Nonverbal communication is essential for engaged learning and effective teaching. In-person classes allowed me to assess the effectiveness of my lessons by reading the facial reactions from students. Confusion, disengagement, attention, and epiphany moments all had distinct facial signatures that I could use to my advantage as an instructor. Such in-the-moment, on-the-spot feedback let me know when something needed to be repeated or said differently for better understanding. This type of gauging mechanism can still be applied to the remote classroom, but only to students who have their cameras turned on. Unfortunately, it is common for students to have their cameras off and there is no way to formally mandate their use. There are strategies, however, to still elicit engagement.
Teaching into the void
In remote settings, student engagement can be enhanced by calling on blank-screens for answers, offering small amounts of extra credit for answering difficult in-class questions, completing impromptu assignments, and engaging in breakout room group activities. Modifying some of these can prompt reciprocal visual participation as well! For example, when discussing macromolecules and their relationship to nutrition and diet, I ask my students to hold up a food item from their kitchen that has a proportionately high content of a specific macromolecule. Students often present salmon, burger meat, candy, oil, etc.; all of which (to various degrees) foster classroom conversation, personalize the topic to the students (even beyond that of which can be obtained with in-person instruction), and promote comfort with cameras being on. I do something similar when discussing microbial model organisms for our genetics laboratory. I explain to my students the types of microbes used to generate the data they will be analyzing; the same species they would have used for their hands-on and in-person experiment. Then, in breakout rooms, I have students take a few minutes to research those model organisms and where they are commonly found. The students are then told to find an item or person from their house representing a source of such microorganism (I always remind students to keep the show-and-tell appropriate). Students hold items to their cameras such as a shower sponge to represent a location for Serratia marcescens and various food items to represent potential locations for types of E. coli.
These short, simple exercises make remote sessions not only convenient, but enjoyable, vibrant, and meaningful to the students. Also, by promoting reciprocal video feeds, these techniques play toward one of my teaching strengths: my enthusiasm for the content. Instructor enthusiasm is often contagious to students and further engages them. With a heightened reciprocity in video feed, social interaction becomes a positive feedback loop where I become more engaged with student presence.
When student screens are off, remote learning has sometimes been referred to as “teaching into the void.” However, by implementing easy scavenger hunt-like exercises, an instructor can turn a challenging topic into a learning experience that has personalized benefits even beyond that of in-person modalities.
Dependence upon software, hardware, and internet connectivity can create concern for interruptive scenarios to student learning. However, this can be mostly avoided by the instructor and students proactively choosing the most reliable tools before the semester and prior to each class. Minimizing the number of browser tabs, windows, and active background programs, to only those essential to class time, should be a practice used by all remote instructors and promulgated to all remote students.
Repurposing remote lab learning
Although I have not taught the laboratory component of our introductory biology course for many semesters, I do teach a corresponding lecture. As such, it was an honor to help repurpose the laboratory manual for remote-learning last summer. I also amended my normal genetics laboratory routines. Many of these modified laboratory exercises had great utility in this emergency situation. For example, in a cells and molecules lab I used interactive atomic modeling to foster understanding on molecular structures and properties of functional groups. In another lab’s supplemental activity on osmosis, students dissolved shells from eggs in vinegar, placed the eggs in syrup (representing a hypertonic solution), and then made observations on the change in egg size/shape. In an exercise on hydrophobicity, students were asked to try mixing oil and water from their kitchens. Again, these short, easy activities personalize and energize remote learning labs, but also help students kinesthetically visualize different concepts.
I also utilized a free, online, game-based learning software to complement my genetics labs that was creatively discovered by colleagues. Both Geniverse and Geniventure (by Concord Consortium) allowed students to reinforce genetic concepts by manipulating virtual dragons through breeding experiments. The principles of chromosome segregation, various modes of inheritance, and genotypes’ influence on phenotype are just a few of the concepts visually reiterated by these fun games. And being web-based, these can supplement future classes since students can do them remotely and from anywhere! This is an aspect that many students certainly appreciate.
All modified exercises that fostered student collaboration and effectuated any at-home, hands-on application seemed to be optimal for engagement/learning.
The ostensible takeaway: remote learning laboratories have unique challenges, but they certainly have advantages, some of which surpass those of in-person classes. Furthermore, many of the challenges for remote learning can be mitigated and even made beneficial, simply by implementing small teaching strategies. Most importantly, in emergencies such as this pandemic, it is vital that students can be offered substantive, carefully crafted remote labs that can complement their science lectures!
Adam Aguiar, PhD, began working toward his PhD dissertation research on prostate cancer progression and metastasis at the University of Delaware. In late 2011, Aguiar received his PhD in molecular biology and genetics.
Throughout Aguiar’s graduate and post graduate years, he has published multiple peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals. Additionally, Aguiar teaches courses at Stockton University in genetics, cells and molecules, biodiversity and evolution, and cell biology and biophysics, as well as his own self-constructed general studies course on ecology and saltwater fishing. In addition to being an assistant professor at Stockton for the last 10 years, Aguiar has also taught introductory biology courses at Brookdale Community College, and anatomy and physiology at Ocean County College. In all of his courses, he tries to employ various teaching strategies to address different modes of learning among the students in class. These tactics include class discussions, analogies, videos, props, and both instructor and student concept drawing. The biggest tool Aguiar uses is simply his enthusiasm for the material—it’s said to be infectious and gets students more engaged and to care more about the material.