‘Just-in-time facilitating’: Tips for unpacking problems and guiding collaboration in STEM-focused groupwork

Students working at the whiteboard in a classroom on a common problem

If you are teaching a topic, it is likely that you have a high level of preparedness, intuition, and ability that has been developed beyond the level of many of your learners. Unpacking a complex problem into logical steps, assessing what information is necessary to begin and move forward, and understanding what constitutes a ‘reasonable’ or ‘plausible’ answer may happen almost unconsciously!

Dreyfus and Dreyfus (2005) suggest that there are distinct steps, or stages from novice to expert. The highest level of skill  – expert – is marked by ‘intuition’ which is built through time, trouble shooting, struggle, metacognition, and reflection

‘expertise is based on the making of immediate, unreflective situational responses; intuitive judgment is the hallmark of expertise.’ (pg 779)

While some may disagree with the fine points of the Dreyfus and Dreyfus model, they do agree with the general process through which expertise is developed. At this high level of understanding, much of the early conscious decision making has been incorporated into unconscious processes that happen behind the scenes.

Thus, teaching this material to many novice learners requires a conscious ‘unpacking’ of the problems/material.  The ability to unpack more complex problems may be one of the key features of the peer-educator ‘Super Power’. Being able to take apart the problem that is being shared via lecture, in real time, even if the Professor may have ‘intuited’ and thus not shared some of the sub-text, is incredibly helpful for ones own learning and the ability to share it with peers.  This is not a skill that all learners have.

Lacking the ability to easily ‘unpack’ problems does not mean that one won’t learn the material, only that they are coming into the challenge with a different knowledge-base and skillset.  Keeping a growth mindset is critical! The generic model shared here is a tool to help peer (and other) educators remember to make explicit the steps, to consider the assumptions about what knowledge is needed to move through the process to the solution, and how to facilitate the procedure through the problem using guided questions.

Asking learners to use the model can also enhance their metacognition, make clear the gaps in their knowledge, and kick-start the self-evaluation (metacognitive) processes.

General order of operations for facilitating group work using 'guide from the side' strategies.

Once the educator has helped the learners breakdown the problem and students are working through the problem in small groups (3-5), the most powerful learning will happen when the facilitator acts as a ‘guide on the side’ by practicing listening, asking questions at appropriate cognitive levels, inviting the group to answer their own questions, and by using questioning strategies. This is the most challenging part of facilitating group work.  At first students may resist the attempts the facilitator makes because there is cognitive work involved in answering guiding questions.  If students are new to working in collaborative groups and are focused on solutions and getting there quickly, they may initially find it frustrating to receive a question in response to their questions.  But once this is the expectation in a class, most students will begin to see the value, and become more comfortable with the uncertainty they experience with struggle. A few may never value this process.  The learning literature confirms that the deeper, long-term learning that happens in collaborative group work is worth the effort.

Below is a checklist of tips that can help create a learning environment that will result in the best outcomes for small-group collaborative learning.

  • Tips for Guiding Small Group Discussion – ‘Just-in-time facilitating’

    • Create an inclusive environment in which learners feel they can take risks
      • When you approach a group that seems like they are facing a challenge say something like, “Oh yes! This problem, this is a hard one!” (or, “This is the hardest part of this, I think!”)
        • Seeing you admit that it is challenging will allow them to feel better about the struggle and take the risk of discussing it!
    • Encourage ALL learners to participate
      • Keep the discussion from being dominated by a subset of learners.
        • Allow sufficient “wait-time” when learners or you ask questions. Try to be aware of who is quiet and give them time to prepare to contribute – without singling them out, you can ask, “Is there anyone else who can add to this part of the process?”
        • Intentionally ask the group members to take turns leading parts of a problem or different problems. Explain that the role of the leader is to begin the problem, invite others, and watch that group members are actively listening and sharing equally.
        • Listen actively and non-judgmentally, and encourage learners to do likewise.
      • Build what learners say into the discussion
        • When you are reiterating a question you have heard, try to weave the ideas of the group into the reiteration so they feel heard and valued.
      • Help learners communicate and build on each other’s contributions
        • Model being patient and encourage learners to do likewise.
        • Build what learners say into the discussion.
      • Use mainly open-ended questions or comments
      • Start with, “How is this problem going?”  Follow with, “Is everyone feeling good about it, or would some discussion help?”
      • Then use factual, or probing questions (remember the cycle: a) listen (maybe repeat the question back to all), b) invite the group to answer, c) choose a guiding question, and finally, d) give a hint (repeat).
    • Encourage active listening
      • Modeling this in your group (as above) and inviting the group members to try it when each of them share questions can help group communication be more equitable and bring everyone into the conversation.
    • Foster dialogue amongst the learners and help them to see multiple points of view
      • After someone makes a comment or shares an idea: Wait for the others to think for a few seconds, acknowledge and appreciate the answer, and then ask, “Does anyone want to add to that, or have a different idea?”
    • Probe the learners’ understandings and foster higher-level thinking and discussion
      • Using the probing questions at this point will help foster more process-oriented thinking – higher-order thinking.
    • Help the learners digest what they are hearing
      • In a short session like the one you are working in, a collected short paragraph reflection as the students leave could be really valuable to get the feedback, but also to let students convert experience into understanding through reflection.

