What are some challenges you have faced in online teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic and how did you go around these challenges?

I was recently interviewed for receiving the NUS FASS Faculty Teaching Excellence Award for AY2019/2020. One of the interview questions was: 

Tell me the differences between conducting physical classes and online classes. What are some challenges you have faced in online teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic and how did you go around these challenges?

My lectures are all online in the form of pre-recorded videos. But one thing the COVID-19 pandemic did was that it forced me to shift my physical tutorials onto Zoom. I experimented a little with conducting Zoom tutorials last semester (AY2019/2020 Sem II), and I have to personally admit that it was quite a traumatising experience due to a variety of problems: (1) technical problems where students got disconnected and I had to manually add them back into the breakout room (something which I could not do if I was too busy attending to a particular breakout room; (2) students learn and complete various learning activities at vastly different speeds; and then there’s the problem where (3) students didn’t dare or didn’t want to interact with each other online, thereby resulting in getting very little done.

These three problems made a huge impact on me last semester, and I spent the entire summer break re-thinking my whole approach to conducting tutorials.

The first major revamp that I did was to change the tutorial participation grading rubric. Tutorial participation this semester is not graded based on how much you contribute to the discussion, but on how much you help your fellow group mates or seek help from your fellow group mates. From my traumatic experience of Zoom tutorials last semester, I realised that this was necessary otherwise the fast learners would complete all the learning exercises on their own and not try to engage in any discussion with their group mates. So this new grading rubric for tutorial participation would motivate them to apply their learning in the process of peer teaching. And at the same time, incentivise weaker students or struggling students to actively seek help from their group members since they can also score marks in that way.

And we require each group to record their breakout room discussion and upload it to Luminus where we would quickly review the videos after class to see who’s been helping or seeking help. The reason for recording the discussions was motivated by my undergraduate Teaching Assistants, many of whom complained that in their own experience with Zoom tutorials, their discussions groups would return to silence the moment the lecturer or tutor left the breakout room. So this was done to ensure that students would actively help or seek help from each other regardless of whether or not the tutor was present in the breakout room.

And since many local students tend to be shy in speaking up, we always begin the discussion group activities with an ice-breaker warm up, just to get them talking about their week and form a connection, a bond, with one another. This helps to warm them up enough to engage each other cordially for the rest of the discussions.

The second major revamp was to create a very detailed and structured Google Docs worksheet for every discussion group, laying out every single task that they had to do, whether it was a technical task, or an open-ended discussion about the ethics of a certain decision. This allows each group to progress in the various learning activities at their own pace without requiring the tutor to round up the entire class to brief them on the next task, which was the format we used in physical tutorials. And of course, for the fastest groups, we always have an additional question to provoke them to think further about the issue at hand. This is meant to keep them engaged throughout tutorial time, and to match their level of learning with something more challenging for them. In a certain, each discussion group gets a very customised learning experience within their breakout rooms.

This has many benefits. First, it lightens the burden of the tutor from having to brief and explain many things to the class. Each group can read the instructions on their own, and if they are unsure, they can clarify amongst themselves (which would give them marks for tutorial participation for helping each other). And only when they realise that they are still unsure, can they then seek the help of the tutor. What this does is that it allows the tutor more space to handle students with technical problems (without worrying about holding up the class), and it also gives the tutor peace of mind to attend to the weaker groups.

Furthermore, each tutorial class has its own Telegram chat group. This functions as the back channel for tutorials. In the event a student has Internet problems, the student can notify us through that group chat. And we can send the student a landline telephone number to call to connect to the Zoom server and thus join our discussions. It also allows us to send tutorial materials that students can easily check back any time during and after the tutorial. And if the tutor is in a breakout room, students from other breakout rooms can post specific questions to the tutor who will then decide whether to visit that breakout room or if it’s a simple question, answer it via text on Telegram.

These two revamps are massive, and they have been highly effective in overcoming the challenges of teaching online.

What is your teaching philosophy? What are some lessons you have gained as an educator?

I was recently interviewed for receiving the NUS FASS Faculty Teaching Excellence Award for AY2019/2020. One of the interview questions was:

What is your teaching philosophy? What are some lessons you have gained as an educator?

Here’s my answer:

My teaching philosophy is influenced heavily by the teachers I had growing up. I had teachers who looked out for the last, the lost, and the least, and they put in so much effort to ensure that the weaker students would not get left behind. And I have had the personal experience of having good teachers who, with their patience, nurturing qualities, and clear explanations, allowed me to go very far in my learning. My own life would have been very different if I had did not have the fortune of encountering them.

And so in many ways, my teaching philosophy is influenced by that, and I enjoy spending time with my students to help them learn better, and to help clear up whatever confusions that they have about their learning

The most profound lessons I gained as an educator were during my time as a Teaching Assistant for interdisciplinary modules. It was shocking to see the amount of fear and anxiety students had when it came to a discipline outside their major. Their fears were fuelled by the fact that it was a discipline alien to them. But at the heart of the fears and anxieties was the fear of failure.

And it occurred to me that so many of our university students have never experienced failure before in their lives. They succeeded in every major exam by pursuing what they can score well in. And so when an alien subject — which they have no confidence or experience in — is forced upon them, suddenly, they are faced with the prospects of failure.

And time and time again, I have seen how that fear of failure kept getting in the way of their learning. I encountered many students who were reluctant to internalise their learning because they were afraid of saying or writing the wrong thing. And so there’s this tendency to stick to model answers, to replicate and modify examples. They never really gave themselves a chance to try to express what they learnt in their own words.

There are many other examples I could cite of fear getting in the way of their learning. Suffice to say, these experiences shaped my approach to teaching. That if I want students to learn well, then I need to help mitigate the single biggest impediment to their learning, which is their fear and anxiety.

This insight comes from my own personal experience in learning. Years ago, I used to have a terrible command of the Chinese language. But I needed to work in China for a couple of weeks. I could not speak well, and I could not write well either. So I signed up for adult business Chinese classes. The teacher told me that since we only had a week before I had to fly, the focus would be on empowerment and making me confident. Lessons were less about grammar and vocabulary. She was perceptive and she saw that my struggle with the language was my lack of confidence in speaking, and in some aspects, anxieties in speaking in Mandarin. I was sceptical about it, but she did a surprisingly fantastic job at building confidence in me. I survived my work trip in China, and my command of the Chinese language improved vastly since then.

This made me realise just how far students can go in their learning once the impediment of fear and anxiety are alleviated. And so I provide a variety of support systems in my teaching to help alleviate that fear, such as the Telegram Helpline where they can always seek help when they’re stuck. In addition, I engage them with humour, and other fun activities as a way of alleviating the fear of failure so that they can focus their minds on the task at hand.

I also put them through simulated scenarios in a safe environment where they can and will have to fail and learn to evaluate and recover from those simulated failures. It is my hope that through these experiences, they realise that failing isn’t as bad as it seems, and so they feel more empowered by these experiences to take risks and learn better.