Wesleyan Spring 2020 Remote Learning Success Stories

This page is designed to help faculty who are trying to find ideas for how to rework their courses to accommodate remote learning.  We have gathered some short descriptions from faculty who reported that their hasty transition to remote learning in spring 2020 went reasonably.  While everyone’s course is unique, our hope is that these stories can help offer hope and inspiration for faculty who may be anxious and are looking for a place to start.

We have tried to present a diversity of courses drawn from different class sizes, pedagogy styles, synchronous/asynchronous teaching, and divisions.  The faculty whose courses are listed have given their permission to be contacted, so if you have follow up questions about their courses, feel free to contact them directly. 

For more information related to thinking about adopting remote learning in your own classes, please see the following websites: Remote Learning Gateway, the Remote Learning Decision Tree[coming soon], Remote Teaching Basics[coming soon], Remote Teaching Tips [coming soon], and ITS Teaching Continuity, or contact Bonnie Solivan (bsolivan@wesleyan.edu). 

Although there were many, many courses that went well in spring 2020, we have selected only a few to present here. They have been chosen primarily to showcase the diversity of “stories of success” that are available.  For ease of presentation, they are organized here by class size.


  • Small Seminars (15 or fewer students)

    Experiments in International Development (GOVT 327)—12-student project-based seminar taught by Lindsay Dolan.   

    During online learning, we met synchronously (using Zoom) for half of our assigned (3 hr.) class time. The course was designed to teach experimental social science research methods, how to apply these methods to research in international development, and how to design original experimental research projects. Before moving remotely, I taught the methods component by creating a workbook containing activities and explanations for each session.  In each session, students worked through it in groups while I circulated to answer questions. This travelled well to synchronous meetings. I circulated the PDF in advance, assigned students into Breakout Rooms, and circulated between the rooms. Since the workbooks contained illustrations and explanations I had written, I didn't have to spend time lecturing, and students had fun working through the puzzles/activities together.

    Most of the course readings were examples of experiments in international development, and before the break, we had to spend a lot of time comprehending the papers before we could discuss them. When we transitioned to online learning, I (a) cut the reading load to one paper per week, (b) required students to read the paper using the Perusall platform, where they could comment and engage with each other interactively on the text itself. This allowed them and me to resolve confusion/clarification issues before class so we could spend our precious synchronous time discussing the meatier topics that emerged in threads on Perusall.

    I made minimal changes to the final project, and students had already defined their research question and general design before the move to online learning. I made the more daunting components of the project (e.g. analysis of fake data) optional to relieve stress. Otherwise, I continued to meet with students independently in office hours and provided written feedback on their drafts.

    Read more about Small Seminars (15 or fewer students)

    The Body in Medieval Art (ARHA 311)—14 student, upper-level seminar taught by Joe Ackley 


    This was a nearly three-hour discussion-based class that met once a week. Class sessions consisted of brief lectures, discussions of readings, and individual oral presentations. Lectures and oral presentations were given over PowerPoints. The final three weeks of the class were reserved for seminar presentations and discussion. The seminar project stayed intact (annotated bibliography, project proposal, oral presentation, seminar paper). We used Zoom, and I also had a Perusall assignment on Moodle (had I figured it out earlier I would have made greater use of Perusall, or maybe just an annotated Google Doc, the interface of which I find a bit easier to use). From our first Zoom meeting students quickly became comfortable with sharing their screens to display their PowerPoints as they gave oral presentations (for students in different time zones or weaker wireless connections they recorded their presentation in advance and sent me the file, which I uploaded to Moodle for all of us to watch together during the class period - all class sessions were of course recorded and posted to Moodle for those who couldn't join synchronously).

    For modifications, I halved the required length of the seminar paper (18-20 pages to 10-12 pages); I let them use sources, such as encyclopedia entries or certain websites (museum blog posts, for example), that I would not have normally permitted as sources for a seminar paper; and when we met each week on Zoom for our allotted class time we usually did not go for the full three hours (sometimes we did) but capped it instead at north of two hours, whenever I sensed the students fading. We usually had a five-minute stretch break in the middle of the class session. I doubled the number of office hours I was holding (over Zoom), and, with my strong encouragement, I believe I met with each student at least once for office hours. This was the best opportunity not only to check in and build up their confidence, but also to instruct them in how to research with online sources only, what sources to look into, etc. (there was also ample emailing and constant communication overall). In sum, while the new format carried challenges, we worked through them, and I sensed the students very much appreciated the stability, continuity, and depth we were able to achieve.