Educators, even peer educators, need to deliberately articulate the assumptions, prior knowledge, and process steps that can help new learners into and through a complex problem.  Helping novice learners unpack the problem and guiding from the side with careful listening and probing questions, while the learners share the struggle of trouble-shooting, will result in the best learning outcomes.  It is this process, facilitated with a growth mindset, that helps create equity and inclusion and starts all learners along a path to self-assessment and, with time, expertise!!

Heading ‘Back to the Future’ of the Classroom not ‘Back to Normal’: Reflections on opportunities to benefit from our online experience

Ready or not! Here we go, back into the classroom! Back to teaching in physical spaces where we can see each other by simply turning our heads or wandering over to a corner of the room to offer needed support or direction, rather than popping in and out of Zoom breakout rooms like Samantha on the popular 1960’s TV show ‘Bewitched’.

Let’s go forward to our classrooms, not back in time

Many educators have reminisced about, and longed for, the ability to read expressions and body language that was denied them while teaching on Zoom or another platform. It is difficult to feel like one is on solid footing when a lot of cameras are off and when you are learning how to use a different set of tools to teach through your computer screen.  Now, once again, many will have students gathered in a common physical space! If they come to class, the dilemma of whether or not we can see them is gone.

Overall though, remote teaching has been a mixed-bag with both challenges and silver-linings, depending on who you talk to.  Looking at our own undergraduate peer educators in the fall of 2020 – after a semester and a half of emergency remote teaching- a surprisingly large proportion (42%) reported enjoying online learning because of their ability to create engagement. Getting comfortable with the technology was the biggest challenge, while only 29% and 25% respectively considered collaboration and engagement negative aspects of teaching online.

Creating engagement is difficult any way you slice it, and we have learned some big lessons and  valuable takeaways from our time in the ‘Zoom classroom’.  As we head back into the more familiar face-to-face environment, we should do at least these two things: 1) remember how to use physical space to its best advantage and 2) reflect on what we have learned and strive to keep some of the tools and strategies that can enhance and improve what we do.

Remembering how to work the room

Training undergraduate educators for in-person summer support courses, and working with  TA Consultants to develop evidence-supported teaching and learning workshops and deliver them to new TAs, reminds me that it takes some getting used to to suddenly not have the control panel at your fingertips on your computer keyboard.  Here are some things we have been wanting to do ever since they were denied us.  Why not take full advantage of all the things you’ve been missing!

  • If you’ve transitioned to using PowerPoints, stop at some points and do the work on the board where students can follow and share in the process.
  • Get students using the whiteboards in classrooms or the chalkboard to collaboratively work on problems.
  • Move among your learners/groups when they are working on group tasks
  • Interact with your slides or other media in a real way.
    • point out/laser the take-home messages
    • describe the axes of graphs and interact with figures so students can interpret them
    • ask students to interpret the figures for you before you describe them (think pair share)
  • Embed active, student-centered learning in your class every 5-10 minutes – use variety of reflective, paired, and group activities
  • When you’re using high tech, make sure you have a low-tech plan B. In a classroom, as much  can go wrong with technology as on Zoom (maybe more).  Mix up the ways you have student working in the space (Paper, String and Colored Pencils work too!)

