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Spring Quarter instructor strategies

Amidst the daunting challenges of the COVID-19 emergency, Stanford instructors have been developing strategies to teach students in an online environment. To better understand these challenges and strategies, the Academic Continuity Committee distributed a survey in Spring Quarter in which instructors could share their experiences, concerns, and successes. 

Over 650 instructors responded to the survey and over 300 also commented on their teaching practices, sharing insights or concerns on four key themes and ideas:

  1. the importance of social connections and community
  2. deep engagement of students through active learning
  3. the balance of asynchronous and synchronous instruction for accessibility
  4. intentional, compassionate structuring on a micro (individual class session) and macro (whole course/curriculum) level

Below, we present some major topics with exemplary quotes from instructors. We hope that individual instructors, departments, and schools will use these findings to disseminate fresh ideas and foster focused conversations on practices for virtual teaching.

Outline of topics

Creating opportunities for human connection and social presence

Many instructors and students reported missing the human connection and sense of community provided by in-person teaching, as well as the informal aspects of learning, such as conversations at the start and end of class sessions. To address these challenges, instructors are exploring online means to connect students with one another, build community, increase one-on-one interactions with students, and address relevant topics:

  • “I have invested more time in community building and icebreakers in the whole group...and the smaller groups of breakout sessions. Students have really appreciated that, since they miss the in-person community-building opportunities and still want to stay connected to their peers.”
  • “Because we have lost the informal connections with students that you have with in-person teaching, I have invited each student to have a one-on-one session with me. In these sessions, I can find out why they are taking the class and what they want to get out of it.”
  • “I devote the first 5 minutes of each class to putting students in breakout rooms of 2 students each, and asking them to just check in with each other and get to know each other a little bit. I think it helps to replace the natural socializing that takes place in the hallway outside the classroom or in the room during the moments when you're waiting for class to start. It seems to be helping to build a sense of community in the class.”
  • “Having conversations on Slack (and encouraging students to be a bit conversational, to use emojis and just talk) has been really helpful for them.”
  • “So far, I started with two topics I had not used before because they were relevant to students. It was a good choice because they're part of our life right now: an analysis from different perspectives of the use of technology in our life, and COVID-19.”
  • “Since my undergrad class is small, I asked all the students to ‘unmute’ at the start of the first class, and to tell me and each other where they are Zooming from. This really broke the ice.”

Learn more about building community.

Eliciting student input or checking in with students

Students are experiencing many things that can cause stress, such as difficult home conditions, unstable Internet connections, and personal learning challenges. To better understand and adapt their teaching to these issues, some instructors are setting aside time to communicate with students individually or in small groups:

  • “Since my class is a seminar, I have taken the time to talk to them individually to get to know them better and get their feedback.” 
  • “I try to check in with the students before beginning each class by asking how they are doing and if they have any issues or concerns.”
  • “Actively seek feedback from students during Zoom classes about their engagement and ability to focus. Make time to check in during the class.”
  • “I spend the last five minutes of class giving students a quick online survey of the class that day to get immediate feedback to implement the next week. Students really appreciate the opportunity to give feedback and see it incorporated the next week.”

Some instructors are finding that input from students helps shape their online classes for the better:

  • “I told students prior to Day 1 (in the posted syllabus) that I/the TA would be trying new things for the first 3 weeks and we posted a short anonymous questionnaire after the first 3 classes….That allowed us to make quick corrections each week.”
  • “I have been asking them to fill out feedback about the class at the end of each weekly quiz (usually they rate their confidence on a learning objective related to the quiz, describe the part of the course they find most challenging or least useful, and make a suggestion for a topic or technique that could improve the course).”

Learn more about seeking student feedback.

Structured class organization

Many instructors are building routines with consistent structures into their course so that students know how they can best participate in class to meet course expectations:

  • “I have taught online before and in my experience the most important thing is reliability, predictability, and consistency - not moving things around, having things due at the same time every week, yet being available to students regularly so they don't feel you dropped them in an online module with no teacher. Reliable + available.”
  • “I've...been sending them discussion questions in advance so that they can view them separately. I try to be as explicit as possible with each question, i.e. ‘Let's hear from 2-3 of you about…’ or ‘It would be great if everyone could share their thoughts on…’” 
  • “[A] graduate student instructor...has been doing great things with online learning. I learned from her how important it is to have an accessible teaching plan on a Google Doc or elsewhere so that when students go into breakout rooms they can know exactly what activity they are supposed to be doing.” 
  • “I create a Class Agenda page on Canvas that all students refer to during class. The agenda has links to all Google Docs or Canvas assignments used in class. For example, I can say ‘We're now on item 4 in the Agenda; so please access the Discussion Prompts’ or ‘Please complete the reflection assignment in item 6.’”

