Title slide from TeachTalk session: "What have we learned about engagement during the pandemic?"

Empathy, interaction, and flexibility: NYU students share insights on learning during the pandemic

On March 10, 2022, TeachTalks switched gears. Instead of faculty leading the discussion, six students (four undergraduates and two graduate students) took the virtual stage for What Have We Learned About Engagement During the Pandemic? The Student Perspective. The panelists—coming from the College of Arts and Science; Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development; Tandon School of Engineering; and Tisch School of the Arts—shared what helped them feel engaged and included in the classroom over the last two years. They spoke especially to the positive power of empathy, communication, and flexibility on the part of their instructors and classmates.

This event was an extension of four brainstorming sessions conducted over the 2021-2022 academic year with the self-study group I lead, convened by Clay Shirky, Vice Provost of Educational Technologies. Knowing of these previous events, the TeachTalks team invited me to moderate the discussion. Three of the six students had already participated in one or both of the previous brainstorming sessions: “Optimizing The Higher Education Student Experience” and “Learning Together: NYU Student Voices on Engagement.” I have been extremely grateful for the bravery, generosity, and honesty the students have exhibited during all of these events.

I hope every NYU faculty member carves out the time to watch the video of this crucial TeachTalks student panel discussion in particular. While I know we are constantly inundated with email messages, links, and other media, this conversation is truly a “must watch.” It is crucial to hear the students’ words in their own voices. Hearing directly from them is incredibly illuminating! 

Here are some key tips and recommendations for engagement that surfaced during this wide-ranging, candid, and insightful conversation. 

Create an Inclusive Environment


  • Foster an environment in which students feel comfortable sharing, contributing, and connecting with you and their classmates.
  • Acknowledge the state of the world, which is part of your learning environment.
  • Prioritize mental health.
  • Learn and ask your students about the challenges they face (e.g. balancing work and school; disruptions in routine because of shifts to remote or in-person class) and how these challenges are being exacerbated by the pandemic and other current issues.

Encourage conversation

  • Make your classes conversational. 
  • Make yourself available (through office hours or appointments) to talk with your students about their experience in your course and with the course material.
    • If you use the term “office hours,” make sure you explain to students what they are. Alternatively, use the term “student hours.”
    • Consider evening hours, particularly for students in other time zones and students who might hold jobs during the day. 

Allow for flexibility and differentiation

  • Utilize a blended environment: give students an alternative to in-person class in the event that they should need to use it.
  • Make course recordings available to students for review.
    • This allows students more freedom to pursue career and educational activities.
    • It also helps students to review material.
    • Record what is useful without undermining the safety of discussion spaces (i.e., record lectures, but not classroom discussions). 
      • On Zoom, breakout rooms can be used for small group discussions because they are not recorded. After groups return to the main room, have them report their main takeaways.
      • Remember that not all students find benefit in recordings. Alternatives or supplements to video include: posting collaborative notes (i.e. Google Docs) that the entire class can edit; sharing slides or online links on NYU Brightspace; and emailing or posting a brief recap of key ideas and resources from the day’s class.

Encourage Student-to-Student Interaction

Utilize technology 

  • Try out a popular discussion platform:
    • Structured and instructor-run (i.e. Discussion board on NYU Brightspace)
    • Freeform and student-run (i.e. Discord, GroupMe, WhatsApp)
  • Allow laptops as note-taking devices.
  • Involve students in the conversation; ask your students which technology tools they like.
  • When on Zoom, leverage the tools available.
    • Assign breakout rooms with clear instructions for activities; encourage (or require) groups to share their results in the main Zoom room.
    • Do not disable private messaging on Zoom for peer-to-peer conversations.

Facilitate group work

  • Create accountability groups or buddies by assigning pairs or groups of 4-5 students to work together throughout the semester in order to:
    • Foster peer connection.
    • Create a place for students to better understand course material.
  • Change the groups that students work with throughout the semester to encourage more student interaction and allow more voices to be heard.
  • Remember, however, that some students may have anxiety around group work.

You can also download Student Engagement Tips and Recommendations.