Whether you’ve taken classes at Columbia before this semester or not, all students are apprehensive about a full semester of remote classes. Beyond the confusion that comes with navigating office hours, courses that used to depend on in-person attendance—namely labs and senior seminars—may now be held with students across various time zones.
To answer questions students have raised about the upcoming semester, Spectrum spoke with professors across the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences departments to discuss how they plan to structure their courses and their expectations for students.
Structuring class schedules
This semester, certain classes will be offered in A/B blocks, which means they will last half as long as a regular semester and meet twice as regularly. Professor Kimberly Marten, chair of the Barnard political science department, explained that these shorter, immersive courses are equivalent to semester long courses in terms of fulfilling major requirements. When asked whether seniors should take A/B courses, Marten said that while seniors ultimately have to make their own decisions, some of the intensive political science courses are actually colloquia, which are mandatory seminars for Barnard political science majors. Therefore, seniors shouldn’t shy away from them because of their unconventional structure.
Changing seminar requirements
Concerning the colloquia, Marten said that her department is considering substitutes for the lengthy 25-30 page research papers students usually write, given library access continues to be restricted.
“The compromise we’ve reached,” Professor Marten explained, “is that the same number of pages of writing are due, with the same goal of teaching research skills, but in many of our courses, just not all as one big paper. Instead there are a variety of shorter research-related assignments.”
Large lecture course
Professor Sunil Gulati, who teaches the annually popular “Principles of Economics” lecture, said that he’s going to teach “as if students were standing in front of me in terms of my expectations of them and what they can expect from me.” He explained that although last semester students couldn’t anticipate the time zone differences when the school transitioned to remote learning, this semester, his course will be synchronous and students are expected to register if they know they can make it to class on time.
“I’m going to expect students to be in class. That means on Zoom, video on, paying attention,” he says, “but with a caveat that I know students have faced unique circumstances and have been through a lot. It’s still Columbia, it’s still Econ 101, still a lot of potential majors, the demands are going to be as high as they have been in the past.”
Gulati also discussed the idea of trying to meet students online before classes start to get to know them and establish a connection. In terms of potentially balancing out the grading for his class, he explained that he’s considering adding a few very unique assignments to the curriculum, although he did not go further into detail. “There’s going to be a few surprises, we’re going to keep this fun,” he says.
Laboratory professors have been redesigning their curricula to adapt to the lack of physical resources and materials students would normally require.
Professor Jessica Goldstein, Barnard’s introductory laboratory biology director, explained how remote labs will consist of “a mixture of simulations, at-home activities, and collaborative data analysis.” Director Stiliana Savin of the physics and astronomy labs at Barnard added that the at-home experiments are designed to be simple and easy to recreate using “standard tools like rulers, protractors and timers.”
According to Goldstein, lab instructors will explain how to use resources with both video and written instructions before labs formally meet. “Once labs begin formally meeting,” she says, “each lab activity will be described in a pre-lab video which students will be able to watch before attending their lab via Zoom. In addition, we will provide students with accompanying Powerpoint slides and written instructions describing both theoretical background and practical procedural information.”
Goldstein also said that it will be mandatory for students to attend labs synchronously. She also explained that they have expanded the times they offer lab sections to accommodate for students in different time zones.
For her labs specifically, Goldstein also discussed how grading expectations have been adapted. She explained that they have added both individual and group weekly assignments to adjust their grading metrics. They also changed exam structures to decrease the weight of tests and the amount of material on each test.
When asked how she plans to test students remotely on their oral and writing skills, French professor Hadley Suter expressed concerns over the efficacy of online tools in assessing students.
“Even assuming nobody ever cheats, every technological tool out there is made to help you correct your writing … So writing and test-taking in an online class are a lot less reliable in delineating a student’s actual competence. What parameters are left to actually grade a student?” she explained.
Her solution: To conduct more dictées, where students write out a text as they hear it, and grade pronunciation by asking students to record themselves reading texts aloud.
She also explained that attendance will be mandatory for her courses because “there is absolutely no value in watching a Zoom recording of a language class” given the amount of group work that she intends to facilitate. “There’s very little lecturing and even grammar presentations are interactive,” she added.