Fresh Perspectives Interview with Prof. Mike Short

Providing and Soliciting Feedback

Mike Short, Associate Professor

Class: 22.01, Introduction to Nuclear Engineering and Ionizing Radiation
Semester: Fall 2020
MIT Department: Nuclear Science and Engineering

Key Takeaways

  • Ensure that your class format and practices invite students to work through confusing topics visually and/or verbally with instructors.
  • Solicit, listen to, and consider student input on how your modes of communication and methods of teaching are working for them.
  • Take the time to ask students how they are doing, and make sure they know that you are available to help. Invite them to share details if they feel comfortable, but do not pressure them. Be ready to share resources for additional support (S3, GradSupport, Student Mental Health & Counselling, Wellness & Support Resources).

Interview Transcript

0:00 What subjects did you teach during the pandemic?

I taught 22.01, which is Intro to Nuclear Physics and Nuclear Energy. Or ionizing. Honestly, I forget the name of the course, but it’s intro to nuclear. I taught the senior capstone design course, where we focused on decarbonizing Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia.

I taught a grad course on radiation damage and effects in structural materials. I co-taught a NEET seminar. And I’m teaching an analog electronics lab class. So during the pandemic, I’ve taught three in-person classes and one hybrid one and one remote one.

0:36 How did you adapt your teaching to serve students in a hybrid subject?

I had four folks in the class and 15 Russians and a bunch of Americans tuning in remotely. And that actually is something that our department has decided we’re going to keep on going. So we’re getting some TVs and things on a cart.

I helped explain my setup where I sat in the side of the classroom. I was projecting, but at the same time sharing slide screens and had an extra camera pointing at the board so that way everyone could have the same experience. And we piped audio in through the speakers in the rooms. Luckily, our rooms have speakers you can just connect to.

So everyone was able to see the slides in real time. Everyone was able to see the chalkboard in real time. And everyone could hear each other’s answers in real time. Now that, to me, is the way of the future. So that when students are sick or they’re away or whatever, we can just seamlessly make it happen.

And I’m planning to teach all my in-person classes with the remote ability component because it costs nothing. It’s like a TV on a cart, an extra laptop or iPad to run Zoom. It’s like $1,000 all in and does not require classroom infrastructure. That’s something we confirmed. So we’re going to try to make that the norm going forward.

And then for 22.01, that was totally remote because there’s no in-person component, except there was. I’ll get into that in a bit. But I got a lightboard kit and then turned my office into a lightboard studio. Because honestly, for the first couple of weeks, I tried camera at a whiteboard. I tried the iPad.

Everyone’s going on about how, oh, we can totally make it happen. Like, they’re lying to you. It’s terrible. And that’s just projection of optimism that isn’t there. Having tried it all, having talked to my students, all this stuff about how remote’s the way of the future, you can just do it on iPads– no. It doesn’t. The human element is gone. There’s weird delays that are unnatural. And I would argue that most of the people that say it’s good enough are lying to you. Because my students, that’s what they all felt like.

So I built this lightboard studio, and the students said this was as good, if not better, than the blackboard for a few reasons. So straight in front of me– so the lightboard is– well, here. You can see the studio. On the other side is a camera, but I also put in some monitors so that a student-sized face shows up when they’re talking so I can look a human-sized picture in the eyes when I’m answering a question. 

And that eye contact? It matters. It’s like the difference between if I’m looking at you on my screen or if I’m looking at the white dot. Right? So I made sure to have the camera pointing where the students’ eyes were. So that way, that worked pretty well.

Obviously, the lightboard has color contrast. I know I’m going to mess with the lighting and stuff, but you can turn on or off the glow so you can highlight the text or you can de-emphasize the text so the camera just sees me. And it means I never have my back to the students. That, to me, is the main failing of the blackboard experience.

3:44 How did students react when you switched to teaching with a lightboard?

Students were just saying, so much better or OK, now I really feel like things are clicking. The mood of the class just shot up. More students were asking more questions, and I was hearing from more people. And people were emailing more frequently with concerns. Like the whole– I mean, I had to grant probably more extensions than on-time problem sets, but those also picked up. I would say it re-established the community that was missing.

