This is an off week for teachers all around the world, and a great time to reflect. The few remaining Christmas festivities are largely behind us and classes have not yet started up. So I sat down with all the student feedback I received from the fall quarter to reflect on what I learned.
Before diving into the feedback, let me review my fall program. I had three MBA courses here in Evanston. Two were in-person. I wore a mask, as did all the students. The class size was just 45 or so, and I taught in a big room so everyone could be socially distant. I stayed behind a line and spent a lot of my time on a stage.
My third course was a Zoom class. To hit Kellogg’s average class size of 65, my Zoom class had more than 90 students, balancing out the smaller in-person classes.
I also had an executive MBA course in Beijing. I taught from my office in Evanston, many students were in the classroom in Beijing, and other students were Zooming in from different parts of China and beyond.
And then I had the Kellogg on Branding executive education program, delivered via Zoom over a three-week period. The program featured a number of different instructors and a simulation exercise.
I had several notable learnings from the fall quarter.
In-Person Classes Can Work
It is very possible to teach safely in-person: masks and distancing are effective. I had over thirty in-person class sessions, and there were no transmissions. Students stayed healthy.
Wearing a mask isn’t a big deal. Students were responsible. One fellow didn’t want to wear a mask and after I talked with him, he dropped the course. That was a good resolution for all.
The biggest challenge was the fact that some students were very far away. The people in the back row were so distant that I found it almost impossible to include them in the conversation. I couldn’t read the name tags, and I never got an accurate seating chart. I basically just waved at them on occasion. Next quarter I’ll mix up the seating.
Big Zoom Courses Are a Challenge
I went into the fall quarter with the theory that large Zoom classes are fine. Once a class is too big to fit on one Zoom computer screen, it doesn’t really matter how many people show up.
My theory didn’t hold up. The big Zoom course with 90+ students was a challenge. It was difficult for students to participate – I would ask a question and quickly get 15 little blue hands, more than I could possibly call on. This was frustrating for everyone; I had to just wipe out the hands periodically, students couldn’t participate, and the discussion sometimes bogged down.
Personal Connections Matter
A class works when there is a personal connection. When students feel that the instructor cares about them, they focus. They show up. They sit up straighter. This is true regardless of the format: in-person, masked or Zoom.
In an in-person class, it is easier to build a connection. You can see people and smile, and ask about weekend plans. An empty seat is an empty seat; someone is missing.
It is possible to build connections on Zoom as well. I found the early class casual conversation is important and fun; it is a chance to catch up and set the tone. This fall one of my students ran a Christmas tree lot and that provided lots of fodder for discussion. Another student was responsible for forecasting sales of Halloween candy, another interesting topic.
Learning Pairs Don’t Work
I ran a test this year with learning pairs. I randomly connected two students and asked them to introduce themselves. Then on occasion I would ask them to call each other to discuss a class topic. The concept was that this would build engagement and create a personal connection, and perhaps be a way to deal with the challenge of forming relationships on Zoom.
The test didn’t work. A number of the learning pairs functioned well, and it was fun to see them talking on the phone during class. But many didn’t. Sometimes a student wasn’t in class on a particular evening, leaving the remaining student adrift. Some students didn’t do the pre-work, frustrating the partner.
I think pairs could work, or maybe trios, but the downside certainly outweighed the upside for me.
Good Teachers Find a Way
The biggest surprise for me? My evaluations were remarkably consistent. The socially distant in-person classes were just like the Zoom classes, and the scores were similar to my pre-COVID courses. Like usual, the ratings were very respectable but not everyone loved the class. Most of the substantive positives and negatives touched on similar themes. After having taught 100+ courses I know that many people like my teaching style, but not everyone, and this ok. This is one of the most important lessons in marketing: you can’t make everyone happy all the time.
I suspect the consistent scores are due to a simple insight: the things that make for a good teaching are the same regardless of the platform. If a teacher makes it a priority, they will find a way to deliver content. Enthusiasm and energy power a class forward. Caring about students and valuing their insights always matter. A smile, a laugh, these come through somehow whether masked or on Zoom.
For 2021, I have three hopes.
First, we need to get teachers back in the classroom with students. Small classes, masks, distancing – put it all together and every student can have at least some in-person instruction.
Second, we should embrace a blended future. Many classes can be on Zoom. It really works. Some instruction can be recorded. There is a critical need to in-person time. Figuring out the right mix is the challenge for educators.
Third, we should celebrate great teachers. It is possible to connect with students regardless of the platform, but it takes energy, effort and enthusiasm. Shifting platforms is just a different type of challenge.
Up next: a look back at my 2020 Brands to Watch and my 2021 Brands to Watch.
Thank you for this insight, Professor. Students rarely have any insight into the mind of a professor or teacher at any level. Come to think of it, even as a parent of school-aged kids I don’t have insight into what their teachers are thinking. This is very helpful and please continue 🙂
Very interesting. Thank you and I think your analysis is generally correct. The one thing I would add is that in a small zoom class I have found that there is much more even participation of all members. Everyone is front and center and all feel required to participate I teach in the medical school at Northwestern.