Lessons in lockdown: engaging and motivating students online

Dr Emily Baker, Lecturer in Comparative Literature and Latin American Studies at UCL, shares her experience of teaching Comparative and Latin American Literature during the pandemic.

The sudden lockdown of March 2020 forced teaching staff at UCL (and most other UK schools and colleges) to adapt to teaching remotely.  With only two weeks of term remaining, the emphasis was on contacting and reassuring students while information about assessment and exams was discussed centrally and then translated into local departmental actions.

As it became clear that virtual teaching was here to stay for the coming months, committees were established to identify best practices.  Among other initiatives, UCL established a ‘Connected Learning Baseline’, with an online course to help staff reconstruct modules so that they could be delivered through online platforms.

In my primary teaching areas of Spanish, Portuguese, Latin American Studies and Comparative Literature, we ultimately had some flexibility as to how to approach online teaching. Activities could broadly be categorised under either ‘asynchronous’ or ‘synchronous’ (with many modules blending the two).  Synchronous content usually involved replicating a kind of seminar situation live-and-direct, with the students participating through platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Blackboard Collaborate.  Asynchronous content might include pre-recorded lectures, discussion forums where students can post questions, and recorded presentations uploaded by students.  All in addition to the usual reading and viewing activities that come along with cultural-studies modules in ordinary times.

I opted to test a blended synchronous/asynchronous approach, with the emphasis on synchronous 1.5-2hr seminars as part of all of my classes. I worked hard to create community within these spaces, and the students appreciated having somewhere to be, albeit virtual, rather than spending their days working through videos/tasks alone – the format for much university learning during the pandemic.

By far the most successful pedagogical tactic I adopted was starting every class by going round and gathering so-called ‘first impressions’ from each student about the week’s reading. I made it clear that this could be something small and simple if they wished (to remove any sense of intimidation when talking in front of the class).  An example could be simply reading out one quotation they made a note of to stimulate further discussion, or making a simple thematic observation. A few weeks into the module—once the students began to trust me and each other—these contributions became more and more sophisticated, until at least the first half of the class would comprise amazing analytical work purely by the students. In the most gratifying instances, they would refer to, and build upon, each other’s ideas. I would usually make a brief comment to affirm each point, adding a little extra, if relevant, but aiming not to step on the toes of other students who might be about to make a similar point.

I found that this approach facilitated deep engagement with the set readings.  Moreover, I found the predictability of the format worked well to include non-native English speakers who, knowing they were guaranteed to have this uninterrupted slot to offer their thoughts, could prepare a statement in advance if they wished, at least until they became more comfortable speaking spontaneously. Every now and then a student might attempt to say that “everything I thought of has already been said”: for this, only a gentle reminder is required –  that the text has been being debated for years, and probably will be for years to come. We certainly have not looked at every quotation in detail, so now is the time to go deeper.

One exercise that had more mixed results was the attempt to get students to engage in non-synchronous writing activities in a forum. Inspired by the classic university teaching text What the Best College Teachers Do (2004) by Ken Bain, I took onboard the advice to ask students provocative questions that make them think, not just about the subject material, but also about how it relates to their own lives. As such, I formulated ‘Key Questions’ for each topic area and asked students to choose one and post a response (no more than 200 words) in advance of the session.

For example, when looking at Mario Vargas Llosa’s La casa verde (1967) for a module entitled ‘Landscape and the Environment in Latin American Culture’, I posed the following questions:

  • Where does the novel take place, and do the spatial dynamics/qualities mirror the form in any way? 
  • What are the effects on the reader of the novel’s structure?
  • Which are the characters that stood out for you? What do they each represent, in your opinion?
  • How does the novel compare to Don Segundo Sombra by Guiraldes? What does this tell us about the ‘Boom’ generation and their re-writings of the novela de la tierra?
  • Who/what are the different sources of power that operate in the novel and who/what are they competing over?
  • What are the main characteristics of the representation of landscape/nature/ecology? How do they fit into wider theories we have been examining e.g. the anthropocene/capitalocene debate?

The smaller MA classes took to these exercises quite well, and we were able to build on their submissions in class and use them as a basis for discussion. However, of the undergraduates, only the more confident ones engaged initially, and then even this tailed off. Understandably, students failed to see the rationale of posting in advance when they knew they would have the chance to offer their views during the session anyway as per the ‘first impressions’ exercise detailed above. Nevertheless, the very act of providing such guiding questions in advance did lead to better and deeper engagements with texts overall. Their other advantage was that, if not all the questions were addressed in the initial ‘first impressions’ segment, I could put students into break-out groups and assign remaining questions for them to discuss in more depth, and then gather feedback for the rest of the class.

One final vignette associated with this exercise was that, for one second-year module entitled ‘Representations of Nazism in Latin American Culture,’ I formalised this kind of activity into an assessed task which I called a ‘Digital Log’. For this I provided one key question for each session (8 in total) and asked students to formulate a response in up to 200 words for 5 out of the 8 topics, to be submitted at the end of term. This incentivised engagement with more primary materials than a simple assessment format of one or two essays. In general, I found that attendance was better than for the same course the previous year (face-to-face), and overall achievement in the module was impressive (a high proportion of students received first-class marks overall). The Digital Log itself was only worth 10%, with the rest of the assessment comprising a 3000-word essay, but perhaps the consistent attendance and engagement stimulated by the Digital Log provided good foundations for this longer research task.

This account by no means details the full spectrum of teaching and learning activities my colleagues and I experimented with in 2020/21, but those mentioned have been some of the most useful in facilitating community, engagement and student-centred learning under the tough conditions of isolation and the reliance on digital platforms to mediate the university experience. Whilst I am excited to see many of my students face-to-face this year, I will be maintaining the ‘first impression’ format in the classroom, as well as the Digital Log assessment for second years and the provision of ‘key questions’ in advance.

I hope you have found this useful, and I wish you all the best in your teaching and learning endeavours in the coming year.