Teaching in socially distanced classrooms

Students with masks in a large classroom

Teaching in Socially Distanced Classrooms: Results of our Experimentation in the Classroom

The pandemic has created complications for many practices in the classroom. Classrooms that were designed for collaboration have been stripped of tables, chairs and collaborative technology. Individual chairs with lap desks are now the standard furniture, and those seats must stay in place. Compounding that, especially in large lecture halls, six-foot spacing means that entire rows of seats have been taken out of service.

We wanted to know how those conditions, along with masks, would affect what we can do in the classroom. In July, we participated in a set of simulations at the Integrated Science Building and Wescoe Hall as part of a video shoot. These simulations focused primarily on how students will move in and out of classrooms and the use of classroom technology. This gave us a sense of what classes in the Covid era will look like. You can scroll through photos from the simulation here. If you have trouble with the slideshow, you can view a PDF of the images instead. You can also watch the video, designed to illustrate what campus activity and student health practices will look like, on the https://protect.ku.edu/ website. The images can help you envision the many complexities of the socially distanced classroom. 

In early August, we carried out two classroom pedagogy simulations, with the help of several faculty and staff colleagues. We tried multiple approaches to teaching in two very different classrooms: 4012 Wescoe Hall, a small, flat-floored room with individual desks that can currently hold about a dozen people; and 130 Budig Hall, a tiered auditorium with theatre-style seating that normally seats 500 but now allows for under 100. Based on our experiments, we have put together a list of recommendations for how to handle classroom time:

Leverage the value of in-person time. Make it worthwhile for students to come to class by building classroom instruction around activities that leverage human interaction. Discussions and social connections are still possible in socially distanced rooms. Choose learning activities that harness the special affordances of real human interaction, along with the structure of having a schedule class time. What are some things we can more readily establish in-person than online or at a distance? 

  • Immediacy and contingency: This is ideal for learning activities that require quick feedback/correction or a high level of coaching and guidance (e.g., solving problems with multiple steps)
  • Joint attention or mutual awareness: The ability to all attend to the same thing at the same time, and to know that we are doing so, which is a core component to humans’ ability to learn from other people.
  • Community building: Being in the same space with other people facilitates social interactions, especially informal and unplanned interactions that can contribute to the formation of a sense of community and belonging.

Example Instructional Activities: What We Observed: 

  • Small group discussions are still possible. Masks muffle voices, and students will be farther apart from one another than normal, but our “students” were able to have a discussion involving others adjacent to them. Instructors will need to experiment to find groupings that work in the rooms they use. In 4012 Wescoe, which is a relatively small room, conversations among three or four people was possible. In that room and in 130 Budig, the distance was too great and the noise levels too high to interact in larger groups; conversations became more difficult as the noise level increased, and two or three people was a more natural choice.
  • Collaboration is still possible, especially if technologically mediated. Students can solve problems or complete a worksheet together in the classroom, with the product shared in a virtual space (e.g., Blackboard Wiki, a shared document in MS Teams), while talking to one another as they work.  
  • Whiteboard work is still possible, but only one student per board at a time, of course.  For group work, consider serial contributions, in which each student expands or comments on the work of the previous student, as long as their path from their seat to the board maintains social distance. Some boards are blocked by seats, though, and students in middle seats may not be able to move to whiteboards safely. Ask students to bring their own markers but keep some spares on hand that can be cleaned with alcohol wipes before and after use. (Each room will have alcohol wipes.)
  • In-class polling was very useful. This will be more important than ever in large classes as a means of bringing students into discussions, checking their understanding of course materials, or facilitating reporting out (see more info on this below). 
  • Use class time for problem solving, reporting out, or other activities in which immediate feedback (from peers or instructor) is important.
  • Check out this terrific resource on Active Learning with Physical Distancing spearheaded by faculty at Louisiana State University.

