October 16, 2020

Dear CNS Instructors,

I echo President McConnell’s call for everyone that can, please vote.  There is nothing more important, aside from your and your family’s health and well-being.

This week the CNS MTI teaching tip focuses on online teaching, in particular synchronous online teaching in response to a request from Nancy Levinger, Department of Chemistry.  After running a virtual REU program this summer with two-hour professional development workshops in Zoom each week, I know Nancy’s pain.  TILT has extensive information and resources for online teaching in general (https://tilt.colostate.edu/ProDev/HBOResources). For this week’s tip I draw from an article by Kelly A. Hogan and Viji Sathy in the Chronical of Higher Education (https://www.chronicle.com/article/8-ways-to-be-more-inclusive-in-your-zoom-teaching/), the Berkeley Center for Teaching and Learning (https://teaching.berkeley.edu/resources/remote-best-practices) and the Stanford Teaching Commons (list of articles on synchronous online activities: https://teachingcommons.stanford.edu/news/synchronous-activity; specifically articles on using online whiteboards and breakout rooms in Zoom).  Please check out these articles and webpages for more details than I could post here.

8 Ways to Be More Inclusive in Your Zoom Teaching

Before a session, ask students to consider the settings for their names.

Invite students to edit their name on display and choose how they would like to be addressed. Suggest they add a preferred pronoun and/or a pronunciation guide, too.  Please note that you must set your Zoom profile to allow students to make these changes.

Establish the rules of engagement for each Zoom meetup (netiquette).

Examples include to keep video activated (consider virtual backgrounds and keep in mind connectivity issues), mute their audio unless called upon/speaking, maintain eye contact, etc.

Use different ways for students to “speak up.”

In addition to instructing them to click on the hand-raised symbol to speak, you can allow students to use the chat tool or you could open a live external Q&A. For really quick questions try “Can you see my screen?” or “How are you feeling about the material so far?” or just ask everyone for a thumbs up or down on screen.

Give careful consideration to the way you start.

Invite students to pick a virtual background that tells something about themselves or pose a question to be answered through chat.

Be intentional about how you end your Zoom sessions.

For example, you might end every class with students sharing their “muddiest point” in the chat window before they leave, so you know what to go over again in the next Zoom session. In addition, you could invite students to hang around after class if they want to chat more informally.

Break out the breakout-room tool.

Many students are more likely to participate in a small-group discussion than in a class wide one.  See below for more details.

Provide resources and opportunities for asynchronous learning.

Record each Zoom session and create an online discussion forum.

Acknowledge that we’re all learning together.

Perhaps now, more than ever, is the best time to reassure students that they belong in your classroom and you believe in them.

For a “A Students’ Guide to Zoom” see https://docs.google.com/document/d/1x2H1blKddyIpON57ML2zU-SOVqwMWsN484eRMzhGiu0/edit.

Some Remote Teaching Best Practices

Flipping the remote classroom

In a flipped remote classroom, students first explore new course content outside of class by, for example, viewing a pre-recorded lecture video or completing a reading. In-class time is organized around student engagement, inquiry, and assessment. Flipping your class is one way to introduce both asynchronous and synchronous components.

Remote attendance & participation

We recognize that attendance and participation are, for many instructors, fundamental elements of their classes. Many instructors may have students who, due to circumstances beyond their control, find it difficult to consistently engage in synchronous remote instruction. Follow this link for examples of alternatives to synchronous attendance and participation.

Creating a healthy virtual environment

The Cal Division of Equity & Inclusion has created a toolkit(link is external) to aid instructors in establishing a virtual classroom culture and responding to hostile behavior online, and the Cal Multicultural Education Program maintains a list of classroom tools(link is external) from Berkeley and from our peer institutions.

Supporting DSP students remotely

DSP has produced a guide to remote accommodations that includes exams, video captioning, note taking, and alternative accessible formats for course handouts.

Online Whiteboards

The classroom whiteboard is a humble but essential technology that many instructors rely on for everything from lectures to student brainstorming activities.

While there’s no perfect analog in an online space, you do have some options.

While the Zoom whiteboard is somewhat limited, it is the quickest route to some quick drawings. From a Zoom meeting, Share screen -> Whiteboard. You can add text or draw, either yourself or with the class.

