By Archer Hamidzadeh, Alliance Tutor

The COVID-19 pandemic reconfigured nearly every aspect of education almost instantly. Notebooks were replaced with Powerpoints and Ipads, classrooms became computer screens, exams became unproctored “homeworks”, and the general engagement with class became and is a significant problem on both sides of the podium. Having worked with students during the pandemic in both an online college classroom setting and in one-one Zoom meetings, it is quite apparent that challenges for students have been transformed and require an evaluation of the methods that keep students engaged and interested with the same pre-COVID standards and levels.

A good majority of students and educators felt impacted by the shift to the online nature of education. Personally, I found quite some difficulty for two reasons: The diminished human connection of educating: to not be able to gauge student’s reactions to oftentimes difficult topics in my college Statistics course, and at times, the awkward feelings of me lecturing to an Ipad screen with student’s video cameras off and a lesser extent of questions. Secondly, students found it immensely difficult to adapt to the online nature: general engagement was diminished, students lost interest in online lectures and tedious online assignments, students felt stressed by having to shoulder much independent learning, and lastly student accountability took a nose-dive as deadlines and standards became lax.

During the online era, I had a number of observations of issues related to STEM courses and found a list of remedies that worked differently for different students, but the ultimate remedy was that of engagement – filling the void that students were missing out on from online classes (whether it be from a weakening of instruction, diminished engagement with teachers and peers, or the difficulties of adapting to online classrooms).

STEM courses fundamentally differ from the humanities. It is at times not enough to simply pick up a book and just read the material to study and solidify your understanding of a topic. Mathematics, Chemistry and Physics courses desperately require writing out solutions to problems (and working through a variety of problem types that are associated with a given topic) to improve problem-solving skills and derive solutions. Sciences require drawing schematics to visualize and understand phenomena and processes, and for running experiments to understand the basics of phenomena. The mode of presenting and teaching students these ways of learning and studying were largely affected during the online era. Power-point presentations of mathematical examples with pre-written step-by-step solutions are drastically different from an instructor writing out and explaining the thought processes of each of the steps in real time. Physically handling chemicals and lab equipment is drastically different from website based labs that either shows you which buttons to click and what to do with explanations that are often quickly read without comprehension or has technical difficulties that turn students off from the tedious nature of the assignment. Providing written feedback on assignments was more easily examined by students for revisiting their understanding compared to online homework assignments that are graded purely for correct or incorrect answers (or for many math students: if they rounded their answer to the correct decimal place).

To address these issues in both larger-audience (virtual classroom) and one-one settings, the most effective remedy was to fill the engagement void for students. For students I have tutored, this was best accomplished through one-one, regularly scheduled meetings where we tried to simulate nearly every aspect of a physical classroom/meeting and to uphold the same standards of accountability, assignments, and feedback that existed in an online environment. While the methods used for each student were personalized for each case, I found the following general methods that tried to restore the traditional methods of on-ground pedagogy in an online environment to be most effective:

1. Usage of the whiteboard feature where both the student and I could write together and go through problem-solving steps and questions in real-time.

2. Assigning student-specific assignments (specific reading assignments, solved examples to go through, and personalized problem sets) to help students to continue to cement their understanding on course topics

3. Providing regular deadlines for students to submit work to me and providing them with timely feedback on their work to uphold accountability and to allow both the student and I the opportunity to zone in on questions that the student had and to allow them to learn from mistakes.

On top of these remedies, a key factor that has for a very long time been very near and dear to my heart is the role of an educator to instill interest and enthusiasm for a topic. The online nature of education requires an additional adaptation from educators to continue the funneling of enthusiasm for a subject to students. It is this very role of our past teachers and mentors that likely influenced our favorite subjects and the educational/profession related decisions in terms of selecting a major, pursuing graduate school, and/or selecting a particular profession. For my educational journey, it has truly been the enthusiasm of my STEM teachers that instilled in me an insatiable interest in Mathematics and Biology. Reflecting on this, the role goes beyond just having an influence on someone’s ultimate career, but does indeed impact student’s success in course. A boring/disinterested educator can make a hard course even harder for the student when she/he becomes disengaged.

In online tutoring, one of the best ways to accomplish this is by creating camaraderie with the student by allowing a safe yet fun environment for learning. Teaching and learning require interaction among people and interaction with writing. The first requirement is particularly important for an educator to be able to gauge when further or different explanations are needed. Asking questions is part of learning. Zoom and other online environments allow for directly examining tone, reactions, and facial expressions (when video is on) just as on-ground classrooms did to an extent, but it is nearly impossible to examine all 20-25 reactions on a tiny screen. The problems that arise from lack of feedback from the learners to an educator are exacerbated particularly for students who don’t like asking questions. Even for students that do ask questions, there seems to be a major divide between their attention in class and their attention during more direct engagement.

From my perspective, when students from my courses have set up individual meetings with me, they have found one-one meetings to be more engaging than group or classroom based meetings. Students can ask their specific questions directly, and I can assess their understanding and personalize answers to them specifically. Time after time, I have been told by students that “things” make more sense and more interesting after meeting with me individually than they did during lecture. From my perspective, there appears to be student disengagement during online classes. Whether this stems from the distractions of bedroom/living room environment, the incomplete adaptation to this new mode of classroom, or other reasons is likely student-specific, however, the common consequence on average is less learning and understanding. This consequence is best alleviated through more engagement and personalized learning that is best accomplished in one-one and smaller group settings.