Classes can benefit from major revamps

September 9, 2020 — by Preston Fu

As teachers and students alike become accustomed to digital learning, many problems and benefits have become obvious. Among the positives: Students can sleep in longer, transition between classes rapidly and communicate through chat. The negatives: It’s harder to focus online, there is little in-person interaction and technical difficulties can hinder learning.

Teachers have been trying to implement different class strategies than they did last spring, from breakout room discussions to in-class lectures, but there are clear winners when it comes to the most effective way to run class.

In general, teachers would be well served to use asynchronous lectures and synchronous small-group discussions and activities rather than in-class lectures and whole-class discussions.

In combination with assigned textbook readings, pre-recorded lectures, to be watched prior to its corresponding activity-based class period, come with several key benefits.

The main one is that they allow students to pause and replay parts that are hard to understand. Typically, teachers who lecture in class occasionally stop to ask, “Does anyone have any questions?” This question often receives no response or a few clarifying questions that could have been resolved with a replay-able video. Nonetheless, it is not uncommon to see students staying behind to ask clarifying questions at the end of class.

The only remaining issue with video lectures is the difficulty of asking deeper questions in synchronous class. Although these questions are occasionally enriching for the rest of the class, they typically result in an unrelated tangent or an “I’ll get back to you on that.” Thus, they generally waste precious class time and would be better asked during office hours or via email.

Some would say that pre-recorded lectures aren't necessary — all Zoom meetings are already being recorded, enabling students to just rewatch the video on their own. However, this strategy still wastes class time and places an unnecessary burden on both students and teachers.

Lecturing in class, however, isn’t the only common in-person, in-class activity that isn’t effective in an online environment — most notably, large-group discussions and activities generally also fail more often than they succeed. Even in person, these activities are sometimes unwieldy.

In-person Socratic seminars, for example, consist of around 25 to 30  students, and are supposed to be student-led discussions as opposed to teacher-led. In my experience, the talkative students tend to dominate the conversation, while their timid counterparts watch them duel it out, hoping for little pauses where they can inject a few sentences of their own opinions into the discussion for the sake of preserving their grades. By the end of the discussion, a few students almost always haven’t spoken yet, and teachers have to ask them to contribute a few words.

The problem in this scenario arises mostly from the subset of talkative students who don’t know when to stop talking and give their quieter classmates time to speak. However, this problem is only worsened on Zoom, where it’s very difficult to see people’s facial expressions — after all, their cameras’ rectangles each occupy only about 2 percent of the screen. Moreover, it’s now much more difficult to jump in with the network latency and sometimes dysfunctional microphones.

A better alternative is to hold small-group discussions or activities involving at most five people; this way, it’s very easy to remember who has spoken and who hasn’t, and it’s much easier to tell if someone wants to speak. People who are more timid will also feel more comfortable in smaller groups, allowing everyone in class to contribute and gain as much out of these discussions.

Small-group discussions and activities are not only beneficial to students but are also much more efficient — a significant benefit for teachers. Large-group discussions typically take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, and they are overflowing with repetitive commentary, needless pauses and prompts from teachers. 

By contrast, in smaller groups, since students are more willing to speak, discussions are much more focused and meaningful, and they typically finish in under 15 minutes. As for grading, teachers can watch recorded breakout sessions or assess students’ written reflections on these discussions.

Of course, this environment is all still new, but if teachers can adopt asynchronous readings and pre-recorded lectures as well as synchronous small-group activities, they may be able to save themselves from classes of confused freshmen and dozing seniors.

 

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Due to the lightning complex that occurred in the week of Aug.17, Santa Clara County is currently surrounded by wildfires, covering the city of Saratoga in heavy smoke. The air quality was in the range of 100 to 200 for the past five days, forcing SHS to close down. Photo by Selina Chen.

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