Practical Tips for Now and Looking Ahead

On Wednesday, February 3rd, eight experienced instructors gathered to share their instructional insights with fellow Northwestern faculty at Northwestern IT Teaching & Learning Technologies’ first TEACHxperts event of 2021. After having been among those professors who shared their ideas through the Keep Teaching video series, the TEACHxperts featured at this event provided thoughtful advice on what has been working for them while teaching online and remote courses.  

As the teaching landscape continues to develop and change over 2021, we wanted to know what these experienced instructors would take back with them to in-person teaching. Some of the themes that emerged during the conversation included, approaching homework and other assessments with new goals, using video and other media to forge connections with students, and moving content delivery outside of synchronous meetings. Read on for some practical advice and insights from these expert instructors.

Some Key Takeaways

Engineering professor Casey Ankeny felt the time spent creating online videos and labs had been well-spent and saw those materials continuing to play a part in her future courses. Jill Wilson, also from the School of Engineering, echoed the ongoing benefits of videos and other content-delivery materials. She saw them as part of her increased focus on maximizing interaction and impact during class sessions, rather than solely as a medium to deliver content.  

Physics and Astronomy professor Andrew Rivers sees shifting his assessments from high-stakes, single events to take-home, extended exams as a way to give students more time to process, think, and learn from mistakes. Justin Brown, professor of Neurobiology, also re-framed his coursework assignments for students, incentivizing them to use the work to practice and understand concepts rather than just focusing on the grade. Likewise, Jonathan Emery, from the School of Engineering, saw the computational labs that he and colleagues had developed as learning sandboxes that helped students both prepare for and review after “real” lab sessions. From assessments to preparatory coursework, these instructors worked to shift the focus to comprehension of materials rather than rote memorization. 

Arionne Nettles and Candy Lee from the Medill School of Journalism, and Professor Achal Bassamboo from the Kellogg School of Management, all noted that using chat, Zoom reactions, Google docs, and discussion boards allowed them to better prep and prompt quieter students to join discussions and capture student ideas in large classes. Engagement in Zoom classes or other online spaces can look different from an in-person class, but all three instructors felt these digital options helped them hear from students who might not have shared ideas as freely during an in-person class. Whether in-person, hybrid, or online in the future, these instructors plan to continue using different techniques for engagement and discussion with students. 

Practical tips from the panel 

  • Set up auto-graded coursework in Canvas with no limits on submission attempts. Emphasize to students that coursework is a place to practice and learn, rather than a single assessment point. (Justin Brown) 
  • To make an exam in Canvas that is unique to each student and also equally covers key concepts from your class, create several large question banks. Each question bank should cover a week of class or important concepts from your class. Using several question banks categorized in this way to build your exam means that you can be sure that every student will be tested on key concepts but never receive the same exam as another student. (Justin Brown) 
  • Send an introductory video to your class before your first meeting to welcome students, share some of your expectations for the class, and open a dialogue with them. Consider using Tik Toks or other media throughout the course to comment on course content and continue building engagement. (Arionne Nettles) 
  • Create and share an agenda for each synchronous meeting with your students. Add links to any external tools or activities (Google Docs, Padlets, etc) directly to this document so that you and your students can concentrate directly on the activity during class. (Candy Lee) 
  • During a Google Doc/breakout room activity, use the Google Doc to “listen” to what the groups are doing. See what the groups are creating in the document and when reviewing the activity afterward in the main room, call on specific groups based on this information. (Achal Bassamboo) 
  • Keeping teams/breakout rooms stable throughout the quarter allows students to build connections with each other. If you are going to randomize student groups in breakout rooms, plan extra time into their breakout room activity so that they can introduce themselves to each other. (Achal Bassamboo) 

Northwestern IT Teaching & Learning Technologies thanks the panelists and discussion leaders for sharing their insights during this event and for their continual work to improve instruction and student outcomes at Northwestern. 


Arionne Nettles, Lecturer in Journalism, Medill School of Journalism 

Achal Bassamboo, Charles E. Morrison Professor of Operations, Kellogg School of Management 

Candy Lee, Professor in Journalism and Integrated Marketing Communications, Medill School of Journalism 

Justin Brown, Associate Professor of Instruction in the Department of Neurobiology, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences 

Discussion Leaders 

Andrew Rivers, Associate Professor of Instruction in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences 

Casey Ankeny, Associate Professor of Instruction in Biomedical Engineering, McCormick School of Engineering 

Jill Wilson, Charles Deering McCormick Distinguished Professor of Instruction of Industrial Engineering & Management Sciences, McCormick School of Engineering  

Jonathan Emery, Assistant Professor of Instruction in Materials Science & Engineering, McCormick School of Engineering