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Professional Development in a Pandemic: Part 2

With the rush to move online, many higher education faculty found themselves struggling to build community virtually. Using collaborative tools, time dedicated to sharing and partner or group work, students were able to bond with one another and with their instructors.

Ready or not, the pandemic threw instructors into the deep end of the pool. Some treaded water teaching online and waited for a return to a more familiar teaching and learning environment. Others—hopefully the majority—had the capacity, support and determination to ride the waves.

We’ve captured the experiences of several University of Wisconsin mathematics instructors from the latter group for part two of this two-part series. One estimated that she typically recreates about 10% of a course per year but had now totally recrafted courses for active learning and community building online. Also fresh from success with new strategies and tools for teaching online, some other colleagues voiced concerns about transitioning back to in-person teaching for their algebra, calculus, quantitative reasoning, statistics or math for teacher education courses. Their concerns will be addressed in summer 2021 professional development through the University of Wisconsin System Math Initiative.

Communication—Early and Often—and Frequent Engagement Support Online Students

Instructors devoted more getting-to-know-you time online than they would have for in-person courses, whether at the beginning of the course or the start of each class period. Examples included sharing a video introduction or photo/photo collage by the instructor and students, soliciting input about prior math experiences, checking in with students about how they felt that particular day, orienting students around homework expectations and other details in the learning management system, with some even offering to meet online before the course started to test technologies.

Recognizing that students may have had multiple courses on multiple platforms (on top of distractions related to COVID), instructors increased communications, using email to send pre- and/or post-class reminders or nudging students with in-class polling to check whether they had completed a chapter quiz or started the subsequent chapter homework. 

Also during class, private chat in the virtual classroom allowed instructors to check which students had submitted the correct answer and which needed additional guidance. One instructor noted that 80% of students engaged in chat for this exercise, which would culminate with him asking one student with the correct answer (from multiple choices) to unmute and present the solution.

While synchronous activities offered more obvious opportunities for engagement, instructors strove to ensure student engagement in various ways in asynchronous activities, such as embedding pop-up questions in recorded lectures, having students’ comment on each other’s work or requiring explanation-based assignments. One instructor asked students to journal about their progress in the course and plans for exam prep, and, biweekly, to submit one entry explaining a solution to a problem; he provided feedback on the solution and allowed them to resubmit on off weeks.

Instructors were not the only source of feedback in the online world. Concerned that students were not processing her feedback on homework, one instructor created an answer key for a couple of problems and randomly assigned a student to anonymously provide specific, written feedback on another student’s work. Students noted that it was helpful to see others’ strategies and struggles, and the instructor found that students’ familiarity with solution strategies and processes improved learning.  

Some instructors set a goal of engaging students every seven minutes or so in a synchronous class and used a range of tools and activities for this purpose and to build community.

Community Building Happens One Step At a Time

Whether online or in-person with a new cohort, students may feel reticent to speak up and risk exposure as “imposters.” Low-stakes engagement included asking for responses to simple online polls or questions, then sharing aggregated survey results or a word cloud reflecting input. One instructor began each class session by checking in via polling about whether students had good, bad or neutral news that day—and then inviting someone with good news to share it briefly. Another instructor asked students to pick a renowned mathematician to use as their online name each day—and to share an interesting fact about that mathematician; this practice allowed students to participate anonymously and encouraged them to think of themselves as mathematicians.

While most instructors favored visibly randomized grouping, one formed longer-term groups and adjusted accordingly to ensure all functioned well.

When instructors observed students passively accepting other group members’ work, their solutions included modeling group work and defining participants’ roles—such as Scribe, Timekeeper, Instigator or Reporter (STIR)—to promote equitable participation. For large group follow-up, one instructor also rotated assigning a student to serve as a co-host to monitor the chat or assist in other ways.

Instructors typically incorporated discussion and group work into grading, with anywhere from 5% of a course grade dependent on weekly discussion to 70% dependent on group work. 

Students—and Instructors—Find Group Work Both Challenging and Rewarding

A quantitative reasoning instructor and two of her students talk about their experiences with the group work model in this UW System video. While the students began at different points, they both recognized the benefits of group work. 

When all instruction moved online during the pandemic, instructors translated group work from the physical classroom to the virtual classroom, often through creative use of digital whiteboards such as Google Jamboard. They appreciated the ability students had to write on the same slide simultaneously; show their work by hand, text or picture; get real-time feedback and instruction; and view each other’s whiteboards. Challenges included the occasional tech issue, page limits and the instructors’ capacity to visit all groups in one class. Also, whether using digital whiteboards or other tools, getting all students to speak up remained a challenge.

To help address that issue, one instructor set out to change classroom culture from day one. He used a whiteboard to collect anonymous input about what students like to hear from each other when they’re working on math together (such as “Here’s another way to think about that”) and what they don’t like to hear (“Why don’t you understand? It’s simple”). This instructor recognized that students needed practice on transferable skills measured through the National Survey of Student Engagement, such as working in a group with people who differ from you in background, political orientation, points of view, etc.; evaluating the credibility of information sources; and discussing complex problems with others to develop a better solution. In addition, he recognized that peers could help in ways he couldn’t to normalize struggle and build a sense of belonging. 

Video Assignments and Assessment Support Active Learning, Student Engagement and Community Building

Borrowing an idea from a colleague’s in-person course, one instructor required the students in her online course to create videos about their engagement with mathematics culture outside of the math classroom (think music, art, movies, card games, etc.). They embedded their videos in the course in the learning management system for others to watch and used a discussion rubric to provide feedback to two other students about their videos. Students enjoyed the activity and earned “culture points.”

Online homework systems with multiple choice answers don’t necessarily reveal students’ misconceptions. In a classroom setting, instructors see their work; in a synchronous online setting, they can talk with students. One instructor teaching asynchronously decided to try video assignments. She wrote a problem for each module and asked students to record themselves talking through their work and conclusion. Some used their webcam and screen recording; more used cellphones and filmed the paper on which they had completed the problem. These video solutions helped the instructor identify early on which students were struggling with a concept, so she could follow up with additional guidance. The videos also helped the instructor get to know her students (and their pets) despite the lack of real-time interaction outside of online office hours. 

While she used video assignments as formative assessments, other instructors did so for summative assessments in online mathematics classes. Students had responded positively to problem-solving together, so one instructor included a collaborative portion on the final exam. Students recorded their discussion as they and a partner jointly solved a problem, either showing their faces or the whiteboard (which the instructor could access even if not shown). 

While some instructors used rubrics, others found they needed to model what they were looking for in video assignments and assessments.


Examples shared are condensed excerpts from instructors’ presentations to peers and do not reflect the totality of their work to build community in the classroom, incorporate active learning and increase student engagement. Nor do the examples cover the range of internal expertise developed as math instructors explored online teaching and tools to support student success when they moved abruptly to remote classrooms and segued to more planful online courses. UW System Math Initiative participants look forward to the next round of peer-to-peer sharing in summer 2021, as they consider how to incorporate the best strategies and tools to support student success whether their courses are online synchronous or asynchronous, hybrid or face-to-face.


The University of Wisconsin System Math Initiative is supported in part by Ascendium Education Group, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to helping people reach education and career goals that matter to them.

To read part one of the series, click here.

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