Faculty equipped with teaching tools, innovations for new academic year

Vanderbilt faculty are returning to full-time in-person teaching this semester equipped with a host of instructional tools, innovations and experiences acquired over the previous academic year. The university continues to provide resources to help faculty navigate the challenges of the ongoing pandemic.

“There is overwhelming excitement and enthusiasm among students and faculty for being back in person. I hear this every single day,” said Anita Wager, associate dean for undergraduate academic affairs at Vanderbilt Peabody College and professor of the practice of mathematics education. Wager consulted fellow faculty at Peabody, the College of Arts and Science, Vanderbilt Blair School of Music and the School of Engineering ahead of her presentation on teaching innovations at the town hall for undergraduate students and families on Sept. 13.

“A common thread among faculty is that the resources provided by the university, and especially through the Center for Teaching, were invaluable last year and are at the heart of what is making us even better teachers this year,” Wager said. “There were new technologies available to us, but also a lot of support for learning how to better use existing technologies.”

“Faculty have been reflecting on a year of adaptive teaching, determining what elements of that teaching to continue, and figuring out how to incorporate those elements in classroom teaching,” said Derek Bruff, assistant provost and executive director of the Center for Teaching. “That’s hard work, but the result is a lot more tools in our teaching toolboxes.”

Below are some of the tools and methods faculty across the university are implementing in the classroom this semester. “Over the past year and a half, teaching and learning have changed for the better,” Wager said.

Pre-class work

Last academic year, faculty learned to make short lecture-style videos that students would watch before class. These brief videos are now being incorporated to provide context for readings or to clarify assignments. They also enable faculty to “flip” the classroom so students can watch a short lecture, then do more group activity in class.

Faculty also had greater access to annotation tools, such as Perusall, for students to collectively comment on readings. This social annotation provides an engaging way to reflect on and respond to assigned reading. In addition, Brightspace pages—which contain complete course information—are now more organized and provide better clarity for what students should expect to learn each day.

The Center for Teaching’s Digital Media Lab provides guidance, instruction and resources for faculty interested in creating and using digital media, including video and audio, in their teaching.

In-class group work

Pre-pandemic small group work often was documented on chart paper. Last year, Zoom breakout rooms were utilized for small groups of students to document their discussions using online tools such as Jamboard, Padlet or Google Slides.

“These online documentation tools were more effective, easier for students to access in the future, and easier to share,” Wager said. “We are now using them for small group work for our in-person classes.” In addition, students are using them for collaborative note taking during class.

In-class question response

One useful Zoom technique is asking students to compose question responses in the chat feature, but requesting that they wait to hit “enter” at the same time.

“This provides time for all students to answer a question, not just the three or four students who put their hands up,” Bruff explained. “This technique is now being replicated with Top Hat, Vanderbilt’s classroom response system.”

In-class labs

The university had been working toward incorporating more experimental design in the lab sequence for several years, and the need for virtual learning accelerated this effort.

Last year, the instructions for labs were more fluid, requiring students to make educated substitutions for different supplies. As a result, students had thoughtful conversations about why specific steps were important.

“These are the skills that are more transferable to a professional environment,” said Amanda Lowery, associate professor of the practice of biomedical engineering. “While being able to follow instructions is important, being able to understand the background and goal of an activity, making appropriate, justified on-the-spot decisions, and thinking ahead to your next step are bigger accomplishments.”


Faculty have been introduced to a host of new technologies for assessing and providing feedback to students. While some faculty use Flipgrid for students to post reflections as an alternative to some written work, they also are using video feedback for select assignments.

“We have embraced the utility and flexibility of online platforms for things like tutoring and help sessions, and for meeting with students who are not able to come to traditional office hours,” said Cynthia Paschal, senior associate dean for undergraduate education at the School of Engineering and associate professor of biomedical engineering.

Student well-being

“We learned a lot last year about checking in with students,” Wager said. Some faculty are scheduling in Brightspace planned check-ins several times during the semester, and others are offering review sessions before exams via Zoom that can be recorded and shared.

Brightspace support at the Center for Teaching can help instructors with questions—both technical and pedagogical—about Brightspace and related technologies, including Perusall and Gradescope, two educational technologies that Vanderbilt added last year. Brightspace support hours have been expanded to seven days a week this fall: Sunday, 5–11 p.m.; Monday–Friday, 7 a.m.–11 p.m.; and Saturday, 9 a.m.–5 p.m.

For more resources and support, visit the Center for Teaching online.