Erika Briesacher and Hardeep Sidhu at the podium

Alden awardees speak on pandemic teaching challenges and innovations

February 7, 2023
By: Nancy Sheehan

The college classroom of 2023 is not the same as it was just four years ago. Professors Erika Briesacher (History and Political Science), and Hardeep Sidhu (English), both recipients of the 2022 George I. Alden Excellence in Teaching Award, recently delivered talks on how the challenges of the pandemic inspired them to devise innovative teaching methods.  

The Alden Excellence in Teaching Award, created by the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), honors faculty who have inspired students

President Maloney at the podium

President Maloney at the podium

and contributed notably to their success through teaching excellence. Each year the recipients present a lecture on topics important to higher education. This year’s Alden Lecture was Jan. 27 in the multi-purpose room in Sheehan Hall.

“This award gives us the opportunity to publicly acknowledge the role of outstanding teachers in our students’ lives,” Emily Soltano, CTL

director and professor of psychology, said. “It shows that our faculty are committed to improving the teaching and learning at Worcester State. While the award is only given to two recipients each year, and those two colleagues get to deliver the lecture today,  I want to recognize and celebrate all of our faculty on this day for their dedication to students and contributions to their successes.”

President Barry M. Maloney praised Briesacher and Sidhu and all the Worcester State faculty, many of whom were in the audience, for their resilience in the face of the unprecedented challenges wrought by the pandemic.

Emily Soltano gives opening remarks

Emily Soltano gives opening remarks

“I know what we thought, initially in March of 2020, might be the issue and I know what ended up happening,” he said. “I want to congratulate this university and especially our faculty for the way that you all responded when overnight we had to become hybrid learners and hybrid deliverers of content.”

Provost Lois Wims introduced Briesacher and Sidhu and lauded both professors for their dedication to their students and the resourcefulness they have shown by devising new techniques for student engagement over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Briesacher discussed how the pandemic led her to reflect on the widely varied needs of her students and to reassess some of her teaching methods, discarding what no longer worked while adding new approaches.

“One of the biggest things that I’ve come to understand is that I don’t want to assume that students are comfortable with the tools of the field, even if they’re getting ready to graduate, because they haven’t necessarily made those connections on their own organically,” she said. “That’s not because they aren’t smart or because they’re not fully prepared or engaged. It’s that sometimes we forget to make those connections.  I’ve really begun thinking more about each piece along the way and how they will fit together in a broader whole.”

Questioning assumptions about teaching and learning is always beneficial, but Briesacher said the challenges of the pandemic made that kind of ongoing assessment even more important.

“We can use all the buzzwords – things like ‘flipping the classroom’ – but we also then should think about our assumptions about what we

Erika Briesacher and Hardeep Sidhu answer questions after the lecture

Erika Briesacher and Hardeep Sidhu answer questions after the lecture

think students know and how we can extract or draw out of them things they didn’t know they knew,” she said. “And it’s really about the subject matter, the conventions, the ways of seeing and connecting it to all of our different audiences in a variety of ways.”

The educational upheaval caused by the pandemic has forever changed the way she approaches teaching, Briesacher said. She now more closely weighs which assignments and readings are worthy requirements for students and how assignments over a semester will fit together in the end.

“The biggest thing that the pandemic has done for me as a teacher is really thinking about ‘where do I need to start and where do we need to end up,’” she said.

Sidhu discussed how his grading system has changed over the pandemic and how he has backed away from strict policies regarding attendance and assignments that are missing or turned in late.

Instead of grading assignments and giving students a final grade, Sidhu said he asks students to explain what they have learned and achieved in the class and then asks students to propose the grade they think they should receive – a method that has greatly reduced the high anxiety level many students experience these days, he said.

Students often do a double take when they get to the part of the syllabus that says they will not receive a single grade from Sidhu throughout the semester, and his faculty colleagues often have nuts-and-bolts questions like, ‘What do you do when no one shows up to class?’

“The answer is really complicated,” he said. “It’s very hard when you don’t have a punishment at hand, but it forces you to rethink things like, ‘What’s motivating my students to come to class?’”

Sidhu said his English classes now revolve around daily reading and writing exercises, and that class participation through discussion also is expected.

“The way that I would sum it up is I provide students with thought provoking books, and I ask them to use writing and discussion to come to a new understanding of the texts and the issues that the texts raise. That’s the goal,” he said.

There have been some unexpected benefits to his new approach, he said. “Someone who was my student last semester told me that my classes were the only time in her experience in college where she had to learn the names of all of her classmates.”


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