In this episode of
Expert Insights for the Research Training Community, Dr. Erin
Dolan, editor-in-chief at Cell Biology Education: Life Sciences Education
journal, explores the similarities and differences between in-person and
online instruction. She also discusses ensuring equity and inclusion in
The original recording of this episode took place as a webinar on May 12,
2020, with NIGMS host Dr. Alison Gammie. A Q&A session with webinar
attendees followed Dr. Dolan’s talk.
Recorded on May 12, 2020
Download Recording [MP3]
Welcome to Expert Insights for the Research Training Community—A podcast
from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Adapted from
our webinar series, this is where the biomedical research community can
connect with fellow scientists to gain valuable insights.
Dr. Alison Gammie:
Hello, everyone. We’re on the hour here and want to welcome you to the
next in a series of the NIGMS webinars. Today’s webinar is entitled
“Virtual Teaching and Learning.”
We really appreciate how much you’re going through during these
unprecedented times, and I think that more than ever, we’re aware of the
importance of the scientific enterprise and also training the next
generation of biomedical researchers to ensure that we have a diverse
pool of scientists to take on global challenges in the future. And we
know that everybody is doing the best that they can to keep teaching and
learning going during these difficult times, and today’s webinar is
really devoted to thinking about these issues and how we can provide the
best teaching environments for our students to maximize learning, but at
the same time, practicing social distancing and other things that we
need to do to make sure that we get this pandemic under control.
I’m Alison Gammie, the director of Training, Workforce Development, and
Diversity here at NIGMS.
All right, so now it’s my great pleasure to introduce Erin Dolan. She is
the professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, as well as
innovative science education, at the University of Georgia. She’s also
the editor in chief at Cell Biology Education: Life Sciences Education
journal. That’s actually where I first met Erin.
She was a graduate student at UCSF in neuroscience and became really
excited about teaching. And I think that one of the things that’s great
about Erin is that she really brings her neuroscience perspective to
teaching and learning, and she understands how people think and learn. I
also love her really commonsense approach to teaching and learning,
which is always…I find really refreshing.
So there at Georgia she teaches biology and biochemistry. She also has a
research group, and they study scalable ways of engaging students in
science research, also mentoring of undergraduate researchers in the
life sciences. She has designed and led a wide range of professional
development activities on active learning, mentoring, and including
intensive sessions for faculty to develop course-based undergraduate
And today Erin has been generous enough to give us her time to devote to
this important topic, and I will turn it over to Erin.
Dr. Erin Dolan:
Thanks so much, Alison. I really appreciate the opportunity. And I want
to take a minute to share my screen, and I’m going to just put up a few
slides to guide our discussion here.
So when Alison reached out about this I was, first of all, flattered
that she would think of me; that was very kind. And I also felt a little
bit silly because there are a lot of people out there with a lot more
expertise on online instruction, especially at campus centers for
teaching and learning, but I think that what I hope I can bring to the
table is not only some knowledge of research on learning that will help
inform our discussion, but also my own personal experience teaching
science courses and experiencing that shift from in-person instruction
to online instruction.
I’m going to draw from, in our discussion today, from research on
learning and student development and also my work with colleagues who I
have learned a lot from, and also my own experience as an instructor.
And I’m looking forward, like Alison said, to the Q&A session,
because I think that’s sort of the most fun and interesting conversation
we can have.
I think one of the things to keep in mind when you’re thinking about
online instruction is that you have to do a lot of the same things that
you have to do with in-person instruction. When I think about designing
my courses and designing instruction, I first think about what my goals
are for students. There’s no difference between teaching online and
teaching in person.
And then I think about, to quote one of my colleagues, Paula Lemons, she
says, “The brain that does the work does the learning.” So what am I
going to do to engage students in the learning? And whether that’s
in-person—things they do in class, things they discuss—or whether that’s
online—for example, discussion board posts or assignments that they
complete or quizzes that they take—that will help them engage in the
learning so that the brain is doing the work.
Then you also have to think about how you’re going to assess where
students are and when they’re making progress and give them feedback.
For example, if they already know something, I don’t have to teach it.
So I want to assess where they are, and then if they’re struggling to
learn something, I need to know that so that I can help give them
feedback and maybe change what I’m doing instructionally.
And that, again, doesn’t change between online and in-person; we just
have to think about how we make that apparent, because I’m not going to
be able to walk around the classroom and listen to students having
discussions. Instead, I have to think about in an online environment how
I am going to figure out what students know and can do and give them
feedback about where they are and how they can move forward.
And then, finally, I want to think about how do I assess whether
students have accomplished the goals that I have set out for them. And a
lot of the ways that we think about assessment in the classroom can also
apply in online environments. We just have to think about how we make it
work for the diversity of students who might be in our classes.
