Course design reflection: community building, self-reflection and restructuring tutorials

It’s hard to believe we are in the 5th semester since the pandemic started in 2020 March. I’m still teaching online for this fall semester, and I’d like to take a few minutes to reflect on my course design choices this fall, and share with you what worked, and what didn’t so far.

My focus is still building a learning community that connects students with each other and with me. In the summer I experimented with Microsoft Teams platform and found it worked well so I decided to continue using it as the main channel for communication. This fall I’m more intentional when using Teams and am able to explore more functions that Teams offer. Class Notebook was made available a week before the semester started, together with the course syllabus. Students received the link to join Teams and once they are in, they will see 10 Channels listed in the course: General, Culture Box, Introduce Yourself, Math-Memes, Pre-lecture video Related Qs, PrepGuide Related Qs, StudyTips, and Test Related Qs, Textbook Related Qs and Tutorial Related Qs. I posted the first message in the channel “Introduce Yourself” and ended my self-introduction with a question. Whoever posted after me will answer my question first before introducing themselves, and they will end their post with another question. This channel became the first contact point where students get to know each other. If you want to do something similar, bear in mind that not all students are comfortable sharing information about themselves in a public space so make sure you give your students the choice of participating or not. Since we have regular weekly discussion activity planned, after the first week, 16 private channels were set to accommodate the discussion groups. When students were first sent to Zoom break-out rooms, they did an ice-breaker activity with their TA. We borrowed a lot of ideas from Equity Unbound: https://onehe.org/equity-unbound/ and there is deliberate effort for ongoing engagement on a weekly basis whenever students work in their group. Groups were finalized by week 3 and once the bound between group members has formed, they tend to work together not only during scheduled activity, but also after class. I changed the tutorial structure of this course accordingly. Every Friday there is one 50-minute lab session and one TA who facilitates it. Instead of asking the TA to run a synchronous session with all students, I asked each group to set up their own Zoom meeting and posted the links in a shared Excel file hosted on Teams. Then whenever a group needs help, they can message the TA and the TA will join them. This has been working well: students still have the sense of working in a small group setting and the TA gets to work closely with them. We are able to address common misunderstandings by posting a message to the whole class, and the TA is open to making short video clips to clarify common mistake he saw.

Even though we are only less than a month into the semester, I can tell the class has bounded well and the attendance has been very high. I usually have 90+ students attending synchronous sessions with me on Wed and Friday on Zoom, which has never happened in the past few semesters. Usually if I get half of the class, that’s considered well-attended. I hope we can continue this trend.

The only concern I have is I don’t know what exactly happens when students work in their groups. I won’t be able to monitor all 16 groups at the same time, though they do submit individual work after each group discussion and I can at least see whether authentic learning happened by looking at the work, and reading through their self-reflections. I made sure each submission has a self-reflection question at the end, and I have received a few messages from students about how much they appreciate it. It’s important to give students the space to pause and think about how they are learning and doing math, and I plan to keep the practice going forward.