    Collegium musicum (MUSC 438)—16 students, performance course, taught by Jane Alden  

    I had prepared a concert of 16th-century music by Orlando di Lasso, which we had worked on before spring break. None of that could be performed over zoom, so I experimented with music that could deal with the lag time. We put together a Vespers service as an end-of-term event. It went out live in 8 time zones (with participants in Singapore, Iran, Germany, UK & Ireland, Chicago, Oregon, and Seattle, as well as Eastern time). Students had to master reading chant notation on the 4-line staff, which I think a noteworthy quarantine accomplishment. They all took it in turns to lead, with everyone else on mute.

    Online Collegium was a remarkable success. We plan some meetings over the summer, to sing a piece Emeritus Camp Professor Alvin Lucier has written for us, specifically designed for remote singing. While most of the repertoire we covered was early monophonic music, we also found great joy in performing John Cage’s Litany for the Whale (1981) and new rounds by Larry Polansky, written in quarantine. We began by discussing music written in past times of confinement (plague, recusant Catholics) and made special features of music related to the festivals that took place during the spring 2020 lockdown—Passover, Easter, and Ramadan. In preparation for Easter, Kerry McCarthy (a scholar in Oregon) directed a workshop on chant; for Ramadan, I invited Maho Ishiguro (PhD from ’18) and current PhD student Suhail Yusuf Khan to join, and they taught us, respectively, a song from Indonesia (Barung kakatua) and a Na’at (Shalawat Nabi Muhammad). Other guests who enlivened Collegium include my mum (Barbara Alden), Neely Bruce, Lynsey Callaghan, Rebecca Hardwick, Tema Silk, Celia Springate, and Jasmine Stack. We welcomed back Collegium alumni Margot Boyer-Dry, Tali Cohen, Brian Parks, Aaron Peisner, and Rachel Rosenman. 56 people tuned in for the Vespers.

  • Medium-sized (16-40 students) courses

    Race, Ethnicity, and Popular Music (AFAM 248)—27 students, mid-level course taught by Khalil Johnson.

    I initially conducted the class in a mixed, lecture discussion format, which included multi-media slideshows that contained primary sources and questions or ideas drawn from student’s bi-weekly Moodle posts. I assigned 1-2 articles, book chapters, or documentary films per class session. The readings ranged between 25-90 pages per class. The assignments were a 3-6 page midterm, an in-class presentation, a 12-15 page final paper or creative project, and the aforementioned bi-weekly Moodle posts.  This structure stayed largely in place after the transition.

    After we shifted to online classes I decided to keep course structure largely in place. The assignment length and number remained the same. I shifted the in-class presentation to an online format that gave students a variety of options to present information––video, podcast, slideshow, short paper. Students could then post the presentation to Moodle asynchronously. While the other assignments remained the same, I added the option for a written or verbal final examination for students taking the class Cr/Un, and I encouraged students to exercise this option.

    We continued to meet twice a week at our regularly scheduled class times. I also continued to teach in a mixed lecture / discussion format via Zoom. I purchased an external monitor so I could see both my students in the zoom grid and the slideshow presentation at once. This allowed me to respond to students in real time and even prod taciturn students to speak with gentle cold calls. The “chat” function on Zoom acted as a surrogate white board. I recorded each class session using Zoom’s built-in feature and uploaded the videos to Moodle for students to engage asynchronously. To my surprise many students who could not attend the live sessions actually watched the videos on their own time! I continued holding office hours via Zoom, adding additional afternoon office hours on Tuesday and Thursdays for students on the West Coast. The Calendly app made it easy for students to make appointments that automatically integrated with Zoom.

    The keynote throughout the transition was to offer continuity for those who needed structure and accommodations for those who needed more flexibility. As a former elementary teacher, “fairness” does not mean that every student gets the same thing, but rather every student gets what they need to succeed. I also teach Black Feminist scholarship that’s critical of the classroom as an “objective” and “rational” space, instead emphasizing standpoint epistemology and encouraging dialogue across differences. In practice, this meant adding check-in moments at the beginning of class for students to share feelings, thoughts, experiences about the pandemic, online classes, etc. Even though these “check-ins” diminished the time we had to discuss the assigned materials, I believe that demonstrating collective care and concern improved the intellectual engagement during the remaining class session.  

