In on-line teaching one thing is essential

Of all the preparations with Canvas and Zoom, in all the discussions with my Teaching Assistants, in reading the blizzard of emails my anxious university sends out, there is one thing I keep remembering from my son’s long experience with on-line learning. After all, remote teaching is new to me and new to nearly all the many teachers across the world in this pandemic, but it is not new to experienced on-line teachers who have been offering remote classes with excellence from top universities like Oregon State.

It is something we can do that is quite easy and yet is transformative for the student. It can be applied to Zoom meetings, to Discussion questions in Canvas, and to all the very necessary interactive aspects of a course. It is based on fundamental principles of human interaction.

The power of learning in small groups

Doing this will enrich a student’s experience. It will make her feel that she is in an intimate classroom with colleagues in situations where she can build enduring relationships. Actually, it is something that can and should be done for in-person classes, though the traditional fixed seats all pointed to the fancy man lecturing up front made it hard.

What is this trick, this teaching magic I have been building up to in a slightly annoying way? It is simply to engineer the student’s experience into smaller, more personal groups that have repeated interactions. When I taught in person, I had students at tables of six, with activities either among the six, or among a team of three. The three worked intensely together polishing their Wikipedia writing. At most I combined two tables of six into a group of twelve that prepared to teach high school students in a workshop.

How will this work for remote teaching? Put the students into small groups whenever possible. After students grapple with the material by reading or listening to recorded lectures (I’m doing mine as podcasts), bring them into smaller groups to discuss. In Canvas you can set groups so for Discussion questions they only see a subset of the class to comment on. I divided my 46 person class into quarters, called Orbs, Wolves, Widows, and Jumpers because we are writing about spiders this year. When they write on the Discussion questions I’m using instead of tests, they will comment on a few others, seeing only others in their group of 12 or so. Since these assignments are weekly, they should get to know the thinking of their groupmates quite well by the end of the semester.

I have put the students into groups of just three for their Wikipedia writing, on spiders, of course. One will be a fact checker, one a writing expert, and one a Wikipedia guru and they will read each other’s work often. They will also exchange for comments with another group of three, which would have been seated at their same table had we been in person.

Nearly all the work will be asynchronous, but we will hold a Zoom meeting at the scheduled class time. It will be a chance to come together as a group and ask questions, but most of the time will be in the smaller groups chosen from within Orbs, Wolves, Widows, or Jumpers. These smaller groups will work through study questions, prepare for writing their Discussion questions for Canvas, and work on their Wikipedia entries.

By the end of the semester I hope the students will have found life-long friends within their groups of six. Back when one could, the groups of six often went out together and indeed became friends.

The ties that form in smaller groups make learning fun. They make it easier for students to reveal when they do not understand difficult material and work through it with their friends. They make a strange learning experience familiar through human bonds. Give it a try!


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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