Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Strategies to Address Common Teaching Issues

We have heard some common issues that faculty are experiencing this semester, so we interviewed various CMU colleagues to hear what strategies have helped... Thanks to all of you who shared your insights to make this page possible!

“I’m tired of teaching to squares on a screen! I want to see and hear from my students.”

Instructors are understandably cautious about requiring students to turn their cameras on, given the different learning environments their students may have. However, it can be very challenging to gauge student engagement when you can’t see them. Interestingly, some students have similarly reported the desire to see more of their classmates during Zoom classes. If you find yourself in this situation, first consider your rationale for wanting students to turn their cameras on. Are you asking students to participate in full- or small-group discussion, where seeing each other could be especially helpful? Or are you primarily lecturing to them, where the added value of the camera is less clear? If turning on cameras is more beneficial for the learning experience, then consider the crowd-sourced strategies below.

  • Clearly communicate your expectations for camera use during each class session. For example, an instructor could say: “During the lecture portions of today’s class session, feel free to turn your camera off if you wish. I’ll ask you to turn it on before we head into breakout rooms so that you are able to better engage with your classmates.”
  • Provide explicit prompting throughout the class to remind students of these expectations and pause to give students an opportunity to comply. For example, “Now, we’ll move to smaller breakout rooms to discuss this topic. Can everyone please turn on their cameras so that everyone can see each other during the conversation?” Pause and use this as an opportunity to connect with your students as they turn their cameras on. (e.g., “Hi Dominique! Nice to see you.” or “Fun background, Nasir!).
  • Begin class with an engaging activity that requires students to use their cameras in order to be seen. For example, maybe ask students to do a quick sketch (or concept map) to illustrate the main topic from the last class, and then share their image over the camera. Or, maybe try a prompt that isn’t directly related to course content. For example, “Grab a nearby object that illustrates your mood today and hold it up to the camera”. A potential bonus to this strategy: students might just decide to keep their cameras on for the remainder of the class!

Key considerations:

  • There are multiple ways for students to demonstrate their engagement in a course with or without using cameras. In addition to class discussion with cameras on, consider offering students a variety of options, including but not limited to Zoom polls and chat box and contributions to a Google Doc or Canvas discussion board.
  • Always offer students an “out” for not turning on their camera. For example, you could ask students to email you if they anticipate not being able to have their camera on for class (e.g., lack of reliable internet, not wanting to show their home environment, etc.). If it’s more of a one-off event (e.g., malfunctioning webcam), ask students to send you a private message on Zoom or raise their hand to let you know that they are engaged but just not able to have their camera on that day.

“I’ve tried assigning students asynchronous work, but I’m not sure if they’re doing it or engaging deeply enough…”

Given the challenges of hybrid teaching and having remote students in different time zones, many instructors are looking to incorporate more asynchronous activities into their courses. Asynchronous activities are often assigned in lieu of specific class sessions (unlike homework, that is assigned in addition...). In other words, synchronous class time is reduced as a function of the asynchronous work. Instructors have found some strategies to address two key challenges with asynchronous work: (1) designing asynchronous activities that engage students with the material and each other in a way similar to synchronous class time and (2) finding ways to incentivize students to complete asynchronous work without adding extra time on the instructor’s end.

  • Shift one synchronous class session/week to asynchronous work. Instead of meeting synchronously twice a week per the normal schedule, choose one day per week where class doesn’t meet but where students and instructors spend the equivalent time posting and responding to an asynchronous online discussion. Specifically, here’s how one course applied this strategy:
    • Pre-work: Students are assigned a reading or video and a set of standard note-taking prompts to complete/submit in advance of the asynchronous work. (These submissions are graded simply as complete/incomplete.)
    • Asynchronous work, part 1: Discussion board questions (different from the note-taking prompts) are posted and each student must make an initial post by the morning of the asynchronous class day.
    • Asynchronous work, part 2: Students are expected to engage with the asynchronous, discussion board conversation throughout the day, devoting roughly the same amount of in-class time (~80 mins) to it. This asynchronous work constitutes 10% of the students' final grade. Grading/feedback of asynchronous work is based on a simple 3-level rubric.

A simpler version of this strategy involves assigning students pre-work (e.g., a reading with discussion questions) and then requiring them to post at least twice to the discussion board two days before the synchronous class meeting, thus encouraging students to do the work more deliberately – as opposed to cramming it in just 30 minutes before class meets.

