STEPP Spring 2021

By Nandeeta Bala ’22

Grand Challenges and the Engaged Pluralism Initiative co-sponsored the continuation of STEPP in the Spring-2021 semester. As Student Coordinator of STEPP and a Grand Challenges Intern, Nandeeta Bala ’22 coordinated with Jonathon Kahn and Jodi Schwarz to plan for the Spring-2021 semester, developing forms and applications for students and faculty. Felicity Martin joined the STEPP Team this semester and facilitated the student partner meetings. All faculty at Vassar, and students from Transitions, Grand Challenges, and EPI were invited — a total of 15 student-faculty pairs participated. Over the semester, Nandeeta organized and facilitated the STEPP Team meetings, where Nandeeta, Jonathon, Jodi, & Felicity met to reflect and plan.

To organize the student partner meetings, Felicity shared a WhenIsGood with students. To encourage experienced student partners (who participated in STEPP in previous semesters) to share their leadership experience, Nandeeta invited Mark Fossesca and Nia Smith to co-facilitate the meetings. There were three student partner meetings each week; Felicity & Mark co-facilitated the Monday meetings, Nandeeta facilitated the Wednesday meetings, and Felicity & Nia facilitated the Thursday meetings. Nandeeta, Felicity, Mark, & Nia met weekly to plan agendas for the meetings. Soon, each weekly meeting group collectively decided to meet biweekly. For future semesters, we thought that student partner meetings could be held weekly for the first three weeks, as students familiarize themselves with STEPP, and then biweekly, as students need less support and the semester becomes busy.  It would also be helpful to include more activities during the first few weeks for students to get to know each other.

Here are some folks from the Wednesday group:

Some students expressed interest in partnering for courses in which they have subject knowledge or interest. If our pool of participants continues to grow, we hope to try this out as a possibility. A challenge student partners faced was having students in their classes complete the midterm evaluation. As we return in-person, we will explore additional ways of tackling this issue.

Jodi facilitated an opt-in faculty partner meetings to discuss initial reactions and experiences in STEPP. Jodi took detailed notes in the Zoom chat, which Nandeeta compiled and shared with faculty who were unable to attend.

Key Takeaways:

What has been working well? What would you like more support around?

  • Importance of touching base with remote students regularly; STEPP student implements a mid semester survey to get feedback on the class
  • STEPP students sends a list of plusses and things to-be-reconsidered that they are noticing (the plusses feel very validating; the to-be-reconsidered help us improve)
  • Nice to have open and frank conversations about teaching strategies; so far in the semester have been dealing with procedural aspects (participation, how to engage students) but would be nice to know what to do next so that it is fresh and evolves and grows.
  • Finally a moment to get honest feedback!
  • Observational notes are helpful! Moving to presentations, and want to think about what next for the second half of semester? 
  • Can STEPP help us with CEQs?
  • Group dynamics is an important issue in labs and wanted to have that be the main topic to address. 
  • The STEPP students are really professional and kind. Useful feedback when it is coming from a student who is NOT in the class.
  • Helpful to learn about simple but very important things that can be changed, such as the design of the Moodle site.
  • Helpful to get information about how the culture and practices of our own disciplines are changing over time.
  • We don’t know what we don’t know. STEPP students help show us new things that help us see what we don’t know.
  • Actual tangible ideas from students are helpful.
  • Useful to have someone to help develop new ideas through conversations about the pedagogy of our disciplines: from intuition to intellect
  • As we do STEPP multiple times, we want more detailed feedback and critique as we learn more
  • Addressing unanticipated challenging issues
  • Sometimes having students who are majors in the field helps because then they can help address the teaching of the actual topic.

What ideas do you have for what you and your student partner can do over the second half of the semester?