So what makes online instruction distinct? And maybe a way to think
about it is more as what opportunities arise as, for example, I’ve been
teaching Intro Bio and Biochemistry for a number of years, and so when I
had to switch to teaching Intro Bio online, I had to really think, all
right, I have to take all of the stuff that I developed and all the ways
that I’ve engaged students and think about how do I recreate that in an
online environment, and that’s hard. It’s hard for me, and it’s hard for
my students. So it made me really think hard about what is important for
them to learn.
Then I had to think about what sources they can learn from. So people
who already use maybe textbooks as content or videos as content, those
are places that students can learn from, and then I can engage them in
tests or assignments that will get their brains doing the work of
learning. I just need to now think about how I deliver those or set them
up, structure them in an online environment, given that I can’t do that
Then I need to figure out how I know that they’re learning and how will
they know that they’re learning? So let me give you an example. I might
have done an assignment in class and been able to walk around and see
what they were doing. They may have had to defend their decisions to a
classmate, and I could assess that learning was happening or not. In an
online environment, I gave them similar assignments, but then I had them
complete mini quizzes, and they could take those mini quizzes multiple
times and get feedback based on the responses that they chose on those
mini quizzes. And that allowed me to assess, are they getting it or not,
did their quiz performance improve over time or not, so that I could
provide additional support for learning. And they knew, OK, I didn’t get
it the first time, but now I’m getting it based on that feedback. And
then finally, you have to figure out what you’re going to do if learning
isn’t happening. How can you get feedback? How can you reach out to
students and make decisions about how to proceed?
Other factors that are important to consider when you’re thinking about
online instruction include timing. So the biggest challenge that I saw a
lot of my colleagues face, and I faced this as well, is thinking about,
do I want to do my instruction synchronously or do I want to do it
asynchronously? And for me, because I had students, some of whom lived
in rural Georgia who did not have good access to internet. I had some
students who were living in different time zones, and I also had some
students who had personal situations like a family business or family
caretaking to do that made it impossible for them to engage
synchronously—for example, like we are doing now. So I opted to shift my
course entirely asynchronously so that students could engage with the
content at a time that worked for them in a relatively low-bandwidth
situation and they could have the flexibility to work around personal
Another factor to consider is technology. So we may think, oh, Zoom, we
do this all this time. But maybe our students don’t do this, and it may
not be feasible for them to get on a high bandwidth-consuming technology
like Zoom. It may be that you want to use one technology for connecting
with students synchronously, one technology for connecting with them
asynchronously, one technology for giving them assignments, one
technology for giving them exams, and then you suddenly have this
smorgasbord of technology that makes life really difficult and
expensive. So what I tried to do and what I have seen a lot of
colleagues do fairly successfully is to use existing infrastructure and
as few resources as possible so that you make it as easy for students to
get comfortable with the technology they are expected to use and
minimize cost for them.
A third factor is how to help students actually navigate the
instruction. So when you have the touch point of a class, you can come
back time and time again, like the next class we’re going to do this,
the last class we did this. You have a regular sort of calendar to the
day and a calendar over the course of the quarter or semester. That’s
less easy to see or experience when you’re in online instruction. So
I’ve seen colleagues use things like checklists where all of the items
that students have to complete are available to them and they can work
their way through them. I’ve also seen colleagues successfully use
schedules—for example, on Monday you’re expected to do a certain
reading, on Tuesday you complete a quiz, and then by Thursday you do
some more complicated assignment or post on a discussion board—so
students come to know what days of the week to expect to do what kinds
And then finally, doing our best to sort of simplify and minimize. So
that can be, again, cutting down on the technologies that we use. For
example, I use Zoom all the time in my work, but our course management
system uses a different video conferencing system, and I chose to use
the video conferencing system in our course management system so that
students could have a one-stop shop of where to get to engage in the
course content. And then finally, and I think this is probably one of
the most challenging things to think about, especially when we haven’t
had an opportunity to meet with our students in person like we did this
semester or this term, is how to build the social elements of the class.
And social elements are important, in my view, for multiple reasons, and
actually lots of research shows this. We learn by interacting with other
people, by explaining ideas to other people, by articulating them aloud
and even listening to ourselves explain them and realizing what we can
and cannot explain and then making adjustments with what we do with our
studying to be able to learn the material.
So social interactions or interacting with other people, or explaining,
is an important part of learning. So how do you recapitulate that in an
online environment—for example, now synchronously using video
conferencing or on discussion boards.
And social interactions are also important for feeling like students
have a place in the classroom, a place on their campus, a place in their
discipline. And for me, the way that I try to achieve this is by using
real-life examples and engaging students in sharing their real-life
experiences with the kinds of content and concepts and skills that we’re
Related to this is how do we think about how the diversity of students
in our class are engaging with our courses and with their learning in
general. I think it’s super important to recognize that learning is more
than just content. So setting aside time, dedicating serious time to
getting to know your students, having your students get to know each
other and interact with each other.
Also thinking about coupling structure with flexibility. For example, I
mentioned the idea of checklists, so students know how to work through
the course material. Setting days of the week where students can expect
things to happen. But then also having some flexibility—and I’ll give
you an example. For my exams, students have a 24-hour period to complete
a one-hour exam. And they can start at any point in that 24-hour period,
but once they started they had just an hour to complete that exam.
