Thus far I’ve taught six classes (four preps) fully online: two over last summer and four over the fall semester. Because creating community in the classroom is central to my teaching philosophy, the following student comment was the most pleasing among the evals of six courses: “Even over Zoom he is able to create a community-feel in our Great Books class.”
Now, it was a Great Books class of about 15 students. I also had two classes (non-Great Books) with 34 or 35 students. It is easier to build community with a small group, and I broke up each class into three small groups. Five of these groups did quite well. One group was okay but not great, and later I moved half of the students into the first group and half into the second.
Having small groups was the best decision that I made at the beginning of class, and it is confirmed in student comments from those two classes.
For example, one student wrote the following: Dr. Hoang split up our class into two small groups and both small groups are present for the larger lecture. He met with the 1st group for over an hour then lectures then meets with the 2nd for over an hour. I think this makes the best use of everyone’s time.
From another student: Our original class time was for 3 hours. However Professor Hoang understood it would not be as beneficial to lecture the class for three hours. Instead, my class was split into smaller groups and met with the professor for a lesser amount of time. During the small group time, we would have class discussions with the professor about our readings. We would then transition into a full class meeting for a mini-lecture. This format was extremely beneficial for me. I typically have a hard time focusing during long lectures, especially over zoom so this class structure made it much easier for me to learn.
A third example: The way that Dr. Hoang organized this class was perfect. I loved being able to meet in small groups and discuss–not only did that allow for more engagement, but it also promoted critical thinking for sure.
Most succinct comment: Small groups for max efficiency.
True, efficiency and time management–plus the quality of discussion, which is a somewhat different topic. The point is that a smaller setting doesn’t always produce success, but it is certainly more conducive towards success than the structure of the full group.
Another key aspect has to do with office hours. Specifically, I only scheduled the minimum required number of office hours: three hours per week. But I offered many extra hours before an exam or essay deadline.
Only the most efficient students (i.e., very few) came to regular hours, but many did the extra hours. Not all, of course. “I have not really needed to do this,” wrote one student. But a majority in at least three classes and a plurality in the other three.
This comment surely refers to extra hours: Professor Hoang hosts lots of office hours which was extremely helpful to myself and others.
Likewise: Professor Hoang would often hold many office hours during the semester, either for consultation on homework assignments or simply for guidance and advice on upcoming essays. It was all very much appreciated, I hope he continues doing this for his future classes!
I also kept an eye over the lack of progress among some students and used the midpoint of the course to check on them. The following comment, probably from a first-year student and copied with grammatical errors and all, is for me the most moving among the six course evals.
We had 4 essays to write throughout the semester. On the first two essays, I didn’t do as well as I had hoped. I knew Professor Hoang was available for office hours, but I was too nervous to set up a time to meet since I typically have a hard time initiating meetings. However, Professor Hoang emailed me personally and told me he would be happy to meet with me to help me improve on my next two essays. He still gave me the option to accept the offer, so it was not forced, but it allowed me to easily meet with him. Our meeting have been very helpful and the fact that my professor reached out to me since he was eager to help me succeed made me feel much better about the situation. After our meeting, I have improved immensely with my writings and they have been very helpful.
Paradoxically, the more individual meetings there were, the greater the communality in class. Although extra office hours were already an integral part of my pedagogy before the pandemic, they have been more important during Zoom instruction. Though geared towards the individual, they enhance the communal experience of classroom discussion and interaction.
It isn’t easy for parents of young kids or adjuncts teach different classes at different schools, who cannot afford offering a lot of office hours. If you can do spare them, though, they sure help students and even build community.