Remote Teaching 2020: The Biggest Lessons Learned

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

By Christine Goedhart

This year has turned out to be one big, huge, messy exercise in learning how to teach remotely. You’ve been asked (forced, really) to step outside of your comfort zone, experiment with new techniques and technologies, and become an online instructor.

I’ve had the privilege of working and talking with many of you as you’ve gone through the process of learning how to teach in a remote format. Based on these conversations, here is my take on your biggest lessons learned.

Lesson #1: Staying in communication with students is important

The online format can be isolating and students might feel a sense of detachment from you, their peers, and the course itself. Additionally, students are more likely to struggle with understanding your expectations, staying on top of assignments, and managing their time when learning remotely.

Clear and frequent communication with students can mitigate these issues by helping students to both feel connected to you and stay on track with the course workload. In fact, in a recent remote teaching survey, UBC students reported that staying in communication with the instructor was one of the things they valued most during the online transition last term.


    • Provide weekly announcements that let students know what’s happening and what they can expect to learn and do in class that week. You can do this in text or video format (or both).
    • Hold virtual office hours, facilitate regular check-in sessions, or moderate a Discussion board/Piazza site where students can connect with you and safely ask any questions they have.
    • Consider asking students for anonymous feedback midway through the course. This will help to ensure that the communication between you and your students is a two-way street and that you’re hearing from everyone.

Lesson #2: Plan for technology issues

I’ve talked to many instructors who taught in a remote format either last term or this summer and almost every one of them had at least one story of a technology issue they dealt with.

The tech issues experienced by these instructors run the gamut from mildly frustrating to utterly catastrophic, and include things such as bandwidth/Internet connectivity issues, students getting kicked out of synchronous sessions, tools (i.e. polls and breakout rooms) working slowly or not at all, audio cutting out, students not being able to access online resources, and servers crashing during an exam.

While you might not be able to eliminate technology issues, you can anticipate them and come up with solutions or contingency plans ahead of time to minimize the frustration for you and your students.


    • When considering a certain technology, talk with someone who has already used it in their own remote teaching to learn about the potential problems you can expect.
    • Do a test run of the tool or technology before you use it “for real”. This could include trying it out with colleagues or TAs or having students do a low- or no-stakes activity using the tool to get practice with it.
    • Identify people you can contact for help when tech issues do arise, such as Biology program support staff or Skylight Learning Technology Support.

Lesson #3: Include both synchronous and asynchronous components

Synchronous (live) and asynchronous (self-paced) teaching components each have their own advantages and disadvantages. For example, while synchronous sessions allow students to engage with the instructor and their peers in real time, they might exclude students who cannot participate at the scheduled time due to technology or time zone issues.

Results of a recent UBC survey indicate that students valued having a combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning experiences during the shift to remote teaching. Similarly, a study at the University of Wisconsin found that students enjoyed “having some sort of synchronous presence” when the course moved online last term.

However, there is no magic formula for determining how much and what types of synchronous and asynchronous components to use. These decisions will ultimately depend on your course context and learning goals, the needs of your students, and your own teaching style and constraints.


    • Poll your students before the course begins to better understand their unique learning and living situations (e.g. access to technology, time zone, responsibilities). This will help you determine how much/what type of synchronous components to implement in your course.
    • Record any synchronous sessions, such as lectures, and post them on Canvas for asynchronous access later.
    • If you pre-record lectures, offer synchronous office hours or tutorial-like sessions that focus on applications of the lecture material or students’ questions.

Lesson #4: Things take longer to do online than they did when teaching face-to-face

You might find that you are not getting through the same amount of material that you were able to cover when you taught face-to-face. You’re not alone and there are a number of reasons for this.

First, there is a good chance that there will be some sort of an issue or delay with the technology, especially if you’re using multiple tools or technologies (see lesson #2 above).

Second, it may take extra time to ensure that everyone is on the same page. There is a learning curve associated with using new technology and the online format can be quite disorienting, so you may find that you spend more time repeating instructions.

Third, instructors have reported that they are receiving lots of student questions through the chat tool. It seems that students feel more comfortable typing their questions into a chat than they do raising their hand. While this is a great thing for student learning, you may find you are spending more time answering student questions than you used to.


    • Ask someone (e.g. TA or co-instructor) to be in the synchronous sessions with you to help moderate the chat, facilitate breakout groups, and deal with the inevitable issues that will arise.
    • Consider cutting some content to mitigate for the extra time it takes to teach online. This article provides a framework that can help you with this process.

Lesson #5: Assessments designed for the physical classroom often don’t transfer well to the online environment

One of the most painful, stressful and time-consuming aspects of the recent move to remote teaching has been figuring out how to assess students online. In particular, the question of how to do online exams has seemed to dominate almost all teaching-related discussions I’ve been involved in over the past couple months.

Regardless of the assessment strategy used, instructors have had to navigate numerous issues associated with logistics, equity, and academic integrity. While this has been challenging – for some more than others – much has been learned along the way that can inform online assessment strategies for the fall.


    • Consult with colleagues about the online assessment strategies they’ve used and their experiences with them.
    • Distribute course marks so that they are more evenly spread out among lower-stakes assessments, rather than focused on a few high-stakes assessments. This will take some of the pressure off of you and your students and will help students stay on track with the course work.
    • Consider using different types of assessment strategies.

Lesson #6: Patience, flexibility and understanding are key – for both yourself and your students

Maybe you’ve noticed that your stress and workload have greatly increased over the last couple months or that you’re struggling to feel comfortable with remote teaching. Perhaps you’re adjusting to new living and working conditions and experiencing a new type of exhaustion from spending lots of time on videoconferencing platforms.

Similarly, your students might be taking four or five classes online, each with a different instructor who has a unique approach to remote teaching. They may be dealing with financial issues, a new living situation, or taking on extra responsibilities at home. They might be struggling with anxiety, stress, depression, distraction and isolation. In a recent survey, almost 75% of student respondents reported an inability to focus on studies due to non-academic-related challenges.

This new way of living, teaching, and learning is difficult for all of us, so a little extra patience, flexibility and understanding – for yourself and for your students – will go far this coming fall term.


    • Be kind to yourself and practice self-care.
    • Let students know that you understand that the remote learning situation might be challenging and that you are open to working with them to ensure their success in your course. You might need to reiterate this throughout the term.
    • Provide alternatives or options for students to access course materials and complete course work if needed.

Are there any other lessons that you’d like to add to this list? Please share them in the comments below or send me an email. I’d love to hear them!

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