Teaching Spotlight: Silver Lining and Online Teaching

‘Tis the season for good cheer. So, as we turn the page on 2020, I want to highlight silver linings
for education moving forward into 2021 and beyond. First, we have some experience with the
online format and this is crucial for our student’s learning. Second, we have been thoughtful in
our development of content and pedagogy during the pandemic. Third, we have practiced our
craft and likely grown as educators during this time. Each of these silver linings could allow us
to better serve our students moving forward.


How important is experience with an online format? A recent National Bureau of Economic
Research (NBER) working paper titled, “Learning During the COVID-19 Pandemic: It Is Not
Who You Teach, but How You Teach
” compared student performance on standardized
end-of-semester questions across seven undergraduate economics courses before and after the
pandemic. While student performance was much lower in Spring 2020 compared to earlier
semesters (a shocking 0.641 standard deviations lower on overall performance), this decline
nearly disappeared when the scholars accounted for previous experience teaching in an online
environment. This may suggest teaching in an online environment is a skill and we can get better
at it.


If we turn to pedagogy, that same study described above notes the use of active learning
techniques like peer interactions were helpful, especially for the remote portion of Spring 2020.
This past semester more and more instructors at FSU experimented with active learning
techniques like peer interaction after sitting through summer workshops from the Center for the
Advancement of Teaching. My guess is this experimentation has been positive. Many faculty at
FSU have been using active learning techniques for years (e.g. polling students, classroom
experiments, think-pair-share, etc.) and have found these methods change the dynamic in the
classroom. Students move from passive recipients of content to engaged learners.
Going forward, employing more active learning could be a game-changer. One obstacle to
implementation has always been, “there’s not enough time.” But, the creation of video content
for virtual pandemic classes could expand our opportunities and help instructors “flip” their
classrooms.

A flipped classroom is one where students learn basic concepts outside of class
(through videos and reading) and work on problem-solving, discussion, classroom experiments,
etc. during class. This “flipped” pedagogy has been used across a number of disciplines and
studies of flipped classrooms have shown either positive or null effects on student learning.
Finally, teachers have been practicing. I have talked to many educators who have recorded and
re-recorded videos to improve the smoothness of delivery, improve an example, etc. This might
seem minor but it is important. While we would never expect our athletes to take the field
without practice, or our thespians to take the stage without rehearsal, it is common for teachers
not to practice before stepping in front of a class for lecture. My hope is this virtual interlude we
experienced, that gave us opportunities for practice, translates into better teaching going forward.
So while 2020 was filled with doom-scrolling, hopefully, this was a nice pick-me-up. Educators
have practiced more, become more experienced at online instruction, and created new content
and explored new pedagogies. These are silver linings to a trial-filled year and will help us better
serve our students in the short run and long run.

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Dr. Doug Norton is a Teaching Faculty I in the Department of Economics. Learn more about Dr. Norton here.

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