    Ultimately most students were able to learn and produce excellent work during this ordeal. However, the transition online adversely affected the most vulnerable students. These disparities predictably broke down along lines of race, economic class, and physical / mental disability.

    Read more about Medium-sized (16-40 students) courses

    QAC380 Introduction to Statistical Consulting (QAC380)—30 students, project-based course taught by Jen Rose

    This is a project based course, in which students work in the same team of 3 students (teams set up by me) with real clients to address a data analytic research question. It's a very applied course, and students spent the majority of the class time working on their projects. I did some brief lecturing nearly every class. The transition was pretty easy, and because statistical consulting is often done remotely, it actually gave students more a of real life experience than anyone of us bargained for. Because so much time in class is spent working on projects (and because the usual class start time was 8:20 AM), I decided to go asynchronous. I recorded the remaining lectures in Zoom and put the links to them on Moodle. Using the Moodle calendar, I set up times in 30 minute blocks that I would be available to meet via Zoom and students could sign up to meet during a time that worked best for them.

    I required each of the 10 teams of 3 to find a time that worked for them to meet with me for 30 minutes each week just the one team and me. I worried that the students would not continue to work together as teams, but they all rose to the challenge. I think having teams was actually an advantage because students needed to stay in touch with each other and with me often, so we were able to avoid some of the social isolation problems that can come with remote learning. In fact, I believe I got to know them better than I would have in-person, and I enjoyed our 30 minute meetings. A number of teams/individuals met with me at other times beyond the required 30 minutes. Typically, we end the semester with a poster session for the clients, but I modified that to teams having to give 10-minute powerpoint presentations to the client using Zoom. These presentations were scheduled during the actual class time (8:20-9:40 AM) the last week of classes. This actually worked kind of well, as more people from the client organizations were able to attend than we typically see in the in-person poster session.

    Ballet II (DANC302)—25 students, studio-based class taught by Patricia Beaman

    The hardest thing was learning how to use Zoom. I did master it, though. While it was a challenge to teach in a small space (my kitchen), I did take a lot of time to re-choreograph combinations so that I used the space most effectively. As time went on, I discovered I could do more and more. While I of course missed having the luxury of space in terms of offering combinations that really moved, I think my students were challenged and we actually built a new sense of community as the semester went on. It was a lifeline for them, and for me as well. In terms of music, I luckily had some Ballet CDs, so I played them to accompany the class work.

    Introduction to Environmental Studies (E&ES 197), 25 students, lecture-discussion, taught by Helen Poulos.

    The course was mostly a lecture class with some breakout discussion activities about every other lecture prior to the transition online.  After the transition class attendance was made optional, but I had very good live class attendance (21/23 students). All classes were recorded and posted to Zoom. I downloaded my Zoom recordings and edited them in Adobe Premier Pro, and then uploaded and shared the link from my YouTube Channel, but I think you can also clip Zoom lectures right in the Zoom software. Every third lecture or so, I held asynchronous lectures to give us all a break from Zoom. Instead of live class, I posted multiple short narrated powerpoint lectures to the Moodle. I kept each lecture to under 10 minutes. I generally posted 2-4 mini lectures. The simplest way to do this would be to record these on Zoom with screen share, upload them to YouTube, and then post the links to Moodle.  Using YouTube allowed me to check if the students who didn’t attend the live session were watching the videos. One thing that I would change next time would be to have some way to make students accountable for attending/viewing lectures, perhaps a second post-class forum response on the material, or a Moodle quiz on the lecture material.

    For synchronous classes: Play music during the first minute or two of class. That time when everyone is hopping onto Zoom feels kind of weird. Make it fun! You have to share your audio via screen share for it to go through, but it starts the class off with a good vibe. Just check the “share audio” box in the screen share menu. In general, I kept my lectures to 7-10 slides, maximum. Then, I used the Zoom breakout session feature extensively, and often multiple times during each class session. I made sure to post the discussion prompts right at the top of the Moodle where the Zoom login instructions are for the class so they could see them and find them easily during class time. This works better than just saying the discussion prompts or using the chat window. With Zoom, it’s easy to get people to guest lecture in you class. I brought in experts to talk about real-world applications of concepts we studied in class. Students really appreciated this and it kept the class relevant.

