Covid-19 Semester Takeaways

As I gear up towards a new semester, I wanted to take stock of last semester and the host of nonsense it brought, what went okay, and what ought to be better. Overall, I’m kind of impressed with how well everyone involved handled going online and the amount of self awareness the students showed. It certainly went better than I expected (which might say something about my expectations, I don’t know). The student survey came back mostly positive, 

"The quality of instruction was good. I learned a great deal about calculus during my time in this course."

In spite of the class being online, I seem to have managed to convince the students that I am not the enemy 

"Ahmad did a great job at being available for questions from his students. He really seemed to care that I learned and succeeded in this class."

"Great teacher! Very effective and efficient without making it feel like he wasn't on our team."

But whether or not I like it, not everything was perfect, and I wanted to log what I thought I can improve on this time around.


That must be the toughest bit: speaking to a void filled only with black rectangles and names. No voices, no eye contact, and no feedback about any of it. Some of the students that could did well, but I can totally understand the temptation to attend class in bed as a passive listener (I'm probably guilty of this in a few seminars). I tried to repeatedly encourage students to engage with me and one another, and heavily emphasized having microphones/cameras on when doing group work. One reviewer pointed out that they felt pressured to do so when they could not. In this specific instance, the student claimed not to have an appropriate environment, but not having the correct equipment is a very real concern as well. 

What to do: I think some of the issues I can tackle are inform students of the resources available to the. To address the environment issue, I probably need to emphasize the resources students have on-campus (certain spaces allow students to be there if they make an appointment), and explore options if they are off-campus. If the issue is just that their closet is in the background, probably just remind the students that they can usually use virtual backgrounds. On the equipment side, I should remind students that the university can also loan out writing tablets and webcams, and that a smart phone is a fairly good writing apparatus (to use on a Google Jamboard, say) with some practice. Unfortunately, I think I have to accepts that some of the students will have problems I don't have the bandwidth to help much more than that (e.g. environments they cannot control, bad Wi-Fi, etc. ). 

Lecturing vs. Team Work 

One big aspect of the fall's classes was groups of students working together for the majority of the time in class. This meant a lot of time spent in breakout sessions working on problems I had posted on a Jamboard I share with the students. I thought this was a pretty reasonable way of replacing in-class group work. Some of the common problems were trying to get students to engage with one another and to contribute equally-ish. At least one student did not like being called on when in this group, but I'm not entirely sure this is an online-instruction problem (maybe I could get away with just looking at them in person, making it less personal?). Another common grievance was that there was too much of them working on problems, not enough lecturing or me working on problems. I generally tried to solve one or two problems live and posted solutions to all in-class problems after they had the chance to work on them. When the students complained that the problems were easier than the exam's, I started taking every other problem from an old exam to make sure I modeled the correct difficulty level, but I'm not sure it really helped. I have to say I chuckled reading the sequence of comments that say something like "group work is good, but maybe more lecturing, but also please stop going overtime." 

What to do (on mode of instruction): Ultimately, I think this again an issue of creating buy-in. I think I have to convince the students that me speaking more doesn't help as much as they perceive it to. This probably means spending more time explicitly saying so. It might help to emphasize that they have access to some old exams that they can use to understand what is being expected of them and calibrate accordingly. 

What to do (on motivating student to work): I have to convince students that contributing and asking questions often will be their best bet at learning the material and feeling prepared/confident for exams and quizzes. 


A few comments alluded to the fact that there was more work to be done in way more mediums (online homework, some written assignments, quizzes, exams, prep for lectures, etc.). This is the problem I feel the worst about, because I kind of agree?

What to do: To some extent, I'm pretty constrained in following the syllabus all other sections agree to, so the amount of work I expect from students is mostly fixed. :/


Let’s just go ahead and deal with the elephant in the room. The switch to online classes gave those that were willing to cheat the perfect temptation and opportunity to do so. Some things were easy to catch (e.g. giving a decimal approximation of pi without a calculator), while others were harder (e.g. paying someone to complete assignments for you and/or sit behind the camera and dictate answers to exam problems). 

What to do: Increasing the complexity of the proctoring system isn't something I'm considering for next semester (or probably ever). One thing my course coordinator for this semester will be adding in this direction is an interview component. Students will schedule a time to talk with two examiners (instructors teaching different sections) about a problem they had previously solved on an exam/homework/quiz. Not reproduce the solution, but just talk about it (do they know definitions of the objects they manipulate, are the manipulations reasonably motivated, etc.). I like the idea, and think it can be an opportunity for the students to learn something interesting, or at least practice speaking about technical matters (think of a technical job interview). Students can also redo interviews, and will sometimes be asked to if the examiners think it necessary. I have to say, I'm a little excited to see how this will work out. 

So yea, ultimately, I don't think the semester was a disaster, but there's quite a bit of fine-tuning to do. I'm foolishly hopeful that this semester will be good.