Lessons Learned from Spring 2020

Dos and Don'ts from Wes Faculty

Wesleyan faculty found a number of “tricks” that enhanced their ability to engage students and teach effectively during the spring 2020 switch to remote learning. 

Please note that these “tips” are not intended to be used all at once—it is not the case that every faculty member should do everything listed here.  This is just a compendium of things that folks found helpful in their own experience this past spring.  It is likely that only some of the ideas will be useful for you. 

The “dos” are intended to help generate ideas about how to enhance your teaching, not overwhelm you with things you need to include in your class.

SET-UP:

  • Good equipment (a big screen, ergonomic sit-stand station, eye-level video) makes a tremendous difference!
  • Good lighting (and "blue screen" hung behind you as a backdrop if possible, if you'll try a virtual background) make it easier for students to pay attention.
  • Warmly encourage students to adjust their own backlit/glare situations if possible, so that we can more easily register their expressions and so it's less of a strain for everyone to survey the grid of faces.
  • Use headset rather than speaker if possible, to remove audio feedback. The mic’s reception is logarithmically related to distance—keep the mic close to your face to avoid background noise (perhaps tape/pin it to your shirt).
  • Your phone’s camera is likely to be 10X better than the one on your computer. Use that camera to record your videos for a higher-quality image.

PRE-CLASS

  • If you would have had "handouts" in class, email or moodle-post them in advance
  • Set up zoom "polls" in advance. Consider a "check-in" poll with multiple choices about how people are doing, energy level, preparation level, whatever. (In person, we know how to "read the room", but it's hard over zoom!)
  • If there are student-led activities, work in advance with those students to think through options like screen-sharing, breakout groups, multimedia.
  • Get all the material needed to present on split-screen loaded in background with email and other programs shut down

FEELING/STAYING CONNECTED DURING CLASS:

  • Holding some synchronous sessions during regular class time helped students feel connected.
  • Be friendly, flexible, and "amp" up expressiveness a notch (subtlety doesn't transmit well).
  • Invite people to chat questions/concerns and (if possible) have a TA helping to troubleshoot & attend to things.
  • It was easier to get students to participate synchronously when they had specific activities/puzzles to work on in groups rather than open-ended discussion questions.
  • Set up 20-second "leave-the-screen" breaks, mid-session, for stretching, giving eyes a break, etc.
  • Logging on to zoom 10 minutes early to chat with anyone who wanted to fellowship a bit, staying on after to answer questions
  • Have students circulate discussion questions the day prior, which can then be used to frame class time.
  • Weekly electronic journals helped maintain connection and allowed instructor to understand what students’ challenges were each week
  • Use break-out groups regularly to break up zoom fatigue and facilitate active learning
  • Use break out rooms often to encourage active learning.
  • For a "choose-your-group" break-out room activity, I learned this tip from a TA: Invite people to edit their zoom participant "name" prior to class: Add "1" to the front if you would like to discuss [Topic 1], add "2" before name if you want to discuss [Topic 2], etc. The interface to assign each person to a breakout group is instantly easy.
  • Polling: after group "challenge" activity have people report via the (advance-generated) poll. Share the poll. Use it as a springboard for discussion.
  • Use screen-sharing, but don't share text-busy screens or overwhelming detail.
  • Keeping things simple on zoom - using screen share sparingly

 STAYING CONNECTED OUTSIDE OF CLASS

  • Send a weekly overview email that summarizes what happened last week, gives a preview of the coming week, and includes a personal, encouraging note
  • Perusall was helpful and popular. Students didn't feel alone when they were doing the readings, and students who understood what was going on could answer clarification questions from students who weren't yet getting it. By the time we met synchronously, we could dive right into the most interesting parts of the discussion and make the most of our time.
  • Peer review of written work. Perusall is great if the students are already using it for readings because they’ll be familiar with the interface and it allows multiple students to comment on the same document (the instructor can collect the drafts via moodle and then upload them to Perusall.  The students can access they with the “documents” tab rather than the “assignments” tab that is used for the course readings).  Turnitin also has a peer-editing function.
  • Check email often and respond quickly
  • Encourage students to let instructor know if they were having any issues with deadlines (some may be working or have health issues)
  • Post professor discussion notes after the class meeting (in place of the normal chalkboard notes) - Saving class discussion videos to laptop itself, then uploading on Moodle for those who missed the lesson (they could make up participation points by turning in a one page reaction to the class discussion/readings)
  • Hold additional mini-meets at different times for students who can’t make regular class time. Hire a CA or get a TA if such mini-meets are too demanding on your time.
  • Use some kind of calendar management tool (moodle schedular, calenday, google doc) to set up one-on-one appointments so students in different time zones don’t have to wait 2+ days to meet. Consider adding additional office hours and more one-on-one meetings, especially for students who can’t make it to class.
  • Teams were useful for keeping students connected to each other

CONTENT:

  • Be as flexible as possible with deadlines and assignments (e.g., option of problem sets rather than longer paper, extensions for papers, etc.).
  • Options helped to relieve student anxiety and improved class morale. Some students had the time, bandwidth, and passion to challenge themselves on the final project; others had too many other sources of challenge this semester and needed something manageable. In the end, each student made the right choice for them.
  • Allowing students to create digital projects (instead of traditional research papers) allowed for flexibility and personal investment
  • Pre-recorded mini lectures were really fun to create and I learned a number of things while doing them: (1) keep them short - mine were about 10 minutes, but I think I would shoot for more micro videos in the future (5 minutes each) (2) find ways to make slides that you might show come alive - they shouldn't be static! (3) post them on Youtube - it's a nice place to house them so you can use them again - Zoom deletes your recordings over time.
  • Bringing in guest speakers added to the diversity of the online learning experience, which can otherwise become repetitive. Talking to people from all around the world, hearing about their experiences, showed the positive side of global connectivity.

