“The biggest challenge is to keep the students’ interest for 75 to 90 minutes,” Skender said. “I try to keep things as normal as possible for them.”
This transition has proved especially difficult for STEM classes that often feature large lectures and lab sections.
Christina Burch, a professor in the Department of Biology, said her ability to address student concerns and questions has been diminished over Zoom because she cannot see all her students at once on her screen.
“When I teach in a big lecture hall, if some students are confused, I find out and we tackle the confusion before I move on,” Burch said. “On days when I record the lecture and deliver it asynchronously, none of this back and forth is possible.”
Like Skender, Burch said that gauging student engagement and comprehension has been a tremendous challenge when teaching remotely.
“I hate the idea that some students may hit a point of confusion five minutes into an asynchronous lecture and struggle to get back on track for the remainder of the lecture,” Burch said.
Teaching assistants have also expressed similar concerns.
Bryce McCormick, a doctoral student and teaching assistant in the Department of Religious Studies, said students are missing out not only in class discussion, but on outside conversations that contribute to learning.
“One thing that the students are not getting is the before-class and after-class interactions, with not only me, but with themselves,” McCormick said. “You can glean a lot of classroom knowledge from those conversations.”
With the ability for students to turn off cameras and microphones, some instructors said they have struggled to maintain class energy over Zoom. McCormick said in-class discussions over Zoom are not as lively and interactive as they are in person.
“I think the students are more likely to be quiet unless asked a direct question and less likely to enter into discussions,” he said. “It does seem to be more of a solitary learning experience than it would’ve been in the classroom.”
McCormick said his fellow teaching assistants and professors have recognized the challenges that students are facing and have made an effort to be more flexible.
“The unknown of the world of COVID, the unknown of individual health, the unknown of what’s going to happen university-wide, don’t contribute to a more confident, relaxed or content feeling,” he said. “It’s been a challenge.”
Despite these obstacles, teaching assistants like McCormick are using this experience with online teaching as a learning experience. He said he hopes this semester has taught him adaptability in teaching that he can use moving forward.
“I am choosing to think of this as a positive,” McCormick said. “I will be able to use this period of time to say I can bring to the table an in-class pedagogical approach, as well as an online pedagogical approach.”
Professors are also using the switch to remote learning and the circumstances of the pandemic to enhance the content of their courses.
For Burch, framing the pandemic in the context of evolution and ecology has been a unique teaching opportunity.
“I try to teach students that evolution and ecology have real impacts in their own lives, on the environment we live in and on the species we live with,” Burch said. “This year, the ecological and evolutionary drivers of the coronavirus outbreak and spread make that easier than ever.”
Professors and teaching assistants alike said they wish to return to the classroom as soon as possible.
McCormick said he’s anxious to return to the classroom, but cites safety as his primary concern before in-person classes resume.
“I want to return to the classroom as soon as possible, but in the safest way possible,” McCormick said. “Going back to the classroom is not worth it if it’s not safe, so the most important thing is that I don’t want anybody to get sick.”
Burch said she is also looking forward to returning to the classroom, but doesn’t think it will be possible to return to large, in-person lectures in the near future.
“I can’t wait to return to the classroom, but it won’t be safe for our 200-student lecture course this spring,” Burch said. “I just hope that we will have learned how to deliver content remotely in a way that better supports students.”