Instructional Highlights: Rosemary Russ

Leaning into the virtual format, professor ‘disrupts’ her approach and deepens student learning

Rosemary Russ saw the change to online teaching as an opportunity not just to recreate what she had done in face-to-face instruction, but instead to really disrupt the way teaching and learning are done at the university level. That disruption, she says, was heavily influenced by her colleague Dr. Maxine McKinney de Royston’s thinking about capturing broader forms of learning.

Specifically, Russ wanted to challenge the idea that academic writing is the only — or even the best — way to demonstrate knowledge. In the process, Russ says she was able to see much richer student learning than she had in the past.

“We know that the sort of academic writing we often require of our students grows out of upper-middle class, white ways of communicating,” says Russ, an associate professor of science education at the University of Wisconsin School of Education. “As such, the requirement that students engage in that style of writing is assimilationist; it forces everyone to adopt the modes of expression of the dominant culture.”

Russ teaches juniors and seniors who are becoming certified to teach science to elementary school students. For every major assignment, rather than writing structured papers, students were encouraged to share their learning in ways that resonated with them. Since everything in the class was happening online anyway, Russ says it made sense to allow students to use any and all digital tools at their disposal to complete their assignments.

The projects that resulted demonstrated both deep knowledge of the course content and multiple ways of being. For example:

  • A returning student created a video of her own child exploring science in ways that took theoretical constructs from the course readings and made them tangible and visible.
  • A student translated the course material into everyday language suitable for the youngest learners and wrote a children’s book about the content.
  • An international student made a video sharing her learning directly with Russ in the form of a casual conversation. Because of logistical/technical challenges and the structure of the course, Russ had not been able to see or speak one-on-one with the student much during the semester.

“The shift in assessment format allowed me to maintain the rigor of my course and provide equitable opportunities for engagement.” Russ says. “When they brought their full selves and varied experiences into the assessments, I was able to see the ways their learning was deeper and richer than my prior assessments had ever tapped.”

Allowing students to bring their full selves into their learning assessments also supported a sense of belonging in the class, Russ says. As a result, the shift created a sense of community where students knew their knowledge and experiences were seen, affirmed, and valued by their instructor.

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  instructionalcontinuity@provost.wisc.edu.