Guest post: 8 Lessons for Teaching over Zoom

Post author: Morgan Tingley

It has been a long ten weeks. As SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19, was spreading rampantly across the United States in late March, most colleges and universities were returning from spring break, looking forward to finishing the academic year and the relief of summer. Here at the University of California – Los Angeles, however, we are on a quarter system, and our new “spring term” started on March 30th, just two weeks after campus officially closed and all classes moved online. As campuses shuttered across the country, an incredible diversity of resources were shared online for how to teach remotely. These resources often included conflicting advice, and also frequently assumed that instructors had months or years to re-design courses around online education.

After quickly becoming both overwhelmed and frustrated with the available advice, I figured that if I just entered the term with a sense of both humor and empathy, the students and I would be able to figure it out. Ten weeks later I’ve emerged mostly unscathed and feeling vastly more proficient at remote lecturing. So for those of you who are currently enjoying your summer breaks, but are starting to feel nervous about the fall (or spring 2021) semester, I’ve assembled below my top lessons for teaching over Zoom.

[Notes and caveats: I teach a lecture-based quantitative methods course for undergrads, so my advice below is geared towards those who are teaching what is normally a lecture-based class. Additionally, I am writing this under the assumption that you are not going to fully re-design an existing course to be delivered remotely. Such efforts are admirable and pedagogically superior, and should be properly lauded, but I have existed in academia long enough to know that many instructors do not have this option. Finally, this list is far from complete. Please feel free to comment at the end with your own suggestions.]

1. Both you and your students are still getting used to this

One of the main messages on my syllabus was the statement, “we did not sign up for this.” In context, it turned out that “this” could be interpreted multiple ways, but the statement acknowledged that we are all learning, all adapting, and that as instructors and students, our expectation had been that teaching would happen in person.

The sudden novelty of remote instruction means that everyone needs practice. When first lecturing, it is important to instruct students on the different tools available in Zoom. Ask them to raise and lower their hands, to mute and unmute, to turn their camera on and off, and to have them use the chat window. Make sure to set your rules early, and explain how you want students to experience the lecture with you. Do you even want them to raise their hands? Will you be monitoring chat while you lecture? Students need to be told how you want them to experience the class.

2. Prepare yourself for lecture delivery

When I normally walk into a lecture hall, I have a routine. For remote lecturing, you will need a whole new routine. For me, it went something like this:

  • (T-10 minutes) Turn on all the lights in my office to make sure I have adequate facial illumination (more below).
  • Close the door so that my dog or family would not interrupt.
  • Open my Powerpoint and log into Zoom.
  • Turn off all notifications on my phone and on my computer (more below).
  • Put in my headphones and test my microphone.
  • (T-5) Click on lecture link to enter into the lecture and allow students to begin arriving
  • Begin sharing my Powerpoint.
  • (T-2) Spend a moment re-arranging Zoom panels, opening windows for “participants”, “chat” and “polls”, and arranging these at the edges of my computer screen so that I can see my slides while still monitoring for questions in chat and raised hands.
  • (T-0) At the pre-scheduled time, say “hi” to everyone, begin recording of the lecture, and start the class.

Getting used to this new routine takes practice. I highly recommend you try it out with TAs or grad students a few times before you go live. Your students will appreciate it when you do not spend half of the first lecture fumbling with technology.

A few items of preparation deserve elaboration. First, consider the setting within which you will be delivering your lecture. What is behind you? An expansive and cluttered room can be distracting; consider changing the camera angle so that there is a wall not too far behind you. On newer operating systems, Zoom allows you to choose a “virtual background,” which emulates a green screen and can make you look like you’re anywhere you choose: in your office, on the Death Star, in Paris, or in a coral reef. While virtual backgrounds are a fun way to personalize your appearance while also providing privacy, it is easy to overdo it. My advice: keep it on theme and simpler is better.

Relatedly, how will you be lit? It’s important for students to see your face. They will never meet you in person, so for this to be a personal experience, they want to see your face, and they want to see it well. Diffuse natural light is the best, but can be unreliable depending on the weather. A combination of lamp lights that illuminate the front of your face is a good substitute. While you shouldn’t need to purchase one of the fancy LED “ring” lights favored by YouTube stars, you may need to grab some lights from around your home and reconfigure your desk set-up for optimal lighting.