    Assignments/Evaluations: I transitioned from weekly Moodle quizzes before the transition to online learning to weekly mindfulness/somatics/embodiment exercises on topics that were related to class. I gave weekly prompts. Students wrote hand-written responses in journals and uploaded scans of the journal entries to Moodle once a week. These did not take long, just 20 or 30 minutes each. I got great feedback on these in their final class reflections. In my case, they were performed outside. Students commented on how this experience was a helpful break from Zoom, and that it forced them to get outside and get their minds off of the COVID-19 pandemic. My class exams went from multiple choice/short answer to exploratory take-home exercises. I still “tested” their course content knowledge, but I did so by giving prompts that required them to delve deeper into topics covered in class by going online and researching real-world examples or case studies on a range of topics.

    Stay in touch: I tried not to overwhelm my students with emails, but I did send one email a week to my class explaining what we were doing, when my office hours were, and what was due that week of class. I also always sent a personal note to let students know that I cared, that this was hard, and that we were in this together. I also kept in close contact with students who were falling behind. This took some extra work, but it was important to me not to let anyone fall through the cracks. I filed a number of unsatisfactory reports too, for those who were falling apart. This helped a few of them get back on track and stay in communication.

  • Large (40+ students) Lecture Courses

    Principles of Chemistry II (CHEM144), 60 students, lecture-based, taught by Michelle Personick

    CHEM 144 is an introductory level course composed primarily of first-years and some sophomores, and knowledge of content from CHEM 144 is required for subsequent sequenced courses—such as organic chemistry—as well as for the MCATs and other pre-professional exams, so I kept the full content coverage of the course because most of my students will continue in the sequence.  Over spring break, I generated a “Distance Learning Plan” outlining the logistical changes which I then posted to Moodle and emailed to the students via Moodle.  To help students stay organized, I sent out a weekly “This Week in CHEM 144” newsletter on Sunday afternoons throughout the second half of the semester using Moodle Quickmail, which included general reminders, a schedule for the week, and a “demo of the week” video (link to existing demo videos on YouTube) with a brief explanation. The other key pieces were having a well-organized Moodle page and being very specific when providing instructions.

    Lectures and Assessments: The course was scheduled at 8:50 AM with 60 students across many time zones, so I pre-recorded lectures—usually a few days in advance—using Zoom and then posted the lecture recording link on Moodle the night before each class. I normally teach primarily with chalk, using slides only when necessary, since this is the strong preference of my students. While recording lectures, I used a Surface tablet with a stylus and was able to swap back and forth in Zoom between the whiteboard for “chalk” lecturing and screensharing for slides, as needed. I always hand out printed copies of slides (if any) before class and post my handwritten lecture notes on Moodle after class, so I just posted both at the same time as the pre-recorded lectures. Students appreciated being able to watch the lectures in their own time zone and around their own schedule, as well as the opportunity to re-watch them while working on assignments or studying for exams. I set up homework and exams via Moodle assignments, where I posted the questions as a PDF and the students uploaded their answers as a Word or PDF file. I downloaded completed homework assignments and exams and my two graduate TAs and I graded them in Adobe Acrobat. I was able to use the “feedback files” function in Moodle to batch upload graded assignments and automatically assign each graded PDF back to the appropriate student for them to see. I changed all assignment deadlines to midnight Eastern to accommodate time zones and work schedules. For exams, I posted the exam to Moodle on Friday at 8:50 am (class time) and the students had until Sunday at midnight Eastern to upload their completed exam as a PDF. Exams were closed book, notes, etc., and I allowed students to take as long as they wanted in one sitting. I tracked access to the exam via Moodle logs. These logistics were designed to minimize added stress from the online environment, especially for students with jobs or poor internet/technology access.