Use what we have learned (through some hardship!) about how to create environments where learning happens best

Not having a captive audience in online learning spaces seemed to highlight the importance of creating engagement and constantly building community so that all students would want/need to engage.  We should remember the creativity and inclusive practices that worked best to encourage student participation online, and not take for granted that being in a physical classrooms means students are emotionally and cognitively present!

  • Intentionally build community everyday in your classroom. Do not assume that being in person will result in community!
  • Continue to craft structured learning activities that require collaboration and that allow application and retrieval of content information.
  • Clearly articulate learning objectives and share them with students
  • Don’t be afraid to ask your students to bring their laptops/devices and continue to use work on shared documents
  • Use asynchronous discussion boards to supplement your in class time, gather feedback, generate discussion.
  • Continue to use animation in power point slides if you use them, to give students one step, or concept at a time
  • Use polling technology to practice retrieval of information and gather ideas and feedback
  • If it makes sense provide videotaped lectures or record the audio from your lecture so students can revisit it
  • Now that you’re familiar or comfortable with being on a camera try sending weekly short 2 to 3 minute videos but reiterate the most important points that students should be focused on or you’re learning objectives for that week

As we were when moving into COVID-forced remote teaching, we are now in another transition. After more than a year of changes and a steep learning curve, students – especially new students – in our institutions may face a whole new set of challenges that we will need to help them to overcome. What we have learned by educating through a pandemic about intentionality, creativity, options for modes of engagement, feedback and compassion, assessment that focuses more on process than product, are all skills and strategies that will continue to be extremely valuable as we move back into the classroom and forward into the ‘new normal’. Best of Luck to everyone!

Cornell Engineering Tutors: Exemplifying the Benefits of One-on-One Support


Dhruv Sreenivas

 

“I enjoyed helping other people out, and tutoring also helped me get a stronger hand on the material, which actually helped me in courses I took later on in college.”

We are sending off seven ‘21 graduating Engineers with our utmost gratitude for their exceptional support mentoring students in the Engineering Learning Initiatives (ELI) tutors-on-call program.  Thank you Acacia Tam, Dhruv Sreenivas, Lynn Jeannoute, Michael Richardson, Sijia Liu, Stephie Lux, and Veronica Nobrega for your talent and compassion and a combined 32 semesters tutoring and 852 tutor appointments!  These ELI tutors supported engineering students in 14 challenging core engineering courses.  They participated in 3 tutor trainings and small group check-ins each semester to prepare for and grow in their role as one-on-one peer educators.

Tutor Training

Sijia Liu will move on to work in New York City as a software engineer!

Trainings focused on active learning strategies for tutors to use in their meetings with tutees.  Tutor community building is important, so when shared dinner during tutor trainings was no longer possible due to transition to online- tutors made connections in a smaller group training format and formed bonds in break-out rooms using the online zoom platform. Throughout this transitional time, ELI tutors relied on one another for support and shared best practices.  Even with success mastering online tutoring, it will be exciting to be back to in-person tutor appointments in the fall.

“I like meeting people and sharing my studying strategies with those eager to learn and improve. I really enjoyed the time being an ELI tutor.”

Benefits for tutees and tutors:

Acacia Tam will pursue a Master in Biomedical Engineering at Boston University.

A key component of all of our peer education programs is the focus on evidence-based practices. Peer education is no longer something that happens on the margins of higher education where ‘at-risk’ students enroll in or are assigned tutorial support.  These days peer education is an opportunity for all learners who anticipate or discover the need for a little more clarity on a particular topic, or a longer-term investment of time to deepen understanding of challenging conceptual or technical knowledge (Latino and Unite, 2012). These opportunities happen with groups of learners, typically associated with a certain course, or as one-on-one interactions through tutoring.

“I loved tutoring for ELI! It was always so rewarding to see that I had helped a student better understand a concept or prepare for an exam. Additionally, it made me happy to see that I could pass on some of the tips and tricks I had learned while taking the class to other students. Finally, I loved meeting new people whether in person or online! It made me feel more connected to the Cornell community!”

Tutoring requires all the components of other student academic support including collaboration, retrieval (pulling information out of students rather than putting it in) and open-ended questions to generate reflection, metacognition and critical thought.  There are some unique opportunities in this valuable type of support.

