Finding New Ways to “Read the Room” in a Year of Remote Teaching

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Jessica Katz, Energy and Resources Group

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2021

One of the most challenging aspects of adjusting to a remote classroom has been losing the nonverbal cues that allow teachers and students to communicate efficiently in real time. As a GSI for an interdisciplinary data science course (Energy & Resources 131), I struggled to gauge student engagement, confusion, and fatigue from the disembodied thumbnail videos (or, worse, faceless black squares) of Zoom. Real-time feedback from students is crucial to operating successful laboratory sections, whose objectives are to review key concepts and guide students through a series of coding exercises in Jupyter notebooks. In an in-person setting, students complete these exercises independently. The GSI’s role is to actively observe progress, troubleshoot individual issues, and recognize when those issues are common enough to merit reconvening and offering guidance to the full group. 

My initial strategy for adapting the in-person format of ER 131 for a remote environment was not successful. After presenting a concept review, I would introduce each coding exercise to the full class, send students to breakout rooms to attempt the problems in small groups, and reconvene the class to live code the answers. I would repeat this process for each coding exercise. This approach proved ineffective for a group of students with diverse coding backgrounds. In a mid-semester survey, individuals with relatively more coding experience expressed frustration with the slow pace of section, while those with less experience felt lost on the last few problems that we invariably ran out of time to finish during section. Without being able to observe all breakout rooms at once, I lacked an efficient way to determine when the majority of the class would benefit from my guidance versus more time working independently or in small groups.

To correct course, I implemented three structural changes to section, with an aim toward enhancing real-time feedback. First, instead of starting section with a review presentation, I used Zoom polling to administer ungraded concept quizzes on lecture content. These quizzes helped students identify their own knowledge gaps, and they enabled me to quickly identify commonly misunderstood concepts that needed additional clarification during section. Second, with the assistance of a new Zoom functionality that enables meeting participants to self-select into breakout rooms, I gave students the virtual ability to choose their own “lab adventure” to complete the coding assignments. Students could elect to join one of several preset breakout rooms, whose activities included live coding with me, working in small groups, or working independently. Finally, I set aside 15-20 minutes at the end of each section as an open forum during which students could submit questions (and/or upvote questions submitted by their peers) via a Google document. Like the concept quizzes, this strategy provided an efficient way to elicit common questions or concerns that I needed to address.

My new approach yielded positive results almost immediately. Students commented on the effectiveness of the Zoom concept quizzes as a review tool and requested copies to use as study guides for the midterm. Moreover, by focusing the review and Q&A segments on the most difficult questions, the live-code group now had time to finish all the exercises together, ensuring that students with less coding expertise left section with the tools they needed to complete the homework assignments. In late-semester “temperature checks” and course evaluations, several students expressed their appreciation that we listened to their feedback and changed the format of section to respond to their learning needs during an extraordinary semester. 

Strategies such as concept quizzes, “opt-in” activities, and Q&A Google documents are useful beyond the remote classroom. As we look forward to a post-pandemic world, I hope we instructors will augment the nonverbal communication that happens almost effortlessly in an in-person setting with the feedback mechanisms we learned during our year in a remote classroom.