From within a screenshare in a meeting, you can “annotate” your slide to quickly circle or draw attention to content, either yourself or with the class.

  • iPad with Pencil:

For more control over writing and more sophisticated software, you will probably want to use a tablet.

  • Document Cameras: 

Document cameras are the overhead projectors of online teaching–it’s basically just a webcam set that shows you handwriting on a piece of paper. You can use a webcam or smartphone as a document camera with a little creativity (see this article on “Share Handwriting in Zoom”), or buy a dedicated document camera (Teach Anywhere’s Remote Teaching Setup Options has a wealth of information).

  • Digital Sticky Notes:

If you don’t need drawing, digital sticky notes can be especially useful for student brainstorming. Learn how to access Google Jamboard.

Successful breakout rooms in Zoom

Breakout rooms are a feature in Zoom that allows groups of one or more participants to break out into any number of smaller Zoom meetings from within the initial Zoom meeting. Zoom breakout rooms are described in further detail in Zoom’s documentation and are a great option for group work and small peer-to-peer discussions.

Pedagogic techniques for successful breakout rooms

  • Assign a clear task for students to accomplish, such as brainstorming, coming to a position on a set of questions, etc.
  • Match the amount of time and number of students to the task. Depending on the activity, create groups of 3 to 5 people (I think keeping groups to 2-3 is best). The time for a breakout depends on the activity. Try different lengths and get feedback from students to find the optimal length of time.
  • Have students take notes collaboratively. A shared Google doc is a great way to have students collaboratively take notes that they can easily share.
  • Don’t change group composition too often. Some students have reported not enjoying breakout rooms because they are not able to get to know their classmates when instructors randomly assign new groups each time. Consider the frequency of class sessions, course size, goals and objectives when setting or mixing up groups.
  • Consider if you will monitor group discussions. As host, you can move freely between breakout rooms, but can only be in one room at a time. Circulate through the rooms checking in with the students. Or you may prefer to turn off your microphone and video and simply observe.

Supporting students in breakout rooms

  • Share instructions for the breakout activity where students can see them. Copy instructions into the Zoom chat or in a shared document, as students, won’t see the shared screen in the main room while in a breakout room.
  • Assign roles to students. Assigning roles will help students start the conversation and support equitable participation. Possible roles include first-to-speak, note-taker, reporter, timekeeper, equity monitor, or questioner/devil’s advocate.
  • Randomly assign roles or select students with an equitable prompt. This may have the added benefit of acting as an icebreaker. Examples include assigning or selecting the person: whose first name is closest to the end of the alphabet, is wearing the shortest sleeves, whose birthday is coming up the soonest, whose hometown is closest to campus, etc.
  • Let students know how to ask for help after they join their breakout rooms. Tell students about the “Ask for Help” button at the bottom of their breakout room windows. This will notify the Zoom host that someone is requesting help and the host can join or send a TA to the breakout room. If you don’t have enough people to send to different breakout rooms tell students to send a representative back to the main room for help. Just be sure to select “Allow participants to return to the main session at any time” when creating the rooms.
  • Teach students how to share their screens and use the whiteboard feature. Assign a student within the breakout room to share their screen. They might share their view of a document or use the whiteboard feature in Zoom. Once sharing a screen, they might use the annotation tool or save an image of the whiteboard.
  • Give students the option to opt-out of breakout rooms. Zoom fatigue can make online group work very unproductive and sometimes stressful for some students. Perhaps instruct students to send a private chat message to you if they need accommodation or deselect “Move all participants into breakout rooms automatically” when creating the rooms and allow them to choose how they want to participate.

Additional tips

  • Get very familiar with the Zoom breakout room options. Practice with breakout rooms and get comfortable with all the settings before going live with your students. View Zoom documentation on breakout rooms
  • Pre-assign breakout room members. A host can set up specific groups in advance. Keep in mind that this feature is generally not needed for small classes or most common use cases.

Well, that is a start and some resources for diving deeper into synchronous online teaching.  I hope you find this useful.  I have one other suggested topic that I will be providing a teaching tip for.  If you have any other suggestions, please send them my way.

Keep up the great teaching, Paul

Paul Laybourn (he/him/his)
Professor, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Director, W2R S-STEM Program
Director, NoCo B2B Program
Co-Director, REU Site in Molecular Biosciences