In mid-march, COVID-19 forced all universities to switch to a remote teaching set up. Here we summarize lessons learned from half a semester teaching remotely, to better prepare for upcoming semesters where the same will likely happen. This post contains tips from lessons learned in Biological Engineering, but can be useful universally. 

If you’d like an overview of best practices for any type of remote presentation, check out our CommKit article. This post is structured to help you as you begin to think about teaching remotely. You can read the whole post, or use the links below to jump to the section(s) you are most interested in learning about.  Hit the back button on your browser to get back to this list. 

Determine what you want to teach and what you need to teach. Think about what you want your students to know at the end of your lecture or recitation.

  1. Think about what you truly need to teach students and focus on teaching those things. Most people can only remember 2-3 key takeaways from every presentation. Think about the 2-3 things you want your students to remember and focus on those by introducing the concept, providing examples, and allowing the students to ask questions. 
  2. Students face more distractions and stresses in their new environments (family, noise, personal stresses). Clearly stating learning objectives may provide students increased motivation and help them understand what they need to learn. 

Learn what technology is available to you. Remember that there are lots of distractions over Zoom. If you can provide static content ahead of time, do it. As much as possible, try to use class time for active problem solving and discussion. 

  1. In making the decision between synchronous and asynchronous lecturing, consider the following points:
    • What time zone will your students be calling in from? And at what time would you be lecturing? Will all students be able to attend a synchronous lecture? If you plan to hold a discussion and all your students cannot attend, try to consider other options for delivering your material. If all your students can attend your live lecture, consider making it engaging so you motivate your students to show up and participate. 
    • What is your internet connectivity like? What about for your students? If you have unstable internet access, you can get an internet hotspot connection. Alternatively, you can plan for primarily asynchronous lectures and a Piazza site or slack group for answering real time questions. You can also ask your class to turn off their cameras. However, if you do this, plan to have other means to interact with the students in Zoom, either through a shared google document or through the chat window. 
  2. If synchronous teaching works best for your material, consider some easy-to-use active learning tools to keep students engaged. Remember, in an online format, students read first and then listen. 
    • Tablets can be useful for “boardwork”. This strategy also allows the content to be delivered more slowly than having it appear on a slide, giving students more time to process. If a tablet is not available, a camera can be directed on a paper/dry-erase board to work through problems.
    • Include polls in your lecture. This is a great way to get a pulse check of all your students and ensure that all students are following along. 
    • Host a few group problem solving or discussion sections in your lecture using breakout rooms. Allow students to work on the problem in small groups and then come back together to discuss what they struggled with, how they solved the problem, or what they discussed. You can provide shared co-working documents (like google docs) to help track the conversations, monitor work progress in breakout rooms, and record discussions. Using random breakout rooms also forces students to meet new people in the class. 
    • Spend some time playing around with your Zoom set up so you can feel comfortable 1) lecturing at the camera, 2) monitoring your class either through video, chat or the participation pane, and 3) have control of your screen. There are hacks to use presenter mode, but you need two screens and it can get complicated. So practice! 
  3. If you think asynchronous teaching would be better, consider some tricks that could make your recorded lecture stand out. 
    • Record your lecture and provide notes with your slides. Add in intermittent breaks for students to pause and work on problems or answer polls to test their knowledge. Record answers to tough problems for easy access for students. 
    • Post the lectures online and provide more problems for students to work through or write about to learn the materials. Organize live working groups or office hours for students to get help on problems. 
    • Check in with students or follow up when handing back problem sets. It is easy for students to disconnect in online learning, so provide as many checkpoints to ensure engagement. 
  4. One of the hardest things to do remotely is to administer fair and accessible assessments of student learning. If you would like an option for proctoring a secure exam, you can try Proctoria. However, for accessibility reasons, many professors have turned to alternative modes of assessment. Some of these are listed here: 
    • Providing a fixed window for students to complete their exam – this has varied from 24hrs to 1 week depending on the class and professor.
    • Replacing exam-based assessments with writing assignments, presentations, or other deliverables.
    • Replacing one large exam with several smaller quizzes.
    • Asking students to write their own quiz questions can help to build their understanding.
    • Have the students record themselves teaching a concept.

