Instructional Highlights: Mou Banerjee

Multiple building blocks construct a solid foundation for FIG students

Mou Banerjee approached virtual teaching last fall like an architect. She knew she’d need to design a sturdy foundation so that the students in her First-Year Interest Group (FIG) felt safe, supported and ready to learn.

“They were all freshmen in their first semester, confronted with the unimaginable stress of attending college virtually during a pandemic,” says Banerjee, an assistant professor of history.

Many of the approaches that Banerjee typically employs when she teaches in person took on greater urgency and import online. That included requiring every student to meet with her before the third week of class. Banerjee acknowledges this is possible only if the size of a class is manageable. Her FIG, titled “Gandhi, King, Mandela: Non-Violence in the World,” had 17 students.

“The compulsory meetings broke the ice,” Banerjee says. “I made sure students knew that they could come to me, arrange meetings, or stay behind in class to ask questions, and I would do my best to help them.”

Other building blocks:

  • Banerjee used the “jigsaw method” of discussion, dividing the class into four smaller groups and assigning a set of readings for each group to discuss and analyze. These groups met on their own, then picked a representative to present their findings to the class. “The loneliness of prepping alone was reduced,” Banerjee says.
  • To reduce rash statements and anxiety over class participation, anything that was discussed had to be prefaced with a two-minute reflection period, then substantiated with evidence from the readings and/or from a credible academic source.
  • The role of presenter in each group rotated, so every student got a chance to shine and have their voice be heard and taken seriously in class.
  • Specialist librarian Todd Michelson-Ambelang held sessions for students to understand how to conduct research in a pandemic, and Tyler A. Lehrer at the History Lab gave a presentation and supervised the work of several students.

“In short, my freshmen knew they were in a safe space, had an instructor who was completely involved, got a small group of peers to work and study with them, and received research, coaching and writing help from the resources at our disposal,” Banerjee says. “They knew they were not isolated intellectually or mentally, even if they were physically isolated.”

At the end of the semester, the FIG students surprised Banerjee with a touching thank-you video.

More from the Instructional Highlights Series

UW–Madison instructors have been investing great thought and effort into making their virtual classrooms engaging, inclusive and supportive. We asked a cross-section of them to reflect on their remote classes and to share, in particular, how they’ve worked to build a strong sense of community among students. In many cases, instructors say they’re learning new approaches and techniques that will enrich their in-person teaching once campus fully returns.

We’ll add to the Instructional Highlights series throughout the spring semester, so please check back regularly. If you’d like to pass along an approach that’s worked for you or have a suggestion for an instructor we might want to reach out to, please contact us at