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Tips for Teaching in a Fully Online Class during the Pandemic

In November, we asked our faculty to share with us what successful teaching strategies they used in their online classes during the Spring, Summer, and Fall of 2020. Faculty from across the University responded to our questionnaire and have provided us with some great tips and strategies for creating an engaging and dynamic online course.

On this web page we have compiled their responses into a series of strategies you can adopt for your classes in the Spring.

Use small group work in synchronous Zoom sessions

Overwhelmingly, our respondents reported that using different varieties of small group work enhanced their synchronous Zoom sessions. Generally, instructors used Zoom breakout rooms for small group work. Some strategies they used were:

  • Hold a brief ten to fifteen-minute lecture and then have small group discussion based on the content just covered. Following the discussion, have a whole class debrief where different groups can report on what they discussed.
  • Provide problem sets, cases, or questions to the class and have them work through these assignments in small groups.
  • Have students watch videos or read together in a breakout room and then discuss the video or reading.
  • One faculty member from a professional program split her class of 50 students into 5 groups of 10. Each of those five groups developed a teaching plan for a topic. The faculty member then broke the class up into 10 groups of 5 students, with one member in each group from the original five groups, and had each of the students teach the members of that group from the lesson plan they had developed originally.
  • Use Just-in-Time Teaching techniques to develop synchronous lectures and class activities, techniques where you assess student comprehension or solicit student feedback just prior to class and tailor the class to those areas where students need most help.
  • Mix break-out sessions and group work between fixed groups for longer-term assignments and random groups for shorter in-class work.
Small group activities should be well structured and students need to be accountable for their work.

Faculty who used small group work emphasized the need to make sure that the instructions for the break out sessions are clear and that students need to produce some output or have an assignment that they need to complete during the session. Some technologies that faculty have found useful to facilitate these types of activities are:

    • Google Slides, Google Docs, or Google Sheets – Not only can students easily share these applications among group participants, but instructors can see what students are doing without entering the breakout room. These tools are available on the Google Workspace Dashboard and can also be accessed directly from Google Drive.
    • Google Jamboard – Google Jamboard is a new tool from Google which provides students with a collaborative white-board and brainstorming space. Faculty from a number of different disciplines, from Education to the Sciences, found it to be extremely useful to help their students share information and report out during small group sessions. Jamboard is available on the Google Workspace Dashboard.
    • Moodle Discussion forums – Several instructors found that Moodle discussion forums provided an easy place to provide a discussion prompt or assignment for small group work and then collect student responses. We have directions on setting up forums on the Library website.
Mix things up in synchronous sessions.

Many faculty reported that it was important to have a combination of activities during synchronous sessions. Their individual sessions would be some mix of ice breaker, lecture, small group work, student presentations, and multimedia or video segment. Likewise, they also reported that it was important to have a different structure for their class on different days of the week to help keep the students from getting bored.

Some Further Resources:

This article from Columbia University – Active Learning for Your Online Classroom: Five Strategies Using Zoom and this article from Harvard – Key Moves for Online Interactivity discuss different active learning strategies that can be used in virtual synchronous classes.

This article – Interest Matters: The Importance of Promoting Interest in Education – looks at the importance of promoting interest to foster student learning and motivation.

Gauge student comprehension and solicit opinions during synchronous sessions.

It is sometimes difficult to tell how well students are “getting it” during a synchronous session on Zoom. Many faculty used polling or chat to help them gauge student comprehension and the temperature of the class during the synchronous session. Some also reported it was important to solicit opinions at the end of class. The following technologies facilitated these activities:

