Part 1: Engaging Students Online
By Jacqueline Kort Mascort, Hilary Sweatman, Véronique Brulé, Jennie Ferris
Have you heard about the Large Class Teaching Exchange (LCTE)? If you’re imagining instructors swapping large classes, think again! The LCTE was a six-part webinar series that took place between May and August 2021, offered by the Office of Science Education and Teaching and Learning Services. Each session addressed a different topic related to teaching large classes predominantly online, with a combination of instructor mini-presentations, “tech talks” highlighting learning technologies available at McGill, and opportunities for instructor attendees to share with one another their experience with online teaching this past year. And plenty of sharing took place: a total of 83 instructors from nine Faculties participated in the LCTE, contributing teaching ideas to the session discussions.
This blog post is the first of two highlighting large class teaching strategies from several instructor attendees. These strategies complemented those shared by LCTE session presenters, offering thoughtful suggestions for colleagues as they developed course ideas in preparation for teaching mainly online in the Fall 2021 term. Today’s post focuses on engaging students and creating interactive learning opportunities in class as discussed by Drs. Tamara Western, Jasmin Chahal and Lawrence Chen during the LCTE sessions on Fostering Class Participation and Discussion, and Connecting Online Classes to In-Person Learning Activities.
Sparking Discussion with Polling Questions
During the session focused on fostering class participation and discussion, Dr. Tamara Western from the Department of Biology and the Office of Science Education shared her approach of using fun polling questions to kick off online class sessions. Dr. Western teaches Basic Genetics (BIOL 202), a required core course in all biomedical programs with approximately 800 students. This strategy built on her success of using polling in previous in-person classes with an 8:30am start time in Leacock 132, the largest classroom on campus.
As she pointed out, “You’ve got a bunch of people you’re trying to reach, getting them to wake up and have a reason to be there, and making sure that their polling is set up right … if they've already opened up their polling program to answer a silly question or to share their opinion, then they have it up and working, and so they may as well answer the other questions while they're at it. It’s a way of getting to know [students], and for them to know a little bit about each other. More recently, I’ve started using the live word cloud option.”
Dr. Western poses lighthearted questions to engage students, often starting the term by asking the class in which program they are or if they have pets. After this initial warm-up, Dr. Western asks questions about genetics in everyday life and BIOL 202 topics, using polling as a way to generate discussion. Sometimes she takes inspiration from student responses to the warm-up questions, creating new polls with genetics problems featuring students’ pets and more.
Dr. Western’s polling strategy has been highly successful at encouraging students to participate: “I found that my attendance and responses were normally in the hundreds. I think the max I got was over 300 responses, which is actually better than I get [in person] in Leacock 132.”
Providing Multiple Opportunities for Participation
Like Dr. Western, Dr. Jasmin Chahal, a new lecturer of over 250 students in Introductory Microbiology (MIMM211), recognizes the importance of engaging students from the start of the class. The key, according to her, is breaking down the barrier between the lecturer and the students: “It all starts with engaging initially. If you want students to participate, you need to be open to talking with them.”
Dr. Chahal embodies this approach in many ways, as was evident from the ideas she shared during the LCTE session on fostering class participation and discussion. Firstly, she opens her online lectures 10 minutes early and starts a casual discussion with any early attenders. Classes begin with funny, personal ice breakers, like using polling to share which dog meme students relate to that day. Not only does this put students in good spirits, but it also gets them comfortable participating and answering questions.
A self-proclaimed daydreamer, Dr. Chahal understands the importance of capturing students’ attention and maintaining it by making lectures interactive and meaningful. Her lectures always begin with case studies, often featuring her good-natured TAs, and then she gradually introduces information that allows students to solve the case by the end of class. This approach validates students’ understanding, allows them to take ownership of their learning, and helps Dr. Chahal to informally assess their progress. Additionally, she breaks up the monotony of the traditional lecture format by intermixing polling questions, videos, and 5-minute health breaks within her 50 minutes of class. Students reported leaving class so confident in their understanding of the material that they didn’t feel the need to go back and review, and that they felt they had been part of an “interactive storybook.”
Dr. Chahal’s advice for implementing this type of approach is to “keep it simple,” and, “when something works, keep it up!” At the end of the day, no matter the subject, it is “how you teach it and how you interact that makes the difference.”
Making the Most of Live Class Time
Similarly, Dr. Lawrence Chen’s teaching approach also centers on providing many interactive learning opportunities for students. During the session on connecting online class to in-person learning activities, Dr. Chen shared with LCTE attendees aspects of his experience of teaching online using a flipped classroom approach in his course, Introduction to Signals and Systems (ECSC 206), in Winter 2021. Rather than using class time to lecture and assigning problems as homework, a flipped classroom generally involves students having their first exposure to course content outside of class, e.g., by watching instructional videos or completing readings, and then coming to class to engage in problem solving with their peers. Having successfully used this approach in person, Dr. Chen continued using it with his 90-student online class this past winter term, making a few small tweaks to adjust the flipped format for teaching online.
As with his in-person approach, Dr. Chen would begin Zoom classes with a brief introduction covering key takeaways from the pre-assigned readings and/or instructional videos, and then continue by answering questions before sending students into breakout rooms for group problem-solving activities. The breakout room groups were created at the beginning of the term and remained constant throughout the course. Dr. Chen also included low stakes pre-class activities that, in his experience, help students come to class more prepared. He also added consolidation time in the course schedule during which students could continue to work on previous problems, ask questions, or work on problems that tied different parts of a module together.
Dr. Chen credits the help of his teaching team – one grader, one TA and two TEAM students – with successfully delivering the online version of the flipped course. He made sure to always have help from at least one of the TAs or TEAM students during live class time. In addition, having a grader ensured a quick turnaround time for feedback on submitted assignments.
According to students’ evaluation of the course, the majority liked the flipped approach, feeling it contributed to their learning. However, a small portion of students indicated a preference for traditional lecturing.
“The flipped classroom approach is not for every instructor or for every student,” explains Dr. Chen. “It is harder to teach, but with practice it becomes more second nature. You cannot teach the class the same way twice because the dynamics of the course change every time. However, the experience of the students in general is more positive and you end up connecting with the class a lot better.”
Lawrence recommends that instructors interested in implementing a flipped approach do it in stages after becoming familiar with the course content and be aware that flipped courses are not static; they are always evolving.
Which of these ideas appeals to you? Is there one you can imagine using in your course? Stay tuned for a second post in which other LCTE instructor attendees share strategies for working with TAs and designing assessments for large classes.