Making lemonade, online edition


Lemons, Image by Richard John from Pixabay

It has been almost a year that the Covid-19 pandemic upended the world. My latest blog post is from that time (gulp), and I recall the frenzy of the months as courses never taught online before had to be adapted in a rush. As an early user of online tools in my teaching, I noticed the surprise of instructors who never taught online before when they realized how much work is to set up a good online course! Because one thing is to teach a course online, and another to design it to be engaging, accessible, provide a virtual community space for students, while still providing plenty of opportunities for learning and assessment.

Over a year, however, online and zoom has become mainstream, and I am encouraged to see a move towards appreciation of online tools (and their limitations), as well as a number of creative solutions and adaptations.

In November 2020 we decided to convert the CURE plastics project, which involved a field trip, to a virtual experience. Part of it required curation of resources- using documentaries and links to provide the background of the research project. The other (really fun) part was to create new resources: that included recording of lectures and field trip footage, experimenting with GoPro cameras to provide the point of view of somebody participating. The material still needs more editing, but here is a short video reel of what we do. The virtual field trip was piloted in a non majors general biology lab course.

Video reel by Saul Torres

As for instructional design, we went for scaffolding of the material:

  • Two weeks before the “field trip”- students watch a documentary related to plastic pollution and discuss it in a Discussion Board
  • Week before the field trip: students watch recorded lectures about the experimental design (assessed as part of their weekly quiz)
  • Week of the field trip:
    • Students watch footage of a real field trip
    • Updates are posted in course LMS and social media
    • A padlet is prepared in advance of the Q&A, with information and introductions of the speakers
  • End of week: Live Q &A with a panel composed by researchers, instructors, and research students. After a general discussion, students are divided in breakout rooms according to their interests (plastic pollution, careers in science etc).

Results were…good! Overall we felt a lot of engagement, got many questions and expressions of interest. A survey comparing Likert scores of student perception of science, laboratory work, research etc. gave very encouraging results.

Comparison of survey scores of online vs onsite students, before and after the experience.

In summary, while online students rated their knowledge and appreciation significantly lower compared to their onsite counterparts, they “caught up” to the onsite students after the field trip experience, even if virtual. While this may not be a solution for a majors’ level hands-on course, it does provide a way to increase student engagement and knowledge of science topics without needing lots of resources. This in fact provides more equity and inclusivity to field trip experiences, especially this one- students did not have to live by the coast in order to experience it.

Long story short, we are happy and hopeful. We just repeated the experience in February and are looking forward the data. Next try will be in July

On constructive feedback

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Comments & feedback are useful!

ONL192 started for our group (#2) at full speed. Not to brag, but we already had two synchronous meetings spanning several time zones, with participants taking commitments and procedures seriously. That does not mean we are a “serious” bunch- there have been plenty of laughs and smiles during the meetings. So far, so good!

A question came up in the group about feedback to blog postings, and guidelines are being developed to make it a straightforward process. As the group brainstorms a way, this made me curious: is there a science about ways to give feedback? Here I will focus on feedback in teaching/learning.

There is no doubt that feedback is extremely important for learning. Ambrose et al (2011) discuss the importance of practice together with feedback for optimal learning: “First, feedback should communicate to students where they are relative to the stated goals and what they need to do to improve. Second, feedback should provide this information when students can make the most use of it, based on the learning goals and structure of activities you have set for them.” This is obvious: students need to receive feedback on their work as soon after the task has been completed, so it is still fresh on their minds and also to allow time for further practice before the next task. There is extensive literature about feedback, both internal and external, please see the reference at the end of an extensive review by Butler & Wenne (1995) about feedback and self-regulated learning (too technical for this blog post).

A short list of effective feedback strategies include:

  1. Make it specific: that way students know what they need to improve
  2. If applicable, make it goal oriented- if we know exactly what is the goal, tailor the feedback as to what is needed to reach that goal.
  3. Make it the right amount: too much feedback may overwhelm the student and/or may make them focus on the simpler errors that are easy to fix (spelling, format) instead of addressing major conceptual issues
  4. Mix positive and negative constructive feedback. Most of us are worried about being criticized, even when we know that the idea of feedback is to help us improve. So it is a good idea to combine positive feedback as a reinforcement and suggestions for improvement.
  5. Mix the types of delivery formats. Traditionally, feedback is delivered in a written form (or sometimes orally). With the expansion of online and blended models, the use of alternative forms of feedback such as audio or video clips has been promoted (see Estes et al, 2014, van Vliet et al, 2015). Especially in the case of constructive criticism, an audio or video message may be more personable, and make it easier for the instructor to convey the message.

Over the years I have gathered nuggets of wisdom & advice as to how to provide feedback. Being on the receiving end of criticism has given me additional insight. As an instructor, I scaffold my teaching so assignments increase in complexity (and stakes), with feedback level paralleling them. So I won’t be burying a student with comments after a first minor assignment, but build up both expectations and feedback as time passes. And I use the “sandwich” model of feedback- start and end with a positive aspect and sandwich the negative constructive portion in the middle.


  1. Ambrose SA, Bridges MW, DiPietro M, Lovett MC, Norman MK, Ambrose BSA, Michael W, Lovett MC, Norman MK. How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. How Learning Works. 2011;5(2):106–115.
  2. Butler, D. L., & Winne, P. H. (1995). Feedback and Self-Regulated Learning: A Theoretical Synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 65(3), 245–281.
  3. Estes. M. D., Ingram, R., & Liu, J. C. (2014). A review of flipped classroom research, practice, and technologies. International HETL Review, Volume 4, Article 7, URL:
  4. van Vliet, E. A., Winnips, J. C., & Brouwer, N. (2015). Flipped-Class Pedagogy Enhances Student Metacognition and Collaborative-Learning Strategies in Higher Education But Effect Does Not Persist. CBE life sciences education14(3), ar26. doi:10.1187/cbe.14-09-0141 link

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