What the Pandemic Has Taught Us about Teaching (and Learning)

How coronavirus spurred Reed professors to rethink their classroom strategies.

By Romel Hernandez | December 13, 2021

Prof. Mary Ashburn Miller [history] teaches  a course about the Black Death titled “Crisis & Catastrophe in Modern Europe.” But even she was caught off guard by the challenges thrown up by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the spring of 2020, when Reed moved instruction out of classrooms and onto computer screens, professors scrambled to adapt their courses to a whole new medium. Suddenly, they had to master apps like Moodle, Gradescope, and Zoom to deliver instruction.

Throughout the pandemic, Reed’s Center for Teaching and Learning has proved an invaluable resource—a place where faculty can go to brainstorm ideas, share tips, and vent frustrations.

Some of those ideas have proven so effective, in fact, that professors are employing them again this semester—even though Reed’s classes this year are all face-to-face.

Prof. Miller, who is currently the director of the CTL, says the upheaval caused by the pandemic has given her a new perspective. “I have always loved thinking and learning and talking about teaching,” she says. “This was an opportunity to explore whole new ways and new tools to do my job.”

Professors also had to think more about equity and accessibility for students who didn’t have access to stable Wi-Fi connections or might be cramped in a living room with rowdy siblings. “We couldn’t operate with the illusion that we exist in a bubble that the world doesn’t touch,” she says. “We had to solve problems like, how can a student participate when they don’t have a good internet connection? Now we can build options and structures to support students.”

She says, “We’ve had to think differently about everything we did and come up with creative solutions to problems. My sense in talking to colleagues is that we’re stronger teachers for it.”

Reed launched the CTL in 2014 thanks to a generous gift from Dan Kemp ’58, a legendary chemist at MIT who never forgot the inspirational teaching he received from Prof. Arthur Scott [chemistry 1923–79]. Since then, the CTL has helped Reed faculty explore new ideas in the classroom. Here are four examples of Reed professors leading the way.



When the pandemic hit, all Reed’s science labs were forced to go online only. That posed two problems for the chemistry department, according to department associate Danielle Cass. First, the chemicals can be hazardous. Second, the instruments are often big and expensive.

It wasn’t hard to devise experiments that used kitchen ingredients such as food coloring, baking soda, and vinegar. But what about the instruments? You’re not going to buy every student their own $10,000 spectrophotometer.

Then Cass remembered a Reed student she taught several years ago who had attempted to construct their own spectrophotometer out of Lego and spare parts. After scouring the internet, Cass figured out a way to construct a makeshift instrument out of 3D-printed parts and off-the-shelf components. Working with Jay Ewing in the machine shop, she printed enough parts to send a kit to every student in Chem 101. Students assembled the kits at home, and voila—each one now had a working (if sometimes temperamental) spectrophotometer at a cost of roughly $50.

When Chem 101 students returned to the lab in person, Cass made sure they once again got the opportunity to make their own spectrophotometers in the lab.

“It turns out that having students make their own spectrophotometer adds to their learning experience in a way we had not done in the past,” she says. “The spectrophotometers in the lab, although more stable and reproducible, also are a black box of components. Students push a button and the instrument spits out numbers to them. The result is that students often don’t understand how the instrument works. But when forced to make an instrument from scratch they have a new appreciation for what is happening under the hood.”



As soon as he started holding classes on Zoom, Prof. Kevin Holmes [psychology] could see that videoconferencing was difficult for some of his students. Some had slow internet connections, some were in different time zones, and some were simply reluctant to participate.

So he found new ways to get conversations going with a social annotation tool called Hypothesis, which allows students to mark up and comment on the readings before class. He found that students read more closely and were more likely to engage with peers in their written responses to the text.

He also saw that some students who previously might have been reluctant to speak up in class were encouraged to participate more by sharing their questions and observations online.

“We were able to get a conversation going before we even met back together online,” Prof. Holmes says. “Which in turn made class discussions richer and more inclusive.”

With the return to face-to-face instruction, he still uses Hypothesis to stimulate questions and create a learning community that extends beyond the classroom.



As someone who teaches at the intersection of computer science and biology,  Prof. Anna Ritz [biology] adapted more readily than most to the technology of virtual learning.

But after she realized how much disruption the pandemic was causing in the personal lives of her students, she had a brain wave. She split the course into 2-4 week independent modules. Each module had two assignments that were released on the first day and due on the last day. This simplified deadlines and gave students more flexibility in determining when they could work on their assignments. It also meant that a student going through severe (but temporary) turmoil didn’t have to drop out of the course; instead, they could work with Prof. Ritz to come up with a plan for modules where they had trouble. She also coached students on time management and waived penalties for late assignments, opting for one-on-one meetings to discuss making up work.

“Many times students might be dealing with disruptions that we may not always know about,” Ritz says. “Teaching during the pandemic made me more aware of how important it is to strategize with students in supportive ways to help them succeed instead of penalizing them.”



When her classes went online, Prof. Miller tried out several new approaches to engage students. Instead of assigning research papers, for example, she encouraged students to take on projects that were more visual and interactive. Her students showed they were up to the challenge, constructing visual archives and making slideshow presentations about concepts they studied in class. One student even created a board game to illustrate how folks in the 18th century thought about chance and fate.

She also recruited prominent historians around the country to participate in small Zoom sessions with students. Students interviewed some of the historians who wrote the texts on the class syllabus, giving them an invaluable glimpse into the scholarly research and writing process.

Miller hopes to continue the interview experiment in the future.

“The scholars were so generous with their time,” she says. “And the students were amazing, too. When we were thrown into some very challenging circumstances, everyone really rose to the occasion.”

Tags: Academics, Courses We’d Love To Take, Diversity/Equity/Inclusion, Professors, Research, Students