Well, that was challenging

Today I tried to lead my students through some simple genetics problems over Zoom. In class, it would be easy: put up the problem, have the students pull out a piece of paper and try to solve it, while I wander the classroom seeing what they were doing, offering hints and suggestions as I go, and at the end I’d have an idea of where the individuals were struggling.

On Zoom, nope.

I’d present the problem, and then…no, I have no way to observe the process. I told them they could let me know their answer over the private chat, and if it looked good, I’d call on them and they could explain how they solved it.

First difficulty: these are smart students, and they quickly figured out the flaw in my plan. If they gave the answer, I’d call on them; simple solution: sit on the answer for as long as possible. The first problem I put up produced a deadly silence, with all those black rectangles not showing anything, and my chat window being totally blank. I’d try to nudge them along, but not knowing where they were in the problem meant I had no idea where they were stuck. Or if they even were stuck.

They started to warm up as the hour went on — probably as they realized these weren’t really that hard, and they were seeing how to reach the solution — but it was still agonizing. It took us the whole hour to do 3 problems. And I’ve promised/threatened to do it again on Thursday. As it stands, they’re getting an exam next week and I’ve had little opportunity to interact with them to work through even simple problems.

Stupid virus. Let me get back into a real classroom again.


  1. Bradley Hersh says

    I have a hybrid classroom, with roughly 18-20 students physically present and 6-8 remote each class period. I post the genetics problems ahead of time–some students print them out to work on and others use tablets on the electronic versions. I put the remote students in the breakout rooms to discuss with each other while the in-person students work in their small groups. And then I hop from breakout room to breakout room to see what questions they have. Then we go through the solutions using Jamboard with me writing out the solutions with input from the students. It’s been working reasonably well–I’ve heard from some of the remote students that the discussions in the breakout rooms can be of mixed value, depending on who’s in there and how talkative they are. But generally speaking, it seems to be working alright.

  2. cinnamon says

    I second the idea of breakout rooms. If you put a problem set online as a shared doc/web form that allows real-time editing, students could contribute and edit faster than using voice-only. Perhaps a doc (even a blank scratch page) for each breakout room or tell each room to focus on a particular section of the same doc. The advantage of shared docs over a shared whiteboard is you could review work later in front of the whole class. Shared docs also let you monitor activity without entering a breakout room.

    Can you assign breakout rooms 1-to-a-student? Then they could work in private and you could pop in to review. Some students may find private rooms less stressful and more productive than small groups, as there’s no need to be social.

  3. npsimons says

    @1, breakout rooms were the first thing I thought of, glad people are taking advantage of those!

    As to the original problem: as a code monkey, these kinds of perspectives are infinitely valuable. There’s an adapted saying that “no software survives first contact with users” which the point is not to view users as enemies, but that it’s incredibly revealing to see your software used for the first time.

    I’m not currently a developer on projects like BigBlueButton (https://bigbluebutton.org/), but source is available, and I have visions in my head where you not only have breakout rooms, but maybe just have each student share a whiteboard with just the instructor by default, so they won’t be afraid to share their answer.

    I want to see people thrive online like I do, so it pains me to hear that the tools we have don’t work for other everyone, and especially since I’m the kind of person who could make them better.

  4. says

    This is fascinating to read. I’ve had to teach over Zoom my Korean Elementary students, which obviously doesn’t compare to teaching genetics problems, but it’s still interesting to hear about other Zoom teaching experiences.

  5. inflection says

    I find breakout rooms very clunky because I can’t be in each of them, and the class can have quite a few of them if you don’t break students up into relatively large groups.

    I like to use Zoom’s polling feature for snap assessments of student understanding (ungraded, of course!). It’s completely anonymized, so it knocks over at least one source of hesitancy. It’s necessarily multiple choice, but it gives me some feedback on students’ knowledge. In particular, I always include a final option so that students don’t just guess, and I can get a real count of students who are lost: “I am very unconfident with this question and would like more explanation.”

    It just takes a minute to set up a generic poll for a repeating class, and you can reuse the poll as much as you want.