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When We Go Back, We Canít Go Back: A Graduate Studentís Perspective on Higher Education After the Pandemic

by Brianna Lafoon - November 08, 2021

This commentary is about practices that educators have learned during the pandemic that are beneficial as we return to classrooms.

Like nearly everyone across the globe, I had my daily personal and professional life completely altered by the coronavirus pandemic. My various roles and funding as a PhD candidate informed my perspective of the shutdown and subsequent move to virtual learning that so many campuses dealt with for most of 2020 and into 2021. In just one year, I experienced the effects of the pandemic as a researcher on fellowship, a teaching assistant for virtual classes, and a course developer for my department. Along with my being elected to a joint committee on TAs, these positions allowed me to analyze the changes that educators in higher education made during this unprecedented and difficult year. While most of us yearn to return to some sense of “normalcy” and get back to the physical classrooms, I believe that a number of lessons from this year need to be retained and extended as we go back—but not to business as usual.


In my classes and through the stories of other educators, the importance of having empathy and extending grace to students and fellow teachers has been one of the primary lessons in the pandemic. I have been an educator in various levels of the school system for more than 15 years, but I allowed myself to relax my grip on some of the deadlines and embraced more opportunity for students to have second chances with assignments than ever before. Before the pandemic, I feared that students might take advantage of my kindness, “pull one over” on me, or simply get lost in the looseness if this kind of compassion was apparent. While I still insisted on high standards in quality, providing students more flexibility to arrange their schedules did not result in any noticeable difference in my workload or a massive shift in paper turn-in rates. However, this compassion did provide students a less stressful experience in at least one of their classes. Clear policies and communication were key to setting up the high expectations and preventing disorganization and chaos. Yet, my long-held fears of loosening control and allowing a bit more empathy into my practice did not materialize. The pandemic provided us an obvious reason to be more compassionate and understanding of the issues students that face beyond our class—and our empathy should not end as we get back to normal.


Connected to this extension of understanding is the need to anticipate and remove some of the barriers many students might experience in our classrooms. Years from now, teachers will still be telling their Zoom stories from 2020—hopefully with laughter instead of tears. One thing that the virtual classroom taught us all is how difficult it is to use technology, even in the 21st century. Unstable Internet connections, pets and children needing attention, roommates emerging half-dressed from bathrooms, muted (and unmuted) mics, and filters that can’t be turned off all contributed to the unforgettable experiences of this past year. Yet, as teachers who always have backups ready, we also tried to think about those hindrances ahead of time and figure out ways to deal with potential problems that students might face. For me, this included ways for students to earn credit even when barriers hindered their participation in our synchronous class. Alternative asynchronous assignments, such as discussion replies, flexible office hours, and reading responses, allowed students to stay up to date on the material despite unexpected schedule problems. Teachers can’t anticipate every barrier for every student, but we can expect going forward that roadblocks will still exist for many of our students. The economic and racial disparities in terms of access to education that became so apparent during the pandemic will not magically disappear as we return to physical classrooms. Those hindrances existed long before the pandemic, and I hope that teachers will understand and find ways to mitigate many of the barriers our students face in the future to allow all students access to a quality education.


During virtual learning, we didn’t take for granted that we had our students’ attention. Listening to a lecture or participating in a class with the distance of technology is not the easiest task for anyone. Multitasking, whether in the form of eating or doing that quick social media check, was a temptation for us all. Missing classes or lectures was also a little easier in the virtual space. To deal with this, I attempted to expand my engagement of students in a number of ways. While I was TA-ing, I planned lessons that included a variety of media and discussion formats, relying on small breakout discussion groups and interactive activities as much as possible. Engagement for me also included reaching out to students who repeatedly missed class to check in. Both of these strategies were efforts to keep students as engaged as possible during the difficult semester.

The pandemic also informed my course development. Building an asynchronous online class required that I step out of the lecture-and-discussion-section mold that constitutes the typical rhythm for my discipline. Instead, I utilized videos, podcasts, news articles, primary sources, and interactive digital media to help engage students more. Again, the crisis laid bare this need for more student engagement, but these efforts should continue beyond it. Using a diversity of methods and sources is simply good teaching practice. While some complain that younger generations’ attention spans are lessening, these efforts to keep students engaged, whether through content or outreach, are necessary if we have a mission to reach as many students as possible.


Connected to all the mentioned points, teachers at all levels of higher education should continue to explore their syllabi, courses, and practices each semester. In the spring of 2020, virtual learning was thrust on colleges without warning, resulting in teachers’ haphazard attempts to finish the semester as best they could. In the fall, teachers had the opportunity to plan ahead a little and re-vision what their typical in-person classes could look like online. In my experiences, the lead professor rethought some of the material and explored best practices for lectures and discussion sections as we started the semester, soliciting input from his TAs along the way. While the pandemic provided an immediate impetus to engage in this type of curriculum revision cycle, I would encourage all teachers in higher education to regularly explore the changes and improvements they can make to their courses.

These ideas alone are not new, but the pandemic has provided many of us an opportunity to reflect on our current practices and try new methods. Scholars from various intellectual traditions—critical race theory, feminist pedagogy, and queer theory, for example—have long touted these types of practices in their visions of good teaching. bell hooks (1994) richly described classrooms as communal spaces to create a collective experience for students. She emphasized the role of excitement, and pleasure in teaching and learning. hooks (1994) also discussed educators’ feelings of discomfort that are a natural and necessary part of the process as they begin to interrogate their own practices to create a more liberatory education for students. Teachers in higher education have been slower to take up these ideas in the classroom, but more recent scholarship has advocated for change. Culturally responsive teaching emphasizes the need for teachers, departments, and institutes to employ self-reflection to refresh curriculum and pedagogy in order to engage more learners (Hutchison & McAlister-Shields, 2020). Research from the last year of remote learning demonstrates students’ positive response to teachers who were able to make the shifts I described earlier. A focus on engagement, variety of activities, and social presence between students and instructors created the most beneficial learning environments during a difficult year (Nguyen et al., 2021).

Although all of us struggled with the abrupt shutdowns and learning shifts over the last year, the pandemic has provided an opportunity to see some of these ideas in action and chart new directions. Now college instructors have a chance to make some of these shifts permanent as we move from the virtual experience back to the in-person classroom. Taking into consideration the need for extending compassion, removing barriers, and engaging students, educators can continue to make their courses more relevant and open for all students seeking access to the rewards of higher education.


hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. Routledge.

Hutchison, L., & McAlister-Shields, L. (2020). Culturally responsive teaching: Its application in higher education environments. Education Sciences, 10, 124.


Nguyen, T., Netto, C. L. M., Wilkins, J. F., Bröker, P., Vargas, E. E., Sealfon, C. D., Puthipiroj, P., Li, K. S., Bowler, J. E., Hinson, H. R., Pujar, M., & Stein, G. M. (2021). Insights into students’ experiences and perceptions of remote learning methods: From the Covid-19 pandemic to best practice for the future. Frontiers in Education, 6. https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2021.647986



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 08, 2021
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23900, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 9:36:05 PM

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About the Author
  • Brianna Lafoon
    University of Wisconsin-Madison
    E-mail Author
    BRIANNA LAFOON is a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is pursuing a joint degree in History and Educational Policy Studies. Her dissertation, ďIsland Chains: The American Imperial Education Web in the Early Twentieth CenturyĒ focuses on the reciprocal effects of American imperial schooling in Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Prior to graduate studies, she was an educator in New York City public schools for ten years.
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