Are you struggling with digital teaching? Here is how you can support your students: focus on the learning environment, replace lectures with well-organised workshops, give clear instructions, and listen to what they say.
Last semester, an anonymous course participant wrote that my teaching
“…should be used as an example how courses can run in virtual space.”
The comment made me think carefully about my teaching methods and why they work as well as they do. Here are my five secrets:
1. Have fun and be kind
I spend a lot of time and energy to establish an inclusive and supportive learning environment together with the course participants. Since we all need to feel safe to be able to learn, I try to make sure that the atmosphere in the digital room supports learning and development.
- Warmup exercise. I usually start with a 60-second free-writing exercise about a given topic (a pen, a dog, or a cup of coffee). Instructions: Use pen on paper, write for the entire 60 seconds, and no one will read the text. Sometimes we draw dinosaurs and laugh together. This activity also sets the tone for the interactive workshop.
- Smalltalk. The last 10 minutes before we begin, I put aside my own need for preparation and start talking with the participants. We talk about everything and nothing, and I get to know who they are and what is important to them. For students who enter the workshop, the ongoing conversation signals a room where talking is encouraged.
- Names. I do my best to learn and use the participants’ names actively. I make sure to ask how they would like me to pronounce their names or address them. In the few minutes before the class starts, these conversations can also work well as ice-breakers.
- Guilty pleasures. As part of introductions and getting to know each other, I like to throw in a random question that normally does not fit with the serious content of the courses. For example, I may ask them to share their names, where they are right now, and their favourite show on Netflix. Alternative questions: guilty pleasures, items collected as children, or favourite pizza topping. Other times I will ask them to “Show me your baby”, and the resulting show-and-tell ranges from pets and sweaters to plants, toddlers and coffee makers.
- Bad drafts. Quite often, I ask participants to write bad sentences or speed-write bad drafts or introductions or arguments. The direct instruction to write something that is not perfect seems to encourage creativity and reduce writers’ block for many students. I encourage participants to talk about the process of writing rather than focus on the quality of the first draft. I also stress that my main mission is to help them master and reflect on the writing process, not evaluate the quality of the product.
- Life happens. When participants ask questions about the requirements and deadlines, I explain my reasoning behind the plan and how the assignments are designed to help support learning. I stress that I understand that life happens and that we will work together as a team.
- Celebrate learning: Sometimes a participant will share an important realisation or aha-moment with the group. When this happens, I clap, smile and sometimes put my hands in the air. I share my joy and encourage them to celebrate their future discoveries and learning. In my experience, honest responses to the participants' reflections about their learning and development encourages more reflections and sharing over time.
Note: Most of my courses have between 10–30 participants. In courses with 200 participants, you can use the seminars to establish a good learning environment for smaller groups of students. Remember that the teaching assistants need support and resources to be able to do this with confidence.
2. Engaging workshops instead of lectures
I decided early that I did not want to put myself in a situation where I had to give endless lectures in front of rows and rows of black screens. Instead, I organise all my teaching as interactive workshops and plan for a conversation- based learning.
The shift from classical lectures to experience-based reflections helps me to focus my attention on creating meaningful and engaging activities in my workshops. Instead of focusing on what I want to say, I spend my preparation time thinking about activities that participants could do, and I try to select activities to stimulate relevant conversations and deep learning.
For an intensive workshops to work well, I also like to include the participants in the reasoning behind my emphasis on interactive teaching.
Here is what I say:
Welcome! I am excited to get to know you, and to hear your thoughts on science communication. We will spend two weeks together reading, writing and discussing together in interactive workshops.
I value your time, and you are able to read the assigned material on your own. Therefore I will not spend our time together by giving lectures. Instead, the most important learning outcome from the course is what happens when we read, write and discuss together as a group.
I will do my best to make our time together an engaging place for learning and discovery, and to do that, I ask that you participate actively, and that if you can and are able to, please turn your cameras on.
Let us start by introducing ourselves: Please share your name, where you are right now, and one of your guilty pleasures.
I will go first. I'm Åsmund, I'm sitting at my dining table at home, and my guilty pleasure is to watch hour-long FailArmy-videos on YouTube.
3. Structure small tasks into a big picture
Most of my sessions follow the same basic structure. This makes the sessions predictable for both me and the participants, and we can focus on the content, not the organisation. I use the digital workshop format to guide participants through a set of smaller activities in a carefully planned order, but they will also benefit from seeing how the tasks fit together and build on each other.
Here is the basic structure of my sessions (without names and fun-facts):
- After a 60-second warm-up exercise, I give an overview of the plan for the day and how it links to the overall course.
- Then I briefly introduce the topic and ask students to reflect on their previous experiences with the topic. I supplement my short introduction by writing a few sentences in the chat or on a whiteboard (which also serves as a visual anchor). I also refer to the online reading material.
- Next, we read an example of the genre or a text that demonstrates the relevant skill or topic. I ask the participants to turn their camera off and make notes when they read and think on their own.
- After 10–15 minutes I assign participants to breakout rooms to let them discuss their findings with each other. After the group work we summarise together and I respond to their comments and help bring out their observations and reflections.
- Usually, 45–50 minutes have passed, and we need a 10 minute break.
- Then, they each draft a text in the same genre. I help them get started with free-writing or mind mapping, and then ask them to turn their camera off while they work on their own.
- After 15–20 minutes, I ask them to individually reflect on the process and how they solved problems that occurred during their writing (meta-reflection). I also ask them to share with the entire group. I respond by linking their experiences with the relevant theory and the example text in order to broaden their vocabulary and acknowledge their experiences.