  • Comment on my written feedback to students.
  • Interview students in my classroom
  • Ways to have STEPP partner involved in assessing dynamics of assigned groups for group homework, and/or the writing assignments and peer review experience
  • Student partners can attend/observe office hours
  • Student partners can research specific pedagogical practices within faculty partner’s field to experiment together in the classroom
  • Taking more detailed notes/focusing on different aspects of the classroom
  • A STEPP project that is entirely about group work and how to cultivate equitable collaborative process among students.
  • New ways of wrapping up the class—either a wrap up activity, or exit interview or something.

Upon suggestion from multiple participants mid-semester, Jodi created a STEPP Slack as a space to share and expand ideas and conversations. While active, we hope to better use it during the upcoming semester as some participants did not have a chance to join mid-semester.

Nandeeta organized a catalytic cafe “Stepping into STEPP,” an informal conversation for all faculty interested in learning more about the STEPP program. Nandeeta invited student partners to co-facilitate, and Maya Pelletier, Nia Smith, and Mackenzie Whitehead-Bust very kindly volunteered. Current faculty and student partners shared their experience and current and prospective partners shared their questions and concerns. A library admin expressed interest in partnering with students and we are thrilled to see how we can expand STEPP by developing student-admin partnerships. It was a very wholesome conversation.

Conscious of her status as a rising senior (can’t believe it!) and eager to share similar opportunities with future students, Nandeeta created additional leadership opportunities in consultation with the STEPP Team. This included a detailed description for a Student Coordinator in Training and flexible leadership opportunities based on student availability and interest. Congratulations to Mark, Student Coordinator in Training, and Yaser Pena, STEPP Student Researcher! Excited to see how your insightful perspectives and experiences in STEPP shapes the Fall 2021 semester.

Nandeeta collaborated with Alison Cook-Sather, Editor of the journal Teaching and Learning Together in Higher Education, to propose a STEPP issue for the May 2022 publication. Nandeeta developed a guide with which participants are able to reflect on their experiences. Over the summer of 2021, several STEPP participants have expressed interest in writing about their experience. Nandeeta and Alison will be editing and providing feedback.

Yu Zhou, a faculty partner, mentioned that she’d like student partners involved in the CEQ revision process. Over the summer, she requested that we share an opportunity for a workshop with students, and Nandeeta and Amanda Eng, student partner in Fall 2020, were able to participate in a short discussion that she hosted. We look forward to collaborating to re-envision to course evaluation process in the future.

At the end of the semester, Felicity facilitated a meeting with all participants to reflect and conclude STEPP Fall-2020. She also took detailed notes of the meeting and noted overall themes. (1) How can we help students develop a personal connection or investment in the class? (2) It’s important as a teacher to be  explicit about your learning goals: to explain to students the thought process behind why you’re doing what you’re doing in class. (3)
While the pace in the first half of semester was really rich, it slowed down later in the semester. How can we make the second half of the semester have as much purpose as the first half? This last point was reiterated during the previous semester. As STEPP continues to develop, it’s important to find concrete ways to sustain student-faculty partnership.

Felicity also shared feedback forms, based on what Jodi created during the previous semester, to consolidate feedback from participants. Perhaps due to timing of the survey, we did not receive many faculty responses. A few student partners completed the form and shared that they felt their work with their faculty partner did impact the culture of their class and they found the student partner meetings helpful. As a result of STEPP, they have rethought their ideas about the practice of teaching and are now more comfortable interacting with faculty.

I felt that I was able to establish a good relationship with my faculty partner. We both understood each other well and knew that suggestions were just that because of certain limitations while neither of us being scared to mention things that we might otherwise not mention. I believe I was able to help my faculty partner improve on his goal this semester and in future semesters and classes both in-person and through any online lectures that he may do throughout his career.
Life changing. Learned so much, enjoyed a new perspective on a classroom, gained a mentor and friend, hopefully assisted students in the class with sense of belonging. STEPP rocks!

The STEPP Team:

Nandeeta Bala, Grand Challenges Intern

Jonathon Kahn, Professor of Religion, Director of EPI

Jodi Schwarz, Associate Professor of Biology, Grand Challenges Program Director

Felicity Martin, Engaged Pluralism Initiative, Program Associate