The Role of ‘Coach’

The very personal nature of a tutor session creates a great opportunity for tutors to mentor and coach students regarding practices that generally improve student outcomes. Research has shown that helping with study behaviors was a significant factor improving student outcomes (Gurung and McCann, 2011).

Lynn Jeannoute

“The classes I tutored were geared towards mostly freshman year students and I know how hard it can be transitioning from high school to college, so I especially valued not only being able to assist in their coursework but being able to give them general advice on how to study for exams and stay on top of their work and things like that.”

As coaches, our undergraduate tutors: keep a growth mindset, listen to student challenges, and suggest various ways to overcome them. They ask the right questions, inquire about preparation for evaluations, suggest study practices, encourage, and give specific feedback. Research on the role of peer coaching in higher education suggests that some effective strategies are: being nonjudgmental, listening, shared accountability for the interaction, and asking questions (Ericksen et al 2020).

Stephie Lux is headed to the National Institutes of Health, where she accepted a Cancer Research Training Award to study tumors with a surgical oncologist.

“I can very effectively help others break down an academic problem, and I have also found new ways to be creative when communicating and teaching. Beyond developing my teaching skills, I made several lasting friendships with students I tutored and with  other tutors. ELI Peer Tutoring was a very important part of my Cornell Engineering experience.”

As peers, tutors help build community one student at a time by developing acquaintances and friendships, finding common ground, sharing empathy, working together on a level playing field, and sharing academic and social challenges.

The quotes shared by these tutors exemplify the practices that make tutoring a very powerful form of academic support.  Mentoring students who are just learning to navigate busy schedules and challenging assignments, building community, and breaking down complex ideas using active, collaborative learning, are practices that benefit both the tutor and tutee.  We are so grateful for the hard work of these graduates.  In the past year tutors had to become comfortable working with their peers remotely due to COVID-19.  We are so proud and grateful for the difference ELI tutors made for students finding their way during this very unusual and difficult past year!

Sources used and further reading:

Eriksen, M., Collins, S. Finocchio B., and Oakley J. 2020. Developing Students’ Coaching Ability Through Peer Coaching. Journal of Management Education, 44: 9–38
Gurung R.A.R. and McCann, L.I. 2011. How Should Students Study? Tips, Advice, and Pitfalls
(https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/how-should-students-study-tips-advice-and-pitfalls)
Latino, J. A. and Unite C.M. 2012. Providing Academic Support Through Peer Education.
New Directions for Higher Education, 157:31-43. DOI:10.1002/he.20004

 

THE FUTURE’S SO BRIGHT, THEY GOTTA WEAR SHADES! AEW Facilitators Graduate after Teaching Through a Pandemic

At the close of the Spring 2021 semester we are saying so-long and good luck to 14 Academic Excellence Workshop (AEW) facilitators! These graduates hail from 8 different engineering programs and together they represent 70 semesters of teaching and 72 AEW workshops during their undergraduate careers.  It bears mentioning that all of these facilitators, whose education experience had been completely in-person, not only transitioned their learning to online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also very successfully transitioned their teaching to online for the past 3 semesters. We honor and share gratitude for each one of them and their work that was so clearly driven by passion and perseverance, to give back and support their Cornell Engineering community, during this difficult time!

Evan Austin Cornell Engineer grad 2021Evan Austin, Materials Science and Engineering graduate

Evan is a veteran AEW facilitator:

“Over my last 7 classes teaching (Math)1920, I have really come to appreciate and align with the ELI goals of promoting collaborative and active learning. The learning science research that goes into all the trainings and the AEW program are certainly not for nothing, I have seen the impacts first hand!

…The AEW program has been a source of light in my college career”.

In his last semester his students thanked him for “creating this fun and positive AEW environment!” and one mentioned the critical importance of having ‘Bob the Burrito’ included in the problem-based worksheets. And while we may never know the context in which ‘Bob’ entered the worksheets (some things are best kept secret!), we are indebted to Evan for his creative and open approach to his work and his teaching.  Evan awaits his assignment in the Peace Corps as an Agricultural Volunteer in Guatemala, continuing his legacy of building community and helping others.

Alexis Mottram, Chemical Engineering graduate

Alexis has honed her skills and supported her peers as a facilitator for 6 semesters!

