Lessons from teaching in Fall 2020: what to keep, what to ditch, and what to change

This fall, I got the opportunity to teach online for the first time. I had been thinking about online teaching for several years because of my work in developing Vanderbilt’s BOLD (Blended and Online Learning Design) Fellows program. In its original incarnation, this program helped graduate students design, build, and assess online learning modules for incorporation into a faculty partner’s course, and it had me always thinking and asking new questions, like what makes a good educational video (short, targeted, and making the most of the media)? And, can online courses be as effective as in-person courses, and if they can, what makes them so (yes; and of course the answer is thoughtful design)?  But although I read about, thought about, and helped others with online teaching, I had never done it myself, so this fall felt like a big challenge and a big opportunity.

As with most times I do something hard for the first time, I found some things that worked, some things that didn’t, and some things that I think had promise but need significant tweaking. Before I describe those things, let me tell you a bit about the course I taught to give some context. I co-taught Biochemistry with Jared Nordman, an assistant professor in Biological Sciences with whom I’ve taught twice before. The course typically enrolls 125-150 students; this fall, we capped it at 125. It is nominally a junior-level course because it requires four semesters of chemistry and one of biology as prerequisites, but there is a mix of sophomores, juniors, seniors, and even a few graduate students in the course. Our students are a mix of science majors (typically Molecular and Cellular Biology, Biochemistry, and Chemistry) and Medicine, Health, & Society majors, with a smattering of students majoring in other subjects (e.g., music or child development). The common thread is medical school: a very large fraction of our students want to go to medical school and see this course as a hurdle they have to leap.

We decided to go all-in on a “flipped classroom” this fall, an approach we had used for a few of our class sessions in previous semesters. This meant that we prerecorded short videos for each module and then used class time for “clicker” questions (we used TopHat, as we have for several years) and small group discussions, typically around cases and data analysis, in breakout rooms.

So what worked? What didn’t? What would I tweak, and what are challenges that currently have me stumped? Read on!

What worked?


We organized our course into topical modules, with a repeating structure: description of what the module did, with learning objectives; preparation for class (links to videos/readings); module discussion in small groups; class meetings; link to TopHat for review.

Importantly, I think, we introduced the course structure in an introductory module at the beginning of the course, telling the students who we were and how the course was organized, and asking them to complete a survey to tell us about themselves (especially, for example, if they were studying in another country or had sketchy internet access).

I loved this organization in the LMS, which was a much more intentional, coordinated, and attractive way of organizing information than in previous years, and students indicated that it was helpful for them. For me, it’s a “never going back” change.  

Pre-recorded videos

I found pre-recording videos to be nerve-wracking initially, but I got used to it. Further, both Biochem students and student focus groups conducted by the CFT indicated that videos are really useful resource. In particular, I liked the videos I made with a Huion Inspiroy tablet, which let me draw structures and emphasize particular elements in a way that I always found challenging in an auditorium. Not only could I provide captions and use drawing to emphasize elements sequentially, the medium felt much more intimate and person-to-person somehow than sharing this same sort of lecture in a classroom. (I know, I know, Kahn Academy has been doing it for years—but it’s good to discover for oneself).

And speaking of interaction that felt personal, I decided that I would introduce one of my pets in the intro video for each module (see Cupcake, our oldest cat, below), and when I ran out of pets, I introduced my daughters. This silliness was fun, and led to quite a few of my students introducing their pets when we met for class.

Are these pre-recorded videos another never-going-back moment—that is, a tool that I’ll continue to use even when teaching F2F in the future? I think so.

Occasional asynchronous classes

Our typical practice was to meet synchronously three times per week. The incentive, beyond the value of the type of thinking we practiced when together, was credit for completing TopHat questions. We recognize that sometimes attending class is not feasible or even the best use of a student’s time, so our grading accommodates missed classes: students can miss 25% of the TopHat questions with no penalty. We also offered alternatives for our students who were studying in India and China because of time zone differences. That said, we also found that occasional asynchronous classes were a welcome break from time on Zoom. We had three days that we designated “asynchronous” during the semester: one on a travel day, one the day after the election, and one for a day when course content was important to know but less challenging to process. To help students assess their understanding of these modules, we assigned TopHat questions as homework. I think these async days were really important to include in a semester that was chaotic and challenging for lots of reasons.

What didn’t work?

Flipping without video

For a number of years, I’ve walked around saying that the flipped classroom does not require videos—that it’s really about pre-class preparation and well-chosen in-class activities. I can point you to a number of examples of faculty for whom this works, from Vanderbilt’s Shane Hutson to a large-scale comparison of in-class lecture vs. “deliberate practice.” And I’ve practiced what I preach, for several years giving my students worksheets on oxidative phosphorylation to complete using our text and others’ videos and using class time to answer students’ questions and practice problem-solving.

For me, using only others’ resources for content doesn’t really work. What I mean is that my students, consistently, year after year, tell me that they want my lectures about these topics. Giving them a worksheet and pointing them to other resources makes them uneasy and makes them feel as though they don’t quite get it. Keep in mind, this is not a rejection of “flipping”—this year, they watched videos for every module, and mostly gave positive feedback about it—it’s a rejection of “flipping” without explicitly including the voice and explanation of their instructor. I though my “voice” would come through in the worksheet and in class, but I think a more literal interpretation of voice helps maintain the trust that keeps us moving forward as a class.

