Studying science at McGill in Fall 2020: Remote learning in review (Part 1)

Part one of this two-part report looks at the challenges encountered in connecting with each other and staying engaged in the learning process

At the end of a semester few will forget, undergraduate students and instructors in the Faculty of Science speak to the McGill Reporter about their experience of remote teaching and learning in Fall 2020. Part one of this two-part report looks at the challenges encountered in connecting with each other and staying engaged in the learning process. Part 2 can be read here.

Extraordinary circumstances

Psychology professor Melanie Dirks, who taught Child Development (PSYC 304) in Fall 2020, says it is important to recognize the distinction between online learning under ordinary conditions and the sudden shift to remote learning brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think one of the mistakes I made early on was not thinking enough about that. I thought about ‘How do I teach this in a remote context?’ and not more specifically about ‘How do I teach this in a remote context during a global pandemic?’” she recalls.

Cramped living arrangements and limited internet access are just two of the difficulties that have added to Dirks’s students’ levels of stress and anxiety this semester. As well, there are the challenges unique to each of the many locations around the world in which students find themselves. Throughout the fall, physics professor Ken Ragan has responded to countless messages from students enduring natural disasters, armed conflict, and personal hardship.

“Whether it’s a hurricane in Louisiana, or record snowfall in Calgary, I will have people in both those places email me and say, I’m about to lose power for three days because a hurricane is roaring through. I’ll see you on the other side, and in the meantime… I can’t do my assignments.”

Engaging students at a distance

While for some students being away from Montreal has meant being closer to the support of family and friends, instructors are keenly aware that many are finding it difficult to stay engaged with their studies under the twin pressures of learning remotely during a global pandemic.

“I think my greatest worry is that it’s all too easy for students to become disengaged,” says Ragan, who teaches two freshman courses in mechanical systems, PHYS 101 and PHYS 131. “I’ve noticed that attendance at my Zoom lectures is no better that 50 to 60 percent of the registered class enrolment, whereas typically my classes are more like 85 or 90 percent.”

Despite the reduced attendance, Ragan says online lectures turned out to be more interactive than he thought they would be. He credits the teaching assistants and T-PULSE student mentors who worked with him during live Zoom lectures to monitor and respond to questions students were asking through the chat screen. Zoom has also made it easier for Ragan to get to know students by name, a consistent challenge in classes with as many as 500 students.

Pallavi Sirjoosingh, a lecturer for CHEM 110, a freshman chemistry course with an enrolment of around 950 students, says she appreciates a phenomenon that many other instructors have noted, namely that there is “no front row” in a Zoom lecture. While she saw that students were more willing to ask questions via chat than they might be when sitting at the back of a large lecture theatre, Sirjoosingh suspects that the level of student-to-student interaction was lower on Zoom than it would be in person:

“In a lecture theatre, if they don’t understand something, they can just look at the person next to them and say, ‘You know, I didn’t get that. What did you think?’”

Making connections

For Ken Ragan, tactile in-class demonstrations are integral to his physics teaching.

“I teach classes on mechanical systems, so there’s some classic demos you can do,” he explains. “I’ve got a bowling ball pendulum that I hang from the ceiling of Leacock 132, a spinning chair that I can move weights around, and a spinning bicycle wheel, and tops and all sorts of stuff.”

Ragan has worked with McGill’s audiovisual unit to create high-quality videos of these demonstrations but he says interactivity is a vital element that’s missing: “With these demos, people would come up after class, and they want to do the demo themselves, they want to put their hands on the wheel and figure out how it turns.”

While he is enthusiastic about some of the emerging possibilities of educational technology, Ragan has found it “kind of surprising” to realize just how effective the familiar university teaching format can be, where a single instructor leads discussion from the front of a lecture theatre.

“It may be a 1000-year-old model, but the fact is we’re all humans, we like personal contact,” he says. “Yes, there will be changes and education will perhaps never be quite the same. But my sense is that students would like nothing better than to come back to Leacock 132 and be in their classes.”

Enhancing the remote learning experience

In psychology, Melanie Dirks has also found technology only goes so far in helping her connect with her students: “I think one of the things that’s been hardest about teaching in this context is that the best learning happens in the context of a relationship – and it’s hard to develop a relationship under these circumstances.”

Mindful of the difficulty students might face tuning in to live lectures, Dirks pre-recorded her lectures for the fall semester, a choice she compares to offering a “concert film designed for home viewing” rather than “a grainy bootleg of a concert your friend took on their phone.”

She kept the videos as short as possible, referred to them as “episodes” rather than “lectures”, and dropped in some of her favourite music clips to highlight milestones in child development. (What better way to capture the essence of Jean Piaget’s theory of morality and intentions than with Culture Club’s 1982 breakout single, Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?)

Dirks added life to another of her videos by asking a colleague to join her on screen to help explain a particularly tricky theory about how babies understand cause and effect in much the same way as adults.

“We sat in my garage so that we could be socially distant and outside, and I taught and she basically provided colour commentary on the lecture. And it was fun!” Dirks recalls. “We’ll see what the student feedback says, but I think it was better for it. It’s more interesting to listen to people talk about something than to hear one person monologuing.”

Learning from each other

Working with her colleague in this way reminded Dirks of the immediate feedback she gets when lecturing in person.

“I would say something and my colleague would say, ‘I don’t understand what you meant. Can you go back and explain it again?’

“I think that’s a major challenge of asynchronous delivery – you can’t see when you’ve lost people. When you’re lecturing live and somebody brave puts up their hand and says, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ that often means 200 other people don’t know either.”

Students, too, have found the lack of in-person contact a challenge this semester. Those in their first year at McGill are at the added disadvantage of not having had the opportunity to establish relationships in previous semesters. Nevertheless, there have been some success stories of connections made online, with students benefitting both socially and academically.

Alberto Lopez, a first-year Bachelor of Arts & Science student who aims to major in cognitive science, says that although it has been difficult to get to know people this semester, his efforts to reach out to fellow students in his mathematics and physics courses have paid off. After establishing contact via WhatsApp, Lopez formed study groups that have helped him come to grips with the challenging course material.

“Studying in a group really enhances my learning,” he says. “It’s easier when someone explains something to me directly, rather than me looking it up on the internet or in a textbook. I also have to say that math and physics are the most demanding courses, so it would have been especially difficult to do all the work by myself.”

Kelly Gallacher, who is in the first year of her computer science degree, has also found working with other students beneficial, and has found opportunities to do so built into some of her courses. In her math course, Linear Algebra and Geometry (MATH 133), for instance, Gallacher is part of a tutorial group of just 14 students – a size she says suits her learning style. In Foundations of Programming (COMP 202), meanwhile, Gallacher appreciates the interactive nature of working in a group of five students on projects that involve weekly class presentations.

Outside of these structured activities, though, Gallacher evokes a more spontaneous kind of interaction, largely absent from the remote learning experience this fall – “the part of university where you go to the library and meet friends, and you’re all studying, and you have that sense of solidarity that you’re going through this together.”

What do you think about remote learning? McGill Science and Arts & Science students are invited to share their experiences of studying remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Send your comments to