Edit your slide content. Once you start working on your slide or the content you want to teach, remember that everything takes longer over Zoom. Take your normal in class lectures and edit as much as possible. A general rule is that it takes about twice as long to cover content over zoom compared when presenting in person.

  1. Edit and reduce content. 
    • When prioritizing course material consider course content that engages and excites students along with what needs to be learned before moving onto future courses.
  2. Edit your slides to be more accessible over the digital platform. 
    • Remove all distractions so people can focus on the important content. 
    • Put more time into creating slide titles that contain your message. 
    • Add speaker notes into the ppt and share slides before the class so students can take notes and follow along. 
    • Animate your slides to reduce the amount of information being presented at once. 
    • Put more intentional stops in your lectures to give time for questions. 
  3. Prerecord as much as you can so students can watch on the content on their own time and spend class time to ask questions and work through problems. 
  4. Be aware of internet connectivity issues when using zoom-particularly when going through slides and waiting for questions. 
    • Assign someone to keep track of the chat and help with connectivity issues. This could be the TA, but could also be a student in the class. Assigning roles to students in the class (be mindful of doing this in an inclusive and diverse way) is also an effective way to keep students engaged and accountable. 
    • When asking if students have questions, intentionally wait for 45-60secs. Students take a moment to process your question and come up with their own, and things take longer over zoom. Keep a timer next to you so you actually stick to the 45-60sec time. 

Set expectations at the beginning of the class, whether you choose synchronous or asynchronous teaching.

  1. Create a slide or document that clearly delineates your expectations for the class or workshop. 
    • Set expectations for students about how they should participate and ask questions. Do you want them to have their cameras on? Should they use the raise hand function or just speak up? Should they use the chat box or would you prefer discussions to happen out loud? Do you expect students to participate in every class or is participation not a large part of their grade?
    • Clearly explain how students will be graded. And set up your grading structure to reflect what you think is most valuable to learning in your class. If you want students to participate, put more of their grade into participation and make it clear that you  are tracking their participation. If you want students to focus on exams, make that the largest percentage of their grade. 
    • Be clear about how students can get help outside of class. What are your office hours? Is there a TA they should reach out to first? What about other resources on campus?
    • Provide an overview of the content the student can expect to learn and how it all connects together. Refer back to this overview throughout the class or workshop so students remain oriented. This also helps students to figure out when they  should ask questions and on what topics in a lecture or workshop. 
    • If you plan on having students engage in discussion, set expectations for discussions. If you want students to ask “good questions”, set expectations about what makes a good question. If you want students to give feedback to each other, set expectations about what makes good feedback. 
    • One good practice is to have students help to come up with a set of class values and expectations at the beginning of class. This can help to create a sense of engagement and accountability. 

Work to create a community, whether you are teaching synchronously or asynchronously. 

  1. Poll class for ways to stay connected – Do your students prefer to communicate via Piazza, Slack, email, LinkedIn group? Try to use a poll or survey so you hear all voices. Acknowledge that you may not be able to support everyone’s choice, but that you hope that students will stay connected. 
  2. Stay before and after your scheduled class so students know that they can catch you for a quick question or to express excitement or concern about something. This can help students feel more comfortable reaching out at other times. 
  3. Office hours tend to be a go-to way for professors to connect with students, but students often don’t feel comfortable using them. Incentivize the use of office hours. Maybe you will walk through especially difficult problems with students. Maybe students will get extra credit for working through wrong answers with you during office hours. Perhaps you will help with mentorship and career guidance during your office hours. Whatever you choose, lower the barrier to office hours so students feel like the time is worth it for them. And consider changing the name to erase the stigma of office hours. Try “working group time” or “problem-solving groups” or “recitations”. 
  4. Students have said that they like when classes require them to work through problems with other students. We have also observed that students learn a lot in this environment. Find ways to encourage students to work together as they would normally on assignments and projects. Have them schedule times to work together remotely. Consider assigning groups to TAs so they can create a smaller community within the larger class. This is especially useful for tasks like coding, where students might find that they struggle on their own. You could make the most of this working time by creating breakout rooms in Zoom and jumping from room to room to answer questions that students may have. 
  5. Have discussion sections (through breakout rooms) early and regularly so that students can adjust and feel less awkward over Zoom. Doing this sets the expectation that they should show up to class ready to participate. 
  6. Try not to diverge too much from the expectations of the whole class as it is disorienting to students to learn about a major change after class starts. 
  7. What you say matters. Incorporate inclusive and accessible teaching strategies in your classroom. Here is a list of teaching practices that are more or less inclusive and why. Be aware of microaggressions and how they may influence your classroom community. Employ bias-free communication in your teaching practice.
  8. Put together a system to track how each student is doing, considering the parameters that are important for a student’s grade. Identify ways to check in on students outside of class to avoid missing students who might be struggling with their coursework or remote learning. 

