When you think of teaching on a university campus, your thoughts transport you to a classroom filled with chatty students and a collegiate professor. The professor commands the room and facilitates discussion among the students with a balance of comedic discourse and memorable rules of thumb. However, in these recent semesters during the pandemic, professors aren’t permitted the luxury of educating their students in a classic classroom environment. Instead, they’ve had to transition to online teaching, which can be a challenge because a virtual learning environment makes it difficult for instructors to truly feel connected with their students.
This certainly holds true for me. I am teaching online this semester and trying my very best to keep my students engaged through direct conversations and problem-solving sessions. I have expressed to them that my role, as their teacher, is indicative of how well they absorb the information. I use Collaborate, a cloud-based team communication platform, and the various tactics below to keep the classroom dynamic positive and forward-moving. Oftentimes, I pause instruction and discussion to ask students to tell me what they are feeling or what they understand. I ask them to clearly explain what they have gained and at what point they got lost…for those moments when they get overwhelmed by the content.
I also like to provide my students with concrete examples so they can better understand abstract organic chemistry concepts, which also help to reinforce mechanistic content. Back when I was a student, I remember my organic chemistry professor conveyed the topic of entropy through images as simple as a white T-shirt and a pair of blue jeans. Now that I’m a professor myself, I’ve come up with some examples of my own to help my students apply real-world scenarios to organic chemistry topics:
- Jewelry/watches assigned to one wrist or the other = locants of key functional groups
- Various yoga positions, such as mountain and corpse pose = orientation of the same/identical molecule
- Angry, unhappy kids in opposite sides of room = anti-staggered conformation of a Newman projection
- Level of unhappiness* = energy diagram of MO theory with AOs coming together to make new MOs
- Box step in ballroom dancing = basic electron movement from nucleophile to electrophile
- Parallel parking (car exiting a spot while a new car come in) = backside attack of a nucleophile in SN2
- Cha-cha vs. foxtrot dances = comparison of the specific reactions
*This MO example was borrowed from Master Organic Chemistry. It’s a great online resource for professors and students. I recommend it in class.
The first few bullets are from first-semester content, while the others are from second-semester content. In particular, when I go over the first two bullets in class, I turn my camera on and show myself swapping a bracelet/watch from one wrist to another, and I do two different yoga positions to show the change in the orientation of a molecule. Because I am 30+-weeks pregnant, I think it must be a highly memorable experience for my students to see me do a mountain pose (standing up straight) and then convert to a downward-dog pose (touching my hands and feet to the floor). As a mom with an active and intelligent toddler in preschool, I also used her school experience to come up with the third bullet. Although in the past I used to act out as many of these examples as I could in person, I’ve found that they’re just as effective when delivered online.
However, given that I personally love teaching and being an academic researcher, this pandemic has been tough on me because I truly miss my students in the classroom. I thrive on the non-verbal cues and facial expressions of my students, as I use their non-verbal feedback to read the room and gauge if the content is being absorbed. I also feed off these cues and try to insert humorous statements to lighten the mood or cut through challenging content. That’s why I find that our success as professors is similar to that of comedians or magicians: without an in-person audience, our craft needs to completely change. There is a symbiotic relationship that the pandemic has completely killed, thereby motivating professors (and others) to create new ways of reaching our audience.
To encourage my students to share their non-verbal cues with me in an online environment, I have offered the following “theme days” as random bonus-point opportunities for all students who show themselves on whatever electronic platform we’re using that day (Zoom, Collaborate, Ultra, etc.):
- Best Bedhead
- Dress to the Decade: 80s, 90s, etc.
- Favorite Sports Team
As a caveat, though, I do realize that some students may be reluctant to show their faces on camera over fears of others seeing their backgrounds or how their physical impressions and features may be perceived online. I also know that some students can’t show their faces, even if they wanted to, because they don’t have access to a webcam at home. Even though these bonus opportunities aren’t the perfect system to boost class participation, they’re still a valuable stepping stone in helping me connect to my students.
I have also heard of colleagues in the sciences who teach with a humanistic perspective by using 10-15 minutes at the start of each class to allow their students to chat. This lowers the stress level of students and starts the session on a calmer note. This model would be great for a TR course that meets for 75 minutes each session. For my class, though, I only have 50 minutes each MWF, and I need all the time I can get. I also know of other colleagues who have chosen to hold their pets as they teach, as this also acts as a sort of stress reliever. I completely understand how this would help make the professor seem more endearing and less “scary.” But I don’t have a pet, and I need my hands to be free so I can write and work through problems, so unfortunately, this method isn’t as feasible for me (but it may be for you!).
As I wrote this post, I never thought of comparing professors to comedians or even magicians who have tricks up their sleeves. However, as organic chemistry instructors, we similarly have to maintain the attention of our audience, which can be especially hard now that we’re physically removed from our students. My hope, then, is that this post will inspire instructors to use new, creative, and non-traditional methods to virtually connect with their students. The bottom line here is that we need to capitalize on every moment with our students, because our success as professors is based on their success as our students.
-Kerri Taylor, Columbus State University
Feel free to share what you’re doing with your online classes this fall in the “Comments” section below!