“I have loved my time as an AEW facilitator, thanks so much to everyone in the program!”

This comment from a student expresses one of the super powers of peer education:

You make me feel valid for struggling and messing up because you don’t hide the fact that you know exactly how it feels. Your story of surviving STEM at Cornell and your moxie to be your true self no matter what make me believe that I can make it though another topic, another test, and another three years even when it seems a little daunting

Alexis will be starting work in an oncology research lab at Dana Farber Cancer Institute. We are so grateful for the dedication exemplified by Alexis!  We know this young professional has a bright future!

Apoorva Agarwal, Chemical Engineering graduate

Apoorva is another 6-semester facilitator. In addition to the work as a facilitator Apoorva has had a leadership role for the past 2 years as one of our AEW Co-leads.  In this important role she has collaborated to develop and lead trainings, collect and evaluate assessment data to improve the efficacy of the program, and supported new facilitators and others with independent conversations and meetings.

“I will miss the AEW program and my experience within it dearly and I hope to stay in touch after graduation. I wish nothing but the best for the future of AEWs and ELI in general. I know AEWs will continue to thrive and make an impact on countless students. Thank you so much!”

Her dedication, skills, and service to her team have been remarkable, and noted.   Well organized, hard working, dedicated and poised were just some of the words that were repeated by the other facilitators to describe this engineer’s leadership characteristics.

Her students shared these words of thanks:

“Your teaching was excellent, and I feel it greatly helped my performance in the class”. “You have been a great AEW facilitator and have really helped my understanding…”

Makaya Chilekwa, Chemical Engineering graduate

Yet another amazing 6-semester facilitator, Makaya is identified as an excellent facilitator by her students and her patient understanding and clear and concise approach will be missed!

“I greatly appreciate your help as an AEW facilitator, I feel like I have such a better understanding of the material and feel more confident in approaching problems and asking questions!!” “I think most of us felt like we had a guardian angel …”

Makaya will be honing her skills by taking a gap year working as a Research Assistant at MIT before going to grad school!

Michael Richardson, Engineering Physics graduate

“I’ve appreciated being a facilitator”.

Michael is another talented, constant, dependable 6-semester facilitator who will be missed for his sense of humor, easy goingMichael Richardson 6 semester facilitator graduate nature and really excellent skills for keeping his students engaged in the work at hand. Here is just some of what his students said:

“You are a wonderful facilitator, and your effort and enthusiasm shines through your words. I enjoy your jokes during the AEW, which always lights up the mood.” “…and don’t forget about how many kids you’ve helped!”

Michael Richardson Engineering Physics grad sp 2021“A great math teacher and mentor! I know you will do well in your career. You have mentored our AEW incredibly well and were always friendly and kind”

 

 

Michaela Bettez, Electrical and Computer Engineering graduate

Michaela, is also a veteran 6-semester facilitator who students appreciated for her mentorship as well as her ability to review and guide learning of complex material.  We are so grateful for her long dedication and commitment to the AEW Program!  Here is what her students had to say about her:

Michaela Bettez 6 semester AEW Facilitator“I was intimidated by taking an AEW at first but you made the class feel very welcoming and casual. I also really appreciate that you gave us tips for other classes.”

“Thanks Michaela! Your Math sessions have been very helpful, and manage to hold my attention even at night on a Monday!”

Michaela’s next step is enrolling in the MEng degree at Cornell, and then finding a job for the Spring!

Emily Care, Chemical Engineering graduate

Emily had a 5-semester run as a facilitator, and in addition to the work of facilitator, in her last year sheEmily Care 5 semester facilitator and Co-leader worked as the other Co-lead for the AEW team. We value her thoughtful sharing of ideas, collaboration on developing objectives aligned with AEW program goals, and willingness to evaluate program feedback and move us forward.  We are so grateful for her leadership and ability to grow and improve the program with Apoorva over the year. An excellent collaborative leader!

Of the many words to describe Emily’s style and strengths facilitators shared these: Caring, kind, strong, friendly, reliable, and organized

Her students shared these gratitudes: “You are an incredible facilitator and I have appreciated your AEW very very much!!”  and “I appreciate you always going above and beyond to help me and everyone understand the material 🙂.”