Finally, nothing is more distracting than having alerts go off during your lecture. We all know how distracting it is when a cell phone rings during class. During your Zoom lecture the students should be muted anyway, so your own disruptions are the only ones to worry about. Turn off your cell phone or fully mute it (including no vibrations). More importantly, turn off notifications on your computer or put it in “Do Not Disturb” mode – no one wants to hear every time you receive an email.

3. Be attentive to time. Buy a clock

In traditional lecturing, we are used to a variety of signals that keep us on time. There’s a clock mounted on the back of the room. Maybe we use Presenter Mode. But always the students keep us on task – the predictable rustling of bags, the shutting of laptops, the sound of zippers opening and closing.

In a remote lecture, all of this is gone. The students are muted. When they need to leave, they just disappear silently. As for Presenter Mode in Powerpoint, if you have not discovered this yet, it does not work particularly well with Zoom (unless you have two monitors), and it is very likely that you accidentally end up sharing Presenter Mode with all of your students.

All of this means that it is extremely easy to lose track of time and lecture on and on until you look up and realize that you’re 20 minutes over and you’ve lost your audience. My solution? Buy a small digital clock and mount it on or next to your camera, so that you can constantly be monitoring time while it looks like you’re just making eye contact with your students.

4. Realize that the rules of interaction are re-written

As educators, we have spent a career learning how to best facilitate learning through in-class engagement. How many Teaching Statements have we each written or read, that use all the current buzz-words (“think-pair-share”, “problem-based learning,” “flipped”) to demonstrate that we know how important it is for students to interact with the material (and instructors) in order to learn. Well, thank goodness we were not evaluated on how well these methods work in online formats!

The point is not that we should throw away the hope of interactive classrooms, but that everything is now different. Thankfully, it’s not all bad.

In particular, the chat function in Zoom is a hugely useful communication tool. For today’s university students, they are often more comfortable in chat rooms than they are speaking. Zoom’s chat gives you an opportunity to keep students engaged. In a real classroom, if you ask students to raise their hands and speak up, you may be met with awkward silence. In a Zoom classroom, just ask students to put their questions into chat, and students who might never have raised their hands find the courage to ask a question. Via chat, students can ask questions when they think of it, without interrupting you. Via chat, TAs can manage problems or mistakes in real time.

While Zoom has a variety of other tools that can be effective for learning (I used a lot of “polls”), none are as immediately useful and as potentially revolutionizing as chat.

5. But not all interaction tools are equally effective

One of the innovations of Zoom is “breakout rooms”. Essentially, you can take your 100 students, and within seconds, subdivide them into private rooms of 4, 5, or however many students you wish. This allows you to quickly create small groups where discussions are manageable. Are you used to incorporating small group discussion into your large lectures? If so, breakout rooms are for you! Pose your question, send them off, and then you and TAs can cycle between rooms checking on the conversation. Magic.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. In practice, we had a lot of problems. Some students complained of technical glitches, where entering a breakout room would crash their Zoom. This caused some students to avoid even attending lecture live. Moreover, when students are in breakouts, it’s impossible to know what’s happening and what the general progression of discussion is. Do the students need 30 seconds, 1 minute or 5 minutes to deal with this problem?

Breakouts also failed when needed most, in lab sections. While running a remote “computer lab”, we would put students into breakouts so that they could work in small groups and build connections. It turns out, however, that many students avoided turning their cameras and microphones on while in these breakout rooms. No matter how hard we tried, we just could not build a sense of “togetherness” that supported dynamic interactions during lab sessions. Not surprisingly, students ended up disliking lab more than any other part of the course. While I think breakout rooms can help in some circumstances, do not assume that they will mimic small-group learning.

6. Zoom cannot fulfill all your teaching needs. It’s time to branch out.

We should not expect one tech tool to completely replace the classroom experience. Zoom is exceptionally good at simulating a lecture-like experience, but there’s so much more to teaching that it cannot approximate, or does so poorly. This is where your own research, combined with suggestions from peers (e.g., the comment section on this post) can help.