However, internet happens—or not—and one of my students emailed me in a
panic, “My internet is down. My clock is ticking on my exam. I’m not
going to be able to finish it in the hour that I was given.” So it was
super easy for me to be flexible there and just say, “Listen, when you
get internet access again I will go in and I will reset your timer.” To
me, that was more important than, for example, sticking with a
hard-and-fast 24-hour window.
And that relates to the last point I’d like to end with. And I’m going
to quote a colleague, “Being kind in situations like this, but kind to
ourselves because we’re learning to navigate this as instructors and
being kind with our students, who are also navigating this for the first
time and often have more complex lives than we do, is really critical.”
And so the way that I try to navigate that is by thinking about how I
would want someone to treat me in that situation. How would I want
someone to treat someone who is important to me in this situation? And
then I try to use that same generosity of spirit both with my students
and with myself.
And with that, I’m happy to take any questions. I look forward to what
you all are interested in talking about.
Thank you, Erin. That was terrific. And we have a good amount of time
for the question-and-answer discussion period. So I’ll kick us off. I
have a few questions just to think about. One thing is that maybe people
have been thinking, “Oh, I really should redo my course but I’m so
busy.” And I know there’s this evidence-based—we hear all the buzzwords
of evidence-based practices. Where would you point somebody who has
decided, “This is it. This is the time. I’m going to redo my course, try
to take some of the latest innovations in teaching and learning.” If
they’re just starting out, where would you point them?
That’s a really good question. And I like that you prefaced that with,
“Oh, I’ve been putting that off, putting that off, putting that off,”
because I think one of the things that folks try to do sometimes is too
And so sometimes when I’m working with folks who are trying to improve
their teaching is I ask them, “What part of your course is going the
least well? Where do you feel like students are struggling most? What’s
not working?” Start there. And maybe start by just tackling that little
bit of your course, because if you try to bite off too much, you’ll
become quickly overwhelmed and then you won’t be able to do any of it
well. Whereas, if you start with something that isn’t working well,
chances are you’re not going to make it worse, you can only make it
better, and it’s a part that will ultimately sort of have more bang for
your buck because it’s a part that students are already struggling with.
And then I would look for those evidence-based resources. So examples
that come to mind that I have found helpful: CourseSource is a biology
curriculum journal where people have published curricular materials,
instructional materials, and teaching guides. The BioInteractive
resources from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute is another really
good set of resources. For example, I’ve used their materials for
teaching science practice skills like data analysis. And I also would
encourage people to reach out to their professional societies, because
often that’s a great place to connect with other people who are teaching
similar materials, and they might know of resources that they can share.
I’m a huge fan of not reinventing the wheel, so first thing I do is ask
other people, “What do you do to teach this? What do you do to help your
students learn this?” And let me see what resonates for me.
Great, thanks. We’re starting to get questions filling the chat, and
I’ll start with the first one. Do you use breakout groups? And if so,
how do you handle them?
I have not used breakout groups because my course is asynchronous.
However, I am going to do that with some faculty professional
development. And the way that I do it is I try to think about which
group of people do I want together, and in this case I’m using Zoom,
which has a breakout group function.
If you’re interested in group work in classrooms with larger classes—so
my classes typically range from 80 to 160 students—there is a really
nice resource on group work in courses, and I’m going to just drop that
in the chat, if that’s all right. It has guidance on how to compose
groups, how to—what size groups are reasonable? Should you have groups
that are mixed or singular in terms of students’ personal
characteristics? So I’m going to drop that in the chat here and
hopefully everyone can see.
And the same principles apply. I think the hard part is really
logistics. Our course management system has a built-in video
conferencing tool called Collaborate Ultra, and you can either randomly
assign people to groups and then post questions for the group to
discuss, or you can strategically assign people to groups—and that’s
usually what I do in my course in person is strategically assign to make
sure that there is distributed expertise in the room.
We have another question that has to do with the fact that we’ve always
been told that hands-on learning is really crucial, particularly in
laboratory settings. So is there any sense in conversations out there
about how to mimic or simulate the lab experience?
That’s a really great question. So there’s been a lot of conversation
online on social media, on Twitter, on Facebook, about how to
recapitulate online lab instruction.
I have a few thoughts on this. There are resources out there in
different disciplines—for example, the DNA Learning Center at Cold
Spring Harbor has some really lovely resources for doing bioinformatics
analysis. So if you happen to be teaching a lab course on cellular and
molecular biology, you might be able to find some good tools there.
The Allen Institute is another example of a resource for looking at, for
example, cell image data and having students analyze cell image data. So
there are ways to engage students in the practices of science. I think
the big challenge is the physical manipulation.
