Reimagining the Remote Classroom Experience
Seven strategies keep students engaged during online learning.
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, many experts offered useful tips to help faculty move their courses to online environments. But the tips weren’t enough for me. I saw COVID-19 as a major disruptive force with long-lasting implications for the way we teach—which would justify making significant investments in innovation.
Typically, the drawbacks to remote learning include difficulty facilitating meaningful discussion and student-to-student interaction; increased potential for distraction; additional effort required to capture students’ limited attention; and fewer organic opportunities for serendipitous banter, socialization, and connection.
I did not want to fall prey to these pitfalls when the pandemic compelled me to transition my teaching to online delivery. I decided to try some experiments with my class called Turnarounds: Lessons in Crisis Leadership, which I teach at the Haas School of Business at the University of California Berkeley. Before class began, I gathered a team of six MBA students to act as teaching assistants (TAs): Megan Zweig, Hannah Greenberg, Dana Zhang, Sora Elcan, Aron O’Connor, and Austin Yoder. We asked, “How might we design an online classroom experience that is optimized for student engagement, learning, socialization—and, dare we say, fun?”
Along with my teaching team, I conducted classroom tests for about 15 months, starting from March 2020, and we paid attention to what worked and what didn’t. We ultimately identified seven steps we could take to avoid the common pitfalls of the online class:
1. Raise standards for student participation. We found that student engagement was improved when the teaching team raised the standard of students’ expectations for online learning, championed classroom rigor, and demanded accountability in every session.
Accountability was particularly critical for creating thoughtful, fast-paced student participation. For that reason, class participation accounted for half of all of the students’ grades, and we provided multiple avenues for students to participate. Sometimes I used cold calls, calling on students without notice. Other times I used warm calls, letting students know in advance that they would be asked to speak on a topic and having them do prep work with the teaching team. We also encouraged students to take advantage of Zoom’s “hand raise” icon to ask or respond to questions. Using a scale of 1 to 4, the teaching team graded the participation efforts of each student based on the quality of the interactions.
Students were required to keep their cameras on at all times to help them stay connected and alert. Class members also were required to unmute within a few beats of being called upon. If students didn’t unmute fast enough, I moved on to the next student and the first one lost the opportunity to speak. To keep the conversation flowing, I also muted students who gave rambling responses. This may sound harsh, but in feedback surveys, more than 90 percent of the class applauded the use of the mute button to prevent “paraphrasing, posturing, and pontificating.”
Advanced scripting of every single student interaction promoted fast-moving dialogue, compelled student attention, and ensured an equitable distribution of participation opportunities.
2. Survey performance regularly. We found that proactively surveying students about their experiences on a daily basis created a rapid/continuous feedback cycle with the teaching team. In fact, before the first day of classes, students attended four short webinars where we surveyed their preferences and discussed our expectations for how they would participate and how the class would flow.
Before classes started, my team and I met frequently to map out guest speakers and discuss student participation opportunities and scoring. Once the class began, my team and I convened every morning for 15 minutes to discuss lesson plans, identify students who needed help, and outline class participation opportunities. We also conducted surveys after every class, asking for feedback. During the following class, we recapped the feedback and discussed what we were adjusting and why. This practice gave students a voice, and it showed them how we were tailoring the class to fit their needs in real time.
3. Meticulously plan. Advanced scripting of every single student interaction promoted fast-moving dialogue, compelled student attention, and ensured an equitable distribution of participation opportunities. While the class still felt impromptu, every single student interaction and discussion was planned.
The teaching team created two slide presentations for each class. The first deck, designed for students, contained 100 or more slides and was shared both in advance and during the live sessions. The second deck was for me and included “case map” slides embedded within the class slides. The case map slides were teaching guides that offered discussion prompts and indicated specific students I could call on for cold and warm calls during that particular case. The teaching assistants filled in every slot with a student’s name.
The teaching team also created what we call a “survival kit,” an Excel spreadsheet that outlined the preparation process and the class flow. The kit was used to track students’ cold and warm calls and to award points to students for participation.
