Teaching How Virtual Teaching Can Transform In-Person Instruction

By Elizabeth Bynum

A year into the pandemic, as graduate students we have almost two and a half semesters of virtual or hybrid teaching under our belts. To reflect on those experiences, the Grad Center recently brought together several graduate student instructors and TAs for a roundtable on teaching during COVID. Grad instructors discussed the challenges of teaching online, strategies for teaching virtually, and tips for coping with zoom fatigue. Importantly, we also reflected on what we’ve learned during this era of online teaching that we might adopt going forward. As we look toward an in-person fall semester, we share these reflections on the lessons of virtual instruction for “IRL” or in real-life classes.  

Classroom full of empty desks.


Building Community 
Our panelists agreed that a major challenge of the “zoom classroom” is building community and establishing rapport with students. Classroom dynamics and relationships were on our panelists’ minds prior to the pandemic. However, the difficulties of online teaching forced instructors and TAs to be more intentional in their efforts to cultivate a supportive classroom.  Many panelists talked about the joy of organic and spontaneous interactions that happen via the Zoom chat. For small group discussions, breakout rooms also make it easy for instructors to mix up groups and encourage students to interact with a variety of their peers.  

As a recent article from the Chronicle of Higher Education noted, building connections around classes can be challenging but is critical work. Here are a few ideas for fostering classroom communities more intentionally in future semesters from our panelists.  

  • Use introduction exercises early in the semester. This can be a simple “get to know you” survey that students complete in class or online. A collaborative Spotify playlist where students introduce themselves in a song might also be a good fit.  

  • Develop assignments that build in student-to-student engagement through peer-review of writing, collaborative problem solving, or group projects.   

  • Use icebreaker or introductory activities at the start of class sessions. For example, a Point slide with a picture of your pet or a question prompt for students that is unrelated to class material.  

  • Design discussion prompts that require students to move around the room and work with new peers to mimic the benefits of Zoom breakout rooms 

Asynchronous Components 
A significant change to undergraduate instruction during COVID has been the incorporation of more asynchronous components into our teaching. This change accommodates students across time zones and mitigates the reality of zoom fatigue. As our panelists discussed, asynchronous components (including pre-recorded lectures, discussion post assignments, etc.) underscored the importance of making the most of the time we spend with students in synchronous class time. Additionally, asynchronous components allow students to engage with class material on their own schedules.  

After we return to physical classrooms, there are a few ways to retain the benefits of asynchronous approaches. 

  • Shift some “lecture” content to online, “on-demand” videos. This may help free up class time for more interactive discussion and open-ended questions.  

  • Consider whether certain classroom activities can be completed by students outside of class. 

Whether or not we’re emphasizing asynchronous aspects, pandemic teaching also made it clear for our panelists that a well-organized Canvas or other class website can help students (and instructors!) stay on top of course material and assignments.  

Balancing Flexibility and Rigor 
A major theme in our conversation with the panelists was the challenge of balancing flexibility and rigor in the classroom. Undergraduate students, like all of us, have been living through a global pandemic and all the stress and complications that entails. Undergraduate students are facing a unique and unprecedented combination of stressors, and students have been impacted in very different ways. The extremes of the pandemic highlighted the need for compassion and care in our teaching. At the same time, as one of our panelists noted, many students may look to their courses as a space of normalcy or structure during turbulent times.  

A primary insight for our panelists was that flexibility does not have to be in contradiction with rigor: instead, finding ways to support students as they deal with life events that interrupt their work and class attendance is crucial to helping students complete the assignment, excel in the course, and remain motivated. Our panelists noticed that when given extra time and space to attend to their personal lives, students performed better and seemed more motivated to complete work. 

While the balance between these two approaches will vary from class to class and instructor to instructor, we discussed a few ways to build flexibility into a rigorous course.  

  • Establish flexible deadlines for certain assignments.  

  • Create open lines of communication with students early in the semester. Notes in the syllabus, as well as verbal reminders in class about our extension policies, attendance expectations, and other class norms, tell students they can come to us when an issue or conflict arises.  

A final takeaway from our conversation was a reminder I often need: Most of us are also in coursework while we are teachers. Our experience as students can also inform how we structure our own classes, whether we are teaching online or someday soon, in person. As others have noted, online teaching has its pros and cons. Hopefully, this set of reflections helps you consider the lessons virtual instruction has for your teaching going forward. 

We’d like to thank our six graduate panelists, Allison Brooks-Conrad, Lauren Harris, Kim Luong, Adam Sax, Miranda Sklaroff, and Sarah Wolf for their time and insights. 

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