- At the end, I reiterate our focus on learning to master the process over writing perfect texts. I also outline the topic for the future sessions.
Here is what I say at the beginning of the day:
Good morning! Bring out a blank piece of paper and a pen, and let us get started. The 60 second warm-up for today is to write about coffee. Ready, set, write. (Everybody writes for 60 seconds, and then we stop.)
Today, our topic is popular science writing. We will start by talking about storytelling and the role of popular science articles, and we will discuss how emotions, tension, structure and language works together to make an impact on us as readers. Then we will practice writing a popular science article and try to communicate complex scientific knowledge as a good story. Tomorrow we will do peer feedback in groups, and your deadline is Friday at 2pm.
Let us start with a big question: What characterises a good story? Make some notes on your own, and in a minute you will get to discuss in small groups.
4. Instructions for group work are critical
Workshop participants need clear and explicit instructions for group discussions. With clear guidelines, the conversations in breakout rooms and the subsequent plenary discussion can support the participants to progress through a series of carefully planned steps.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the appropriate prompt for fruitful and relevant discussions that can support both deep learning and meta-reflections for the participants. Some examples of instructions:
- share your observations from close reading of the example text
- share a specific topic from the reading material and explain why it is relevant for you
- discuss and agree on a list of three features that are important for you to enjoy a science podcast
- share your experiences with testing the new tool for revising a paragraph
Before the group discussions starts, I make sure to let the participants know the group size and the duration of the discussion. I also tell them what will happen afterwards, for example that I want them to share something they heard that was exciting, challenging or interesting.
It is tempting to use the plenary summaries (or digital entries) to control or check that the participants have learned what I hoped, but I find that such summaries get too repetitive and rarely bring anything new to the conversation. Instead, I ask the participants to share something from their group discussion that made them see things from a different perspective. In this way I hope to encourage careful listening in the group discussions.
Here is what I say:
Now, let us share our ideas in groups. Your task was to compare the two texts that we have read and discussed, and in the groups I want you to work together to make a short list of the key features that distinguish the genres. You will be randomly assigned into groups of four participants and you will have 8 minutes to discuss and make a list of the key differences. Please share the time and listen to each other.
When we meet again I will first ask you to post your lists in the chat for everybody to see, but I will also ask you to share something from your discussion that that you found to be extra interesting or surprising. So, 8 minutes to compare the two texts and make a short list, and remember to pay attention to any aha-moments in your discussion. Best of luck.
5. Responding to student reflections is very difficult (but extremely valuable)
Conversations are incredibly powerful to support students to develop a language for their skills and values as professionals. Responses to reflections or answers from a participant are important for modelling disciplinary conversations, but responding is a lot more difficult than it sounds.
So-called “Talk Moves” are great guides for such conversations, and I have learnt to appreciate the deceptively small, but surprisingly effective, phrases that help bring out new ideas and demonstrate disciplinary thinking. Talk moves include responses where the teacher asks students to elaborate or give an example, asks other students to build on a response from one student, or paraphrases the student’s comment to link the response to the course content.
In my experience, responses to student reflections are also important as a way to normalise reflections and experiences among participants. For example, new writers are often unaware that some people prefer outlining while other writers prefer free-writing. Writers on either end of the spectrum seem to benefit from inclusive responses, and when they know that they are not alone in their preference, they can use the validation to turn their writing style into a future strength.
I have also learnt to wait for 10–15 seconds before letting the participants with a raised hand respond to a question. Waiting signals that thinking takes time, and that it is not a competition of being the first person to answer a question. Repeated over time, this practice can establish norms and instructions for contributing to group discussions.
I find that it is very important that the group agrees with the codes of conduct for open, honest, and exploratory conversations. We need to agree that contributing to the discussion is not a matter of being right or wrong, but a matter of learning to think out loud and listening to each other. Therefore, I introduce the group discussions by stressing the value of process over product, and encourage them to take small steps in learning to talk about skills and ideas. For STEM-students in particular, this seems to be important ground work before attempting complex class discussions.
Here is how I respond:
Thank you for your response, J. It sounds like the exercise made you aware of some issues in your writing, but that you managed to solve them. I am glad to hear this. Could you perhaps share with us one example of a challenge and your solution? (J responds).
Thank you J, I am glad that the revision strategy we talked about earlier today helped you with your writing. Would anyone like to share another reflection from the work today, either to follow J with an example of solving a problem, or by sharing a problem that you haven't found a good solution to yet? (Wait five seconds, then B raises their hand and responds)
Thank you, B. Just to make sure I understand you correctly. Are you saying that you found an issue regarding the structure of your text, but you were unable to solve it by using the recommended technique? (B clarifies that the text got worse after the revision, and states that the technique did not work.).
Ok, so what I am hearing is that maybe the text requires some more time and another look at the big picture. Your experience is quite normal, and it is common to be quite frustrated at such an in-between text, midway through a revision. Maybe you can let the text rest for a few days before you have a look at it again, or you can try using postIT-notes to get an overview of what you want to say and how to organise the text.
What do you think about these suggestions as a way forward? (B agrees.) Thank you for sharing, B.
A few final notes:
All teachers are different. What works for me may not work for you. Also, both course participants, disciplines and institutions are different. But that does not mean we cannot try out new things!
One small thing. If you want to find more resources to help you along, the website Develop Your Teaching (MN Faculty, University of Oslo) is a good place to start.
Community. Sharing ideas, practical tips and reflections are important, especially since we most likely will have to stick to digital teaching for a while longer. So please share your thoughts in the comments below, or on Twitter: What are your best tips for digital teaching?