Lessons Learned That Have Lasted: Teaching Graduate Students in the Wake of the Pandemic

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Associate Professor, Jesse Antilla-Hughes, Economics

Associate Professor Jesse Anttila-Hughes teaches in USF’s Masters of Economics programs. Like many faculty, Jesse faced instructional challenges during the pandemic, but he was able to use technology to discover new practices and solutions that he has since incorporated into his teaching. This article reviews some of the challenges he experienced, the solutions he implemented, and some of the lessons he learned.

Instructional Challenges

  1. Teaching a technically demanding subject: Jesse teaches introductory graduate econometrics, a subject that involves a high level of statistical use and mathematical ability, and requires students to learn technical programming languages like R, Python, and Stata. Teaching these skills effectively and making sure every first-year student is met where they are and can follow along can be difficult.
  2. Hybrid teaching: The long end to the pandemic was accompanied by a need for Jesse to teach his class in a hybrid format, juggling both in-person and online synchronous teaching. Doing so effectively while ensuring that all students, regardless of their attendance mode, are engaged and learning effectively can be a challenge.
  3. Ethical considerations: The use of AI tools like ChatGPT in teaching brings about ethical issues. There's a concern that students who are using AI can lead to technology doing their work for them, suggesting the potential for plagiarism. The increased use of AI also forces a move towards more challenging in-person exams to ensure understanding and knowledge application. At the same time, AI tools are advancing rapidly and Jesse felt an obligation to make sure students wouldn’t be left without needed skills. 

Instructional Solutions

  1. Flexibility: Jesse's experience with hybrid teaching has allowed him to perfect and persist in using the hybrid format; allowing students, especially those who are international, caring for family members, or dealing with health issues and / or COVID exposure, to participate in classes remotely. Recordings and lecture materials that were made  available after every lecture, helping students work through and master complex concepts through repetition. Lecture recordings are particularly important for many ESL students in the international MSIDEC and MSAE programs.
  2. Inclusion: Jesse strives to make his  teaching approach accessible to students from different backgrounds and locations, choosing, wherever possible, to use free teaching materials and employing open-source tools and resources, such as R, Python, and ChatGPT.  
  3. Comprehensive teaching methods: Jesse provides demonstrations and copies of code, records all classes for review, and offers individual assistance during office hours. He  encourages the use of AI tools to overcome coding roadblocks, preparing students for a future where these tools will be more prevalent. Teaching scripting languages such as R, Python and Stata, gave students options to choose whichever one they were interested in. He advocated for student adoption of ChatGPT, Github Copilot, and similar solutions for coding roadblocks, rapidly expanding student’s coding ability.  
  4. Enhanced learning: Jesse's use of technology, like Zoom and the Hovercam document camera, his availability to students, and his detailed lecture materials helps students of different learning styles and language proficiencies to succeed in his courses. Use of a Hovercam document camera to share notes further supported this goal. Using the document camera ensured that anything written during class was large and clear enough for students to review and that the important formulas and explanations were captured on Zoom recordings.
  5. Community-building: Jesse creates an engaging environment where students have opportunities to work in groups, fostering a sense of community among learners. Jesse also assures students that it’s ok, even good, to feel ignorant when doing hard technical work, as that is one’s job as a student. Through hard work and a sense of graduate cohort camaraderie students are able to transform themselves into accomplished professional econometricians.

Lessons Learned

Hybrid teaching allowed Jesse to teach students where they were while teaching a technically difficult subject. Students were able to view recorded lectures, which supported access to the course materials for review and allowed easy accommodation for students who were unable to attend class in person. It was very important during the pandemic that if someone had a sniffle or was not feeling well, they could stay at home; the option of always being able to join remotely, if needed, allowed everyone more flexibility while also keeping them from falling behind in a core, technically demanding subject. This format also worked very well for graduate students who needed general flexibility, such as those working day jobs, raising a family, or commuting from far outside SF; even after the pandemic restrictions had been entirely lifted,  Jesse felt obligated to share his classroom recordings with students. While Jesse's teaching methods pose certain challenges, the benefits, particularly in terms of flexibility, inclusivity, adaptability, and efficient use of technology, have significantly enhanced the learning outcomes and experiences for his students.