  • Shorten the duration of each class and assign asynchronous pre-work: In other courses, the instructor pre-recorded brief lecture videos for students to view in advance of class and then started synchronous class time 25 minutes into the class period. This way students could watch the videos independently either on their own schedule or during the first 25 minutes of class. Then, class time was spent more interactively, with the instructor pre-posing a few questions to get the conversation started or setting up short problems/exercises for the students to work on in small groups (with the instructor visiting to provide support and answer questions).
  • Have students share on their research/project work inside and outside of class: After students have reached a milestone in their research/project work, they are assigned to post about it on the discussion board, pose a discussion question regarding the research, and respond to their peers’ projects. (This work could be assigned in lieu of a class meeting intermittently, i.e., for each of the project milestones.) Then, at the following class meeting, the discussion questions are the focus of synchronous full-class discussion.
  • Implement a “flipped class” with pre-class work + quiz: Some instructors have assigned students to watch a series of instructional videos and complete associated quiz questions. Students must complete this pre-work before class (possibly instead of one class meeting), and then synchronous class time is spent reviewing areas of difficulty and/or collaboratively applying the pre-work concepts to real-world scenarios. 

“I feel ‘out of the loop’ when I send students to breakout rooms, and can’t tell when they need my assistance, are off-topic, etc.”

Keeping small groups of students on-topic is not a new teaching challenge. Instructors struggled with this task when teaching in-person, but the Zoom environment presents the added challenge of not being able to monitor all of the students at the same time. An additional challenge may be that students are not as connected and comfortable with each other as they were when attending in-person classes. At the same time, breakout rooms can be one of the best ways to help students build connections with each other while also engaging directly with course content. Several CMU instructors have found the following strategies helpful to effectively leverage breakout rooms in their classroom.

  • Keep breakout room groupings small (5 students max.) and maintain group composition for a set amount of time (e.g., 4-6 weeks), so that students can get to know each other and develop a sense of connectedness and comfort. One instructor accomplishes this by displaying a slide on Zoom with all of the breakout room group assignments and then uses the new “choose your own breakout room” feature in Zoom to have students go to their respective groups. After a set amount of time, consider switching the groups up so students can get to know other students.
  • Give students a concrete task, ideally with an associated deliverable on which to work in their breakout rooms. In a course that involves problem solving, one instructor has different breakout rooms solve the same problem using different problem-solving strategies. She creates a Google slide deck and asks each group to document their work on one slide (e.g., Group 1 on slide on 1, Group 2 on slide 2, etc.). She’s able to monitor student progress by seeing which groups have or have not started writing on their slide, and she uses that as a signal to check-in on specific breakout rooms. Time permitting, she uses the slide deck as a guide for additional, full-group discussion or clarification (e.g., “I see Group 3 used different steps than Group 4, can someone from Group 3 explain why they chose those particular steps?”). These sorts of in-class exercises contribute to the students’ overall participation grade in the course.
  • Give students specific roles for their breakout room work (e.g., screen sharer/driver, recorder, reporter). One instructor who has used this strategy finds that it’s helpful to delineate these roles (and rotate them), so that all students stay engaged and maintain more equitable contributions. Additionally, this gives the instructor a “point person” for specific tasks, and they can ask those people about those tasks if/when needed (e.g., “Robert, you were the reporter for your group. Can you share with the rest of class the three main takeaways that your group discussed?”)
  • Leverage new Zoom features to help with the above strategies. A recent Zoom update now allows students to enter breakouts on their own, so the instructor need not set up the rooms in advance. One instructor has leveraged this and asked students to pick a random group, while another has maintained assigned groups but asked students to go to the right breakout on their own (rather than the instructor needing to manage the Zoom details).

“Designing a remote learning experience is especially challenging for labs and studio-based courses.”

The lack of hands-on experience for remote students in a lab or studio has certainly been a challenge for instructors and students. Rather than trying to create the “same” learning environment for in-person and remote students, consider if there is a way to create similar and/or equally valuable learning experiences. Students can then teach each other different knowledge and skills associated with their respective experiences. Students can benefit when they are in the “teaching” as well as the “learning” role.

Below are some examples of how this might work in a lab and studio course:

  • Peer-to-peer teaching/learning for lab skills: In a lab designed to compare rolling circle mutagenesis with PCR, the in-person students were assigned to perform rolling circle mutagenesis in the lab while the remote students were asked to research PCR and complete a virtual simulation of it. Then, during a Zoom class session, students from each of the two groups were put in breakout rooms to compare what they learned from their experiences. In another lab, all students completed the same steps of an experiment, with the in-person students using materials from the lab and at-home students using household materials and an adapted lab protocol.
  • Peer-to-peer teaching/learning for studio/maker skills: In studio projects that require 3D printing, the in-person students will naturally be assigned to do the 3D printing, so assign the in-person students to teach the remote students about the process of 3D printing by having all group members present on Zoom while the in-person students demonstrate and explain the process “live”. In addition, the remote students could have prepared a lesson on other skills/tools to share with the in-person students.