Emily will be moving to Tainan, Taiwan to work for TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company) as a process engineer.

Jessica Chen, Computer Science graduate

Jessica also shared her skills and experience for 5 semesters.  We are so lucky that she used her time and talent to work and collaborate with us. Here we can see that her commitment to student learning involved building the community in which the climate was welcoming.  Her leadership skills shone through for the students she supported:

“I was able to laugh and enjoy connecting with others while gaining a much better understanding of difficult topics like recursion. Thank you so much for making the class so enjoyable and helpful. You are a wonderful leader.”

You really helped me combat my fear for coding :)”

Jessica will be working as a software engineer at PayPal in San Jose, California! And trying to spend as much time as possible with family and friends before she moves.

Lucy Huang, Chemical Engineering graduate

Another 5-semester facilitator, Lucy is known for her organization, and her clear written and spoken communications with her students. Thank you for your dedication and commitment to peer education and your students. Here is what they had to say:

Lucy Huang 5 semester facilitator“Thank you for being encouraging to everyone! Also, I liked the drawings you included in lecture”

“Thank you so much for being an AEW facilitator!”

Lucy will be moving on to a position as a Project and Improvement Development Engineer (PIDE) at Infinium in New Jersey!

Lynn Jeannoute, Chemical Engineering graduate

Lynn is another one of our strong Chemical Engineering representation who has taught for 5 semesters. She has collaborated to build community in our AEW facilitator team and strengthened the connections and served her students. Here is what her students have to say:

“Thank you for being an AEW facilitator. Learning this challenging material from a peer really helped my understanding”

We are so grateful for her dedication to this work and wish Lynn the very best in her future as a Chemical Engineering graduate!

 

Sijia Liu, Computer Science graduate

Sijia also worked with students and supported learning for 5 semesters. Colleagues observed that she and her cofacilitator fostered emotional connection with their students and often asked for feedback on what the facilitators should focus more on to make support stronger. Her students said:

“Your teaching was excellent, and I feel it greatly helped my performance in the class.”  and “Good at explaining the topics that are confusing”.

We join her students to show our deep appreciation for all she did for the students in her AEWs.

Veronica Nobrega, Chemical Engineering graduate

Veronica is another member of the large group of Chemical Engineering students who have a long history with facilitating AEWs.  It is a big commitment, and we are thankful for the time and effort she used to improve the learning experience of her peers. Her students sent her off with a big thanks!:

“Thank you for everything this semester!! Best of luck in the future!”

We join her students in wishing Veronica the best of all possible futures! Thank you!

Acacia Tam, Biomedical Engineering graduate

Acacia was with the program for 3 semesters as a facilitator and we only wish it could have been longer. This thoughtful peer educator was able to mix clear explanation and creative opportunities for her students to enjoy in her AEW sessions. Here is a strong tribute that exemplifies the feedback from  her students:

“Thank you for putting effort to clarify things, making them understandable and enjoyable as well! A teacher like you is the heart of the educational system! “You light up the way! You are appreciated!”

Acacia is planning on doing a summer internship in Singapore for a patent law firm and then going to Boston University for her masters degree!

Sophie Arzumanov, Operations Research and Information Engineering graduate

We only had Sophie on our team for 2 semester. We are lucky to have worked with her and only wish we had more opportunity to collaborate. Sophie exemplified the growth mindset as a facilitator. She tried new things and grew her natural skills as an educator in two short semesters. Her own words tell a great story:

“I enjoyed my interactions with AEW my facilitators so much that I decided to become a facilitator myself and give back to the program. It was through being an AEW facilitator that I discovered my love for teaching. I wish I had been a facilitator for longer! I encourage everyone to become a part of the AEW program, because no matter where you’re at with the material, it will benefit your learning and sense of belonging within Cornell Engineering.”

Sophie’s students also said these things about her work:

“It’s amazing how a facilitator can make all the difference between being completely lost in a course, and feeling that you have a solid grasp of the topic.” and “Sophie has been so kind and helpful and can make any topic easy to understand!”

Sophie will move on to be a Business Analyst at McKinsey & Company in Chicago!

