Adapting to a new norm: Dixie State students, professors navigate learning in the age of a pandemic

One photo is attached. Possible cutline: Students prepare to participate in class on the Dixie State University campus, St. George, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Jyl Hall, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has changed most things, including the simple everyday task of going to class. Over the past year, students and professors at Dixie State University have experienced school online, half-online, socially distanced, remote and everything in between. As they navigate the ups and downs of virtual learning, both students and professors have had learn to to adapt.

In this Monday, April 6, 2020, photo, students are shown on a laptop interacting with Weber State University dance professor Joseph Blake, as he teaches his modern dance class from his living room in Ogden, Utah. Since March 12, when the university announced that all classes would not meet on campus due to the new coronavirus, Blake has continued teaching his class remotely from online video chat | Associated Press file photo by Ben Dorger for the Standard-Examiner, St. George News

While the university has not yet calculated pass/fail rates for 2020 compared to past years, some professors say they have not noticed significant drops in grades since the pandemic began. The pandemic was a learning experience for the university as a whole and some professors say they are impressed with how their students have performed.

Kristy Grayson, assistant professor of marketing, told St. George News that the pandemic caused challenges for many of her students, and not all of them excelled, but overall her classes did better than she expected. 

“I am tremendously impressed by these students’ resilience,” she said. “I did not see a high percentage in drop-off, but I was also very proactive. If I saw that a student was not turning something in, I would pick up the phone and call them and make sure they were okay.” 

In March, when the university transitioned to remote learning, Grayson wanted to find ways to let the students know she knew it wasn’t easy for them, so she designed her Zoom classes just like she would design an in-person class. The students had breakout rooms where they could collaborate; and at the end of class, they could all talk together about what they discussed. 

Wendy Schatzberg, assistant professor of chemistry and the director for the Center of Teaching and Learning at Dixie State, was tasked not only with finding a way to transition her own classes online in March but also with training and educating faculty on how to teach during the pandemic. Faculty had to redesign their classes within a matter of days, whereas they usually have months to prepare for a new semester, she told St. George News. 

New signage is on display at Dixie State University ahead of students returning to campus, St. George, Utah, Aug. 13, 2020 | Photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

“I always wanted to learn more about online teaching. I saw that as an opportunity to grow,” Schatzberg said. “I think it really has made me grow as a professor.”

When the pandemic hit, all classes at Dixie State transitioned to an online platform. In fall 2020, some were in person while others were partially remote and partially in person. In order to reduce the number of students on campus and in the classroom at any given time, students were split, so that half of them came to campus on Monday and Tuesday and the other half on Wednesday and Thursday.

This semester, professors have more flexibility to decide whether they want to teach remotely or in person. Regardless, students can still choose to attend classes all remotely if that’s their preference. Schatzberg is teaching her classes all remotely this semester, and she said the model has been working better for her students than traditional face-to-face classes. 

“I didn’t see any changes in grades,” she said. “In fact, my fall semester average was higher than usual. I don’t know if it was the flipped classroom or any ways that I’ve changed my curricula, but I’m all for having higher grades.”

Teaching over Zoom feels more intimate in some ways, Grayson said, because when students see her at the front of a classroom, it can be easy to think of her as some kind of icon, but seeing her on a screen in her house makes her feel more relatable. She’s also ramped up her communication with her students through texting, which has made it possible for them to check in on her and one another. 

Kristy Grayson teaches a Dixie State University remote course and wears a face shield. Date and location not specified | Photo courtesy of Kristy Grayson, St. George News

“I’ve never experienced such kindness before,” Grayson said. “That’s my job, to make sure they’re okay, so when I have students who care enough to call and text and make sure I’m okay, I think that says a lot about our community.”

For McKinley Hatch, a senior studying media studies with a focus in public relations, having the support of her professors made life during the pandemic less stressful. Studying online has also taught her more than just the class content, she told St. George News. 

“I learned with online learning via Zoom that you have to put in more effort,” she said. “It could be really easy to sit back and do nothing but that’s where you have to put in effort to make the best out of your education.”

Hatch is taking all but one of her classes in person this semester, and she said that it’s because of her professors that she feels safe doing so. 

“The professors have done an incredible job,” she said. “I feel like they don’t get as much credit as they deserve. From a student’s perspective, I see how hard they’re working, and I’m really grateful for them.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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