When my institution closed because of the pandemic, I was asked to teach an entirely virtual organic chemistry course (class and lab) in the 2020 summer semester. This was the first entirely virtual organic course at our college and my first entirely virtual course of any kind. While one may teach well with technology, Michael Wesch, anthropology professor at Kansas State University, notes that “it doesn’t matter what method you use if you do not first focus on one intangible factor: the bond between professor and student” (Young, 2012). I elected to use the flipped classroom approach as I do in face-to-face courses. But my challenge in the virtual environment was to develop the professor–student–student bond, which is essential for a collaborative, team-oriented problem-solving mentality when students and the professor do not have shared face-to-face interactions. I implemented three distinct activities in my virtual course to address the challenge. While the activities were used in organic chemistry, they are adaptable to virtually any course.
This activity is designed to enhance the professor–student bond. Each student conducts two coffee call meeting activities with me and both are graded events. The first is a 15-minute individual student meeting (Zoom, FaceTime, etc.) with me and touted as low-key, casual, and not about chemistry. We get to know each other and discuss academic, professional, and personal topics to build the professor–student bond. We also address expectations, challenges, and how to be successful in organic chemistry. The first meeting counts for 1 percent of the overall course grade. The second is a similar 15-minute individual student meeting near the end of the semester, counts for 3 percent of the overall course grade, and focuses on a big-picture discussion of the chemistry the student has learned during the course. It is not a gotcha discussion but one designed to draw out from the student that they have actually learned organic chemistry and can articulate their newfound knowledge in a professional-toned conversation. I don’t describe it as such, but one might view the second meeting as an end-of-course oral exam of relatively small consequence.
This activity uses the shared course virtual whiteboard and aims to develop the professor–student–student bond to build collaborative problem-solving capability. To facilitate progress on the board problems, I assign four students to a team and each team has a specific day in the schedule for which they lead the in-class graded boards (ICGBs) for their classmates. I assign each student to two teams of differing student composition during the semester, and the two graded ICGB sessions count for a total of 4 percent of the overall course grade. Teams work together to prepare for their ICGB sessions under my guidance and outside of the synchronous class period, developing collaborative, team-building experiences that nurture the trust, confidence, and knowledge awareness required of successful professionals. During the synchronous class period, the team introduces the assigned problems to classmates, presents problem solutions, answers questions from me and their classmates, and leads discussion.
This activity is designed to enhance the student–student bond by assigning students to lab teams of four. The team concept could work equally well for group projects that are not lab-based. In the face-to-face course, students work in pairs to conduct experimental procedures, gather, discuss, and analyze data and then each student writes an individual lab report. For the virtual lab, by contrast, students conduct synchronous and asynchronous experiments with assigned team members. Each member then writes and submits an individual report with input from their team members. I then select one report at random from the team for grading, and every team member receives the same grade from the selected report. Lab reports are worth 21 percent of the overall course grade. New team composition for each of the labs ensures that students have the opportunity to forge bonds with as many classmates as possible. The intent is to incentivize team members to collaborate in completing the virtual experiment and writing the lab report, as the team’s grade depends on quality contributions from each member.
I conducted anonymous pre- and post-surveys to gauge student attitudes and to develop lessons learned. For the coffee calls, students were anxious prior to calls, but felt they had developed a personal connection and gained confidence to discuss organic chemistry. Students would like to have a list of topics in advance to prepare for the meetings. For ICGBs students report that it is a very effective activity for building teamwork among the four-student group and with the professor. Students not part of the team, but participating in the synchronous virtual class, felt that the student teams leading problem-solving sessions were more engaging and effective than if I had led the sessions. Students would have liked multiple teams scheduled for each ICGB session to expand participation while tightening the course content for which each team was responsible. Students disliked the lab teams (group projects if not a lab course) concept. Students reported that teams were valuable in helping them develop soft skills while working with classmates but the team lab report grade caused significant stress, especially when one or more of the members were perceived as not contributing to the team effort. While the face-to-face environment provides ample opportunity to develop the professor-student-student bond, activities such as these in the virtual environment may do so as well.
Young, J. R. (2012, February 12). A tech-happy professor reboots after hearing his teaching advice isn’t working. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/a-tech-happy-professor-reboots-after-hearing-his-teaching-advice-isnt-working
Dave Pursell, PhD, is professor of chemistry and environmental science at Georgia Gwinnett College and has taught in all areas of chemistry, environmental law, military strategy, and advanced technologies in military operations. He served worldwide as a US Army combat engineer for 25 years before transitioning to higher education.
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