At this point, the only things I’ve seen are some pilot tests of virtual
reality where you have the headset and the things you can manipulate by
moving your hands. But I think that’s probably not very feasible at this
point. I’m interested to see how it happens. In the meantime, people are
using stopgaps of focusing on getting students to review literature,
propose ideas of what they would investigate if they were in person, and
then also focusing on data analysis and making meaning of experimental
results given that they can’t collect the data themselves.
Great, thank you. Another question has come up, and I know this is a big
one. There is some worry about cheating in terms of looking up sources.
And I guess it would be good for you to address, in general, the need
for…should we move to open books and more conceptually based questions
just so that it doesn’t matter if they look things up? That’s all the
We could go on all day. I have a couple of thoughts on this based on
research on people and research on learning. I think your point, Alison,
about well, if we have open-book exams and when you say you can
collaborate, just like scientists collaborate, in addressing the exam
questions, then it’s not really about cheating.
It’s about thinking like scientists and working like scientists.
However, if you have not designed your course this way from the outset,
if you suddenly say, “I’m going to have these open-book, super
challenging, super open-ended collaborative exams,” and you’ve given
your students no practice doing that up to that point, that’s a problem.
A colleague actually pointed this out in a group discussion a few weeks
ago, and basically he suggested, and I completely agree, that what you
need to do is recognize that the way you’ve been teaching is easy to
cheat, and so maybe rethink about what you’ve been teaching and what
you’re expecting students to learn. But you really need to design your
course for that kind of assessment, so those students have practice to
be successful in that kind of assessment.
That said, I actually think students are much less prone to cheat if we
don’t expect them to. I just think that reminding people that it’s
important to be honest, lots of our institutions have honor codes that
students ascribe to when they enroll, and if you…I don’t know, if you
set an expectation that people are going to make good choices, I think
people generally make good choices.
If you set an expectation that people are going to cheat—for example,
I’m going to only give you a very short period of time; I’m going to put
everything on lockdown; I want to watch you take the test—then guess
what? People are going to think, “They’re just expecting me to cheat, so
I might as well cheat.” And so I feel like there is a really important
social dimension to that, that if you expect good behavior and give
people opportunities to behave well, they’re going to behave well.
And in my limited experience with this, my exams, again, I gave them a
24-hour period to complete the exam. It was an exam that was online.
They had availability for an hour and my exam averages were very similar
to previous in-person offerings. If they’re cheating, I don’t see it.
Great. Another question came around, how do you get students to
interact? We know that a lot of learning happens peer to peer and
explaining to one another, doing problem sets together. It’s challenging
to bring groups together even in the university setting. How do you do
this online? Do you force it or require it?
That’s a good question. So I think that there are maybe two dimensions
One is the things that you have to do when you interact with someone. So
if I’m going to explain, for example, the overarching purpose of
photosynthesis to you, I need to be able to understand something about
it, process it, formulate a response, and say it.
But you don’t need to be there for me to do that with my brain, so a
discussion board can be a really great place for that to happen where
you give a prompt to say, “Summarize in one sentence the purpose of the
citric acid cycle,” or whatever. Fill in the blank. So students really
have to think, “Well, what have I learned, and what is the purpose?”
And then they have to post it, so they have to do all that thinking that
would typically happen in a peer-to-peer discussion. And then the other
advantage of interaction is that you get feedback about your thinking.
And again, that can be structured either synchronously through breakout
discussions or asynchronously, for example in Google Docs or discussion
board posts where you require students to respond to something that
their colleague has posted. For example, “Here are possible solutions.
What do you think is the best solution and why? What’s your evidence to
support one solution or to argue against another one?”
And you can engage students in thinking about responses to that by
building off one another’s thinking. And I think that the way that you
can sort of require it is that you can set an expectation that they have
to post and set criteria for what counts as a high-quality post—for
example, a post that requires building an argument: making a claim,
backing with evidence, and explaining the reasoning.
Great, thanks. A person would like for you to share examples of how
you’ve integrated videos into your teaching.
That’s a good question. To be honest, and you can punish me later, I
really like Khan Academy videos. They actually are pretty clear. I use
those in place of textbooks a lot for Intro Bio.
I don’t use videos of myself lecturing, and the reason I don’t do that
is because of bandwidth. So instead what I’ll do is a voice-over
PowerPoint, and you can actually record voice-over PowerPoint or turn
that into an MP4 and then students can listen to it and look at the
slides without using a lot of bandwidth that you would need to be able
to see a full-on video.
So if I’m expecting students to learn some content before they engage in
a class assignment, I might use something like Khan Academy, or iBiology
is another resource. If I am expecting them to learn some content from
me, I would use a voice-over PowerPoint that I would also make available
as an MP4. And I typically expect them to learn some content, then
engage, and then do some kind of assessment and that’s my cycle with
Great, thanks. So, we have a question from a new professor.
Congratulations! Will be teaching for the first time this coming fall.