    Interaction with Students: I held Zoom office hours on Mondays and Tuesdays for 2 hours each day, which is slightly longer than normal. Each of my two grad TAs also held office hours on one of those days, as well as Wednesday and Thursday in exam weeks. This way there were multiple time options for students to seek help. I decided not to hold the weekly discussion sections associated with the course (6 sections) online due to logistical challenges. At the end of the semester, a small number of students mentioned they wished there had been a set place to work with other students on homework (this is allowed and encouraged), so if I had to do it again I might have a couple optional discussion sections for students who were interested. I also have an anonymous feedback tool in Moodle called the “Question Box” where students can ask questions if they don’t want to ask them directly in class or if they think of them afterwards, and then I answer them at the beginning of the next lecture. Due to the asynchronous nature of the remote course, I switched to answering Question Box questions in a “book” activity in Moodle, with a different “chapter” for each week. This was also nice because then students could refer back to previous questions in the book and also because it meant I could post images, videos, or links with my answers. I committed to answering Question Box questions once a day, though I often responded more frequently. I received 10-15 Question Box questions in an average week, which is standard. I also normally devote an entire “Question Day” lecture before each exam to answering student questions pulled at random from a real cardboard Question Box. In the online version of the course I did record those specific lectures live with the option for students to join the Zoom or watch the recording. Students submitted questions to the Moodle Question Box marked with #QuestionDay by 8 AM on the day of the lecture if they wanted them answered in the live Zoom and they could also ask real time questions in chat. In general, I found it important to be thinking about possible student questions myself while recording my lectures, since the students weren’t there to ask them during the lecture.

    Foundations of Contemporary Psychology (PSYC 105) 216 students, taught by Sarah Carney 

    At the time of spring break, there were six major concentrations to get through for the remainder of the semester; I video recorded each of my lectures and uploaded those lectures onto a private YouTube channel.  I broke up my lectures exactly as I would have had I been in class; in other words, if I was talking about Social Psychology over a planned span of 3 days, I made three video lectures.  I would then post the lecture that matched the day of the course in the syllabus.  It was important to do this because I worried the videos could become quite confusing over time--I anticipated a large number (say, 225 or so 😉) of "where are we?" emails, so I felt that my output needed to be consistent with the plan I had started with. 

    I posted the lectures in two locations--on Moodle via a link and on our course Facebook page. If there were video clips that would have accompanied the lecture I attempted (somewhat successfully) to locate those clips on the internet and posted links to those on Moodle as well. (When I couldn't find them I tried to locate reasonable substitutes.)  I posted each lecture on the day and time of the class. My class met on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8:50-10:10 so I made sure to post the lecture by 8:50 so that students who wanted to take the course somewhat synchronously...could. As an aside these videos were not well produced in terms of quality; very often my cat would wander in, cross in front of the screen, etc.  At first I tried to edit her out--swears were heard--but student feedback was emphatic: they liked the cat.  I think humanizing moments were helpful and I stopped trying to hide them with glossy professional lectures, not that that ideal was really ever possible. 

    After I had posted all of the unit lectures and I created an online test (quiz) for each topic.  It was designed on Moodle using the "quiz" application, and I told the students that it was open book--notes or textbook chapters were fair game. The quizzes were designed to open on the last day of the unit, and stay open for a week.  There was no time limit to complete the quizzes, however once an answer was submitted it could not be changed. In addition to the posted lectures and the assessments, I created discussion questions which were posted both on Moodle forums and on the Facebook page.  I posted typically 6-10 questions per unit, and asked the students to respond to at least 4.  The questions ranged from sort of personal experience questions (ask your parents what kind of temperament you had as an infant; how many languages do you speak?) to more research based (are languages necessarily spoken, and if not, what makes language a language? Is your personality affected by which language you are speaking; if yes, how?).  I have never tried this type of question/response before and was really pleasantly surprised at how effective it was at creating a sense of community--between the students and me mainly, but also between the students themselves, who sometimes broke into conversations (particularly on the Facebook page, but sometimes on Moodle as well).  I responded to every single forum post personally.  Often that response was very quick ("Thanks!") but sometimes I would go into more detail depending on their answer.  225 X 4 X 6 responses...it was a lot but at the end of the course I really felt it had been worth it because of the ways it sparked conversation, it facilitated students making connections between the material and their every day lives, and was just generally interesting. One question was always "Do you have questions about the reading or the lecture that I can clarify?"  This was a good way to let students ask things publicly so that I wasn't having to write umpteen personal emails all answering the same question.  I am planning to make use of these forums in the future because I felt that, though really time consuming for me, they added to the quality of the course in a very real and concrete way.