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SLU Program in Physical Therapy Faculty and Students Explain their New Landscape of Learning

In the midst of growing concerns regarding COVID-19 in mid-March Saint Louis University (SLU), along with most other universities in the United States, made the decision to transfer in-person courses to online learning in an attempt to help slow the spread of the virus through social distancing.

SLU PT Zoom Class
One SLU PT class hosted a beach-themed class on Zoom.

Like the rest of the university community, the Program in Physical Therapy prides itself on being flexible and creative problem-solvers. Faculty members quickly adjusted teaching methods and students prepared to learn in new ways as everyone transitioned into new teaching and learning environments with their own unique sets of challenges and opportunities. Program in Physical Therapy faculty and students discussed what online teaching and learning is like in a physical therapy curriculum.

From a teaching perspective:

SLU PT Assistant Professor Barb Yemm, PT, DPT, OCS, knew from the start that moving to online education would be a student-centered process.

“My initial thoughts were: how am I going to make this the best experience for the students as possible? I know this is not ideal for any of us, but our department is consistently striving to give our students a great learning experience,” Dr. Yemm said. “I knew we needed to learn as much as I could and to be creative as I could making an online experience that would mirror my normal classroom experiences.”

SLU PT Associate Professor Kim Levenhagen, PT, DPT, WCC, CLT, FNAP, discussed how the PT faculty and staff came together to try to make the transition to online learning as seamless as possible.

“We are a community and as communities do during challenging times, we come together to figure out solutions.  We met for hours to discuss challenges and solutions,” Dr. Levenhagen said. “We would stage practice zoom classrooms with break out rooms and slide sharing in the hallway and at home.  We discussed everything from how to conduct office hours, proctor exams, and teach labs in a meaningful and practical way.”

Dr. Levenhagen went on to talk about how faculty members and students approached the more hands-on aspects of learning physical therapy principles in a remote setting.

“One of my assignments included the students teaching someone a home exercise program and submit a video.  That was an assignment long before moving to online teaching.  In the past the students have used their classmates out of convenience but this year they were teaching family members who were unaware of the assignment or physical therapy terms,” Dr. Levenhagen said. “I met a lot of families virtually with this assignment. It was the first time the assignment ended with a hug. There are a lot of proud parents out there.”

Dr. Yemm explained that there are lessons to be learned from the remote learning experience that can be applied when students return to the traditional classroom.

“I think one of the best lessons is that communication is what it is all about. The fear of the unknown can be overwhelming. With so much happening around each of us in our own unique situations, making sure there is consistent communication is extremely important,” Dr. Yemm said. “I also think that the situation has been a great lesson in being open-minded and adaptable. The word ‘can’t’ is not an option, and I believe every faculty member will return to the traditional classroom better versed and more comfortable with being able to think outside of the box and more creatively.”

From a student perspective:

SLU PT student Alexis Ardovitch explained how her fears of taking her education online were quickly put at ease.

“Initially, I did not think that it was possible. There were so many things that had to happen in person, I never imagined that these learning experiences and tests could be replicated online,” Ardovitch said. “Nonetheless, our faculty made the impossible, possible. Any form of testing or learning that I thought needed to occur in person was able to happen remotely and with the same rigor as they would have had if they happened in person.”

Ardovitch went on to discuss some unexpected benefits that have arisen from transitioning to learning at home.

“I have fortunately had my family members who are willing to be my patients. There are pros and cons to this, but one big pro to utilizing my family members as patients is the variety in body and age,” said Ardovitch. “Additionally, have to be creative in utilizing the resources we have at home. We use the couch or the floor as a plinth and we adjust our body mechanics and interventions based on the resources that are available to us. As physical therapists, creativity is important, and I believe that this situation helped challenge our creativity and has made us better therapists.”

SLU PT student Kelsey Bequette added that the students’ education has not missed a beat through the transition to online learning.

“I have been beyond impressed with the quick transition of my program. It is apparent that the professors have worked extremely hard to create the best learning experience for us,” Bequette said. “There is not a single assignment that we have missed or skipped due to the new online courses. They have found a way to convert in-person projects to online formats while maintaining the learning experience embedded in each assignment.”

Bequette went on to explain how interaction with professors and fellow students, while different, is still just as meaningful as ever.

“Interaction looks a little different now than it used to, but the quality of our professors’ knowledge and mentorship is just the same. We get to see them for every class, and they are always willing to provide office hours via Zoom as needed,” Bequette said.  “As for my classmates, I still see them over Zoom as well and we have gotten to participate in many small group discussions through virtual breakout rooms. Of course, I miss seeing everyone in person, but we still get to connect through technology.”

One consequence of the abrupt transition to remote learning was the cancellation of many of the traditional year-end events students enjoy. SLU PT student Lauren Foster touched on how the change impacted her senior year.

“I was upset to learn that the end of my [in-person] undergraduate career would happen so suddenly without a chance to bring any closure to four great years at SLU, but I am grateful commencement has been postponed. I’m already looking forward to the celebration in the future,” Foster said. “While I miss my classmates and professors dearly, I appreciate SLU making our health and safety the top priority. I am very fortunate to be a part of the SLU PT family and I am excited to be reunited with them all in the near future!”

SLU PT student Jessica Garland summed up the entire experience by explaining the important lessons that it has taught her and her classmates.

“The biggest thing I have learned from this remote learning experience is to never take anything for granted. Every day, every experience, every moment is a blessing, and it will feel so good when I can walk into the Allied Health Building and be with all my classmates and professors again,” Garland said. “This experience has also taught me that SLU is much more than just an institution, we are a family. SLU has professors who are truly men and women for others and take their responsibility to provide us with the best possible education very seriously. I feel very lucky to have chosen a program that cares about me not only academically, but also for my development as a human being.”

Saint Louis University is a Catholic, Jesuit institution that values academic excellence, life-changing research, compassionate health care, and a strong commitment to faith and service. Founded in 1818, the University fosters the intellectual and character development of nearly 13,000 students on two campuses in St. Louis and Madrid, Spain. Building on a legacy of more than 200 years, Saint Louis University continues to move forward with an unwavering commitment to a higher purpose, a greater good.