Unique fall semester off to an encouraging start in College of Education

Students, teachers take up the challenges of learning, teaching during a pandemic

Penn State Professor Peggy Van Meter’s EDPSY 11 class is meeting in the Bryce Jordan Center this fall semester. Credit: Sydney KlainbergAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In spite of how different this fall semester is because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Penn State students are excited to be back on the University Park campus, in the classrooms learning and interacting with each other.

"I’ve been at home since March and honestly haven’t gone anywhere during this quarantine time," said College of Education student Jordan Gardner, a senior majoring in elementary and early childhood education. "Returning to campus this fall has been my first time in public in months. This being the case, I was really excited to plug back into the community. I really appreciate how much effort Penn State put into planning a safe return to campus, so that we can have some in-person experiences this fall."

Peggy Van Meter, associate professor of education (educational psychology), is teaching in person this fall, and also credits the entire University community for making in-person instruction possible during the pandemic.

"I deeply appreciate all of the staff who worked so hard this summer to make our classroom spaces viable. The staff is prepared — my tech support person was actually there waiting to help me — and they all have really done a lot to make this work for us," she said.

While some have had concerns about whether students would comply with safety protocols, Van Meter said she is happy that she has not witnessed any problems.

"In my experience, things are going fine on campus," she said. "Everywhere that I have been in the last few days, whether on campus or elsewhere in town, I have seen everyone wearing masks and giving others space to pass. I was downtown over the weekend while many students were moving in and was really pleased that everyone was wearing their masks."

Van Meter is teaching EDPSY 11, and the only way to have her large section of 125 students meet in person with appropriate social distancing was to schedule it in the Bryce Jordan Center (BJC).

"I just had my first class, and I thought it went fine. We did have some technology glitches, but I expected that to happen and knew that we would have to use the first day to work out some bugs in our plan," Van Meter said.

"The students also seemed to be fine and the behaviors that I saw today are pretty consistent with what we see at the start of any semester — students wanting to know what they need to be successful in class; some questions about expectations, the required text and the like."

Although it's difficult in normal circumstances to have a large lecture section full of engaged students, Van Meter said the students were as engaged as possible in this class, even though they were spread apart in the BJC to follow required social distancing guidelines.

"It is really hard to foster that engagement in a large-enrollment class where students can’t raise their hand and shout their question out and I can’t have them sitting next to each other for a discussion. But I do think that our class will figure that out and develop a system of communication," Van Meter said.

"The students I saw today seem to understand that things will be a little different and there will be some glitches that we need to work out. At the start of class though, I told them that whatever else happens, we just need to keep our focus on the content and our learning goals. If the nodding heads in my audience are any indication, I think the students appreciate hearing that their learning remains a primary concern."

Van Meter said being in the cavernous BJC to teach is strange, and there are other things she needs to get used to as well.

"I’m not sure if my ears will survive the semester as they must simultaneously hold my glasses, my mask, and my microphone — made even more difficult by having long hair," she said.

She also must adjust to being able to see her slides as they project on the scoreboard at center court, and remember to turn the microphone on and off as needed.

"And I need to make sure that when I pace while teaching that I need to cover the whole basketball court and not just one side, but I think this is always the case when you have to adjust to a new space for teaching," Van Meter said.

Van Meter said all of her students were in compliance with safety protocols and were very respectful when she reviewed the rules and procedures in her class.

"It was clear that they do already know these things. What I experienced today reinforced the expectations I have had over the last several weeks as I thought about teaching — my impression of the students is that they want to be here and they understand what it will take for us to keep the classrooms open. I didn’t even notice anyone with a mask that wasn’t covering both their mouth and nose," she said.

Gardner said that she's especially grateful for the opportunity to return to campus as a student in the College of Education.

"Community is huge within some of the smaller classes in my major, so reconnecting with my peers has been a highlight for me," she said. "In the current climate, our professors are taking the time to use this pandemic as a platform to explore alternative modes of education. We’re learning to adapt to unforeseen circumstances and tailor our approach to teaching/learning based on what’s happening. I think this will really benefit us as future educators, as it allows us to develop new skill sets and teaching pedagogy that may prove to be the future of education."

Last Updated August 27, 2020