I had nothing pre-recorded, so this was all live. But they were also much more chatty on Piazza, just by email, in asking for extra meetings on Zoom where I actually got to know some of my students personally. That’s a hard thing to do nowadays, but I credit the– if you have the right tech and the right attitude, you can, with a little extra effort, keep the sense of community going.

4:37 How are you adapting this strategy for in-person classes?

What I’ve decided to do moving forward post-pandemic is I’m flipping my classrooms, not with the intent of doing less work or anything, but I thought to myself, what is the value of an MIT education if everything is on OpenCourseWare?

It’s certainly not the performances. It’s not the lectures or the problem sets or the exams or the assessment of the grades. It’s the face time. It’s students getting access to our time to ask their questions and for us to keep stammering out explanations until it clicks for them.

So I want to eliminate my lecture time. I think it’s a waste of their money. And honestly, I’m getting sick of the performance art. It’s the fifth time I’ve taught this class. The lectures have hit steady state to where I don’t have to prepare ahead of time. There’s no reason that I should be putting on a yearly show.

So I used the pandemic to record this course where I would argue I was at the absolute top of my game. Evaluations were all 6.9s, 7 across the board. It’s all downhill from here, so why not freeze the best offering that this course has ever seen and offer that every time and use all of our contact time to talk and to work on problems and to answer their questions in ways that work for them?

6:00 What mindset did you promote during the pandemic?

So I would say, always staying positive but realistic. I’ve seen a lot of people react differently. There’s the sort of self-deprecating or “woe is us” attitude, which is entirely not useful. The comment I got most from my students is, thanks for being there. And the next most common one is, thank you for the kick in the ass when I needed it.

I think we need a more distributive hands-on effort by the faculty. Each of us takes a dozen or so students, kind of like in normal times, get to know them, be available, and tell them when they need to change something, when they’re in a funk. Help them recognize it. Give them strategies.

Students are like, I know MIT is there for me, but I have this specific problem, and I need someone to listen to this specific problem. And so for my students, I did that because that’s what I would do normally. The sense of this disconnectedness is certainly making it different– I won’t say harder, I’ll just say different– for faculty to be there for the students in the way that they used to.

7:04 Did you encounter student resistance to the feedback you were providing?

No. Our students are remarkable. I gave a lot of critical feedback out, and first, I made sure that it was always empathetic. It wasn’t just, I’m doing fine, so should you. It’s like, I understand your problem. I can relate. Or I can’t, but I can sympathize. And here’s what you should do for this reason.

So it was always actionable, personal, and empathetic and positive. It’s not like, your actions are bad, and you should feel bad. That doesn’t help anybody either. Not once did I get students either saying, that was not helpful, or just dropping off and sort of ignoring support. They were engaged. They came back. They were thankful.

So our students are remarkably resilient and responsible, and they don’t redirect blame on others. In fact, they’re often too quick to blame themselves for things that are totally external.

For the chronically fatigued ones, I could say, I’ve noticed you’ve needed extensions on the last four p-sets because you’ve always been mentally fatigued. Tell me a little bit about how are you sleeping. Because I think they’ve been waiting for someone to talk to. But they are very shy often to reach out.

So tracking performance was a big way to do it. But again, I had to ask for the barest of details that would tell me most of what I needed to know while still letting students feel comfortable keeping their personal situations private.

8:32 What would you tell faculty who worry about overstepping when reaching out to students?

It’s important to not ask for personal details but convey that you’re open to sharing personal details. So for example, I wouldn’t say, just let me know if you need an extension. I’d say, let me know why you need an extension, but you only have to give me the barest of reasons.

If somebody just says, I’m feeling overwhelmed, that’s enough information for me to track. And I can ask, do you mind telling me why? And some students did say, I’d rather not, it’s private, or it’s complicated. And then you say, OK, that’s fine.

But just the fact that you showed interest is more important than anything else because a lot of those students then turned around two or three days later and said, actually, can I talk to you about it?

9:19 What practices will you bring back to in-person teaching?

It is an unresolved question in my mind. Do I stick with lightboard or go back to blackboard for things? Obviously, blackboard requires no prep. You just do stuff. But there’s always that problem that your back is to the class most of the time.

And I do wish that there was a way to combine the forward facing, high contrast nature of a whiteboard with the presence of a blackboard. And I don’t think that need’s been met, but whoever finds it is going to do pretty well. I’m really glad that this has made us think about, how can we best teach, and what is the value of an MIT education?