Engaging and supporting students amid COVID-19: Lecturers reflect on remote quarter

June 10, 2020, 11:33 p.m.

With the switch to virtual spring classes, instructors turned to new platforms for teaching and sought ways to maximize student engagement without in-person interaction. 

In smaller, discussion-based classes — like introductory seminars (introsems), courses in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR) and creative writing classes — instructors searched for ways to emulate the small-group dynamics on Zoom.

Pawel Lutomski Ph.D. ’92, an international relations lecturer who this quarter taught INTNLREL 140A: “International Law and International Relations” and the introsem INTNLREL 62Q: “Mass Atrocities and Reconciliation,” said he was initially hesitant about teaching the introsem, concerned about the feasibility of having productive discourse over Zoom. But, he wanted to take on the challenge.

“That was the moment to rise to the occasion,” Lutomski said.

Advanced lecturer Emily Polk, who teaches PWR 1EP: “The Rhetoric of Global Development and Social Change,” said that her primary goal in switching to virtual classes was to care for her students.

“One thing that was on my mind from the beginning was how to create trust in my classroom, trust among my students, trust in the work that we’re doing together, and trust as a writing community,” Polk said.

Instructors of lecture-style classes with more students enrolled also faced challenges in working to engage large numbers of students through a screen. 

CS 109: “Probability for Computer Scientists” lecturer Lisa Yan M.S. ’15 Ph.D. ’19, who taught to an audience of 360 students this quarter, said she placed importance on designing a course that would be effective over Zoom.

Yan decided to split the class’ scheduled 80-minute lectures into 30 minutes of pre-recorded material focused largely on conceptual understanding, followed by 50 minutes of live, more collaborative instruction.

Prioritizing flexibility while teaching

Instructors said that creating an environment that fosters care and intentional learning required a willingness to make alterations to existing course structures and requirements.

“You have to completely rethink your course,” said education professor Francisco Ramirez M.A. ’70 Ph.D. ’74. For Ramirez’s course SOC 130: “Education and Society,” this meant more asynchronous work and replacing typical first-day exercises, like going through the syllabus, with pre-assigned readings and in-class exercises.

Ramirez and others said that engaging students meant providing them with flexibility, including extending deadlines for papers and problem sets. The switch to Satisfactory/No-Credit (S/NC) grading, instructors said, allowed them to accommodate students’ changing needs.

Ramirez said that grading papers on the basis of S/NC let him offer extended commentary without focusing on minute, grade-based evaluations. 

“I could make extensive comments on their reflection papers without having to think about if their paper was really an A- or a B+,” he said. 

Even with S/NC grading, Ramirez said he did not see a drop in the quality of his students’ papers.

Likewise, Yan found that the grading scheme allowed students to focus on continual learning, through completing problem sets, without focusing on a letter grade.

Virtual teaching brings challenges and perks

Some instructors lauded Zoom’s “breakout room” function as a substitute for smaller in-person discussions, describing the chat function as particularly useful for fruitful discussion by making students feel more comfortable in asking questions.

In some previous quarters, Lutomski enacted a policy that students couldn’t sit in the same seats, so that they would all get a chance to meet each other. He tackled that virtually by assigning students randomly into breakout rooms.

Ramirez found some benefit in lecturing while sitting.

“You’re sitting down, you have to slow down,” he said. “That may, oddly, make it easier for students to ask questions. It may be less intimidating”.

But Ramirez also faced some obstacles unique to virtual instruction. In the middle of one lecture, his WiFi connection went down, and he delivered the remainder of the lecture solely through his phone audio.

“Out of necessity, it’s okay,” Lutomski said. “But, I don’t think it’s completely sustainable.”

Forming relationships with students

Instructors also found new ways to build relationships with students without being able to meet with them in person. 

Yan provided additional office hours she called “Tea Hours,” inviting students to chat, ask questions about the course or just work through a jigsaw puzzle online with her.

Lutomski said he had one-on-one chats with each student in his courses, both at the beginning and end of the quarter respectively. He saw these conversations as a way to learn about his students’ quickly changing lives, hear their predictions for the coming year and figure out how he could best serve them as an instructor.

Polk said that during the end of the quarter “PWR mixer” — an event where students taking PWR share their theses for their final papers — she realized how much she had bonded with her class.

“When our entire class got put in a breakout room, we all started laughing, because we felt like a family,” Polk said.

An abrupt end to the quarter

Instructors continued to adapt during the last few weeks of the quarter, as protests erupted nationwide after the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the police.

Although his seminar focuses mainly on mass atrocities around the world, Lutomski decided to pivot to social justice and racial divisions in the U.S. for the final week. 

“This is just one way to look at how radicalized conflict can come about,” he said.

Many of the instructors interviewed made final papers or assignments optional; many also offered students the choice to return to the course material later, when they were ready.

“I reminded students that it was my responsibility to make sure that they could learn the material when they were ready to come back and be a student,” Yan said. “I’ve made myself available any time over the summer for students to ask me questions … I hope some of them take me up on my offer.”

Instructors also said that they would use the lessons they learned from teaching online this quarter for the next academic year, which the University has said will still include some degree of online instruction. 

Contact Michelle Gan at mgan ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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