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Professor presents synchronous learning tips at conference

Thu Nov 19, 2020 at 10:13 AM

Rebecca Vannest, an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling, has more than 15 years of field experience in counseling and considers group therapy as one of her specialties. She said she knows how much change can occur for a person participating in group counseling. So, despite her class going online, she developed an innovative approach to teaching her students about group counseling to make sure the class was as educational and meaningful as holding it in person. At the end of the month, she will present more about her methods at the Lilly Conference, a conference on teaching and learning.

Vannest said teaching a group counseling course in an online synchronous environment poses a challenge, but, with the inspiration of a famous group therapist, she modified his approach and came up with something that works. 

Using the fishbowl approach adapted by Irvin Yalom, Vannest has the students divide into two groups. One section of students turn their web cameras on and act as the group in therapy while two students moderate the discussion as co-group facilitators. Meanwhile, a second section of students have their cameras off and engage in conversation via the chat, critiquing the work of the group therapy facilitators. When the discussion is over, the students and Vannest come together to talk about the group therapy session. 

“The students in the group use real-life, school appropriate things from their own lives. They try to make it dynamic for the facilitators. Those that turn their camera off aren’t participating in the group therapy, but they have to be active in the chat box,” said Vannest. 

Vannest said she took Yalm’s principles and tried to make it as good as being there in person and as meaningful as possible for the students. 

Throughout the semester, the students also read, “The Schopenhauer Cure: A Novel,” by Victor Yalom, which is a fictional book but provides group therapy techniques that students can use in real life. 

“The gentleman is a really good author and it’s like reading a really good novel,” Vannest said. She added that students are also picking up different group therapy strategies as well as reading the perspective of those in the group. 

Vannest has found other ways to engage her students as well. She uses the online quiz app Kahoot and various icebreakers to help her class get to know each other.

“I’ll tell them to go find the funniest object you can find in your house. One of the students brought in this big unicorn head. You can really quickly find out and get to know people in the same way you’d get to know them from sitting next to them at a table in class,” said Vannest. 

To help the students continue to connect throughout the week, she also has a discussion board portion of the class, where the students discuss what happened in that day’s class and they need to interact with at least one peer. 

On the last day of the class, Vannest encourages her students to participate in a strengths exercise together. There, they talk about their classmates, while eating their favorite dessert. 

“We talk about the most meaningful thing about each person,” said Vannest. “This gives the students an idea of how they are perceived by others. I want them to leave with a sense of their strength.”

Vannest said none of her procedures took an extensive amount of time to develop. She said she had about four weeks of lead time before her class was to be ready for the fall semester, however, she said her field experience helped get her through it. 

“I’ve run about 50 group therapy groups myself, so I have a lot of experience. While I did put it together in a brief timeframe, I was aware of the theorist, Yalom, and came up with a way to apply his principle,”said Vannest.

The course has 12 students, Vannest said, and not all were excited about having to take it online. 

“At first, there were a lot of really upset students, and it took them a while to get into the experience, but once they did, they were excited about what had happened with the format change,” said Vannest. “Actually, I felt like it was easier to take risks.”

Vannest said having the grid of video conferencing chances the group therapy experience as well. 

“When we go into a group session, we all go into a circle. They have to get used to looking around at body language and tracking everything that’s going on,” said Vannest. “Having all of the screen tiles up may help them a bit with that process. It’s easier to notice when everyone is in front of them.”

Vannest presented this course format at the   Lilly Conference on Friday,  Dec. 4. Her presentation,   Cultivating Engagement: The Pedagogy of Virtually Teaching a Synchronous Group Counseling Course provides attendees with a look at her synchronous teaching tips. Vannest is one of four Oakland University community members presenting at the Lilly Conference this year. 
The OU community can watch Vannest's presentation recording if they register for the Lilly Conference (cost covered by Oakland University’s   Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning) . Recordings of presentations from leading experts and faculty from around the world are available through March 4, 2021.