Fireside Chat panel: Engage with students to promote active learning

Fireside Chat panelists listen to a question from an audience member.
President Philomena V. Mantella, second from right, leads the discussion during the Fireside Chat on February 15 at the Alumni House.
Image Credit: Kendra Stanley-Mills

As universities grapple with the pandemic’s repercussions on an evolving academic landscape, faculty members must adapt as well and understand the best methods to connect with their students.

For her Fireside Chat, President Philomena V. Mantella talked with three faculty and staff members February 15 at the Alumni House on Grand Valley’s Allendale Campus about implementing educational practices which engage and resonate with students. 

The Fireside Chats are an initiative begun by Mantella in 2019, bringing in who she called “thought activators” for discussions

Interim Provost Chris Plouff joined Mantella in directing the discussion with Jennifer Stewart, associate professor of sociology; Robert Talbert, professor of mathematics; and Quincy Williams, director of undergraduate and internship programs for the School of Public, Nonprofit, Health, Hospitality and Tourism Management.

“We’re really focusing on three faculty and staff members who are helping to lead us particularly in the elements of our work that are aligned with our three commitments in Reach Higher 2025,” said Mantella. 

Talbert began the conversation by pointing out that some pedagogical methods are obsolete, and it's the responsibility of the instructor to find a way to connect with his or her students. 

“So many things are changing at a rapid pace,” said Talbert. “It’s exciting and dangerous. There is a tremendous amount of opportunity in higher education, and it’s a great time to be a learner.

“Since the pandemic, students have begun to realize that there’s a decoupling of learning from institutional education. Therein lies the danger for us. What we do is deeply centered on them and their needs. If we don’t get it, we’ll be irrelevant.”

Robert Talbert, professor of mathematics, answers a question from an audience member during a Fireside Chat on February 15.
Robert Talbert, professor of mathematics, answers a question from an audience member during a Fireside Chat on February 15.
Image Credit: Kendra Stanley-Mills

It’s a scenario Talbert witnessed firsthand during his teenage daughter’s experience remote learning from her high school. 

“She’s wrapped in blankets listening to her algebra class at 7:30 a.m.,” said Talbert. “Then she came into my office and asked why can’t he put the class on YouTube, so the class can listen to it anytime?

“That method of pedagogy is outdated and students know it. They’ll bolt.”

Stewart and Williams noted one way faculty can combat rejection of antiquated learning experiences is through building personal connections with those students.

Williams said he’ll meet with students individually outside of the classroom setting to understand their personal experiences and how they relate to the university experience.

Fireside Chat panelists Jennifer Stewart and Quincy Williams talk with President Philomena V. Mantella and interim Provost Chris Plouff before their discussion on February 15.
Fireside Chat presenters Jennifer Stewart, left, and Quincy Williams, center-left, meet with President Philomena V. Mantella, center-right, and interim Provost Chris Plouff following their discussion on February 15.
Image Credit: Kendra Stanley-Mills

“You have to get to know the students,” said Williams. “You have to get to know what their values are, what their culture is, what their upbringing is and how it’s relevant to the learning process.

“You have to learn who your students are, and you have to learn how students best learn. Once you figure all that out, then you can begin the process when it comes to experiential learning because you cannot use the same methodology for all students.”

For Stewart, she said her time at Grand Valley is exemplified by making her classroom a place of equity which helps her construct relationships with the students.

“I let my students see me fail on a probably weekly basis because it’s important for them to understand that perfection is not the greatest goal, but trying to introduce equity into a classroom is incredibly important."