Tips for remote teaching during COVID-19

Try these techniques for keeping students engaged.

By Cheryl Meyer

Jan Bouwens, Ph.D., professor of accounting and head of the accounting section at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, was just about to start his six-week teaching block at the end of March when the school switched gears.

"Everything changed. We had to immediately convert from residential teaching to teaching via Zoom," said Bouwens, who also teaches accounting at the University of Cambridge in England. Some of his fellow academics also had to postpone their end-of-block exams.

Across the globe, accounting faculty have similarly had to cope with a rapid shift to teaching remotely in the wake of the coronavirus. Terry Warfield, Ph.D., professor and chair of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's (UW-Madison) Department of Accounting and Information Systems, and his colleagues had only 10 days to prepare for a move to teaching remotely, right before the start of the spring semester.

Jennifer Rose, a lecturer in accounting and finance and the BSc accounting programme director at the UK's University of Manchester, once held large in-person lectures with 450 undergraduate students. Now her students interact with her online while she is at home, also tending to three children under the age of 10.

Pleasant surprises while teaching online

But all three of these faculty members discovered unexpected bright sides to teaching remotely.

Bouwens was surprised by how well his students took to online learning. "I did not expect teaching cases over Zoom would work so well, and the reason it worked is that students came very well prepared," he said.

Rose said that she learned the importance of staying connected, and that she also underestimated the students, who have done well in what has been a traumatic transition for everyone. "I was worried about how they could cope with this, but they took it in their stride," she said.

Warfield and his colleagues at UW-Madison realised that online class sessions give students flexibility to choose materials that correspond to their specific learning styles.

Warfield, Rose, and Bouwens shared their best advice for teaching remotely:

  • Plan ahead. Prepare coursework thoughtfully and plan to invest time in doing so. Expect preparation to take "twice as much time" as it would if you were teaching an in-person class, Bouwens advised.

    The reason? When teaching face-to-face you can see when students shift a discussion in a direction you did not anticipate. But when teaching online, you need to prepare for those possible changes in direction ahead of time, so you can keep class running smoothly, he said. If you are ill-prepared, you can lose the attention of students, who can more easily slip away behind the screen.
  • Choose the right tech. Faculty worldwide had little time to research online teaching technologies once COVID-19 hit. Now they have the opportunity to evaluate the tools and choose the ones that best fit their students’ needs. 

Know your learning goals before embracing an online platform, app, or tool, Warfield said. "Some instructors want to jump into things they think they need," he said. "Instead, they need to think about what their students need to learn." 

Don't expect to replicate a face-to-face experience online, he said. Instead, think about how students will best engage with materials to achieve their learning goals.

If your school uses a learning management system (LMS) such as Canvas, Blackboard, or Moodle, familiarise yourself with all its features. Faculty have traditionally used these systems as a repository for materials. But these systems also have chat and other functions built in as well, Warfield said.

  • Work with an assistant. While you're teaching students remotely in an interactive classroom, consider finding an assistant to help field questions so that you can focus on your teaching, Bouwens advised. An assistant professor helped Bouwens select students who wanted to contribute to a discussion. "You cannot read chats and run the class at the same time," he said. "Don't do it alone."

  • Keep students engaged. It's easy to lose students' attention when teaching remotely, so keep students engaged through a few tricks of the trade. For instance, Bouwens gives no breaks in class to keep attention high, and requires students to have their video on for all case-based classes. He also calls on students that "may look a bit astray", he said.

Warfield gives students credit for answering questions on class discussion boards, which he sets up on the Canvas LMS for every homework assignment. Students receive credit—about 5% of their grade—for posting questions or answering them on these boards.

"When you teach an online class, you need to have a presence in the class," Warfield said.

Be sure to respond on discussion boards so that students know their comments are being monitored, he suggested. He also uses his LMS’s "thumbs up" feature, which allows an instructor to show that they are observing activity on the discussion boards.

  • Consider the flipped classroom method. Warfield, Bouwens, and Rose use the "flipped classroom" model, in which students learn material outside of class and spend class time applying what they learn.

Warfield recommended mandating that students prep before they come to class. Then, in class, use work groups and other interactive activities "that help illustrate what students learn in their accounting books, and how cases play out", he advised. This approach helps students stay focused and involved during class time, he said.

Bouwens’s accounting students must also log on prepared and address questions asked by him and fellow students. This method helps students "think about theory and applications of theory ahead of class", he said.

  • Empathise with students. While it's critical to keep students engaged, it's also important to understand how COVID-19 has impacted them and made their lives complicated. "We do not know the full picture of what students are going through," Rose said. She holds informal Skype chats with student groups and shares her own challenges and vulnerabilities.

"I always try to listen with empathy, assuming that I don't know all the issues students might be facing," she said. "We're all in the same storm, but every boat is different."

Cheryl Meyer is a U.S.-based freelance writer. To comment on this story, email senior editor Courtney Vien.