Some decisions that you make about the structure of your class will be dictated by the size of the class.  

  1. If you have a larger class, you may consider using prerecorded lectures and breakout rooms for discussions. If you have a smaller class, discussions may happen more naturally. 
  2. If you have a larger class, students may be less willing to turn their camera on. If participation is important, consider taking attendance or designing the class to break into smaller discussion sections. 
  3. In larger groups, polls work really well. Discussions work better in smaller groups. 
  4. There are several active learning activities that work well over Zoom. For example, think-pair-share is a great active learning activity. Polls also work really well. Consider random calling techniques to encourage the active participation of all students. There are also ways to solicit questions anonymously (corkboard, people can send messages directly to the host, etc).
  5. Embed opportunities for information recall. Remember that things take longer over Zoom so be sure to leave extra time for students to catch up, process your question, and come up with their own questions or answers. 

And if you have a TA(s) in your class, be sure to discuss your expectations with your TA. The role of the TA may change in a remote setting and it is important that the entire teaching staff communicates well.

  1. TAs should have clear communication with instructors so they are prepared for their role to support students (what is changing and why). Be mindful of how the remote work and teaching situation has affected TAs and instructors and set expectations for how involved TAs can be with major course changes. 
  2. TAs can be a great way to gauge how students are doing with remote learning and make adjustments as necessary 
  3. Use zoom co-hosting functionality so that someone can keep track of questions in the chat while someone else is presenting. 
  4. It is helpful to have a scheduled time for the teaching staff, TAs included, to meet each week to discuss how things are going. Small changes throughout the course can help to fix problems that might become bigger issues at the end of the semester. 

Overall, classes benefit from being intentionally designed for a remote setting. Take a moment to think about what would be the most beneficial for teaching your class and intentionally apply it to the virtual setting. You will enjoy teaching your class and your students will be grateful as well. 

As you are designing your class and updating your slides, the Comm Lab is here to help. Reach out to any of the fellows for help with curriculum design or if you want to practice your lecture and get used to the technology available to you. 

Tools and Resources Available:

  1. If you are looking to use images from a textbook, reach out to the publisher for high-resolution versions of the images. 
  2. Are you teaching students about experiment setups? Jove and YouTube have great resources. 
  3. Camtasia, iMovie, and Zoom are all great options for making prerecorded videos
  4. Learn more about Zoom here
  5. Use for accepting anonymous questions. 
  6. Active learning activities to incorporate into your teaching. 
  7. Learn about inclusive teaching strategies and accessible teaching strategies
  8. This resource provides a guide for activities that are more or less inclusive in the classroom, with examples that have been implemented and observed in MIT classrooms.
  9. Be aware of microaggressions and do your best to avoid them. If you see other people in your classroom using microaggressions, identify ways to have discussions openly or in private. 
  10. Additional remote teaching best practices can be found here
  11. A guide to remote assessments and exams.

Blog post written by  Amanda Facklam (BE-TLL Teaching Development Fellow) and Prerna Bhargava