Education Opinion

Graduate Student Perspectives on Equitable Remote Learning

Remote learning can be a catalyst for instructors and institutions to invest in teaching practices that reinforce growth mindsets and that help students share responsibility for learning outcomes.

By EeShan Bhatt, Morgan Grace Blevins, , and Lina Taenzer

Hybrid remote classes have long been the norm in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) Joint Program (JP), a graduate training program focused on oceanography and applied ocean science in which we are all students. Because the JP serves students located both at MIT in Cambridge, Mass., and WHOI in Woods Hole, Mass., which are 130 kilometers apart, our graduate program was an early adopter of the hybrid classroom. A professor might lecture on one campus with some of us present while the rest of the class participates remotely through a videoconferencing setup. This hybrid classroom model—and the technology that supports it—has a steep learning curve but is fundamental in achieving our program’s educational outcomes, prioritizing flexibility, accessibility, and community.

Because of the COVID-19 crisis, many schools and instructors who previously relied completely on traditional, in-person instruction have been forced to adopt remote learning for the foreseeable future. Shifting to remote learning can exacerbate obstacles that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) classrooms already present to underrepresented students and that are functions of identity markers such as race, socioeconomic background, first-generation status, gender, ability, and combinations thereof. For example, in traditional in-person classrooms, many underrepresented students already struggle with the feeling that they are “not supposed” to be there because people from their identity group do not match the stereotypical image of a scientist or the scientists around them. Virtual learning can introduce problems both tangible and intangible, such as an unstable Internet connection that impedes access to class time and potentially amplifies feelings of isolation from one’s peers.

When addressing the (substantial) challenges of remote learning, it is vital to channel our sense of equity and inclusivity. Graduate education programs across STEM fields, especially in the geosciences, have long-standing histories of underrepresenting racial and ethnic diversity [Bernard and Cooperdock, 2018]. The negative effects of this lack of representation are compounded by institutions and individual faculty members turning blind eyes to discriminatory messaging from established scientists while efforts to support minoritized students are overlooked—a cycle that breeds stereotype threat [Ogbunu, 2019]. Particularly damaging is the prevalence in graduate classrooms of a traditional “fixed mindset” among many faculty that the inherent abilities of students lead to success, rather than a “growth mindset” emphasizing growth through experience over time [National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2016; Chandra et al., 2019].

We propose that although the massive shift to remote learning has the potential to be detrimental to classroom equity, restructuring teaching practices provides an opportunity for faculty and graduate students alike to commit to building equitable learning spaces together. Here we provide guiding themes and specific strategies for instructors to promote growth mindsets in remote graduate classrooms that will lay a foundation for more equitable STEM learning environments into the future.

Figure illustrating the authors’ conception of a teaching and learning cycle involving both faculty and graduate students
Having both faculty and graduate students consciously participate in the teaching and learning cycle depicted here is vital for building equitable and inclusive learning communities.

We focus on decentralizing authority in the classroom to empower students to build inclusive communities for each other [hooks, 1994]. We offer several teaching strategies that can be applied asynchronously, recognizing that inequities related to Internet access, family obligations, work-from-home environments, and video call fatigue can make synchronous remote learning impractical. And we ask our professors and scientists across the country to see the shift to remote learning as a wake-up call for the long overdue work of building STEM classroom communities that are more conscientious about equity and inclusion, an outcome that will benefit students both now and when we return to in-person classrooms.

Model Healthy Learning Practices

Rather than leading classes in which mistakes and difficulties we all experience during learning are unacknowledged (and thus often considered faults), faculty can promote positive classroom cultures by modeling healthy learning practices in their own behavior.

  • Be humble and respond constructively to your own mistakes. For example, acknowledge if you make a calculation error or forget to show the units of a numerical answer on a slide. Such occasions are opportunities to normalize mistake making for students and offer reminders that professors are human [Chandra et al., 2019].
  • We all know science is a collaborative and iterative endeavor, so be mindful of presenting well-known scientists as solitary geniuses. Students may internalize the idea that successful scientists work independently and never need help.
  • Be open to student feedback to improve your teaching. Providing regular questionnaires (e.g., biweekly or monthly) for students to offer constructive feedback can highlight gaps in understanding to be addressed in future classes and can increase student engagement.

Keep Communication Open

Open communication allows faculty to adjust their teaching approach to individual students’ needs and to respond to concerns about the classroom climate and educational experience.

  • Set a classroom standard of encouraging active participation and active listening (e.g., pause during lectures to ask a student to help interpret a graph or equation on your slide).
  • Provide multiple channels by which students can reach out both during (e.g., by scheduling dedicated in-class discussions) and outside of class hours (e.g., via email, video call, office hours, or private chat boxes). And consider scheduling regular check-ins with students. Approachability and availability of instructors are essential to allowing open dialogue about sensitive issues.
  • Be flexible with assessment timelines and criteria. Provide testing windows rather than set times for exams, and have students set their own due dates for milestones in long-term projects. Contextualize participation grading to a student’s home environment, stable access to technology, and out-of-school circumstances.

Make Learning a Communal Endeavor

Getting to know your students and connecting them with each other minimize the risk that students with a greater susceptibility to imposter syndrome or to feelings of isolation will fall behind or go unseen in a class [Chandra et al., 2019].

