Pedagogy in the Pandemic and Beyond: An Interview with Mija Van Der Wege

23 November 2021
By Greta Hardy-Mittell ’23, LTC Student Fellow

The past year has been filled with pedagogical challenges, from transitioning to online or hybrid teaching and back, to fostering much-needed antiracism and equity in the classroom. But it has also presented a valuable opportunity for professors to switch things up. Mija Van Der Wege, Associate Professor of Psychology, has done just that. After hearing her reflections at the LTC lunch on Lessons Learned from Pandemic Teaching, I spoke with her to hear more about her pedagogical practices: the ones she’s used since long before 2020, the ones she changed during the pandemic, and how she’s blending the two as we move forward.

Greta Hardy-Mittell: Thanks for chatting with me, Mija! At the LTC lunch, you opened by saying that the pandemic revealed the disruptions in students’ lives that have always been there. I’m curious how your mindset on teaching has changed since that realization.

Mija Van Der Wege: It struck me that, because of the diversity of things that were happening in students’ lives, it was even more important for me to be available and approachable. That way students felt comfortable coming to talk to me about things that were happening that they might need additional time or consideration for. I tried to think about being more myself, so that students saw me as a person and not just as a deliverer of information. That’s going to be an easier kind of person to approach about something that is going on in your life.

I also thought more about developing community in the classroom, which I’ve always tried to do, but I realized how that helps students reach out for help when they need it. I do a lot of group work. And when you’re doing group work, you have to realize that every single person has stuff going on, and that not everyone is going to be able to give 110% every day, every single minute. Giving each other and ourselves permission to do that is a good lesson to learn.

GHM: What does that group work look like? How does it factor into your classroom?

MVDW: I’ve been using an approach called team-based learning for about 10 years, maybe a little bit longer. Team-based learning is a technique developed in the 1970s that I learned about around 2005, and there’s a handful of faculty around campus that use it. The core element is that students work in teams for the duration of the term so that there’s the opportunity both to develop community within the groups and to recognize that each individual brings a unique perspective that is valuable. I think the students are more likely to learn from each other in that kind of scenario, rather than throwing people together for an hour and then seeing how it works out.

Somewhere like Carleton, the students are high-achievement focused and there’s a tendency towards both introversion and perfectionism. So being able to feel vulnerable and to admit ambiguity or mistakes is often very difficult, especially for new students coming in. I think that this was exacerbated by the pandemic and online learning, because students didn’t have the opportunity to forge connections.

On the other hand, I think that in some ways, the pandemic helped because everyone had stuff going on. Everyone was willing to give each other a little bit more breathing room and let things slide a little bit more. Forgiveness was just a matter of: yes, of course, whatever you need.

During the pandemic, I still did a lot of team-based learning (TBL) because I think it worked a lot better in the Zoom environment. Having more than four or five people talking to each other at the same time on Zoom makes conversation intimidating and very difficult. So having small groups that were used to each other made it a lot easier for students to have conversation.

GHM: How do you incorporate the teams into establishing classroom expectations and making the classroom a compassionate space?

MVDW: At the beginning of my classes, I usually spend about 20 minutes on an activity where students brainstorm about three questions. The first question I ask them to reflect on is, if they imagine really great conversations or classroom discussions they’ve had, what are the characteristics that made that a great discussion? Then I have them think about, what are some concrete guidelines that might help foster those characteristics? And thirdly, what can someone in a leadership role in a team do to help guide conversation?

In my TBL classes, I’ve been using roles in teamwork to divide up some of the labor. So as part of the class expectation conversation, I say, what might you expect from people in different roles? We have a leader and a timer, and then someone who looks stuff up and someone who writes stuff, and then someone who reports out to the class. And I say, so if these are the roles that we have, if these are our goals, how can each of the people in these roles help contribute to making a good discussion? And then I rotate those roles once a week.

GHM: How are these guidelines or the team learning or any of the methods you use explicitly related to equity and creating an equitable classroom?

MVDW: I think it reveals some expectations that might not be obvious. People are coming from a wide variety of backgrounds and cultural spaces, and the expectations for contributions and who’s allowed to speak and what you’re allowed to say can be radically different, especially for newer Carleton students. So having this discussion makes it explicit that this is the informal contract that we’re going to have in this classroom about how we’re expecting to interact with each other. Increasingly, as society becomes more diverse, and yet at the same time more siloed, having these guidelines is really important. They help us all know where we’re coming from and how we’re going to interact, especially with people who disagree.

Another thing I experimented with during the pandemic, especially in that first term when all the grading was SCrNc, was this process called ungrading. In ungrading, students do a lot of self-reflection about their own personal goals, and I’m incorporating an element of that into my class this term. In addition to the peer evaluation, where they’re thinking about how they are interacting with each other and how they can give each other feedback on those classroom expectations, they then reflect on their own personal goals, which might vary a lot depending on where they’re coming from and what their background is. It makes both them and me notice and appreciate any progress they’ve made towards those goals. So I think that that also contributes to equity, diversity, and inclusion, because it acknowledges that we are all coming from different places. While some people might need to work on speaking more, other people might need to work on speaking less, just as a really basic example. Some people might need to work on time management or reading skills, and other people might need to work on not over-preparing.

GHM: Is ungrading changing the way that you grade specific assignments? Or is it an added layer on top of what you already do?