Attention to needs of students with limited Internet connections

Instructors are adopting approaches that consider the needs of students with insufficient Internet connectivity, or students located in different time zones. For many instructors, this means using pre-recorded lectures, but there are other approaches that can also support these students:

  • “I’ve been pre-recording lectures and using ‘class time’ for questions and answers, so that if the Internet cuts out (for me or my students) during class, it’s not as much of a hit.”
  • “Some students are on unstable connections with limited video capability.  Counseling them to follow along but dial in using traditional phone infrastructure has been helpful.”
  • “I have reduced the bandwidth of my streaming from 1080 to 720 bps. I am recording my lectures and uploading the video recording on Canvas.”
  • “For lectures, we've been using narrated PowerPoint files.  This permits students to download and watch and listen at their convenience.  There's an automated option to watch slides and listen to the narration.  There's also a manual option (Normal View) in which the students can view notes on each slide.  The files are much smaller than video files (e.g.,  Zoom recordings) and this makes them more accessible to students with limited internet access.  Stanford has a site-license for PowerPoint, so that all students can download and use this program without any additional charge on a variety of devices.”

Learn more about mitigating Internet connection issues.

Thoughtful adoption of hybrid approaches

Some instructors are transitioning to a hybrid model that combines synchronous and asynchronous activities to better engage students. Often this involves flipped approaches, such as distributing lecture videos and readings ahead of class, and using synchronous meeting time to apply and discuss what has been learned:

  • “I have changed the way I teach…I record the lectures, have students watch them ahead of the class, and then in class I just answer their questions about the material - lectures, slides, readings, homework. It has worked great so far!”
  • “We have been sharing ‘mini-lectures’ by pre-recording a screencast (about 10 minutes). We combine the time for watching that with a break in the middle of class. E.g. we give them 20 minutes to take a break AND watch the 10-minute video. We try to post the videos before class so they can watch in advance and then have a 20-minute break in the middle of class if they prefer.”
  • “It's a simple idea but I feel it's important to give reading assignments/exercises following class lectures/videos/etc to keep students engaged and learning. It's very hard to retain information if one just watches passively a video with no physical connection to the speaker. Students need to work more on their own/be given more work to retain the material than in a conventional class setting.”
  • “I had students fill out a survey on preference for synchronous or asynchronous learning. More work for me (I teach a synchronous and asynchronous version of my class now), but it's letting me meet my students’ needs.”
  • “Early on, I notified students who were signed up that I was looking for commitment and was sending a box of materials for them to use. I can’t tell you the importance of this gesture, and the critical materiality of its impact. I have a large strong group working with common materials, and the impact is palpable. I thank the university for this type of support.”

Learn more about finding a mix of synchronous and asynchronous teaching.

Limiting Zoom fatigue, varying activities, implementing strategic breaks

Instructors observed that longer class sessions were difficult for students, and indeed this is consistent with reports in student surveys. Instructors reported various means of addressing this problem, focusing especially on shortened class time, varied activities, and additional breaks:

  • “Trying to make more use of short video clips...that are appropriate for a topic to break things up.”
  • “Student engagement through a combination of pedagogical techniques and technology implementations has been quite successful: clicker-like applications through PollEverywhere; think/pair/share and small group work through Zoom breakout rooms; whiteboard sharing through Zoom.”
  • “Spreading out our breaks (we have a 3-hour class); instead of taking one break at the half-way point, we are taking short breaks at the end of each hour.”
  • “Guest speakers. This has been a wonderful way to vary the experience of online learning, hearing from experts in the field, seeing new faces, opening up a space for questions and new materials.”

Learn more about engaging activities.