Do you have advice for starting a course from scratch while also
navigating all these other considerations for online teaching and
That’s a great question. As much as possible, I wouldn’t start from
scratch. I would actually try to find somebody whose teaching you admire
or aspire to and then see what they do and ask if you
can copy. I think that there’s a lot of value in adapting and adopting
other people’s approaches or instructional materials, rather than
reinventing your own, because it can take some of the workload off the
first time. And then as you become comfortable with the material and you
start to learn what students struggle with and what’s easier for them to
understand, where they’re coming from, where they’re headed to, then you
can do a little bit more tweaking.
For me, it takes about three offerings to feel like I’ve really got a
course down, and I also think that it takes a lot more the first time
you teach. So if I think back to the first time that I taught a
course—back in the day, a little while ago now—I probably spent eight
hours prepping for one hour of class time. Now I spend probably two to
three hours prepping for one hour of class time.
So that first time it’s just try to budget enough time and don’t let
perfect be the enemy of good enough.
That’s great advice. A person said that they just got an announcement
that they are going face-to-face in the fall, but they should be
prepared to go online at any point. So how do you prepare and plan for
this? This person is teaching a lab course.
So I have the same situation. I am in Georgia, and I’m sure you all have
heard about the situation in Georgia opening back up, and I anticipate
that we will…I have no idea. This is Erin Dolan’s personal opinion. I
expect we will start the fall in person and then move to online, so that
is what I’m prepping for in my head. But I am not speaking on behalf of
the University of Georgia.
So I would try to think about what would I do if I’m teaching online and
then what do I need to give students and myself practice with early in
the semester to be able to get set up for that. For example, I plan to
teach Biochemistry in the fall—plan, meaning that’s my teaching
responsibility in the fall—and a couple of colleagues in my department
use this clever way of engaging students in problem-solving and case
study analysis using Google Docs, and so I’m going to do that in the
anticipation that that would give us the latitude to work in person or
work online. And that way students can get practice, work out the kinks,
and I have to do less adjusting to moving online if that happens.
With the lab, I might think about what you might want to front load. For
example, if you start the semester, what things you want them to do that
they need to do in person. For example, if they are going to be working
on a research project in the lab, what could you do to get them
collecting data as quickly as possible, learning techniques as quickly
as possible, so that they could move to data analysis if they need to
shift to online instruction.
So try to front load the things that you want them to practice, the
things that need to be done in person, so that you’re in a position to
shift online if you need to.
Great. So one question has to do with motivation, and I think you talked
about it a little bit in your talk, but it would be great to have
concrete examples. So what techniques specifically would encourage
students to go above and beyond and not just do the minimum? Are there
point systems, or how do you keep them engaged? And I think taking into
consideration that they’re as stressed out as we are, and they have
demands on their time. Some of them are parents.
Being kind. Remember to be kind.
And be flexible. So if we look at research on motivation, there are a
couple of things we can take home that I try to apply. So things that we
find motivating are things that we are capable of doing. So if things
are so unattainable, like the challenge that you put before your
students is so difficult that they really feel like they can’t do it,
they will give up. So it will look like a lack of motivation because
they’ve just said, “Forget it. I’m not getting this. I’m just going to
give up now.”
Another thing that people find motivating is autonomy—so having choice.
Say you want them to do some kind of project. Maybe you give them
examples of the kinds of projects and let them choose what kind of
project they want to do within some boundaries or constraints.
Another feature of environments that people find motivating are when
they see the value of what they’re doing. So don’t just engage them in
work to do work. Instead, engage them in learning that they see has
value either to their community, to their daily lives, to their career
paths. I use a lot of case study instruction in my class and
problem-based learning because students see the relevance of what
they’re learning. For example, I embedded instruction on transcription
and translation in the context of trying to understand type 1 diabetes,
and transcription and translation of insulin, an insulin receptor gene
that had a mutation in it that changed the receptor structure and
function. Everyone knows about insulin.
Everyone knows somebody with diabetes. And so it gives them some sense
of learning something that actually matters in the world. And then
finally, try to limit cost to them. So that’s opportunity cost,
emotional cost, and thinking about how to be reasonable with your
expectations of time. For example, when I am setting the time limit for
an exam, I take the exam myself and then I multiply that by three or
four. And I expect if I can put in 10 minutes, students should be able
to complete it in 30-40 minutes. And then I give them a whole hour to do
it, because there may be a technology glitch. Does it really matter if I
cut it off at 40 minutes? It just doesn’t really matter. And so if you
can do those kinds of things to make it seem less costly to engage in
the course, that can help with motivation.
And then finally, I think points matter somewhat, but you don’t want
points to be the sole purpose of your instruction. There’s lots of
research showing that what’s called extrinsic motivation, so those
things like points or grades, can actually ultimately undermine your
intrinsic motivation—your motivation to be interested in the content. So
I might do something like, “I would like you to respond to 90 percent of
the quizzes in the class.