In my case, I benefitted from a variety other utilities. Many of these websites we would have used anyway, including our course management site (e.g., Blackboard or Moodle), but also CoCalc, an exceptional site for remote data science, and Gradescope, which makes online grading (and re-grades) fast and easy. A new discovery for me was Campuswire, which is the best chat and discussion forum for classes that I’ve seen – think Slack but built for teaching.

7. Not all students have equal access to technology

Watching lectures on phones, using cellular data, sharing bandwidth with siblings – not all students will be learning under optimal environments. There’s a lot of discussion available online for whether we should be giving “synchronous” (i.e., live) or “asynchronous” (i.e., pre-recorded) lectures. For the sake of flexibility, my vote is to do a hybrid: record your live lecture and post-online afterwards. Thankfully, Zoom makes it easy to record and save lectures.

Students really appreciated this hybrid approach. Most would tune in live, so that they could engage with the material and ask questions. But an almost equal number preferred to watch recordings on their own schedule, stopping and starting playback to take notes. Being able to replay key segments was very useful for ESL learners.

8. Encourage, but do not require, showing faces

Of all the things that are different about online teaching, the hardest is just not being around actual, physical people. Having students turn their camera on helps immensely. While sharing a Powerpoint and lecturing, Zoom shows a strip of students on the side of my screen. While not the same as having an audience in person, I was incredibly grateful to those 5 students who kept their cameras on, nodding along, laughing at jokes, or looking confused when I went too fast. I let them all know many times how much I appreciated seeing an audience.

At the same time, we should not require students to show their faces. There are a number of privacy concerns that students may have, and for students with poor bandwidth, showing their face my preclude their ability to follow the video. So encourage, but do not require.

Concluding Note

It’s unclear how long the majority of college classes will be taught online, or how SARS-CoV-2 will ultimately change higher-ed. Remote instruction is certainly not the same as teaching in person, but it can still be rewarding and enjoyable. We all have a lot to learn about how to effectively instruct in this environment, and I welcome the discussion.

About the author
Morgan Tingley is an Associate Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA.


10 thoughts on “Guest post: 8 Lessons for Teaching over Zoom

  1. My students were doing computer labs in pairs and beginning term projects in the same pairs when the lockdown hit. We used breakout rooms in zoom to continue that work and it worked splendidly. I wonder if the difference is because they already knew their lab partner pretty well by the time we had to switch to remote learning. If you do plan to use breakout rooms for small group work, I wonder if it would help to use the same groups each time and spend just a little time at the beginning of the course letting students get to know the others in their group.

    Which makes me think… I usually meet briefly with students one-on-one or in small groups at the beginning of the semester — it helps us see each other as individuals, not as generic Teacher or Student. Maybe it’s worth meeting specifically with those small groups, so that students get to know me *and* their lab partner.

    • I like these ideas. Building contacts and connections amongst the students was definitely hard and, I believe, part of what made these computer labs struggle online. We tried to use the same groups each week, but I think the students also weren’t motivated to build connections with people they may never meet in person (especially if they already had friends in other pre-assigned lab sections).

  2. First, thanks so much for writing this Morgan, this is super-helpful.

    Here’s a question I’m currently struggling with, on which I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’m thinking about clubbing together with colleagues and buying a big lightboard (example: I feel like it’d be great for prerecorded mini-lectures, because the students could see much more of me than than they could with just a little zoom window of my face. And it’s a much better technology for doing pre-recorded lectures that involve me writing stuff, rather than me talking about prepared slides. But if I’m using a lightboard, I feel like there’s not much point in me doing lectures live and then recording them for students who couldn’t attend the live session. I might as well just pre-record them, because it’s not very practical for me to do a lecture on a lightboard and also (say) monitor a live chat, or ask clicker questions, or etc. So it seems like there’s a bit of a tradeoff here: I can give students better prerecorded lectures via lightboard, and then maybe use our synchronous class sessions in some other way, such as to give clicker questions. Or I can give them somewhat worse live lectures (with some interactivity) that will be recorded for later reference. Thoughts on this?

    • Great question! I feel like you’re considering the options available when you have a bit more time to plan (e.g., months), instead of days/weeks. And I agree, lightboard lectures look and feel fantastic when done well. And essentially you’re proposing to do an online flipped class.

