The “Startup Mindset”: A Model for Pandemic Pedagogies

by Amal Katrib

Schooltime has gained new meaning in today’s world of social distancing, with the educational system pressured to embrace, and accordingly adapt to, the “new norm”. The pandemic’s abrupt onset had left many students trapped in a convoluted maze of uncertainties, having to fly relatively blind through a less familiar learning environment—the virtual classroom. In order to mitigate disruptions to student learning, educators started experimenting with a variety of online resources and technologies. While some focused on assembling a broad menu of solutions to effectively engage students from a distance, others conjured up new pedagogical modalities to best strategize for times ahead. And without the time to dive into research that guides both online and crisis teaching, academic institutions were opting to deploy flexible action plans so they can respond to such unprecedented challenges and pivot, if and when necessary.

This high degree of organizational adaptability is something I used to only associate with startups, failing to realize its prevalence, let alone its importance, in education.

Many early-stage startups emphasize the need to plan(a) ahead, while staying both lean(b) and agile(c) —what I refer to as the “startup mindset”—in order to survive an ever-changing volatile environment. They implement a “build-measure-learn” framework, cycling their ideas through a feedback loop of validated learning and quickly iterating through incremental development to optimize product value and market fit. They also are predominantly led by smaller, multifunctional teams that continue to collaborate across organizational boundaries without restraints. As a result, they are able to readily assess circumstantial changes as they come up, and strategically embrace them to continue driving innovation.

As co-instructors teaching in the UW Science Teaching Experience Program-Working in Science Education (STEP-WISE) during a pandemic, we got to practice leveraging a similar workflow (detailed in Table 1 below) to navigate our way through interactive distance learning.

My experience with the “startup mindset” had already provided me with a rudimentary conceptual understanding of optimizing for success by striving to strike a balance between innovative agility and disciplined strategy. Yet it was not until my participation in UW STEP-WISE that I developed a deep comprehension of and appreciation for the adaptive learning process and its role in achieving optimization. I can only hope to maintain this strategic agility frame of mind throughout my entire career, in both academic and biotech health settings.



(a) PLAN

We embraced the PLAN mindset, recognizing strategic planning as a core component of the course design process.


We initialized baseline by setting forth a reference level—for student learning, teaching values, and instruction assumptions—to later compare against and build upon.

We also imposed boundaries so as to focus the directionality of the workflow, ensure agility, and ultimately support cohesive instruction.

We began by articulating the course’s overall trajectory, using that to jot down a desired list of learning goals and a corresponding set of well-defined objectives to attain them.

We organized our course—BIOL 485B: “Hitting the Snooze Button on Biological Aging”— into 3 distinct, albeit complementary, modules:

Module 1 is Brain Aging (Neurodegeneration & Restoration), Module 2 is Biomarkers (Molecular Fingerprint & Epigenetic Clocks), and Module 3 is Stem Cells (Aging, Disease, & Therapeutics)

We communicated— within the syllabus, on the UW Canvas course page, and during virtual class sessions—the learning goals and objectives for the course and each of its modules.

  • I am going to introduce one such goal so I can refer to it, as I go through the workflow, to illustrate how we effectively executed the “startup mindset” within the classroom.

Lesson Goal: To get students to model conversations of working scientists so as to be encouraged to openly debate and critique research findings as well as collaborate for the collective development and testing of hypotheses.

We tailored the selection of assignments, discussions and activities for each class by mapping the instruction strategy onto the identified objectives.

We varied our take on selected content and instruction delivery method to ensure the aforementioned lesson goal was adequately addressed throughout the course.

  • For example, we capitalized on the Jigsaw classroom construct for cooperative learning to help students cultivate topic-specific knowledge along with expertise to teach one another.
  • On the other hand, we opted to use Padlet when wanting to foster a deeper level of individual thinking and an appreciation for how it assimilates into group discussions.
We then specified well-founded measurable assessments that we can readily track and refer to during post-class evaluation.

We called on the following assessment metrics to optimize for active learning:

  • Bloom’s Taxonomy levels: To inform the cognitive rigor of a lesson
  • Reformed Teaching Observation Protocol (RTOP): To inform the extent of deployed interactive and student-centered techniques

(b) LEAN

We leveraged the LEAN mindset to implement the predefined lesson plans, testing along the way the efficacy of our teaching methodology


We conducted class sessions online to accommodate the unexpected restrictions ofa pandemic. During that period, we experimented with:

  • Video conferencing via Zoom: To synchronize class discussions and breakout room activities in real-time.
  • Digital communication modes such as Canvas, Google Slides, and Screencastify: To share content asynchronously, organize assignments, and gather written deliverables
  • Online collaborative tools such as Padlet, Google Docs, Flipgrid, and Poll Everywhere: To converse, brainstorm, and set up live polls


We filled out observation forms on a regular basis to assess the close alignment of our instruction strategy with the listed objectives.