You can drop two, and it’s not a big deal, and you can choose whichever
two. So they’re motivated to respond to the quizzes. No single quiz
counts for a lot of points, and they have the latitude to not be
penalized if they don’t. Then it becomes less about whether I’ve done
all the quizzes and whether I’ve earned all the points and more about
what I am learning from the quizzes and how to make those learning
Great. We have a question about how you style your exams. What types of
questions do you use? What other types of assessments do you use—for
example, participation in discussion boards, quizzes—and then how do you
In general, I use multiple forms of assessment to try and capture both
the progress—so what do students know already and how are they
progressing in their learning—and also that they’ve achieved the goals
that I had for them. So for progress I do things like quizzes on
readings. So, again, small portion of the class. Not any single quiz
counts for a lot.
I do in-class assignments or assignments online that they have to
engage—that’s the brain doing the work. And I grade those actually for
completion, for good-faith effort, not for 100 percent accuracy, because
I want them to really try. And then I give them feedback to help them
get better. I do have assessments that sort of get at participation, but
they’re more meaningful. I don’t ever take attendance points. But
instead what I’ll do is have them complete mini quizzes as they make
progress through a unit to check that they actually got the material
from the voice-over PowerPoint, that they actually understood it, and
they can take those up to three times, and they get feedback based on
So they can sort of earn points for that, to reflect the work that
they’ve done with their assessments, but they have a chance to practice,
and that’s really what you want your brain to do. Just like we need to
practice to be able to ride a bike or practice to be able to cook well
or practice to be able to do whatever we do that we develop expertise
in, we want students to practice the kind of thinking that we expect
them to do as scientists, and that’s ultimately what I try to get at
with my assessments.
So I do have exams. My Intro Bio course I teach 160 students and I do
not have any T.A. or grading support, so I do give multiple-choice
exams, but what I do is have a solo exam—so students take the exam
solo—and then they take the same exam again as a group. And the thing I
love about that is that if they didn’t get it on the solo exam, then
they have to debate with each other about what an accurate response is
and so they use those exams as learning opportunities.
That’s a little bit harder to manage in online instruction, but I have a
colleague, Peggy Brickman, who has managed to do it, and she just has
one student in the group submit a second set of responses on behalf of
the group, and the students communicate either on FaceTime or Zoom or
whatever. Students can communicate a lot of ways, and she has not had a
problem with getting feedback from students about how to participate in
group work. In my Biochemistry course, I use more
short-answer/problem-solving kinds of exam questions. And again, I give
them practice with that on assignments before they get to the exams.
Great. All right, this one might be a little bit of a specific question,
but I think it’s an interesting one. It’s clearly somebody teaching
chemistry, and how do you get them to draw structures?
As I was prepping, because I taught Intro Bio this semester, I was
drawing meiosis and showing it on the video camera. I have lots of
pictures of things. To be honest, that’s exactly what we did. I would
draw things, and I would either show it or I would take a picture of it
and drop it in a PowerPoint and my students did the same thing. They
would draw something on a piece of paper, take a picture of it, drop it
in an assignment.
Or we would get on Collaborate Ultra and there’s a whiteboard function
there. So they could draw. I could draw. We could jointly draw—just
don’t hit the erase button because it erases everything. I learned that
the hard way. But it can be done. I think that’s why I also have more
flexibility. I don’t want to set super rigid timelines, because it takes
more time to write out something, take a picture of it, put it online.
It just takes more time. And that’s another reason I don’t like those
lockdown modes for exams, because it limits the technology that students
can use to share their work or to upload. It basically makes everything
I have a follow-up question for that, which has to do with timed exams
in general. Is there any data to say that this is a good thing? We’ve
done it all these years and you have to question why. Maybe it’s because
a proctor only could be there for so long or something.
I’m sure that’s it, right? It’s a classroom. The next class is coming
in, so we do have those facilities constraints that we have to work
You know, I’m not super clear that it matters as long as students have
enough time. And I think there are some students who will use whatever
time is available to them, and that’s why, to me, the way that I gauge
that I’ve got the right length of exam is, again, how fast does it take
me; multiply that by three or four times; and then if the student who is
fastest in the class finishes in half the class time, I feel like I’ve
got it right, because that means the students who want more time, need
more time, will have that time.
And that’s not even taking into account students who have particular
accommodations, which again I will double or triple the time. Because I
don’t want them to miss an exam response because of time. It just
doesn’t matter. What I want is for them to learn the material and I want
their performance on an assessment to reflect what’s going on in their
brains, not the clock.
We just had someone say, “As a side note, I recently learned there’s a
whiteboard function on Zoom. Settings even allow students to draw on
your whiteboard as you instruct.”
I haven’t worked with that yet. I also have giant Post-Its on my walls.
I want to follow up a little bit on the question about the timing. Do
you also allow them to activate it and then they can do it at any point?
From the things that you said before, sometimes they may or may not have
access to internet, or they’re in a different time zone, or they’re
across the world or something. They activate it and then they have 24
hours or 48 hours to work on it?
The way that our course management system is, you can go and basically
see the entry point. So it becomes available for a certain period of
time, but once they enter it, the clock starts. And I actually prefer
that just because I also think it’s helpful to stay focused.
