Teaching in a Pandemic: Preparing for Winter Term

None of us came to Washington and Lee with the goal of teaching virtually, or in a blended context, or even, frankly, in a socially-distanced context. We work at Washington and Lee because we care deeply about students—about their learning, yes, but also about them. Teaching during the time of COVID can frustrate our greatest goals for our students, and for our courses.

None of what follows is a silver bullet for these issues, but the tips below are based on the nation-wide conversations among scholars of teaching and learning, upon a sense of how learning works (and doesn’t), and upon comments we’ve heard from both colleagues and students at Washington and Lee (see, for instance, November’s student panel on virtual learning). Some of these tips may feel awkward at first, but stick with it: our students will appreciate the effort, and their engagement and learning will improve.

  1. Be deliberate about developing community. Students come to W&L because they value being part of a community of learners. Absent the usual easy and frequent interactions that can develop strong relationships, we need to take deliberate steps to create a sense of familiarity and trust, both between students and instructor, and among students:
  • Begin the semester by sending students a brief introductory video. Discuss your research, your preferred modes of teaching, your goals for the course, your workspace, some minor personal details (to the degree that you’re comfortable with that).
  • Even when teaching via Zoom, show up for class early and stay late. Use that time to check in with students and to engage in small talk.
  • Begin class by having students introduce themselves. Do this on the first day, but also occasionally afterwards. Continued occasional icebreakers throughout the semester help to develop a shared sense of familiarity, which will increase engagement.
  • When placing students in groups or breakout rooms, ask them to (re)introduce themselves to each other: name, major, hometown, and some random fact—unusual hobbies, favorite band, one thing they miss about “normal life”
  • Assign students to homework pairs outside of class. Change pairs weekly. If you have some students virtual and others face-to-face, assign “Zoom buddies” to the virtual students to facilitate their engagement and learning.
  • Require occasional one-on-one conferences or mandatory drop-in hours. Use these to address class matters, but also to engage in the kinds of casual conversation that helps to build relationships and trust. Looking for more community-building ideas? Go here.

 

  1. Break it up. Even in the best of times, an extended lecture or discussion can lead to diminishing returns for learning and retention. This is even more true during a pandemic, when students can be incredibly distracted. Make a point of regularly (say, every 15-20 minutes) breaking the routine using one of the following techniques: 
  • Toss out a short question and use either Poll Everywhere or a Zoom poll to gauge student responses. Then discuss these responses, probing students’ thinking.
  • Use break out rooms or small groups to have students discuss or apply particular ideas or skills.
  • If you’re asking students to watch videos before class, keep them short. Use the videos to deliver the basics, then use class time to move students into nuance, application, and problem solving.
  • Another trick for videos? Embed a series of shorter videos into Canvas survey or an ungraded quiz. Then ask pre- and post-video questions to get students thinking and to survey (in an ungraded manner) their comprehension.
  • Think-Pair-Share. Pause and ask students to write for one minute: what’s one question they have from the class meeting so far? What’s the most important idea they think they’ve heard and why? Then have students share in pairs for two minutes. Next ask three groups to share what they discussed. Probe their responses.
  • Pro-tip: Use virtual white boards, Google Docs, or OneNote to facilitate student conversations and to help you monitor student progress. Go here for an example of how to do this.

 

  1. Check in more often. During “normal” times, it’s easy to gauge the temperature of the room. In virtual or blended settings—or even in socially-distanced contexts—all of this becomes more difficult. Consequently, it’s important to be more deliberate about checking in with students more regularly.
  • Implement the Think-Pair-Share technique outlined above.
  • At the end of class, ask students to drop a note in the chat on Zoom: what questions do they have after the day’s lecture/lab/discussion?
  • If you’d like something more substantial, do a once-a-month check-in using an anonymous Canvas survey: what’s going well, what’s challenging you, and how’s life in general?
  • Ask students to come by your Zoom office hours for a quick chat. Keep in mind that this not only gives you data on how the class is going, it also helps to develop a stronger sense of trust between you and the students.

 

  1. Leverage inclusion. One strange positive of the current shifts we’ve had to make in our teaching is that they disrupt some of our bad habits. For instance, it’s not unusual for us to ask a question, wait less than a second, then call on the same student we called on five times in the last hour. This is good for that student, of course, but not so good for the student in the second row who takes a little more time to formulate an answer. Or that quiet student in the corner whose head is filled with brilliant ideas, but fears they’re not worth sharing. Here are some ways to increase inclusion in day-to-day class interactions:
  • If you’re teaching a class with half of the students face-to-face and the other half online, make a habit of attending to your Zoom students early and often. It’s easy to forget about the students on the screen when we’ve got a live audience in the room with us. Create a mental sticky note to pivot to these students That will keep them involved. (Thanks to Brian Alexander for this tip!)
  • On Zoom, ask students to be sure their preferred names and pronouns are listed in their window. Sometimes when they enter the room, Zoom defaults to their e-mail accounts. By listing their names, it’s easier for us to call on more people,
  • Open calling—calling on whoever raises their hand first—and cold calling—calling on a student without warning, to keep everyone on their toes—are both reasonable. You might also try “tepid calling.” This is when, right before you give a brief lecture or explain an idea, you alert 2-5 students that they are “on deck” for the next question or questions. This not only keeps them alert, but if you give the question ahead of time, also focuses the attention of everyone else in the room. And, of course, the next time around, place a different group of students on alert!

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