      If you’re going 100% asynchronous with lecture material, then I would recommend breaking the lectures into manageable bites – 10–15 minute chunks, instead of a single 50-minute recording – as that makes it more digestible. And once you’ve made that material available online, then you have the opportunity to re-think what in-person interactions are like. Those in-person interactions are where I would be particularly concerned / creative. As I mention in the blog, we had a lot of trouble getting students to interact effectively over zoom with each other in a “computer lab” setting. But I can imagine where you present the main content in a high quality way pre-recorded, and then you have (fewer) live sections that essentially are a review and Q&A session. That sounds cool.

      • Thanks for the feedback, much appreciated.

        After my mid-semester switch to teaching online only last term, I had very few students attending weekly synchronous Q&A sessions, and those who attended mostly never said anything (not even in the zoom chat window). So, same as your experience. So if I went down the route of an online flipped model, I’d want to incentivize/require attendance for at least some of the live synchronous sessions. One option would be to do lots of clicker questions during those live synchronous sessions, and the students have to answer some fraction of the clicker questions during the term to get a participation mark.

        Of course, a hybrid model is possible–some short pre-recorded lightboard lectures, plus some content delivery during live synchronous class sessions.

      • This sounds sort of similar to what I’m planning (though I hadn’t even considered a lightboard!) What I’ve been thinking is having pre-recorded lectures (probably in a few mini-lectures of 10-15 minutes that they can watch whenever they want), and then having a synchronous (but also recorded so it can be asynchronous) session that I use for working through problems & Q&A. I’m still trying to figure out how to do that last one well (and very open to suggestions!)

  3. Thank you so much for this post, Morgan! It’s incredibly timely for me. We started getting the formal announcements this week and, as I expected, my class will be remote. A few specific thoughts/follow ups:

    re point 2: this level of detail about pre-class is super helpful and not something I had considered at all yet, so thank you! And as for lights: I just finally dug out an old desk lamp that I’ve had since college and am kind of amazed at how much it has helped to have it pointing at the wall during zoom calls.

    re point 5: I was recently talking to the parent of a college-aged student. She said she had been confused to see him clearly attending a remote synchronous class session, but his monitor was blank, there was no sound coming out, and he was on Snapchat on his phone. She was like, “Um, what’s up here?” and his response was something like “Oh, we’re in the small group discussions. No one does them. We all just sit here until the professor starts talking again.” So, that was a good reminder of the realities of how zoom breakout groups (especially in very large classes) sometimes go on the student end of things.

    Sort of related to 6: I think that I will be receiving guidance from the college (university? I’m not sure) about particular tools that are preferred so that students don’t have to learn a totally new set of things for each of their different classes.

    Finally, we’re also still figuring out the logistics of captioning everything. Last winter, the instructors had what I thought was an excellent idea, and got help from the lab prep staff (who no longer had labs to prep) with captioning all the materials. But there will probably be more lab prep this fall, so we’re currently working to identify support (including funding) to help with making sure we all the different materials we release are captioned. We’ll probably start with the autocaptioning tools that things like Google Slides have, but they will need to be corrected. (Someone I know had a random mouth noise she made as she was starting the recording of her first remote lecture autocaptioned as “Fuck!” That may have been appropriate to how she was feeling but which was not actually what she had said.)

  4. Pingback: Pick & Mix 48 – wildflowers, sinistral snails, slaves, Charles Dickens, medieval insect lore, conservation and teaching in a virtual world | Don't Forget the Roundabouts

  5. Amazingly (or perhaps not so…) my forcedly remote experience (co-)teaching the usual 2nd semester courses (Marine Botany, Intro to Applied Phycology) to 3rd year students (The graduating class in our system) was that at the end there was a LOT MORE spontaneous coming out with things they did/did not like about the course, during wrap up sessions both before and after finals. If there was a common trend it was that they were really appreciative of the teachers efforts to overcome difficulties and be attentive to their needs. I mean, this has always been my way of teaching in person, but mostly I get such feed-back from a couple of the more mature/interested students and that’s it! I must say, it feels good. Cheers

  6. Morgan, thanks for this super-helpful post. Any chance you’d consider doing an updated edition that captures what you’ve learned since June? Given that we are now preparing to teach our spring 2021 courses all-remote (here at Rutgers, at least) . . .

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