I would prefer if the exam really is a 20- or 30-minute exam, it’s done
in 20 or 30 minutes. Just do it. I’ll give you an hour because I don’t
want you to not complete a 20- or 30-minute exam. And when I say 20 or
30 minutes, I’m talking about a 20-question, multiple-choice exam. And
giving them an hour is more than I would give them in class because they
do have to work things out on paper and then think about what their
response is going to be, so it’s different to take an exam online.
Great. Can you walk through how you set up a learning module and the
different content features/activities it will have?
My typical module consists of sub-modules, where I’ll have, again, some
kind of reading or video, a Khan Academy video or reading material
OpenEd resource, and then they have to complete a quiz about that. So
that gives me some baseline content that they can learn on their own.
And then I will have assignments and voice-over PowerPoints that help
students move forward in their learning toward whatever the learning
goals are for that module or sub-module. And then the assignments,
again, make their brain do that work. Let me see if I can think of an
I mentioned the transcription and translation, so working through what
the different molecules are, what their roles are in those processes,
and then what would happen if different elements went wrong. So what
happens if this part doesn’t work? What happens if that part doesn’t
And that’s where the mini quizzes come in, because if they understand
the material, then they can assess what would happen if, for example,
RNA polymerase is blocked, or a ribosome binding site is blocked. Those
would lead to different products being formed—whether you make RNA or
whether you make protein, or whether you don’t make either. And so those
mini quizzes would accompany that module or the voice-over PowerPoint.
And then after several of those are together in a coherent unit, and I
usually plan for a unit to last about three weeks, three to four weeks,
something like that so that there’s four big units in a semester. Then
there will be an exam on that unit, and then the final is cumulative
over the course of the term.
Great, thank you. Another question that you mentioned in your talk
briefly but focusing on students who really require a social component
for learning. That’s just how they thrive.
That’d be humans, just so we’re clear.
There’s also the model of the introvert who’s going to do fine just
quietly reading the material. But people who you worry about losing them
as the virtual is just not quite the same. Are there thoughts or
ideas…and particularly, I guess, I would say freshmen, who may not know
their classmates. Let’s say incoming freshmen, and they haven’t met
them, and they don’t have their group to study with yet.
A couple of thoughts. One thing is you can create those groups so
there’s basically some kind of forced interaction, and then you can
start with simple ice breakers, like sharing the most boring thing that
happened to you today. So it’s not about posturing or how awesome you
are, how special you are, but rather just something that you share about
your personal life that doesn’t put you in an awkward position or expect
your classmates to put themselves in awkward positions.
So I like the most boring thing because it leads to some pretty funny
conversations about what counts as boring for different people. So
having students do that with groups and use some ice breakers, maybe
even using nickname functions could be a way to do that on a discussion
board. With students who really benefit from or really are seeking out
the opportunity to engage with each other, I encourage them to post on
the discussion board, “Listen, I’m studying at this time. If anyone’s
interested in studying with me, let me know.”
I also encourage them to not meet with people in person in some
non-public place so that they can maintain their safety. But generally
that allows students to find each other and find students who are
looking for similar interaction.
That’s great. And another thing I wanted to return to is how do you try
to level the playing field for students who have variable degrees of
electronic capabilities? You touched on it quite a few times, but how do
you even figure it out at the beginning? It’s embarrassing, right, to
say that you don’t have Wi-Fi in your home or you’re using your
telephone for all of your schoolwork.
Absolutely. First of all, don’t ever do that in a way that requires
students to report it in front of other students. So I did do a little
technology assessment survey as I moved online this semester, and I know
different people have different opinions about that, and I think the
jury is still out in terms of the evidence, but I asked things that sort
of made it OK, no judgment.
For example, I mentioned those group exams. I asked, “How confident are
you that you’ll be able to interact with your group?” Very confident,
not very confident, really not confident, I don’t think that’s going to
happen. Or, “Do you think you have sufficient bandwidth to access
videos?” Very good bandwidth, not-so-good bandwidth, I need to have
asynchronous access. What technology am I using? Am I using my laptop?
Am I using a computer/desktop? Am I using my phone? Am I using a tablet?
And just getting a sense of where students lie in terms of capacity, and
then trying to be flexible, again.
So that’s why I value the asynchronous approach, because it didn’t
require students to all be available at the same time, so if they didn’t
have the technology—if they’re competing with siblings who are also
doing online instruction and they have one desktop at home, that gives
them the flexibility to be online at a time that works for them in their
And I also tried to think about low-bandwidth options, like that MP4
version of the voice-over PowerPoint rather than doing video recordings
of my talking head with slides.
Great. Do you get feedback from the students as you’re moving along?
What’s working, what’s not working? How did that go? When you’re giving
a lecture or something, you can see faces and you’re like, “Oh, they
didn’t get that,” so you get a chance to back it up and try again, body
language and other things. It’s challenging to know whether the concept
just went right over their heads.
