Lessons learned: Participation not a problem during move online


Renee Clark, who advises industrial engineering faculty members’ online efforts in the Swanson School of Engineering, has seen online-only classes boost course participation.

Whether they are now using the chat window or literally speaking up, “I think students are liking the interactivity,” says Clark, director of assessment in the Engineering Education Research Center and the industrial engineering department.

About 15 faculty have volunteered to let her observe their classes, even outside IE, and she has seen students boost their interaction both during lectures and in Zoom chats. It doesn’t hurt that some classes are giving bonus points to students who participate in this manner. Clark sees the online environment as providing “ways we can get students to think and to speak up.”

Faculty using flipped classrooms, where watching lectures and doing readings are the homework assignments while solving problems together is the main classroom activity, have had very positive results in online forums, she reports. There, students work on problems as groups while instructors and TAs switch among the Zoom breakout rooms.

Sometimes, Clark found, high-tech can make things better in more obvious ways. A mechanical engineering class that literally needs to know the nuts and bolts — down to their threads — was improved when the faculty member purchased a document camera to take close-up photos as a substitute for in-person contact with materials.

“I didn’t try getting fancy in the spring,” Clark says of her own class. Instead, she says, “I tried a little bit more to be compassionate and trust them, especially with exams.”

To turn in their final exam results, students were asked to scan or take a photo of their completed papers, due an hour after assignment. “In the world we’re living in today … I said this to my students in the spring — if there’s any time to follow an honor code, now is that time to do it. Let’s do this out of respect to everybody.”

Overall, she concluded, it is helpful to “put students at ease in this new environment” — tell them “‘just be more honest with me,’ whether struggling with motivation, with the lesson, or with online instruction. It’s kind of nice when you do choose to trust students and they were really honest with you … and you see them come through in the end.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


Have a story idea or news to share? Share it with the University Times.

Follow the University Times on Twitter and Facebook.