COVID 201: Teaching science as the pandemic continues

What can we learn from each other as the fall term gets underway? As it turns out, a lot. Recent studies describe the shortcomings of spring 2020’s rapid pivot to online learning and explore solutions as we continue teaching and learning in this socially distanced, uncertain environment.

Teachers are mostly confident, but have lower expectations

Many schools are open in a remote or hybrid instruction format this fall. According to a recent Gallup survey, 56% of teachers say they are “very confident” or “confident” in their ability to successfully teach students this term. 

At the same time, 56% of teachers expect students to learn less than they typically do. Bottom line: you’re confident you can teach but believe students’ learning outcomes will not match your usual expectations. 

We hear you. COVID-19 is an emergency situation and given our experiences from last spring’s overnight shift to remote learning, this can’t be forgotten. The remainder of this article presents potential solutions to maximize students’ learning.

Students miss hands-on learning

Although they appreciated asynchronous lab demonstrations, video lectures, chats, and virtual office hours, students in the spring 2020 cohort reported missing doing practical labs, according to a recent article in Biomedical Engineering Education by Timothy Allen and Shannon Barker at the University of Virginia. 

Virtual labs can provide an alternative to “hands on” learning while students are socially distanced. Those who are already accustomed to playing ball, driving cars, and gaming in a virtual world have found enjoyment in gamified lab simulations and have had their learning impacted in positive ways.

These gains can continue after in-person instruction has returned as teachers incorporate online lab training into their in-person lab work.

Students say they have knowledge gaps

49% of high school students in the US say they will need help to catch up this fall because of time spent learning at home last spring, according to the recent Gallup survey

Since their starting knowledge is likely lower, there is a real risk that weaker students will fall further behind when faced with new material that builds on prior concepts. Unfortunately, spending time re-teaching last year’s material is often not possible.

One solution is for teachers to assign supplemental digital resources such as videos or virtual labs for homework or extra credit.

Students have the flexibility to complete interactive virtual labs at their own pace, repeating simulations and quizzes as many times as necessary to support their review of foundational and prerequisite concepts, theories, and techniques. 

This solution is supported by 2016 research by Makransky and Bonde that found that the students who began with the least knowledge before using virtual labs saw the greatest knowledge gains in an assessment after they completed the virtual lab.

One idea to further embed learning is to assign students to summarize and present on their virtual lab observations and conclusions.

Teachers can’t be everywhere

Teachers are not constantly available in the context of remote learning. Instead, students at home are often left to learn on their devices. Unfortunately, screen time learning can be too passive.

Without a teacher in the room to notice whether students have lost their motivation or engagement with a video, it can be hard to encourage active, inquiry learning.

What’s most important is for students to “try new things, tinker with new tools, and problem solve,” according to an interview with Dr. Betty Chandy, director for online learning at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.

One way virtual labs differ from simple videos or animations is that they require learners to manipulate variables, permit them to speed up or slow down the effect of time, show them how to use expensive equipment, and prompt them to interact in a problem scenario by immersing them in an interactive 3D environment. 

According to de Jong’s study of virtual labs, this interactive element allows students to gain a deep understanding of underlying concepts as well as learn how to perform a lab exercise.

While there’s no replacement for a teacher’s direct instruction, a recent study by Chang et al (2020) found that virtual lab simulations lead to greater gains in the ability to interpret and make sense of data.

The same study found that students who used a virtual lab also felt more motivated. These findings are similar to a 2016 study that found that learning with virtual labs increased students’ sense of self-efficacy about their capacity to perform a task.

Learning can help minimize students’ social stress

For students, virtual labs are not only free from the possibility of exposure to viruses, toxins, and flames, but they are also free from social risk. Since they complete each simulation independently, there’s no need to further their Zoom fatigue with another video conference. 

In addition, students can experiment with potential solutions without feeling vulnerable to embarrassment if they fail at first. They can replay simulations to continue to practice and reinforce lessons as often as they want until they feel confident in their success.

Final thoughts

The duration of the pandemic is uncertain. We’re committed to sharing strategies to support teachers and students as you navigate remote learning now and into the future.

Please reach out and let us know what’s working for you and what changes you’re making this fall after reflecting on your experience from last spring. We may share your ideas in a future post.  


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