, sadly, not yet been realized.

Locally, we have been challenged by these events to consider what, if any, implications they have for each of us personally, and for our school. Many faculty and students have expressed very clearly their concerns, their discontent and have called for change. In the interest of exploring this further, I met recently with our student leadership and medical students. Those discussions were candid, sincere and highly illuminating. They expressed realities about the experience of Black medical students at Queen’s with clarity and openness. The tragic killing of George Floyd, it seems, has opened a discourse and raised to the surface issues and concerns that are not new, but not previously expressed as bluntly. It has also, it must be said, caused all of us to listen with greater sensitivity.

Out of those discussions, a number of themes and practical measures are being developed and advanced. I have since had opportunity discuss these with our current Dean Dr. Reznick and our incoming Dean Dr. Philpott who are both very supportive.

  • All medical schools have a responsibility for social accountability. The exact nature of the commitment, expressed in a Diversity Statement, is school specific and should reflect the regions served and values of the particular school. That statement should drive a variety of school activities, including curriculum, recruitment and admissions. In the light of recent events, it seems appropriate to re-assess our Diversity statement. Our Diversity and Equity Committee, chaired by Dr. Mala Joneja, will be charged to draft a renewed statement to be considered by our faculty council
  • Our curriculum should prepare our students to provide comprehensive care to patients of all ethnic and racial backgrounds. This should be reflected in both the content and delivery of the curriculum. Our Curriculum Committee will be charged with re-assessing both aspects through the lens of the Black population. It will also be asked to ensure that opportunities exist for open and constructive dialogue between students for discussion of difficult and contentious topics.
  • The Black population of Canada is under-represented in our medical school. This is despite the fact that our admissions processes are scrupulously unbiased with respect to racial considerations. In fact, I realized as we discussed this issue recently that it was impossible to even determine the racial make-up of our incoming class, simply because this information is in no way documented or considered. The under-representation of Black people is almost certainly a complex and multi-factorial issue. Our Admissions Committee will be tasked with giving consideration to what factors may be active and to consider how they might be addressed.
  • Very concerningly, and despite numerous (and I believe very sincere) efforts to address this over the past few years, our students report a lingering perception within the Black applicant community that Queen’s is an unwelcoming environment. This no doubt contributes to the under-representation issue and merits deep consideration at all levels.
  • It seems clear that the promotion of mentorship opportunities for our Black students and applicants would be of benefit and should be pursued actively, both within our schools, and through effective collaborations outside our school.

None of this will occur if efforts are restricted only to a vocal minority who have themselves been the subject of racism in their lives and therefore need no convincing of its existence. It is rather for those of us in the “silent majority” of society who abhor racism but have not been its direct victims to take stock. We need to listen and, in those ways that are available to us, act.

Many will question why a murder in Minneapolis, tragic as it is, should influence the discourse and decisions at our small, somewhat secluded and seemingly tranquil medical school in Kingston, Ontario. I will admit to initially sharing that skepticism. I have come, through reflection on my own experiences with racism and through discussion with our students, to a different perspective. I would now say to those people who question these directions that no community in the western world can consider itself immune or unaffected by racism. I would say that injustice of any form diminishes and affects us all. I would say that we bear a collective obligation to the memory of George Floyd, to all the George Floyds of the past and to every person today afraid to jog alone through a park or be pulled over for a minor traffic violation. We owe it to them to take whatever action is in our power to take. We act for them but, in the end, we are acting for us all and for those who will follow.

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