4. Create a “theater.” We knew that the classroom experience would have to be attention-grabbing to maintain student interest, so we created a multimedia classroom experience. Resources included PowerPoint slides, which formed the base of class flow; video clips; and a live whiteboard in the form of a Google doc that the teaching assistants used to record key points of classroom discussions.
In addition, we often illustrated key concepts by having students role play as board members or investment committee members. Role-playing scenarios included hiring a consultant, firing an employee, and negotiating a supplier contract.
We also taught through simulations, sometimes with the help of guest speakers. For example, we taught the concept of bankruptcy by bringing in an expert who moderated the case as a bankruptcy judge, while I served as bailiff. To set the mood, we used a Zoom background featuring a courtroom. In advance of class, the TAs assigned teams to negotiate particular claims with other groups in hope of coming to a bankruptcy settlement prior to court proceedings. Students also prepared for class by doing advance readings that helped them understand the bankruptcy court process.
5. Capture student experiences. To help students immediately apply case lessons to real-world situations, we integrated students’ work experiences into the classroom. For each case study that focused on a struggling organization, students were asked to submit parallel situations from within their own companies or other companies they saw featured in the news. After each case study was discussed in class, a student presented a slide that summarized the case alongside the relevant business situation he or she had identified. The student reviewed the parallel scenario in a commercial or leadership context.
In one cohort of MBA students, the students wrote 24 new COVID-centered mini-cases based on challenges at the companies where they worked. The one-page cases offered students timely solutions to common problems they were facing every day. We found that this strategy enriched everyone’s learning, and I have since adopted this mini-case study idea in all of my courses.
Because working remotely had eliminated commute and transition times, I devoted that extra time to students and scheduled one-on-one sessions with them in the hour before class.
6. Offer extensive one-on-one mentoring. Because working remotely had eliminated commute and transition times, my team and I decided to devote that extra time to students. I used the hour before class to schedule 10-minute one-on-one sessions with students, who could talk to me about class content, career options, or anything else that was on their minds.
We also reproduced “water cooler” conversations online before classes and “poolside chats” after classes by opening up 15-minute informal conversations. Class speakers also agreed to stay for 10 minutes after their formal presentations to answer questions and informally interact with students.
7. Nurture socialization. Since students couldn’t easily meet on campus, we created intentional spaces where they could engage in social interaction on a voluntary basis.
The teaching assistants appointed “social chairs” from the class to help come up with fun ideas. These included Zoom-hosted master classes in everything from iced-coffee making to wine tasting. We also designated themed class days ranging from “the Roaring ’20s” to “private equity power suits,” which inspired fun costumes and Zoom backgrounds. We also had students work in five-person teams so they would get to know each other well as they learned skills such as delegation, time management, and leadership.
We believe our efforts to reinvent this course paid off—in fact, the team achieved much more than we had anticipated in our wildest dreams. UC Berkeley recognized our efforts by giving us the Extraordinary Teaching in Extraordinary Times Award. The UC Selection Committee received nearly 500 nominations for this honor.
Students also appreciated the reimagined course. Ninety MBA students in two cohorts completed the course, and their feedback indicated that engagement and learning were much higher in this remote class than in their other online courses. About 72 percent of students ranked the course as the best remote learning experience they had completed, and 17 percent said it was one of the top three remote courses they had completed. Students rated the course’s effectiveness in promoting learning as 9.49 out of 10, and they rated their engagement during class as 8.92 out of 10.
One student wrote in the course evaluation, “I think, in some ways, there was more offered on Zoom than there would have been in person.” Another wrote, “All the interactive strategies—polls, warm calls, cold calls, case setups, case presentations, role plays, social stuff, poolside chats, and the Slack channel—there was so much that made it interactive on Zoom.” Perhaps the best comment? “I cried at the end. I hate that it’s over.”
Peter Goodson is a Distinguished Teaching Fellow at the Haas School of Business at the University of California Berkeley. A former private equity partner specializing in turnarounds, he was an early stage partner at the private equity firm Clayton, Dubilier & Rice. He continues to advise private equity firms on development strategy.