UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As instructors across the University devise new strategies to engage students from a distance during the coronavirus pandemic, Renea Nichols, assistant teaching professor of advertising/public relations in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications, has emerged as a shining star.
In teaching Comm 100: Mass Media and Society for the LEAP Program, which serves incoming first-year Penn State students at the University Park campus, Nichols has leveraged a range of strategies to keep her students connected to her and one another despite the constraints of social distancing.
Like instructors across Penn State and the nation, Nichols is discovering in real time how best to engage her students remotely. With no playbook to reference, she empowered her students to decide when and how often to meet “face-to-face” through Zoom, and they opted to meet two times per week.
“Students were concerned about staying focused and motivated in the remote teaching and learning environment, so they requested these regular face-to-face meetings,” she said.
Nichols explained that she tries to make her Zoom room feel as much like a classroom as possible by asking students to leave their microphones and cameras on. She gets the conversation flowing by inviting students to discuss challenges they are confronting as first-year students, such as studying for college-level exams and managing their time independently, in addition to the course content.
First-year student Vincent Yang, who is majoring in mechanical engineering, appreciates the emphasis on class discussions. “I would describe Professor Nichols' teaching style as being quite interactive, meaning she likes to teach while talking with her students,” he said. “The focus on discussions is my favorite part of her teaching style being discussions make learning interesting.”
While the balance of her students’ learning takes place asynchronously, students do not have to navigate this landscape alone. Nichols invites her students to get to know her and Penn State by spending time in her virtual “office” and “classroom,” which she created using Google Slides and the Bitmoji app.