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.

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Open discussion thread: field-based courses in the time of coronavirus

In the past, if we used the word “remote” when talking about field-based courses, we would have been referring to going to a far-off location. Now, during the pandemic, talking about teaching field-based courses remotely means teaching them with the instructor in one place and the students dispersed in many different places.

I know a few folks who are trying to figure out how to teach their summer field-based courses (e.g., field ecology courses) online. They definitely have some good ideas, such as taking advantage of Zooniverse, having students upload observations to iNaturalist, linking with Project Feederwatch or eBird, and using other publicly available data, such as data from NEON. There could even be some advantages to the students being spread out, including by asking students to compare and contrast what the class is finding in different regions or habitat types (as long as those activities are optional, to take into account different access to resources & different social/physical distancing realities).

It seemed like it could be helpful to have an open discussion thread where folks share what they’re thinking of doing, where they ask for suggestions for things they are trying to figure out, and where they share resources and ideas for how to teach this type of course as inclusively as possible. This will hopefully be similar to the open thread on the science of the coronavirus pandemic, with the goal of providing a place where the ecology community can have a discussion, in this case about how to teach field-based courses during the pandemic.

What are you planning doing in your field-based courses? What are you worried about? What would you like to find out more about? What do you hope people teaching this sort of course will think about?

Recording lectures is good for students, good for instructors, and good for public health

I’ve been thinking of writing a post about my experiences with recording lectures in Intro Bio for a while, and, with coronavirus spreading, now seems like a good time to finally write it up. Overall, I think there have been a lot of different benefits — well beyond what I initially anticipated. And, at a time when we really don’t want sick students showing up in lecture halls, there’s a strong public health argument for recording lectures and setting up class structures so that sick students aren’t penalized for staying home.

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Update on recording office hours: It seems to be working!

Over the summer, I wrote a post thinking about how to make office hours more accessible, specifically wondering about whether I should be calling them “student hours” instead of “office hours” and whether I should record them. This post is an update on that. The short version is:

  • I decided to stick with “office hours”, but also explained on the first day of class and in the syllabus what office hours are and who they are for (everyone!)
  • I have been recording office hours and think this has worked well, though it was harder to set up than I anticipated.

The rest of this post will focus particularly on the recordings, since I’ve had a few people ask me for more information about that. As I wrote about in my earlier post, this idea came from my UMich colleague John Montgomery, who records his office hours (which he calls “Open Discussion”) and who reported that student feedback on it was really positive.

At first, it seemed like it would be easy to record them. My lectures are recorded through a university system, so I thought that I would just be able to do the same with office hours. But no rooms with lecture recording capability were available for me to reserve for office hours. “No problem,” I thought, “I’ll just figure out another way.” And I did…eventually. A couple of people have asked me for more info about how I’ve been doing this, so I figured I’d share it in a blog post. I’ll also talk about the response to the recordings & things that could be improved.

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An incomplete list of things that blow the minds of Intro Bio students

Early in the semester during an Intro Bio class, a student asked about whether it’s ever possible for individuals of two different species to breed. That led to discussion of zebroids and, at some point in the back and forth, I mentioned that Homo sapiens had successfully interbred with Neanderthals. At least a quarter of the students (maybe even half) were visibly surprised—and I didn’t even explain that the evidence is this happened repeatedly! (Don’t worry, we covered that in a later lecture.) That night, I was making lunch for my kids and thinking about that moment in class, and I thought “Just wait until I tell them how much of their genome is viral!”

There are parts of teaching Intro Bio that are hard or annoying or both. But there are some parts that I absolutely love, and one of those is routinely getting to introduce students to things that are literally jaw-dropping. It makes me think of this xkcd:

It is always a highlight of my day (week!) when we have one of those moments in class.

So, in that spirit, I present an incomplete list of things that blow the minds of Intro Bio students (many thanks to my colleague Cindee Giffen for helping me with this list!):

  1. (Almost) all of your cells contain all of your genes
  2. Humans interbred with Neanderthals (repeatedly)
  3. About 8% of the human genome is viral in origin
  4. Plants get infected by viruses. (This comes up because I show a thermal image of a plant leaf that has been infected by a virus when talking about respiration. Speaking of which…)
  5. Plants respire
  6. There are photosynthetic organisms that are not plants
  7. Male anglerfish fuse to the female
  8. Damselfly penises
  9. Gerboas
  10. Taxonomy, including humans are fish, whales are mammals not the things we generally mean by “fish”, and birds are dinosaurs. Or, to quote a former student, “So, sharks are fish, dolphins are mammals, whales are mammals too, and penguins are birds, and birds are dinosaurs, so penguins are dinosaurs?!?”
  11. Fecal transplants
  12. Judas goats

I sometimes think that, if we filmed students while introducing those things, we would get really, really good reaction gifs.