  • Learn why students are taking your class, what their background and research interests are, and what their goals are for the class. This process can be facilitated through an online form or a brief meeting early in the course, communicates your investment in students’ learning outcomes, and establishes mutual understanding of course objectives.
  • Connect students to each other by assigning study groups or lab partners and balancing expertise and skills among members in each group as best as possible (on the basis of class year or previous coursework, for example). This sort of connection provides students with a network of classmates with whom they can collaborate and ask questions.
  • To foster a sense of community among yourself and your students, invite them to talks or seminars you give, and encourage them to share any presentations that they are giving.

Democratize Student Participation

Intentionally leveling the playing field for student participation ensures that all students are on track with course material and are active members of the class community.

  • Encourage students to contribute by opening the floor to questions during lectures. For students less comfortable with speaking up, promote the use of chat boxes by which students can pose questions in writing.
  • Be personal and use students’ names when responding to questions, and thank them for participating. Encourage students to keep their cameras on during lectures and when they speak up, but be cognizant that this may not be feasible for all students because of limited bandwidth or unstable Internet connections. (In traditional classrooms, students may not be limited by Internet stability, but they still may struggle to participate because of limited mental or emotional bandwidth.)
  • Designate yourself as a discussion facilitator and moderator to combat the often unbalanced format of virtual discussions (in which the same few voices may dominate air time) and to ensure all students are heard from.
  • Assign clear roles and desired outcomes for small-group work. When using virtual “breakout rooms,” designate roles for each group member (e.g., notetaker, presenter, discussion leader, etc.) that align with the specific goals of the exercise.

Tailor Assignments to Promote Future Success

Scaffolded assignments balance individual and communal growth and reflect the collaborative nature of doing research in a scientific community.

  • When presenting new material, assign problem sets that build on each other or that utilize the same data set(s) to practice different techniques. This approach allows students to see connections among different class topics, the iterative nature of research, and applications to their own interests.
  • Consider splitting similar data sets or models into multiple pieces for students to explore individually and report on to the class. Encourage the use of platforms like Google Docs and GitHub to facilitate asynchronous collaboration, feedback, and troubleshooting.
  • Avoid assignments that require cumbersome out-of-classroom conversations among large groups of students, all of whom have different timelines. For example, avoid online conversation threads that sap time and energy for all involved.
  • Share tips for writing successful research grant proposals, and have students submit a final project proposal in that style. This proposal, and the final project outcome, can be paired with a peer review process, in which other members of the class can learn from and help their peers.

Create Assessments that Provide Feedback

Constructive feedback, not grades, is the best mechanism by which to learn from mistakes. And specific feedback that makes students feel recognized as individuals and that reiterates their abilities to meet high expectations is a particularly important motivating factor for underrepresented students [Darling-Hammond et al., 2020; Cohen et al., 1999].

  • To normalize and set ground rules for consistent, transparent, and constructive feedback, introduce rubrics alongside assignments and provide rubric-based narrative feedback. Rubrics naturally pair better with longer-term assessments such as take-home exams and term projects.
  • Consider deemphasizing high-stakes, timed exams, which are less indicative of class performance [Au, 2013]. They are also harder to administer and assess fairly with the technological and time synchronicity hurdles of remote instruction environments. From our perspective, they also do little to develop research skills.
  • Have students design and implement a class rubric for a peer review. This group exercise will inculcate respect for the peer review process and allow them to practice giving and receiving feedback.

A Foundation for Growth

As graduate students with various experiences in teaching (and being taught), we posit that the best step forward in building inclusive learning communities for graduate students is to share the responsibility with graduate students. The strategies outlined above are targeted at making remote learning environments more equitable, specifically by developing classroom communities where students are empowered in their learning and are connected with faculty and each other. Laying foundations now for growth- and student-oriented teaching strategies will benefit students, faculty, and institutions as we eventually transition back to in-person learning.

References

Au, W. (2013), Hiding behind high-stakes testing: Meritocracy, objectivity, and inequality in U.S. education, Int. Educ. J. Comp. Perspect., 12(2), 7–19, https://doi.org/10.1177/0895904815614916.

Bernard, R. E., and E. H. G. Cooperdock (2018), No progress on diversity in 40 years, Nat. Geosci., 11, 292–295, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-018-0116-6.

Chandra, S., et al. (2019), Imposter syndrome: Could it be holding you or your mentees back?, CHEST, 156(1), 26–32, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chest.2019.02.325.

Cohen, G. L., C. M. Steele, and L. D. Ross (1999), The mentor’s dilemma: Providing critical feedback across the racial divide, Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull., 25(10), 1,302–1,318, https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167299258011.

Darling-Hammond, L., et al. (2020), Implications for educational practice of the science of learning and development, Appl. Dev. Sci., 24(2), 97–140, https://doi.org/10.1080/10888691.2018.1537791.

hooks, b. (1994), Teaching to Transgress, Routledge, New York.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2016), Barriers and Opportunities for 2-Year and 4-Year STEM Degrees: Systemic Change to Support Students’ Diverse Pathways, Natl. Acad. Press, Washington, D.C., https://doi.org/10.17226/21739.

Ogbunu, C. B. (2019), The liberation of RNA, Radiolab, produced by WNYC Studios, 6 Dec., www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/articles/liberation-rna.

Author Information

EeShan Bhatt, Morgan Grace Blevins, Danielle Haas Freeman ([email protected]), and Lina Taenzer, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program, Cambridge and Woods Hole, Mass.

Citation: Bhatt, E., M. G. Blevins, D. H. Freeman, and L. Taenzer (2021), Graduate student perspectives on equitable remote learning, Eos, 102, https://doi.org/10.1029/2021EO153582. Published on 21 January 2021.
Text © 2021. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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