Six things I learned about face-to-face teaching in the time of Covid-19

Dr. Minna Ng is currently teaching 74 first-year students face-to-face across two classes. One class is co-taught with Dr. Karen Murphy (Introduction to Biological Bases of Behavior), and the other is a new FOCUS course (Intersections of the Brain & Environment). Occasionally, students are quarantined, or just not feeling well, and can join class safely via a Zoom cart. Read more about Zoom carts in Duke Today.

Dr. Ng describes the six things she has learned: 

1. Find course assignments, assessments and rubrics online and adapt. Your original assignments and assessments for in-person teaching might not translate well to teaching in a hybrid manner, and trying to make them fit may take time and still not work. Do not reinvent the wheel! Search online for materials that will work. Yes, searching does take time, but can save much more time if you find material that will work for your learning objectives. 

As an example, Dr. Ng adapted this activity, originally written as an individual project, to a short in-class activity for teams.

2. During class time, engage the students in class with active team assignments. Create teams in class. Dr. Ng uses the same student teams throughout the semester to develop bonds and have buddies for peer support, help with accountability, remind them about deadlines and assignment details and provide encouragement. Note that it’s harder for instructors to read student faces when everyone is wearing a mask, so team support is important. 

As a first assignment, students create a team charter to set the ground rules and expectations.

In class, students should be doing most of the talking, and most of that talking should be in small groups because it is hard to hear and project in a distanced and masked classroom. Occasionally, teams present to the whole class but are limited to less than 10 minutes, so they don’t have to project their voices extra loud for too long. It can be physically and psychologically taxing students with quieter voices.

3. Cut down your usual class agenda for two reasons: 

a.  Everything takes longer, because you have more course tasks: setting up A/V, Zoom cart, signing in quarantined students, hosting guest speakers, repeating questions to make them audible, talking more slowly to make yourself audible because students do not have the visual cue of your lips moving. 

b.  Make time to get a pulse on how students are doing. Some of Dr. Ng’s activities include polling, telling a story, asking what students did over the weekend, talking about how a team rewarded an assignment submission, taking a moment to celebrate our Duke pride, recognizing the front line healthcare workers and their families and other current events, as well as direct students to resources. 

4. Assign pre-class work to prepare them for in-class active learning. Students should be spending MOST of the in class time talking and doing things together. They are best prepared to engage when they do readings BEFORE they come to class. To ensure that students do the pre-class work, Dr. Ng uses low-stakes assessments and gives them credit. It is a win-win. She thinks that the assessment and credit are more valuable now than pre-COVID times. Here are two examples of her pre-class assignments. Students are assigned videos and readings before class. 

a. In Sakai, prepare a quiz to open 24 hours before class, with about 10 multiple choice questions on foundational concepts. Students have one hour with full access to course materials. The answers are posted on Sakai 15 minutes after the window closes.

b. Use the Forums in Sakai to post their thoughts and observations on an assigned reading or video, and respond to two peers’ posts. Recently, Dr. Ng has started posting a sample of quotes to start off the class, asking the authors to expand in class. 

5. All course materials are freely available to the students, before class and during assessments. Dr. Ng uses peer-reviewed articles through Duke library‘s subscriptions that make it “free” for her and Duke students, materials from the Society for Neuroscience, educational videos through Journal of Visualized Experiments, relevant YouTube videos and TED talks.

6. End class with a one minute reflective paper. Dr. Ng likes to give students a quiet space to themselves after all the team and class discussions. The questions she asks provide her with a sense of how they are doing with the course materials, so she considers it an evaluation of how she’s doing for them.