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Cambridge Centre for Teaching and Learning

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Pace and Inclusivity: some things we learned from the pivot to remote education

It's been several months since Cambridge made the shift to remote education and working. By now, after numerous Microsoft Teams meetings and Zoom sessions, we are learning to manage the challenges of adapting to interacting online. This includes the absence of familiar social and non-verbal cues, which can lead to a slower and more halting pace of conversation.

As a Senior Teaching Associate at the Centre for Teaching and Learning, I'm interested in the effects this change in the pace of communication has had on the teaching and learning environment. As the course director for CCTL's Teaching Associates' Programme (TAP), I recently sent out a survey to participants in this year's cohort, querying their experiences of remote teaching and learning this past Easter Term. All were asked:

  • to identify what was working well in their experience of remote teaching
  • whether they've developed any new practices they would consider using to enhance their face-to-face teaching
  • what the most challenging aspects or remote education were
  • and how they felt students were adapting to this new context.

Their responses1 reveal the many practical challenges involved in making a rapid shift to remote education. Suddenly, different time zones, connection strengths, online platform capabilities, and sound or camera quality became central to their teachings experiences. Also among their top concerns was how to deal with the fragmented pace of interactions when teaching through a computer screen. Several of the survey respondents identified this as a challenge. As one wrote, "It is harder to read student emotions [or to] get a grasp of how much they understand". According to another, "It's harder to 'read the room' and... in a group context to know when to speak and avoid interrupting anyone!"

To overcome what initially felt like the stilted tempo of remote conversations, the survey respondents identified creating more structure for discussions - doing what one respondent called "controlled moderating of discussions". Another described it as "taking a more active role in discussion management" using "prepared questions" and "directing questions to students rather than [using] open questions". Another observed that "more clear cues are needed to get the students to speak/answer/engage", while another has begun to "let students know exactly what to expect" ahead of each teaching session.

Significantly, several survey respondents communicated their delight with the results of this more structured approach. One respondent commented in detail on this: "I've found that the discussions are going well and may be somewhat more balanced than in-person sessions, perhaps because there are more pauses for quieter students to jump in, or maybe because more talkative students may realise that they're dominating the discussion". Other survey respondents shared similar observations.

It's not surprising that a slower, more orchestrated approach to guiding discussions and student interactions is actually yielding better results. Discussion management, prepared questions, focused questioning, and clarifying expectations and goals are all inclusive teaching practices. They help create an environment where all students take part in the learning and where their individual strengths and contributions are valued. One of the most important teaching skills is the ability to guide students in discussion, or in shared problem-solving - and to do so in a way that includes all students in contributing to and learning from the exchanges. Often, however, educators assume that discussions and interactions will evolve spontaneously in response to open questions:

  • "So what did you all think of the reading?"
  • "Did anyone have trouble solving this problem?"
  • "Do you have questions about the lectures?"

Inclusive teaching environments tend to be far more structured:

  • "Student X, please explain how you solved the first problem, then Student Y respond on whether you used the same method or a different strategy. Please identify any parts you found particularly challenging."
  • "I'm now going to pose a different question to each of you. I'd like you to take a minute to reflect on your responses, and then I'll call on you in the following order: Student A, Student B, then Student C".

Launching a discussion in this manner may initially seem awkward, but this sort of structure typically leads to far more equitable levels of contribution among students, whereas spontaneity or allowing discussions simply to flow naturally can produce or reinforce negative social dynamics or prevent some students from having the opportunity to contribute to the learning environment. Indeed, one of the most common comments I hear from undergraduate supervisors (actually, from anyone who leads class discussions) is "how do I stop one student from dominating and encourage the quieter ones to engage?" The answer: create more structure for discussions.

This unexpected experiment in teaching remotely provided a unique opportunity to examine the assumptions that inform our face-to-face teaching and to look for new insights and ways to enhance our teaching practice. It's interesting how a virtual teaching and learning context that suppresses spontaneity and compels us to interact in more structured ways is unconsciously prompting the use of more inclusive teaching practices. This is something we should aim to continue once we find ourselves back in face-to-face settings.


The teaching guides produced by CCTL for the 2020-21 academic year include tips on guiding inclusive discussions and interactions.

Applications are currently open for the Teaching Associates' Programme.



Dr Mary Beth Benbenek

Photo of Dr Mary Beth Benbenek

Mary Beth is a Senior Teaching Associate here at the Centre for Teaching and Learning. She focuses on teaching and learning across the University at both undergraduate and postgraduate level, and is Course Director for the Teaching Associates' Programme.


Cambridge Teaching & Learning Newsletter vol. 1 (issue 6) August 2020

1Of the 48 participants in this year's TAP cohort, 15 responded to the survey, with all 15 listing undergraduate supervisions among their teaching responsibilities. Four of the 15 listed undergraduate lecturing or Masters' seminars as well.

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