Adjusting to remote teaching

Three weeks in and I’m trying to learn how to steer this ship

Andrew Morrison

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I’m getting to the end of the third week of 100% online physics classes. I don’t consider this true online learning, because I think if I had chosen to do this, I would have probably spent close to a year planning how to do it right. What I’m doing this semester is better described as “emergency remote teaching”.

I don’t have a full feeling for how well things are going overall, but I do have a couple of tips to share for those in a similar situation. One tip is a general, sort of big-picture tip. The other one is a bit more specific or targeted.

Today, I was really getting worried that most of my classes (I have three) are not engaging in the discussions as much as I was hoping they would. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to reach the students in the class and try to get them to become more engaged with the group work.

I don’t have any points in my class, because I use standards-based assessment and reporting, so I can’t make the group work worth points.

I don’t want to seem like I am mad or upset with the students, because I really don’t know why they aren’t engaging. Yet, from my perspective, I thought that everything I had done was set up to clearly communicate how the group discussions and work should be handled.

After a lot of thinking, I finally settled on what should have been obvious from the start. I asked students a simple question: “Hey, I noticed you’re not engaging very much with the group work. How can I help you out with this?

I posted that question in the private group channels. I wanted to make it clear that I was not trying to call out each student in front of the whole class, but I also wanted to draw attention to the place where the group discussion was meant to be done.

One of the first responses I got from a student was that he noticed that he had forgotten to turn on the notifications for that private channel. It then occurred to me that I had never emphasized setting channel notifications properly! How could I expect students to be actively participating in the discussions if they weren’t seeing the posts from their classmates?

These are my two suggestions for teachers working in online/remote situations with largely asynchronous work required:

  • Make sure you have helped students set the notifications appropriately. Yes, notifications can tend to overwhelm our digital workspaces, but for classes, these can be an important nudge for students to actively participate.
  • If students are not engaging, send a personal message to them that doesn’t tell them to go participate, but instead ask what you can do to help them become more actively engaged. It’s a kinder and more supportive way to help get your class to the place you intend it to be.

Nothing is easy about all of this, but hopefully we can all learn from each other as we work through the Fall and look forward to the Spring — whatever that may mean for our classes.

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Andrew Morrison

Physics professor with research interest in musical acoustics