How Are Our Students Doing, Really?

How Are Our Students Doing, Really?

Checking in with students in 7.012

One of our biggest concerns in 7.012, a large introductory biology course, was helping our students connect with one another and with the teaching staff during the remote semester. With 500 students enrolled, it felt daunting to be tasked with checking in on all of our students regularly, especially when they were tuning in from all over the globe. 

About 7.012

Lectures met synchronously 3 times per week but were recorded to allow students flexibility. Of 500 students, 150-200 regularly attended synchronous sessions. Students were also tasked with attending synchronous recitations two times per week. Though these recitation sessions were not mandatory, we were encouraged to see high attendance (we note that attendance dropped to roughly 50% by the closing weeks of the semester).

Our major concerns

Because 7.012 has a broad mix of first-year and upperclass students, many are not a part of a traditional GIR “cohort” and end up feeling isolated, without easy access to study partners or tools to succeed in the course. This isolation was particularly a concern for us in two areas during the remote semester: 

1) Facilitating collaborative problem solving 

  • How would students find others to form groups with when learning remotely?
  • How would we know whether or not they were working together successfully?

2) Following up on student needs

  • How would we know what students were struggling with?
  • How would we know if they were getting the help they needed to succeed?

In the end, our 2 best resources were our teaching team, composed of 20 graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants (TAs), and routine student feedback.

At the start of the semester, we asked each of our TAs to talk with their students in their recitations about the collaborative nature of problem sets and to suggest that students reach out to others to form “Pset study groups.” Anyone who wasn’t able to form a group was invited to reach out to the TA as a point of contact to facilitate group formation. We then tracked student group work by having students submit the names of their collaborators with each problem set. From this, we were able to check in on students and discover who was working together and who was still working independently. Some students preferred to do their assignments individually and did not ever submit a collaborator, while others were able to use this forum to tell us they did not have a group but wanted to find one.

We also encouraged our TAs to send out feedback forms to their students before or after each recitation to find out what topics they were struggling with. Without the real-time communication and body language that would normally occur in an in-person lecture or recitation group, this form of feedback was critical in helping us to identify difficult concepts for students. Other feedback on course logistics was collected through the Piazza discussion forum, linked on our Canvas site. Feedback on course logistics allowed us to identify which policies were working for students and adjust as needed throughout the semester. For example, it was through this type of routine feedback that we were able to identify a need for additional study resources exploring experimental techniques covered in 7.012.

While the challenges we faced were exacerbated by the remote nature of the semester, they are not unique. Large courses like 7.012 can always benefit from extra attention in fostering community, and we intend to keep many of these policies in place for future semesters.


Written by Summer Morrill, Instructor of TA Training and Curriculum Development, Biology