Thankfully these long-term peer educators have left us with suggestions and thoughtful feedback as they move on to the world outside of Cornell.  We are excited for the new facilitators that will work with us and take the places of these amazing long-term peer educators, and we will miss their collective wealth of experience and knowledge. We know that we at ELI have benefitted from their involvement and only hope that the leadership skills they have gained as AEW facilitators will serve them will in their chosen professional futures.  Many Many thanks to all of them. May you take your skills and passion out into the world and make it a better place!

Lights! Camera!…Cameras? Navigating the Complex Issue of Visual Connection in Zoom

Frank Castelli and Mark Sarvary love to teach. At a research institution well known for its groundbreaking disciplinary research, this duo is also hard at work in the classroom applying best practices in active and inclusive learning for a large Investigative Biology course. The class illuminates the process of science through life science topics. It is a big class: typically, over 300, mostly Freshmen, students.  One hour of lecture per week prepares students for a three-hour lab.  Sarvary (the course’s Director) and Castelli (co-instructor and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) Active Learning Initiative educational research post doc) have worked closely over several years, implementing iterative changes in the face-to-face classroom in an ongoing quest to improving learning outcomes. The team – including another post-doc, 12 graduate TAs and an equal number of undergraduate TAs – strives to keep students active and engaged with each other and the course content: the way learning happens best. Suddenly, COVID-19 hit.

What they Saw

Things changed dramatically. In their course, as in many others, COVID-19 meant shifting to emergency remote (online) teaching. “Engaging” with students took on a whole different meaning. Teaching an experiential lab-based course requires interaction and involving students with each other and with course materials. It wasn’t long until Castelli and Sarvary and their team of teaching assistants realized that students appeared to be ‘turning off’ (cameras). How much of that included ‘tuning out’ was unclear.  In spring of 2020, few students knew how to navigate this new Zoom learning space, and the teaching staff were in the same uncharted territory. Those who had their cameras on were frustrated at being among the few visible in internet space, and the teaching staff were challenged to intuit understanding through the few visual cues available across computer screens – limited in the online environment, even when cameras are on! Building connection and creating inclusion enhances learning. Seeing the faces and expressions of those in one’s learning community has benefit for teachers and learners.

What They Did

Rather than waiting-out COVID in hopes that the pandemic would end quickly, they decided to get out in front of it and gathered information in Spring 2020 that could be used to understand factors that influenced students’ camera-use behavior.  Gathering data from students would help them respond in an evidence-based way in the Fall semester. Data is power, and for Sarvary, it is peace of mind. “That’s why I personally appreciate the outcomes of this study…because now we know something about this…and we can move it a bit to the side because there are still so many unknown elements” he said.  While being clear that they didn’t have all the answers yet, Sarvary added “but at least now we can use evidence-based teaching to improve the situation.”  Since December of 2020 when their resulting paper was published, it has been flying off the virtual shelf. Castelli noted a lot of interest in tweets, blogs, various news outlets and interest in interviews.   The publication (Castelli FR, Sarvary MA. Why students do not turn on their video cameras during online classes and an equitable and inclusive plan to encourage them to do so. Ecol Evol. 2021;00:1–12) is rich with background literature and practical suggestions for their teaching staff and others looking for support for the same, common, challenge.

In a nutshell, the reasons that cameras are turned off are complex. Some of the reported challenges are those that teaching team can help with, and others not so much. As the authors say in the paper, while the general categories that emerged in their research are instructive and can likely be fairly broadly inferred, the relative importance of these different reasons will vary from student population to population, and teachers should begin the quest of improving online interaction by gather their own student feedback.

What They Found

For this Investigative Biology course, 276 students responded to survey questions (88% of the class). The largest percent of students were concerned about their appearance, being distracted by seeing their own image, or the feeling of being in a visual spotlight, as reasons for keeping cameras off.  Novice remote learners may not have considered the best practices of ‘remote workers’ who keep routines that include dressing for work and good hygiene. For some, the intense feeling of scrutiny by a camera and seeing themselves reflected on the screen is disconcerting. Among the next most common reasons were related to the possibility of having other people or things appear behind them and being concerned about who or what is in the background in the remote location. Castelli and Sarvary’s data show that some of these concerns were more common in underrepresented minority (URM) students.  The authors used the National Science foundation definition of URM which includes historically underrepresented in science and engineering: African Americans, Alaska Natives, American Indians, Hispanic Americans, Native Pacific Islanders.