MVDW: I see it as an added layer. I like opportunities for students to reflect on what grade they think they’ve earned. The challenge with ungrading which can be really time consuming is coming up with criteria. I haven’t been able to do that for every single assignment that I’ve got, although I have rubrics for most things. I really experimented with ungrading as an overall, holistic grading format, asking, what are your goals? How are you reaching them? What evidence can you pull from the work that you did this term that supports an argument that you earned an A or a B or whatever? And of course, that first term, it was really low stakes, because all the grades were going to be SCrNc. So it made it very easy for them and for me. 

This term, I’m going to have them do a reflection on these goals, and it’s going to be a small proportion of the overall final grade. Some of it will be content based, but I want the focus of this self reflection to be on skill-building, both scholarly skills as well as soft skills. They did their first reflection third week, then we’ll do a check-in around week six, and then they’ll do a final reflection at the end of the term.

GHM: Another thing you mentioned in the LTC lunch was redesigning the way you assign readings. You present a set of learning questions and a collection of multimedia materials, including podcasts and videos, and then students choose which resources to use.

MVDW: Yeah, I think that’s an interesting approach. It takes time, so I haven’t done it for all of my classes. But I like the idea that if I give them a set of questions, my real goal is for them to be able to answer those questions. So if some students like videos, or some people like to read, they probably can get most of the answers to their questions from one source or the other. Even if they do both, they might prefer to do the reading first or to do the videos first. And so I think having that flexibility is nice for them.

Something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time is how to get students to take more agency for their learning. I want them to realize that at Carleton, it’s not that there’s a box of knowledge that I’m going to give them, and everything in this box are the things that they should know and that are important, and anything that’s outside of this box is not important and they don’t need to know it. I think that’s a mindset that a lot of high schools foster. In my classes, we’re going to talk about a lot of things, but we’re still only scraping the surface of the knowledge that’s available out there. There’s nothing that I’m going to do or say that says they can’t go and look at more stuff, or that they even have to know all of the stuff that I give them, because there’s probably going to be more information that I present to my students that we can think about deeply in the amount of time that we have. I like to present a wide variety of things with some core principles that then they can go off and integrate into their lives.

GHM: So you’ve talked about a lot of different methods, from ungrading to team-based learning. What advice would you give to professors who want to integrate some of these tactics into their classes, but don’t really know where to start?

MVDW: I think it’s one of those things that you do incrementally. I am always tweaking my classes. I don’t try to overhaul them all in their entirety; each time I reteach them, I push toward something that I’m doing. I’ve been doing team-based learning for a while, and I’ve refined it every single time I do it. I get better at asking good preparation questions and asking interesting problem set questions and refining my criteria and guidelines for assignments.

For the conversational expectations, I think the place to start is just setting aside time for those kinds of conversations. You should feel supported by the college in using that classroom time to build community, instead of feeling like you need to spend every single minute on content. I think that is a mental shift that is more difficult for some people than others, and maybe even for some disciplines more than others. But it was a really important shift in my mindset. I’m hoping that the pandemic and our year online has pushed some other people in that direction too.

GHM:  You mentioned disciplines. So, zooming out a little bit, I’m curious: does your discipline of psychology influence how you teach and how you think about teaching?

MVDW: Oh, yeah. I’m doing a class on memory right now. So we spend a lot of time talking about things like, how do you study? How do you try to remember information? There’s a lot of good evidence that shows that one of the best ways to retrieve information later on is to practice retrieving it, which actually means frequent low stakes tests. With team-based learning, that’s built in. And I encourage my students to engage in self-testing, both asking themselves questions and asking each other questions informally. 

Elaboration is also super important. You want to tie new things that you’re learning to old things that you know, everyday activities, and other concepts that you’re learning or have learned in that class or in other classes. The more you can not silo information, the better you are at remembering in the long term and the more connections you can make. So I spend a lot of time thinking about that. I emphasize that when talking to students about how they learn and study, and I also try to integrate applied pieces into my classes. My goal is to get students to think about psychology in their day to day lives: when they’re talking to someone who’s bilingual, how does that affect the way that they communicate? Or when they’re studying for a test, should they study some more or should they sleep? 

The other thing that comes into play is that my research area is actually on conversation—how people rely on common ground or what they know about each other to communicate effectively, how we establish common ground, and what happens when common ground is misjudged. So when trying to build community and communicating new concepts to students, I think about how I can get evidence that they think about it the same way that I do. Because I think that it’s easy as an expert in something to talk about it and assume that everyone else has the same internal understanding of that concept that you do. But unless you ask certain questions, or get certain kinds of feedback, you don’t necessarily have evidence that they’re understanding the same way. It’s that age old question of, what if everyone else sees a different shade of red than I see? I don’t want to get to the end of the term where a student is taking an exam and then all of a sudden realize that they had a fundamentally different idea about this concept than I did, and I clearly wasn’t communicating effectively.

GHM: To close out, how do you think students have responded to the pedagogy practices you’ve talked about?

MVDW:  The students really like the teams. I’ve heard from a number of students that they become really close to the people who are in them. It’s an opportunity that isn’t always available to students: to have a long term relationship with someone who’s just a person, who they don’t necessarily share a lot of interests with or anything. That’s a skill they’re going to have to use in life after college, where they’re going to be working with people, and they’re going to have to figure out a way of effectively agreeing on what common goals they have and how they’re going to achieve those goals.

I think the attitude towards group work is different than the one I went to school with. I had a funny conversation with a friend of mine, who’s my age. And I mentioned that I was doing this team-based learning class. He said, oh, team based stuff for the whole term. Do you hate half of your class or something? And I thought, wow, that is such a radically different way from the way I look at it. They all benefit from it; they actually all like it.