Small group discussion boards

This is perhaps my biggest disappointment for this fall. I wanted students to form small groups, based on when they liked to study, and to discuss (interesting! Thought-provoking!) problems within these groups for each module—see the example below, which my co-teacher Jared Nordman developed. I hoped that these small groups would cohere and help students have a set of colleagues whom they got to know well within the course. Jared came up with the great idea of incentivizing it by saying that each of us would donate $1 to Second Harvest Foodbank for each post. I thought, this is a win-win-win! You help yourself learn the material, you develop relationships within the class, and you help others, all through one action!

Well, I was wrong. At the beginning of the semester, we had decent, although not fantastic, uptake, but it rapidly fell off. And by the end of the semester, it was just me “talking” individually to maybe 15 students.

Now, could I change this, incentivize it with points, bring in student comments to class, etc., etc.? Yes, probably so. But I think that ultimately, this felt like extra work that students didn’t need—that they got enough interaction and practice processing in class. So I think that in the future, I would merge this approach into the small group discussions that were part of most class periods. Read on…

What needs modification?

Small groups in class

Most of our synchronous class periods had a repeating structure:

  • announcements,
  • very short summary (sometimes from student, sometimes from instructor) about module content to get everyone’s head in class,
  • TopHat questions answered individually, with student volunteers explaining responses followed by instructor explanation,
  • Small group discussion of data-driven questions in breakout rooms, with groups formed randomly by Zoom each time.

I was really excited about the breakout room discussions, as they most closely recapitulate the sort of interactions that try to structure in my F2F class.  My students, on the other hand, had really varied responses. Some loved the breakout room discussions; others didn’t participate, keeping their microphones and video off; and others said they liked it when they were with people who would participate but thought it was a waste of time most of their group wouldn’t participate.

I tried several things to address this, but never quite fixed it for this semester. I did, however, make several observations that have led me to a plan for the future:

  • The biggest revelation came when I asked students to volunteer to be small group leaders for an upcoming class. I had 26 volunteers in less than 60 minutes. 26, out of 125 students in the class—and I sent an email saying “no more volunteers, thank you!” after the 60 minute mark.
  • Sometime in the middle of the semester, I had a student approach me to ask if I could facilitate the formation of small study groups, specifically by collecting names of students who would want to participate. In mid-October, in this junior level class where presumably students may already have friends, 18 students asked to be included.
  • Toward the end of the semester, I used a Google sheet to monitor the progress of students in breakout rooms as they predicted response of multiple parameters to an experimental drug. Given the sheer number of groups (25), I expected it to be chaotic and hard to follow, but by keeping the possible answers simple, I could readily see progress and spot potential problem points.

So, where does this lead me? In future semesters, I’ll be brave and use the pre-formed breakout room feature in Zoom so that I can have persistent groups. (I’ve had mixed success with the pre-formed breakout rooms, but I think the biggest keys are ensuring that everyone is using their Vanderbilt email and that I don’t open the rooms until 1/3 of the way through class, when everyone who is coming is present.) I’ll set up some time at the beginning of the semester for groups to talk about their norms, and then I’ll assign group leadership on a rotating basis. My students are awesome people, and I think they’ll develop a sense of group cohesion and interactive responsibility under these settings. And finally, I’ll use structures like the Google sheet or jamboards (although so many makes me nervous…) to “eavesdrop” as students discuss.

I could go on and on—so many things to think about, such as engaging students in very different time zones, assessing fairly and well, avoiding too much work—but I kind of already have. I’d love to hear about your experiences and lessons to add to my own.


  1. Learned of your post through the Chronicle weekly newsletter. Though I teach a very different course (English comp) with many fewer students (20), I, nevertheless, found it very helpful as I am setting up my online courses. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for writing this! Some great ideas here. I taught a similar class (size, structure) this fall, and you’ve inspired me to take a close look at it sooner rather than later.


  3. My students loved the discussion boards. They said they appreciated the chance to read and think about other students’ responses to the material before discussing it in class. Possibly the key differences between my class and yours were that (a) it was a small class, just 21 students, so students got to know each other fairly quickly and (b) it was an elective, so most of the students were there because they were keen on the topic, not just to get over a hurdle. That enthusiasm led to high quality of posts, which probably made the boards more rewarding for everyone.


    1. That all makes sense. In this class, I think the students didn’t feel like the discussion boards added to what they were doing synchronously (in class or voluntarily, with friends, out of class). But I can definitely imagine set-ups that would change that.


      1. I think your right about students resenting discussion boards when they feel repetitive. I sometimes find it hard to gauge when that reaction will occur, though. I also worry about ditching the pre-class requirement: will students prepare adequately for class if I don’t “force” them? I am thinking that I need to re-assess what we are doing in person so that the class discussion isn’t just a rehash of the online posts. Or/and skip the posts and emphasize the importance of class participation to ensure preparation.
        [thinking about my upper-level biology where we read and discuss chapters from a relevant popular press book]


  4. Thanks for these helpful ideas! I like using google docs or slides instead of sheets as a shared file to observe each breakout room’s work, and this is because you can’t see what students enter in google sheets until they press enter. This wouldn’t always be a problem, but if you’re looking for longer notes then this issue can keep you from seeing their work for a while. Also, if it is google docs or slides, you can more discretely drop a text box note into the slide to bring the group’s attention to a specific point, as needed, while not distracting other groups. I would often type a note in a text box in a different color with a note to delete when addressed. This seemed to work well in both slides and docs, and would be more difficult in sheets, I think.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s