How Science instructors pivot to remote teaching

Thursday, May 21, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every sector of society, including education: remote teaching has become, at least for now, the new norm. At the University of Waterloo, instructors have met the challenge of remote teaching by developing alternative ways of presenting course content, by recasting learning activities, and by adjusting how students are assessed. Creativity and flexibility have informed all these modifications. 

At the end of the winter term, Waterloo instructors faced the challenge of not being able to hold in-person final exams, many created take-home exams instead. But for biology instructors it was an opportunity to re-think the exam. Continuing Lecturer Marcel Pinheiro developed a take-home exam that used long-answer questions to target the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain. Prof. Roland Hall also developed a new take-home exam, but reweighted it: 15 per cent instead of 35 per cent, with the difference being redistributed over other assignments that had not yet been submitted, but which were based on material that had been covered prior to the COVID-19 measures.

Other instructors – such as Leia Minaker (Planning), Professor Moira Glerum (Biology), and Ayman El-Hag (Electrical and Computer Engineering) – created fully online final exams using tools such as LEARN, Crowdmark, or Mobius. Glerum also gave her students the choice of opting out of the online final exam and instead being assessed on their best term work only. Of Moira’s 163 students, the great majority chose to forgo the exam. Students were so appreciative of this option that Glerum is now considering doing the same thing every year, whether her course is online or not.

Instructors also pivoted to alternative means for presenting course content. Firas Mansour (Physics and Astronomy) created brief video lectures for his students. Several students told Firas that they found his short video lectures even more helpful than classroom lectures because they could review them several times at their own pace. Another student commented that these recorded lectures had a “mental health benefit because they provided a sense of normalcy in these highly unusual circumstances.”

The pivot to remote teaching hasn’t happened without hitches. Several instructors have commented on the challenge of keeping students motivated when they are engaging with them only through video and online communications. Technology, too, sometimes lacks the nuance of a human instructor: Mobius, for example, only grades a student’s final answer, and is unable to give partial marks for partial answers as an instructor would. Instructors have also reported that some students have found accessing WebEx confusing. All in all, though, Waterloo instructors have been adept at continuing to give students effective learning experiences in a challenging context.

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