We met after each class to review observation notes regarding learning goals, class plan and timing, instruction presentation, student participation and feedback, and homework assignments.

We optimized for student engagement by striving for:

  • A high percentage of Analyze, Evaluate, and Create  Bloom’s levels coverage.
  • Category III-V for RTOP to indicate student-centered instruction.


We deliberated over the gathered observational evidence to recognize and learn the strengths and weaknesses of our lesson plans.

We marked the classroom activities we found the most helpful as well as those that needed further work and revision prior to reimplementation.

We also documented key findings regarding students’ active participation.

  • For example, we remarked that students exhibited signs of disengagement—withthe class material and their peers—when asked to independently work through alengthy Padlet exercise that predominantly consisted of high Bloom’s-level questions.
  • This pattern resurfaced during a separate Jigsaw activity, in which students had to turn in individual worksheets, summarizing findings that pertained to their assigned group.With less time dedicated to post-activity class discussion, students didn’t get the chanceto exchange perspectives and thereby struggled to assemble the puzzle and accordingly respond to synthesis-level questions. They were, in essence, stripped of being able to dig deeper into the analysis of the allocated research papers.
  • We posit this issue is especially exacerbated in distance learning due to the lack of face-to-face interactions that inherently make for organic conversations and team bonding.


With an AGILE mindset , we tried to streamline the processing of student feedback so we can adapt instruction—if and when needed— in a near-synchronous manner.


We embraced a high degree of flexibility, refining lesson plans for upcoming sessions to address the observed unmet needs and to readily respond to other unpredictable events.

We consolidated earlier learning points and referenced them to inform such refinements.

LEARN:  We had already discovered that learning activities that are loaded with higher-order questions can be taxing—mentally and procedurally—and thus highly discouraging.

ADAPT: To alleviate this issue in following classes, we decided to break down multifactorial activities into more digestible “chunks”, with a varying blend of individual, cooperative, and collaborative tasks.

We applied this approach in Lesson #7 in order to prompt the students to propose novel aging-related applications for CRISPR and stem cells.

We first used the Jigsaw technique to assign students to groups so they can reenact the experimental design process. The goal was to conceptualize and draft a graphical abstract that conveyed the scope and novelty of the proposal. We advocated this form of cooperative learning due to its efficacy in fostering:

  • Positive interdependence and individual accountability: Designating team member roles to cultivate a sense of responsibility, along with mutual support and motivation, and to invite more equal participation by students.
  • Promotive interaction and group processing: Having students brainstorm to collectively solve a given problem and, in doing so, inspiring inventive thinking that is critical in early stages of the experimental design.

Afterwards, we asked the students to partake in a peer review collaborative session. We wanted them to harness what they had learned in class to systematically measure and judge other proposals and to share in decision making.

We wrapped up this activity with a “Blitz” round of presentations (“Lightning Talks”), with each group delivering a 2-3-minute targeted presentation followed by a 5-minute Q&A class discussion. We wanted students to learn how to efficiently introduce their work and to actively engage in each other’s learning experience.


And in the process, we got to develop innovative teaching solutions!

Given that we now live in a virtual world, we decided to step up our game to get the students even more excited about the final project.

We concluded the course with a Shark Tank competition as our grand finale.

Students were asked to design novel solutions—both scientifically backed and commercially viable—to help us turn back the clock on aging. They would have to refer to class material to theoretically develop those solutions and include additional literature and research findings to support any associated claims and strategies.

The final project was divided into weekly “chunks” of assignments that are easier to manage and lend to ongoing progress, feedback, and support. It then culminates in a single day of competition, in which each student delivers a 5-minute pitch of the proposal to try to win $1 million in seed funding. This was, thankfully, a hypothetical award!

We wanted, through gamification (game-based learning) as our pedagogical method of choice, to closely mirror the life of an academic and, by challenging students, to instilla sense of agency regarding aging and longevity. Using this approach, we also wantedto render student learning more enjoyable, engaging, and inclusive of its various forms.

  • Individual inquiry-based learning: Students separately devised creative solutions to real-life problems and experimented with how to best convey their message and sell their science.
  • Small-group peer assessment and cooperative learning: Students participated in a group-based preliminary round of judging, alternating judge-presenter roles to evaluate presentations and tallying the scores to selecta group finalist.
  • Class peer assessment and collaborative learning: Group finalists then presented their proposals in front of the entire class so students can collectively decide on an overall winner. In an attempt to furtherenrich this experience, we also tried to elicit constructive criticism by encouraging students to contribute additional questions and/or suggestions for improvement.

Table 1: Applying the startup mindset within a classroom