Table 3. Excerpted directly from Castelli and Sarvary, 2020.

These findings cast light on potential inequalities in a forced remote learning world. Thus, the recommendation is that students should neither be required to turn on cameras, nor be made to feel shame if they choose not to.  Next, some students reported not wanting to distract their teachers or be disrespectful to their teachers or classmates by having their faces appear on screen.

Communicating the hope that students will keep cameras on, using humor and providing reasons, can go a long way in improving camera use.  Finally, 28 students offered the perspective that cameras off was the ‘norm’. Normalizing camera use in students, for whom this is the only reason to have them turned off, might go a long way in getting a critical density of visible faces in the online learning space.

How They Used the Research Outcomes

Now, past mid-spring semester 2021, the team has one and a half fully online semesters under their belts. Sarvary reflects that “Right when this whole switch happened… I remember how much we struggled and were stressed – can we really do this?” he added, “now looking back, I am super surprised where we are and how the technology existed, but we just had to start using it.”  In answer to a question about which strategies they have tried, Castelli’s answer is “Everything, we are trying everything that we suggest in the paper.” This team has been working hard to walk the fine line between encouraging and pressuring students. “It can be hard for anyone to request without demanding or without putting unnecessary pressure on students” says Castelli who now provides his teaching team with a slide for the start of each lecture with a different humorous meme and a message encouraging cameras on, including some rationale. He does this because it “provides a script so instructors can read and not make mistakes that might sound like pressure.”

Two example message are “teachers can better pace when they can see your face” and “students report that having cameras on makes class more enjoyable.”  When students were invited to make the memes themselves several different students used the familiar ‘Bernie Sanders once again requesting donations meme’ in the creation of their memes – imploring students, with humor, to consider turning on cameras.

 

Changes to the Canvas course website (course learning management system) include information and etiquette for online learning including suggestions for preparing one’s-self and a location when taking an online class. A section on ‘How to Add Privacy to your Zoom Calls’ includes links to local familiar virtual backgrounds and natural areas in town and information about how to use them in Zoom.  These suggestions can help alleviate some of the anxiety for students who don’t have places to feel comfortable or private when they are in class.

Other ideas the authors are considering include asking students to have a profile picture on file in zoom to add warmth. If a student is not comfortable turning on a camera, at least the person’s image fills the otherwise empty black box.  In short, the new practices seem to be working, and without the data yet to back it up, the lab instructors are reporting higher camera use than last semester and positive changes in the online environment!

Long-term Lessons: What to Keep?

And so we come to the million dollar questions, as campuses wrestle with how and when to transition back to a face-to-face learning model: What have we learned that we can carry forward to improve learning outcomes? After all the worry and work and acclimation to this new model for learning environments, Sarvary and Castelli are emphatic about the silver linings that have resulted from the process. They are starting even now to turn their attention to returning to face-to-face instruction with a new model that includes remnants of the COVID online experiment. “The thought I wake up with every morning is, ‘what are we going to keep from this when we return to in person teaching?’” Sarvary says the answer to this question is the work of the whole team as they anticipate the return to face-to-face teaching in the fall. “We (all the instructors who had to face these challenges) came up with so many great ideas. We need to learn from this… to really sit down and evaluate if there are some elements here that we can use to make our teaching better going forward?”

“This experience reinforces the idea that being explicit is a valuable thing in teaching,” says Castelli. “Our research really showed that social norms play a role in what happens in the classroom, and that students have different lives and challenges and we must consider them.” The opportunity to create inclusion in any classroom should become a greater focus in all learning environments.  Even those who love to teach can find a place for recorded lectures to use as a time-flexible resource. Online chats and discussion boards can create a way to link students to each other and course material between face-to-face lectures, get feedback on how a class went or where students were confused, or can be a component of a ‘flipped’ teaching model so that students come to class prepared to work together with the material.  A remote option for student check-ins with the teaching staff, or group meetings, might be a convenient and efficient option on a large campus.

This unplanned exercise in trial-by-fire, has brought to the forefront some very important aspects for every type of classroom. “And these are something we think about all the time now,” said Sarvary. “I told my staff: ‘Thinking hard about what we have learned and what we can keep, this is your homework!’”