      1. Poll Everywhere – Pacific University maintains a site license for Poll Everywhere. To request a Pacific University account, simply e-mail Poll Everywhere questions can be embedded directly into PowerPoint and Google Slides presentations and provide a quick and easy way to gather feedback from your students.
      2. Zoom Polls – Zoom has a built in polling feature that allows you to ask multiple choice questions. Questions can be set up beforehand or on the spot. For directions on how to use Zoom polling, see this page on the Zoom website.
      3. Chat feature in Zoom
        • Many instructors reported students were more comfortable asking and responding to questions by posting to Chat in Zoom rather than using audio.
        • Several instructors used a version of “ready, set, go” to have students post in Zoom Chat. These faculty would pose a question and then ask their students to wait to post until they said “go” so that each student shared their own response, rather than repeating (or being afraid to repeat) something that was already posted.
      4. Google Forms – Some instructors used Google Forms to ask their students to provide quick feedback at the end of their synchronous sessions, such as by asking the students to report if there was anything they were still unsure about with the content (the muddiest point) or what they found valuable during the session.
Provide clear course structure and expectations for students.

Many of our respondents found that it was critical to have clear and transparent directions for assignments and deadlines as well as clearly communicating the expectations and structure of synchronous class periods. In addition, it they also reported it was important to maintain clear expectations about assignments and participation. Some specific strategies they mentioned are:

      • Design the Moodle course site to be easily navigable and have a clear and consistent structure.
      • Provide clear written instructions for each week/unit’s work.
      • Provide aids for students to help them stay organized such as a course calendar (one instructor color coded different assignments and due dates on the course calendar to help students quickly identify what they needed to do when), templates for note taking or lecture outlines, and study guides.
Some Further Resources:

The Transparency in Teaching and Learning website provides background and strategies to help you design your course to ensure that your students understand what they need to do, why they need to do it, and what success will look like.

Provide out-of-class group projects or assignments.

Along with in-class group work, many respondents reported that group projects and assignments that were to be completed mostly out-of-class were an effective way to keep students engaged and on-task. These group projects also helped develop community in the course. Some specific activities that faculty used were:

      • Large Group Projects and Assignments. These types of assignments were typically conducted over several weeks and would culminate in some kind of in-class presentation or other major product.
      • Group Homework. Some faculty had students do relatively small homework projects in groups. One language instructor had her students video record their language practice and found that this greatly helped her students stay on track.
Hold one-on-one meetings with students.

Our respondents also reported that meeting students one-on-one or reaching out to them individually was a key strategy to help their students stay on track and to keep them engaged with the course. Several instructors used particular methods to ensure that they met individually with their students. These strategies included:

      • Scheduling a ten-minute meeting with each student in an asynchronous class.
      • Follow up with students individually if they were having trouble.
Some Further Resources:

This blog article from Cult of Pedagogy summarizes a technique for creating moments of genuine connection with students online.

Build in social time and ice-breakers

A number of our respondents felt that it was important to have time during class for students to express themselves and socialize non-academically. They had a number of different ways that they facilitated these interactions, but overall, they felt that providing a space for students to socialize helped those students be engaged with both the course and the overall University community. Some of the ways that faculty facilitated these social events were:

      • One instructor had “Fun Fridays” where students would dress-up based on a theme such as “crazy hair day” or Halloween. Another instructor had a variation on this with themed hat days where students were asked to wear a Halloween-themed or winter-themed hat during the Zoom session on a particular day.
      • One faculty reported that they began their class with a funny poll or question. Others interspersed fun polls and questions throughout the session.
      • One faculty maintained dedicated time during synchronous sessions for students to chat about anything.
      • Others incorporated socialization in group work by providing extended time or creating specific tasks that encouraged socializing.
Some Further Resources:

This blog article from Cult of Pedagogy discusses some common reasons why many icebreakers are awkward and offers several ideas for icebreaker activities that are engaging and help build social connections among students. This pdf – Using Icebreakers for Remote Learning offers instructions for conducting the icebreakers virtually.

Be mindful of what other classes are doing.

Some instructors reported that different strategies they used, such as having students respond to discussion forums or group work, were also being used in a number of other classes that their students were taking. These overlapping approaches sometimes left their students feeling bored with a particular strategy or overwhelmed by the assignments. While it is not always possible to know what students are doing in other classes, it is a good idea to keep your ears open to what your students are saying about their work in other classes and be ready to adjust your strategies if necessary.

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