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Lessons Learned From Covid-19 Teaching

What can I say? 2020, Covid, unprecedented, etc. You already know this. Well, since I’m co-organising a Teaching and Learning Mathematics Online (TALMO) workshop today on lessons learned following the sudden switch to online teaching I decided to write down some of my lessons learned. The TALMO meeting can be found at Tackling Term 2: Top Tips from Term 1.

Last term, apart from a single hour right at the start, my teaching was online. As expected it didn’t go perfectly. Actually, some of it went quite badly and I’ll talk about that on another day. For the moment I’ll concentrate on the lessons learned.

1. A decent set of notes still counts for a lot.
I have a theory that, at least in normal years, students will forgive most things if they have been given a decent — i.e., well-organised and clearly explained — set of notes. Certainly, a set of incoherent notes does not magically “challenge students” and “lead them to study harder” as I’ve sometimes heard.

This theory seems to hold true for online teaching as well. In-course questionnaires indicated that students were using their notes for the bulk of learning and were not using the videos as much as expected. My conclusion was that it was important to tailor the videos to the notes and not tailor the notes to the videos. I had initially wondered if students would use the videos more than the notes but that did not appear to be the case.

(Aside: I wished that I had worked on my notes more before teaching started. I was teaching on modules that were (mostly) new to me and so I was always going to have to produce new notes this. My mistake was to think it was better to write material when I had gained more experience of online teaching — I didn’t want to write some material and then re-write it after term had started. That seemed wasteful.)

2. Don’t alter too much from previous years.
Before Covid-19 we had decided to make fairly big changes to some of the modules I was going to teach. This was a bad idea. We should have just kept it the way we did before for one more year. The changes led to too many instances of having to create new materials such as a new set of questions. Or it led to the sudden realisation that some concept was needed before it had been taught. For example in one of the parts moved from Semester 2 to Semester 1 I needed the concept of bijection before it had been taught in one of the parallel courses.

3. Weave the theory into the worked example videos more.
My students liked having videos (even if they preferred the notes) but they favoured worked examples videos over theory videos. Perhaps this is not surprising. Students often — mistakenly, I believe — latch onto worked examples as the most important part of learning. Hence, if I were to do the videos again, I would weave the theory into the examples much more.

4. Do the videos in one take.
Not editing videos was a great time saver. Ok, it meant I had to be on top of the material before I recorded but recording, exporting and uploading took so long that missing out the editing stage was a huge time saver.

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