Avoid live Zoom connections for students participating online. Some of the activities we tried in the simulations treated the Zoom room as an extension of the full classroom (Zoom participants on the screen, listening via a classroom microphone). We also tried having people who were in the room join Zoom breakout rooms with those online. The Zoom participants’ experiences were universally bad. They could hear the instructor speak but could rarely hear anyone else. They had limited views of classrooms, and sometimes saw nothing if the instructor moved outside a limited range. In general, they felt distant from the physical classroom. We tried having individuals in the rooms join Zoom breakout rooms with those online. That worked to an extent, but audio was often an issue (it only worked for those with noise cancelling headsets) and those in the classroom then felt that they were missing out on interaction with those around them. Some in the classroom reported feeling fatigued by trying to hear and follow along with what was happening in the room. You can read more about our experiences in our section on creating options for remote participation. 

The main takeaway was that trying to combine in-person and live-stream activities in one class session diminished the effectivenss of both the in-person and online sessions. Instructors were unable to use the approaches that are most ideally suited to either context. An instructor can invite online students to "join" an in-person class meeting remotely, but it is very difficult for online students to participate or feel like they are a part of the class. As a result, we do not think it is advisable for this to be the primary solution to providing online options for in-person classes. For some additional ideas, see our material on providing online participation options and on organizing alternating cohort courses  

Everyone will need to learn to project voices. Masks have a muffling effect, and instructors and students alike will need to project even more than usual. Chances of misunderstanding will increase. We rely on reading lips and faces more than we realize, and having facial covering makes it difficult to know whether someone is smiling, puzzled or angry. Having discussions with masks will no doubt get easier as everyone practices, but expect problems in understanding early in classes.

In large classrooms, be prepared for masks to make reporting out or asking questions of the instructor challenging.  You will not be able to pass a microphone around. In some rooms, microphone stands will be placed at the front of rooms so that students can go to those and speak, but that may not be possible for anyone in the center of a wide row of seats. We had some success unscrewing the top portion of a microphone stand and using it as an extension to reach students who wanted to share something with the class. Many instructors will find that problematic, though, and may not want to move up and down stairs to hold the extended microphone out so students can speak. In addition to coaching students’ voice projection, one option is to have live chat or document open on screen where students can post take-aways from group discussions or questions. Polling platforms could also be used for this purpose.

Make use of technology.  Clickers and other means of gathering student responses will be more useful than ever, especially in larger classes. So will things like Microsoft Teams, which instructors might want to consider for use in the classroom. That would allow groups of students to work in a shared virtual space in class and provide a means for additional interaction online. 

Keep thing simple. Activities like think-pair-share, reporting out from individuals, general discussion of class material, answering of questions and similar activities will work best in these reconfigured classrooms. Trying to juggle a Zoom connection, answer student questions over chat, and even poll students in class and online proved challenging.

Planning is essential. Class times have been trimmed by 5 minutes in the fall to give students extra travel time, leaving some Monday-Wednesday-Friday classes with only 45 minutes. Protocols for distancing and wiping down seats will require additional time once students are in a room. That means it is more important than ever to prepare for classes. Make sure you know how to use whatever technology you plan to use. Make sure activities are ready to go once students are in the room. Neither instructors nor students will have time for elaborate activities. You don’t want class to become cold and mechanical, but you do want to use the time wisely. Ideally, you should let students know ahead of time what they will be doing in class so that everyone can prepare and make the best use of in-person time.

Leave time for humanity. That is the excellent advice of Dorothy Pennington, associate professor of communication studies and African and African American Studies, who joined the sessions via Zoom. We all need time to get to know one another as human beings before we grapple with course material. That applies to classroom and online learning. That will be especially true this semester. With everyone masked and distanced, activities that build community and reinforce shared humanity will be more important than ever.

Experiment. That is probably the most important advice we can offer.  This is new territory for all of us. Every room configuration is different, and every class will have different needs. It will be critical for all instructors to experiment with delivery of course material, and in-class and online interaction, and be ready to adapt. Social distancing and other safety measures makes our jobs as instructors more difficult than ever. Experimenting and sharing will be crucial to break down barriers and to find ways to use precious class time effectively. Make it clear to students that everyone is adjusting and that things will improve with practice. Bring them into conversations about how to improve interaction and learning in and out of the classroom. Transparency and constant adaptation will go a long way toward making the semester go more smoothly.