The above list are mostly factoid sorts of things, but there are some bigger conceptual things that are definitely mind-bending for some students. Three that immediately spring to mind are:

  1. The same thing can be an ancestral or derived trait, depending on your frame of reference
  2. The way you can zoom in through taxonomy, sort of like you’re zooming through Google Earth (for example, humans are eukaryotes and animals and deuterostomes and vertebrates and mammals and primates and apes and hominins)
  3. Food webs — that something happening way over here in a food web can influence something way over there, and also the differences between how energy flows and matter cycles

Another thing that definitely blows their minds is that ecology involves math. I address this head on now at the start of the population ecology class, and my sense is that helps, but it still really surprises many of them when equations start appearing.

I initially started compiling this list because I thought it might be interesting to others. But I’ve found it has helped me during a very busy, challenging semester — it’s ended up being a really nice way of noting the little things that are fun that I might otherwise just blow right by in a frenzy of trying to get things done. (It’s also led to me adding notes to the front of my lecture notes that say things like “damselfly sex”, in an attempt to remember to add that to the list.)

So, I’m curious:

  1. What things have you found blow your students’ minds (in a good way!) And
  2. Do you have any routines or other things that help you note the little, fun things that occur while teaching?

 

On getting a sense of perspective…or not

This summer, I unexpectedly spent 8 days in New York because my father was in the hospital. At first, things seemed pretty bad. I went to see him in the hospital, which was really emotional and hard. After sitting with him through dinner, I left the hospital and drove back to my parents’ house, feeling sad. When I got home, I checked my email and saw that a manuscript that I’ve been really excited about had been rejected.

I felt even worse. There was a part of my brain saying, “Come on! Dad is in the hospital! A rejected manuscript is not a big deal! You should be saying ‘Well, this gives perspective on what really matters!’” But, instead, I was feeling like I’d been kicked while I was down.

But, with other things or at other times, I do have that sense of perspective. Did I explain the Law of Segregation perfectly when a student asked about it in office hours this semester? Nope. Was it recorded? Yep. Was it a matter of life and death? Nope. I could make sure I explained it better in the next class and move on to other stuff.

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Creating environments where it’s okay to make mistakes and ask questions

When I first started at Georgia Tech, I had the tremendously good fortune to hire a really, really, really good technician. (One of my first blog posts was on hiring a tech vs. a postdoc when starting a new lab.) Jessie was an amazing technician for a whole bunch of reasons, including that she was really good at working with undergrads in the lab.

At one point, I was in the lab while she was training a new student in the lab and I heard her say something like, “I’m not sure if I did a good job of explaining that. Can you tell me what you heard so I can try again if I didn’t explain it well?” I loved that approach. It made it so that, if the student got something wrong when they explained it back or tried it the first time, it wasn’t their fault – it was that it hadn’t been explained well enough.

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Changes I made the last time I taught that I think were useful

The last time I taught Intro Bio (in Fall 2017), I felt like things went really well in terms of interacting with students. And, while they’re a flawed metric, my teaching evaluations were notably higher than they’d been in the past. I mentioned that to a friend, who knew I had set goals before the semester about what I was going to do differently, and asked if I could write them out. So I did. And then I forgot I had done that.

In May, I wrote a post on a small change I made to try to make it clearer to students that I really care a lot about their learning. The short version is: before answering a question a student asked in class, I tried to do more to signal that I appreciated them asking the question. In the comments section, someone asked if it improved my teaching evaluations. My answer was “My student evaluations were unusually high after I did this, but I changed a few things so it’s hard to know how much of an effect this had. I wrote out all the changes for a colleague who was curious, and it might be worth turning that into a blog post.”

So, here is a modified version of what I sent my frolleague (friend + colleague = frolleague!):

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Why teaching Intro Bio makes me think we need to radically change qualifying exams

When I first arrived at Michigan and began teaching Intro Bio, the course had four exams. In that first semester, I added in clicker questions. Since then, we have added in frequent quizzing, so the students now have four exams, plus two quizzes a week (completed before coming to class), plus clicker questions in class. We have all of that because we know that frequent testing improves student learning. (Here’s one review, here’s another, and here’s a summary of the changes we made in Intro Bio and their impacts on student performance.) As a side bonus, when the testing is low stakes (as with the quizzes and clicker questions), students get those learning benefits without paying a cost in terms of increased anxiety. Given all that, I would never consider changing the format to one where we have just a single, pass/fail, high stakes assessment at the end of the semester.

Now, let’s consider graduate prelim/qualifying exams.

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Cohort-based mentoring for graduate students: a “bright spot” worth emulating?

I recently learned about an approach to mentoring that I think has a lot of potential. My initial conversations with others suggests they think it has promise, too. The goal of this post is both to share the idea and to (hopefully!) hear from people with experience with this approach.

Here’s the general idea: some larger graduate programs at Michigan use an approach where each cohort is assigned a mentor. So, there is one mentor for all of the first year students, a different one for all of the second year students, etc. That person is an additional resource for those students – someone who they can turn to for advice. They also host regular events (I think maybe ~monthly) for the cohort, which helps them develop skills, explore different topics, and crucially, helps build community.*

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