MIX UP FORMATS, EXPERIMENT:

  • Sensing "attention-face fatigue"? Try a chat-only segment for a small- to mid-size group. Zoom's chat feature is pretty limited, and following the discussion as the lines "jump" can be tricky, BUT some students really come out of the woodwork, and the texture of discussion shifts away from controlled linear format. Students try conventions like "@Yuko, to your question about..." Some students reported feeling "freed up" and less rushed, and got more involved. Don't forget to SAVE the transcript before ending the meeting!
  • If you have desktop or webcam flexibility in your space, upload any relevant simple graphics (photo, diagram, illustration) as available "background images" in zoom (you can even move through a small set during class, like slides). Using an "arms-length" and heads-up level relation to your camera (sitting a bit off-center), you will be able to simulate gesturing at a blackboard or projection in a classroom -- the "weathercaster" effect. (If you're in "mirror" mode you can get pretty good at pointing "at" parts of the image "behind" you. If you can hang a blue/green bedsheet behind your talking head, your hands won't disappear.)
  • Ask students to make a place map: Draw a map of a familiar place. Choose any place you have lived or visited that evokes strong feelings. Take time to fill in details and important landmarks. Consider pathways, boundaries, and orientation to light. Don’t worry about the process of drawing; us symbols to represent areas of specific memory or meaning. Write about the map and/or place you’ve drawn. Read aloud to yourself or a family member. Breathe deeply as you read, allowing exchange between the inner landscape of body and the outer landscape of place. Write about it in your journal.
  • Place visit: Finding your place: Find a new place outdoors that you can visit each day. Look for an area that you can enjoy, within walking distance from your home and private enough that you can visit consistently, undisturbed, for twenty minutes at a time, engaging inclusive attention. Follow the place visit with 10 minutes of writing in your journal. Remember to allow time for direct engagement with place before writing and reflection, valuing experience as well as the language used to describe it.
  • Try a somatics exercise. Ask students to find a quiet area with some open space and nothing sharp on the floor. Take your shoes off. Stand vertically, feeling the energy moving down through the soles of your feed and out through the top of your head. Let your feed feel wide like snowshoes. Now begin to walk very, very, very slowly, as if you were a video of yourself walking in slow motion. Keep your eyes looking forward at eye level. Make sure that every part of your walk is the same tempo so you don't speed up in the tricky places and slow down where it's easier. If it helps, imagine many light hands all over the back of your body gently helping you, so that all parts of your body move forward equally. Don't leave anything behind (head, shoulders, butt, etc.). As you walk slowly, figure out how to support yourself. Your whole body is stacked up on this small surface area that is the soles of your feed. As you continue to walk slowly, notice how your visual field changes gradually with your progression through the space. Change direction as you like. Notice how your visual field changes. Do this for 5 minutes. Write about your experience.
  • Try a group hug! If everyone extends their arms out perpendicular from their body, as if they’re trying to touch the walls on either side of the room they’re in, it will have the visual effect on Zoom of a group hug.  It enhances the feeling of being connected even when physically distant. It is a nice way to end a class or a meeting.

Wesleyan faculty also learned from their mistakes.  Here are some of the “don’ts” and cautionary tips that they reported.

  • Don’t panic with unstable/interrupted internet connection.
  • Don’t try to do too much or learn too many platforms. Find one or two (e.g., moodle and zoom) and figure out how to use them well.  Otherwise it is too overwhelming.
  • 3 hours on Zoom is too long. 5-2hrs max.
  • Perusall is not a substitute for synchronous discussion. At one point I relegated all discussion of the readings to Perusall, and students were frustrated by this. It's best used to tee up a really efficient, meaty synchronous discussion. All we needed was 10-15 synchronous minutes for students to feel satisfied on the readings.
  • While I recorded class sessions on Zoom for those who had to miss a class, the recordings don't show what goes on in the Breakout Rooms (or at least I don't know how to do this). This meant there was really no substitute for missing class sessions since most of class took place in the Breakout Rooms.
  • Despite a good number of digitized collections online, students who chose to do a conventional research project struggled to find primary sources
  • Trying to generate a poll "on the fly" was a terrible waste of time; zoom's poll-making tools were too cumbersome.
  • Expecting spontaneous discussion in the larger group didn't work well, since students can't use body language and "reading the room" to figure out how to participate in a fluent way. Conversations/discussion is hard with groups larger than 15.  Use breakout rooms instead for discussions.
  • Talking over music that is being played on a CD player during Zoom results in a very warped sound effect.
  • In the future, for students that are asynchronous, I would require that they send in an observation about their participation in the class. Some students that were out of the time zone seemed to disappear from the course...
  • I did not expect students to begin disabling their video as the semester progressed. That's the worst. I know there are concerns about students being shy to show their backgrounds, but I don't think that's it - I think students feel a bit exposed simply by being visible (there's nowhere to hide, leaving the camera to take a bathroom break feels impolite, etc.), and I think they feel a bit awkward (it is also exhausting and requires them to be 'on'). For the fall semester, should we be on Zoom, I think the University should make a list of Zoom expectations and protocols, including having video enabled (and if students really are concerned about backgrounds Wesleyan could distribute/encourage virtual backgrounds).
  • I couldn’t lecture or lead a discussion and follow the chat at the same time. Either I need to practice using it more ahead of time, or disable chat.  It was distracting and not helpful.
  • In my live sessions, I should have set up more opportunities for students to share their screens. I did this in the one-on-one sessions, since they were working on websites, but should have done it in the larger sessions.