Tips and Tricks Learned Teaching Math Online: A Webinar by Prof. Mark Ebden
On Tuesday, July 20, 2021, Prof. Ebden joined us on Zoom to share some of the Tips and Tricks he learned while teaching his Probability and Statistics course, ECE286, online! In his session, he discussed in detail a diversity of ideas for managing a course online, ranging from how to ensure academic integrity, to how to keep students engaged, and he invited his TA Danny Zhang to talk about how he played a role in engaging and supporting students in their weekly tutorials.
Here is a summary of some of our favorite tips from Prof. Ebden!
Spend the first lecture reviewing the syllabus with students and receiving their input.
In the first lecture of ECE286, Prof. Ebden put his students into break out rooms, giving them the task of reviewing the course syllabus and returning to him with their opinions and feedback. He used this feedback to modify parts of the syllabus, like lateness penalties, to agree with both his and his students’ needs.
Run a geography poll to facilitate scheduling across time zones
Having students all around the globe taking ECE286 online, running this poll at the start of the course was extremely helpful to Prof. Ebden for scheduling office hours and exams. It was also nice for the students to see where they were located in comparison to the rest of the class.
If you are new to online teaching, make lecture attendance optional!
In this course, students could access all the material on their textbook and asynchronous videos/resources. Prof. Ebden took advantage of the fact that he could record and post his lectures, and made attendance optional. If students wanted to interact with the professor and the material live, they could, but if they preferred to learn on their own schedule and get material from the lecture recordings or the textbook, they could! Prof. Ebden has noted that there can be problems with having students over-rely on textbooks that aren’t great, but pointing students to a solid textbook can be good damage control in transition to online learning. He notes that focusing the course material on a good textbook and even increases class engagement!
- Display Toronto’s local time on Quercus to ease daylight-savings and timezone transitions for students
Be active on discussion forums
Validating answers on discussion forums, like Piazza, encourages contributors and readers to use the forum and support each other more! Monitoring the forum statistics can also be helpful to professors when discerning what students to write reference letters for in a large class and who is most engaged.
Play music or fun videos on the hour to encourage socializing and set the mood
On his slides, Prof. Ebden has shared with us a playlist of songs he played before his lectures started. Music was a fun way to distract the class, giving students a break from their stressful day. It encouraged socialization: students suggested music to play and enjoyed guessing what artists wrote the music. After the 10 minutes, students were re-energized and motivated to participate in the lecture.
Hold Break-out Rooms of 3-4 minutes with 4-5 students every 20 minutes
Prof. Ebden says that break-out rooms are a great way to exploit key functions that aren’t always available in the classroom settings, but they can be very awkward and uncomfortable for students if not done right. It’s important to create structure and set expectations to guide students in the break-out rooms. Giving them roles, an activity to complete or a deliverable to come back with will help keep the break out rooms active and engaged.
After some great tips, Prof. Ebden passed the mic to his TA, Danny Zhang, who talked about some of the greatest challenges with teaching online tutorials, and what he did to overcome them. Connecting with students via Zoom was definitely an obstacle, and it was also difficult to create an environment where students felt comfortable giving feedback. His tip:
Learn from the Internet Community
So much of our lives happen online and in social media (even pre-pandemic) so there must already be effective ways to connect with others online. He turned to the popular online streaming platform, Twitch.tv, and learned from some of the internet personalities who live-stream themselves doing activities (like gaming) while actively interacting with an audience. Here are some of the things he learned that helped him keep students engaged in tutorials.
Connect With Your Audience
Danny did this by sharing his interests! Chatting with students about, not just school and careers, but also games and memes.
Keep it Casual
Responding quickly to your chat can go a long way! And in order to encourage students to use the chat and feel comfortable with it, Danny encouraged them to say anything (not just ask questions) and responded quickly to even the random comments that occasionally came in.
Do Activities Together
Example: during a 2 hour review session, Danny took a break in the middle to watch part of a SpongeBob episode with the class. It made the tutorial personal and interactive, and students loved it!
Prof. Ebden ended the session with some tips for catching academic offenses. He found that his usual approach was no longer effective in the online setting, and as offenses increased, he had to come up with some new methods.
Summarize Submissions in a Google Spreadsheet
Using a spreadsheet to keep track of student’s test answers, and group similar answers, was an effective way to discern the group of students that were communicating during assessments. For each assessment question, the teaching team came up with the best way to characterize responses, whether that be a final answer or a description of the method employed. Prof. Ebden found that this method was most effective when he used different versions of the same test that varied very slightly (by a number or method). These variations made it easy to catch cheaters when they had the right answer to the wrong version of a question
specifically books like the Bruno & Boots Series, written by a teenage author, focusing on the tension between instructors and students breaking the rules. Reading from the student point of view helped Prof. Ebden build empathy and stay sane while going through so many difficult meetings with students concerning academic offenses.
These are just some of the many tips and tricks that Prof. Ebden shared with us! He also shared some of the resources that were most helpful when he was building his course, which include the ETO Website, the SSC Webinar on Teaching Statistics Online, and his TAs. You can find the full list on his slides below!
The Lessons Learned Webinar Series began in response to our rather sudden move to online/remote teaching. The goal of the webinars is to share what has worked (and likely also a bit of what has not worked) with your peers from across FASE and the University. See the rest of the series here!