I have been struggling with what to write for my first blog of 2022. Then, inspiration struck when reading the excellent post by my Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation colleague, Andrea Abersold. If you missed it, go read her post (and any others you have missed—they are all excellent). In her post, Andrea articulated the challenge of whether she should talk about COVID or not and then nicely split the difference by doing both!

I’m going to copy that approach and address the question that keeps getting asked—what are we going to learn from the pandemic?—by asking what were we learning before the pandemic? 

The first pre-pandemic lesson I want to highlight is the fact that the student body of UCI has been rapidly changing since about 2010. To emphasize this point, I thought it would be helpful to actually include some data! I am including two plots of demographic data for a few specific groups of students that are traditionally reported to the state and in national databases. 

A few caveats before I discuss the data. I am using these three groups to illustrate a few specific points about the changing demographics at universities because these are standard categories that are historically used in reporting data. I fully recognize that many other demographics are relevant and that these categories may require updating and rethinking. So, hopefully, you will recognize the limitations of this data, but see its value for the larger point I wish to make—that the student body at universities, and certainly at UCI, are different than they once were.

The first plot shows the total number of overall students and students in three groups enrolled at UCI: students who identify as first in their family to attend college, students who identify as Hispanic, and international students. The second plot shows the percentage of students in each of these three groups because, if you are like me, it’s not easy to visualize the extent to which these student populations have grown just from the plot of the totals!

There are two main messages I hope these plots convey. First, UCI saw a significant increase in the total number of enrolled students starting in 2012. Second, the demographic distribution of those students also changed significantly, though that change may have started a bit earlier in 2010 or 2011. Both of these are critical changes, and we must consider what the implications of these changes are. 

As I discussed in previous blogs, the university is like any other system aimed at generating change, i.e. producing a particular output (graduating students) for a given input (incoming students). For UCI, which was founded back in 1965, this means that the campus policies, course policies, teaching approaches, and so on were all designed (sometimes intentionally and sometimes not) for the population of students pre-2010, i.e. those traditionally represented in universities. Even as a “newer” institution, UCI inherited many structures from the last 100-200 years that were core to the traditional research university. And many of these structures are no longer optimal given the rapid change of demographics. We cannot rely on these traditional structures and policies to support our rapidly shifting student demographics. We need intentional change to achieve a newly optimized structure. 

Related to this idea, we were considering pre-pandemic that (1) students should be approached with a growth mindset (students are able to learn and improve) and not a fixed mindset (students have a fixed talent for something and are either good at it or not) and (2) students should be approached from a strengths perspective, not a deficit perspective. 

With regard to the first point, many elements of the university had evolved to a focus on sorting students into those that were “good at this” or “not good at this” upon their arrival to campus, a function that was generally grounded in a fixed mindset approach. As the fundamental principle of universities should be to give students space to learn, we should design an experience that maximizes their chances of learning a subject. This speaks to adopting a growth mindset and creatively thinking about and providing a true four-year experience where students have the ability to learn and grow without fear of being weeded out in year one.

For the second point, if your system has been optimized for a specific set of experiences prior to attendance, you could view any students without those experiences as having deficits that need to be fixed. However, you could also ask the question, what new strengths are represented by these students’ experiences, and how do we leverage those strengths to redesign an experience that supports a broader set of students? This is at the heart of the view that we need broader standards not lower standards

Turning to the last few years, has teaching during a pandemic shed any light on these issues? I would argue that it has. The pandemic has highlighted a very different approach to the meaning of grades—the main tool for “weeding out” students. During the pandemic, faculty focus shifted to understanding individual student situations. This led to a de-emphasis on the need to rank students by grade. Though there still was some concern over whether or not grades were too easy to get, there was a growing recognition that perhaps ranking students with grades was not necessary. If students achieve the stated outcomes, they deserve to earn the corresponding grade independent of what other students do. 

With regard to leveraging strengths, this has emerged in at least two ways. We have been reminded in a very direct way of students’ ability to navigate challenging situations and balance multiple responsibilities. For many of us, being forced to do this in ways we have not had to do in a long time, if at all, was a particularly stark reminder of what amazing things many students do under normal circumstances. Time management takes on a whole new meaning when you realize what is involved in juggling classwork, caring for family members, and being a main source of income. This has led to a rethinking of course policies around deadlines and assignments. 

Finally, the challenges of being remote during the pandemic has forced us to consider and create novel ways to assess students that go beyond the isolated, timed exam. This aligns very well with the growing understanding of the range of strengths students bring to their education, especially their understanding of community and learning together rather than individually.  

In the end, though I think there are lessons to be learned about teaching from our pandemic experiences, I think the main impact of the pandemic is that it’s acted as a magnifying glass and time accelerator. Many lessons and issues that emerged from the pandemic existed pre-pandemic, and we were starting to identify and engage with them. The pandemic has only served to emphasize and highlight them in ways that are harder to ignore.