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When Pandemic Teaching Goes Well

This post is a collaboration among Tina Piper, Mariela Tovar, and Carolyn Samuel. 

At a time when many instructors in higher education are bemoaning the shift to remote teaching imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, we talked with an instructor in McGill University’s Faculty of Law who has found some upsides. Professor Tina Piper teaches Property Law (LAWG 220D), a required, second-year, full-year course that has an enrollment of about 60 students. Having taught the course 12 times, Tina is well acquainted with the general characteristics of these second-year students and the ways in which they engage with the course content. In this post, Tina addresses upsides experienced over the past months related to students’ engagement in learning remotely and for her teaching practice.

The students 

Whether they’re learning on-campus or remotely, I feel the students are not as enthusiastic about this required course as they are about the courses they get to choose. Few students come into the course passionate about the topic. Also, students in second year of law school tend to be a bit demoralized because their grades have taken a hit in first year. The challenges of law school have become apparent. Overall, though, students want to improve on their first year performance. Some also want to figure out options: they’re looking for ways they can use their law training to do things other than “law.” I believe my job is to choose interesting material for the course and help students engage with the topic. 

Students’ engagement in learning 

I feel my students are really engaged in the course through Zoom. They participate in chats throughout the class. The chat is incredibly busy. We’ll be talking about something related to property and then students will start riffing on a petition they are involved with or some article they read or some movie they watched. For example, we were talking about property law and shopping malls, and then the chat started filling up with comments about which movie about mall rats was the best movie. There was a whole discussion and, in many ways, even though it was obviously not core content, I think it made the students feel engaged with the course. They can make connections between the course material and things they’ve seen in their personal life or do recreationally.

Here’s another example: We read a case about Winnipeg and talked about a major building in the city, which was on the topic of property, and then students started talking about what it was like growing up around that building. More students started talking about things to do in Winnipeg and things they like about Winnipeg. So, the chats have been a really fun part of the course. I’ve also noticed that students who tend to be shy in a physical classroom feel empowered to speak in the virtual classroom using chat. Generally, I think I’m hearing from a lot more students. 

Students can switch their Zoom settings so they’re only seeing a few faces, which makes it feel more like an intimate conversation. I don’t require students to turn on their cameras, and I don’t even care if cameras are off. In fact, many of the students who participate actively in Zoom—either orally or via chat—and seem to be engaged in the course have their cameras off. 

The students also ask a ton of questions. I try to keep the class to an hour, but we often go over time because they want to keep talking. After class, I always have students staying around on Zoom to keep talking about some aspect of the course. 

Assessment of students’ learning 

There are three assessments: an exam worth 40%, a group project worth 30%, and a reflection essay worth 30%. Since it’s a full year course, not all of the assessments have been completed.  

I find that the quality of students’ writing assignments and their expression of ideas is markedly better than students who have taken this course previously, and by quality, I mean students seem to be engaging more critically with their work. Their ability to communicate complicated ideas about law in a meaningful way really improved throughout the semester. I feel like everybody’s giving themselves enough time and space to write a good essay. Maybe that means the conditions created by the pandemic are giving students more time to reflect, and to reflect more deeply, engage with the written word, and do multiple drafts. Pre-pandemic, students had to do a peer review of a 1000-word essay two weeks prior to submission. They had to discuss and rework their work. Often, in the past, many students would wait until the last minute and just submit a skeleton of an essay. But this year, more students are submitting actual essays and then getting valuable peer feedback that allows them to improve their writing. As a result, grades are higher. Students’ learning also seems to be deeper. Maybe it has something to do with students having fewer commitments outside their academic responsibilities—for example, less socializing and no part-time jobs—giving them more time and space to re-read and reflect on their work, and engage with it. I’m not saying it’s ideal, but I do feel, across the class, the level of reflection and engagement has been high.

Take-aways for post-pandemic teaching

I really enjoy having access to my students’ chat conversations. It has opened my eyes to how much they’re engaging with the course and the ways in which they’re engaging that I probably didn’t have a good sense of before because of the way the on-campus classroom experience has been structured. I feel like I have a better understanding of where students are at with the material, and l can connect my teaching to students’ interests much more fluidly. I would love to continue having access to these during-class chats. I’m curious to see if I can make a backchannel* work in my physical classroom, when the time comes. 

I also like the intimacy of the online format. For me, standing at the front of a room of 60 students with 60 pairs of eyes staring at me is a very different experience from sitting at the computer where I can decide how many eyes are staring at me. It has really opened my eyes to how I can create conditions that allow me to relax and have even more fun with my teaching. So, once we return to campus, I may continue to use strategies and classroom set-ups that foster similar kinds of small group conversations.

What upsides to remote teaching and learning have you experienced? 

*MS Teams chat can be used for backchannelling during class. McGill Instructors and students have access to MS Teams through Office 365. 

Senior Academic Associate at McGill's Teaching and Learning Services.; former Senior Faculty Lecturer at the McGill Writing Centre; area of specialization: Second Language Education; loves teaching and learning; will work for chocolate (Photo credit: Owen Egan)

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