Absolutely. That’s the nice thing about having those assessments along
the way. With the mini quizzes I can see, wow, they really didn’t get
that. Or I can look at their assignments and say, OK, the way that they
thought about that, they really missed this point. And then I can post
on the discussion board, “Hey, this is it.” Plus I have discussion
boards for posting questions. So for example, if students have
difficulty with part of an assignment, they can post questions on the
discussion board and I can provide feedback there. And I don’t answer
questions about content by email. “That’s a great question for the
discussion board. If you post it there, I’m sure if you have that
question there’s other students who have it, and I’d be happy to
But that means you need to then treat them calmly. No making fun, no
belittling, no “I can’t believe you don’t know that.” But really think
about, “That’s a good question. Here’s how I think about it,” or “Here’s
how you might think about it,” or “Maybe think about this and this and
this and see if you can answer it again.” That kind of interaction that
is respectful of people as humans.
We’re getting towards the end of the hour, but I do want to pivot now.
We’ve been talking a lot about the students, and I know they’re first
and foremost in our minds, but also now to take a minute and think about
the educators. I do remember back in the day switching over from more
old-fashioned ways of teaching to more online, and there would be points
at which you felt you had no life, that you were at the mercy of
responding to every student. How do you encourage the educators who are
on the line to set boundaries and let their students know when they’re
available, when they need to actually have their own separate time for
That is so tough, and I think that’s just an issue in life. One thing
that has been really important to me is to stop at 5:00. When we end
this webinar, I’m done with work for today, and that’s just going to be
the way it is, because I cannot be on Zoom all day long and be
functional. If things go along a little bit more smoothly—again, perfect
shouldn’t be the enemy of good enough—I think that this is where we need
to be a little bit kind to ourselves.
The other thing that I really try to do is I make sure that even if I
have to do a little bit of work on the weekends, I try to protect that
weekend time as much as possible. And I try to make myself available to
students, but I’ll also say, “I can’t respond to that now,” or “Bring
that to office hours online tomorrow. That’s a great question.”
That’s part of the reason I like using the discussion board is that I’m
not answering the same question over and over and over again. I think
you just have to sometimes walk away. Get up, turn off the computer, and
walk away. And turn off your alerts on your phone and be OK with that,
that maybe things are not going to happen as quickly as they would have
if you were in person or in the office, but that’s OK.
Another question I have, also in the area of mental health, but with
students—and I know at least from my teaching days—I could again sort of
pinpoint when a student was in trouble certainly by performance in the
class, but sometimes it was other indicators —not looking you in the eye
in the same way, or maybe even personal appearance, other things that
were just clues that something was up with the student, so it was faster
to engage and catch issues around mental illness. Do you have any
pointers in this regard?
That’s actually a really good question.
I’m not sure I do, and I also think it’s tough because say you see
someone in person, just because someone looks a certain way to you
doesn’t mean that’s actually the case, and so what I try to do is pay
attention to missed assignments or missed deadlines and then email and
say, “Hey, I saw this is going on. Is there anything I can do to help?
How are things going? Want to check in.”
And I did that especially when students were on borderlines. For
example, if they were really not doing well in the course and we were
coming up on a withdrawal date for the semester. I’m sending emails to
just say, “Hey, I’m here to strategize with you. Let’s get online and
figure out what’s going well and what’s not working and what next steps
would be most useful for you. No judgment.”
It can be tough because sometimes they’re very high-functioning but
depressed, and so it’s…that’s going to be, I think, one of the
challenges for sure. I have a question for you in the chat that says,
“Maybe I missed it. How do you set online office hours? Are you only
available during those times and how do you set those boundaries?”
So that’s a really good question. I think it really depends on what your
staffing infrastructure is. For Intro Bio, I had four peer learning
assistants and then myself. Those were students that were available in
class who then didn’t have an in class to be available for. So the way
that we structured office hours is that I was typically available for
one to two hours a week where people could just come, and then they’d
each have an hour, and then if students needed additional time, they
could email me to make an appointment and I could make an appointment
And that was helpful for discussing things that were confidential as
well—grades or whatever personal situations students might be facing.
Keep in mind that I am at a research university, that teaching is only
third of my job responsibility, so I’m speaking from a place of relative
privilege, and so that kind of structure may or may not work for other
folks. But this is where I would encourage you to reach out to
colleagues to ask them for their advice and also reach out to centers
for teaching and learning and look at their advice.
Social media has also been super helpful for helping at least think
through the issues. Maybe not coming to some clear resolution, but at
least raising questions and making suggestions of ideas.
Great. It looks like we’re coming right up on the hour here, Erin. Can’t
thank you enough for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk
about these important issues, and we will make sure if anybody missed
the resources you can either email us or wait for the video to come back
online on the NIGMS webpage. But Erin, thank you once again. We really
My pleasure. Thanks. Thank you, Alison, and I appreciate NIGMS actually
investing in helping with professional development during this really
tough time—and you all for all the great questions. Thanks so much.
All right, take care everyone. Stay healthy. OK, bye.
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