Supporting student interaction, breakout rooms, and collaborative work

Instructors reported using breakout rooms and other approaches to support student interactions, collaborative activities, and group projects:

  • “I make extensive use of breakout rooms in Zoom so that students can talk amongst each other rather than listening to me for 3 hours. Seems to be working really well!”
  • “Create opportunities for breakout sessions and peer share. Break up the class/lecture with interactive/peer to peer engagement.”
  • “We have been doing brainstorming and concept creation in student groups - even prototyping!”
  • “I have started using the breakout rooms quite a bit to allow the students to work on problems in small groups before we come back together to work on the problem together.”
  • “We assign students to breakout rooms…. Before they go to the first breakout room, we tell them that they should have roles of writer, discussion leader, spokesperson.  Roles are decided by something like ‘Birthday closest to…’ or some other ‘measure’ we give them. This encourages them to talk when they head to breakout rooms and also allows us to hear from people who might not normally speak up.”
  • “...use of [Google] Jamboard for collaborative diagrams and modeling of student thinking allowed us to save comments and ideas and then for students to clarify their thinking.”
  • “I like using a Google Sheet at the beginning of class; I ask each student to share (briefly) one general lesson from the previous class.  All students can see the lessons typed by their classmates.  I then ask a few students to elaborate on their lessons learned.  Seems to be getting good feedback from the students.”

Learn more about breakout rooms and about digital sticky notes.

Experiential learning for performance and art practice-based courses

While teaching experiential courses online remains a challenge, instructors shared significant ways that they have found to retain the authenticity and impact of these courses for students:

  • “In teaching movement, I...find it extremely helpful to narrate what is happening from the point of view of the student dancer in motion:  ‘Your right arm goes overhead; your left leg extends to the back; your weight is on your right foot....’  The description integrates the Zoom screen image with the action, and the mind eventually overcomes the visual dyslexia of watching movement on the screen. This running monologue is content-specific to dance, but might have implications for other arts or other motor-skill dependent experiences.” 
  • “I have been able to effectively connect and hear my students playing their [instruments], my colleague has been able to send piano accompaniment for them to play with, and I have been able to arrange a group discussion class (not my usual format) to facilitate students supporting one another. I sent some Zoom recommendations for settings to improve sound quality, and that helped quite a lot. I am able to scan and send materials easily. Almost everyone was excited to connect and continue their lessons, and so it is quite gratifying.”

Specific uses and features available on Zoom and other software or hardware platforms

Some instructors leverage available hardware and software to support distance learning. This can include robust use of Zoom’s available features, or customizing Zoom to overcome limitations of the default setup:

  • “Polling with Zoom has been a nice touch. Using the function for ‘raising your hand’ has been great for encouraging interaction.....the Zoom participant manager automatically orders the students in terms of who raised their hand first.”
  • “Use of chat for the large group to surface challenges faced while we try to solve problems.”
  • “I have been able to successfully merge my iPad with my Macbook using Quicktime Player so I am able to create a whiteboard and PowerPoint environment on the same screen without having to change the shared window. It is pretty amazing and the students appreciate it. I can then share the whiteboard notes at the end of the lecture on Canvas.”

A wide range of software tools and physical hardware are being put to use for class management and instruction:

  • Using Slack as a discussion forum for class, during and outside of lecture - it helps pool the expertise of the entire group of students. Students can increase participation this way - asking questions offline, answering each other's questions, and connecting in a more personal way outside of class. It’s worked really well as a supplement to Zoom lectures, and we find that our students are learning a lot more with it!”
  • Office hours have gone quite well. I am able to have many students simultaneously, while in my office I can only have three at most. Using a combination of Notes, whiteboard, and blank PowerPoint slides, I am able to create some notes during office hours which I then also post in Canvas, and many students benefit from them.”
  • “Use of actual, smaller whiteboards in the background⁠—a colleague has [it] down and students responded to it more positively than to ‘writing’ on screen. [A] colleague had to find a way to set them up, but [they are] now working well.”

Collaboration with TAs and other instructional team members

Instructors described how course teams of TAs/CAs and lead instructors can collaborate well by taking on different pedagogic roles in online class sessions:

  • “Pausing for questions, having TAs manage ‘raised hands’ on Zoom, having TAs or other teaching team members answer questions on chat during lecture (students have really enjoyed the real-time answers to their questions, and it keeps them engaged in the lecture).”
  • “I’m fortunate to have several CAs split between my class and a few others. My course has moved from 2 lectures per week to 1 lecture plus 1 CA-led coaching group. We are a project-based class and much of the work is student-defined, so these coaching groups have allowed much more personal interaction and feedback than I would be able to provide to each student by myself.”
  • “My teaching assistants can answer students’ questions as I lecture when posed in the chat box, and I have really enjoyed the back and forth with students during that last 10-15 min window.”

Learn more about working with TAs in online classes.

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