Fresh Perspectives Interview with Prof. Karthish Manthiram

Alternative Assignments & Assessments, Providing and Soliciting Feedback

Karthish Manthiram, Assistant Professor

Class: Transport Processes, 10.302
Semesters: Fall 2020
MIT Department: Chemical Engineering

Key Takeaways

  • To help students adjust to learning in a virtual format, strategies like using breakout rooms can help ease students into participating in class conversations.
  • Asynchronous videos provide students the opportunity to learn at the pace they choose and to seek out additional content to explain challenging concepts or dig deeper into a topic of interest.
  • Being transparent about how student feedback is aggregated and implemented conveys to students that their comments are valued and encourages future feedback and communication between students and instructors.

Interview Transcript

0:00 What did you find challenging about pivoting to virtual teaching?

The hardest thing at first was getting engagement from the students. There’s a way in which our students have been going into physical classrooms since they were little kids, right, and they built up habits that make that work. They’ve, they know how to raise their hand when they don’t, when something doesn’t make sense.

They know to lean over and ask a friend a question if they’re entirely lost, or to walk up to the instructor after class and ask a clarifying point. Modes that work for people with different approaches to clarifying their doubts, and they’ve honed those skills to do well, and that’s part of why they’re here at MIT.

When transitioned to a digital classroom, all those skills are gone, right, in a way. All those habits that they formed over years and years no longer are there at their disposal. So these students were forced to figure out how to make a digital environment work. And the first few classes were really quiet for that reason. No one really knew what the right sort of etiquette was. Like, do you just unmute yourself and start talking? Do you use the raise hand feature?

Do you turn your video off and kind of feel a little less engaged? Or does it make a difference whether your video’s on and off as to whether you’re engaged or not? Maybe somebody can be perfectly engaged with their video off. The instructor has this preconceived notion that it has an effect, so we’re all kind of feeling out how to make this work.

But for me, the interaction’s really important. I can’t teach unless students are asking questions and answering questions. And it was tough at first to listen to that response. People are nervous to speak up on Zoom. Partly maybe because it was being recorded, and so they probably felt like it was going down on some permanent record as opposed to just being something that they could say, and if it didn’t come out right, well, no one would remember later. In a recorded digital classroom the bar was higher in their own eyes in terms of the value of what they were saying.

So we had to come up with ways of overcoming that. One way we did that was to create breakout rooms. And students with these breakout rooms, and all of a sudden, after we did a breakout room, they would actually come back and feel more comfortable to speak in front of the whole room. It was kind of magical how that happened.

And after doing breakout rooms for a short period of time, we found we no longer needed them. Like, the students were sufficiently comfortable at that point that they did not need to be in a smaller group to feel comfortable talking. So that was one example of something that worked well early on in the pandemic.

2:22 How did you use asynchronous content in your class?

At the start of the summer, I started building a green screen recording studio. So I put up the green screen, microphone array, like lights and everything, and started figuring out how to do composite videos where I could kind of stand in front of the content sort of in like weather person style and be able to point at things and then have the content advanced live. And so it was a completely different experience in the fall learning how to pre-produce that content and to be able to distribute that in advance, fully harnessed the asynchronous nature of the course.

I think there are a lot of advantages to that sort of mode of delivery in that there are a lot of inefficiencies in classroom learning in terms of traditional classroom learning, where there’s time that I’m taking to give students the opportunity to process. And students are processing at different rates depending on their familiarity with the content, how much they’ve seen of something before, just differences in their ways of thinking that makes some things easier and other things harder.

But that means that I have to in my own mind deem that there’s some average pace that I should take that works well for everyone, which we know just isn’t the case. There’s some students who would like more time to process something and there are others who are getting bored because it’s going too slow for them. And that’s really the wonderful thing about an asynchronous video, is that putting that time and making that content, students can watch and rewatch.

So if someone is getting the first time around, they watch it again. If they get it, they’ll even watch it two x speed and they save time. So students are now much more in control of how they spend their time. The sacrifice though, is that asynchronous delivery of lecture content means that I can’t use Socratic dialogue for that. And I have to kind of save the Socratic dialogue for the synchronous recitations.

That’s something I’m philosophically still kind of conflicted about. I love asynchronous teaching for so many reasons that I just described, but the loss of conversation for me is painful. So I like to maximize the conversational time that I have with students. And so that, I haven’t figured out how to fix just yet.

4:24 How do you solicit feedback from students?

When students feel that their feedback is heard and acted on, they’re much more likely to continue to give it. And I know that there are times where when I was a student, I gave feedback, if nothing happened because of it, then the next time they asked for feedback, there was just no motivation whatsoever to fill out that form. It just didn’t make, it didn’t, for me, seemed like it had any value.

So the way we bring value to it is that any time students fill out our feedback forms, typically we just do it in Google form and they fill it out, we go through, read every comment, and then categorize these comments. They’re a set of comments that have to do about the homework, a set that have to do about the exam, another set with how the lectures are delivered. And I’ll spend the first 10 minutes the next class going through the positive and negative things that were said about each of these.

It’s really important to show that there is divergent viewpoints, whether someone would say, the lectures are fantastic, there will be another number who say they should go slower, and maybe some that say should go faster. If there’s no clear preferences such that there are equal number saying go slower as there are saying go faster, then I tell the class that. I say, hey look, the comments indicate that there are some who want this on both sides, which means we’re going to keep things the way they are. But I hope you understand that that’s just because of the collective voice that’s spoken.

So we summarize the comments in that way. And I always have to end up by saying that if someone feels that their comment hasn’t been understood or if I haven’t addressed it, it means that I just didn’t get it. And I want them to come and talk to me. And if we do that and establish that belief that the system actually responds to feedback, then they won’t wait for the feedback form either. They’ll come and talk to me after class and be like, I think you’re doing this poorly. And they’ll just say it.

And they’ll realize that we take that feedback just fine, that we’re not going to bite, we’re not going to hold it against them, but I actually think it accelerates improvement in teaching if they do that. Some students build that trust in semester, others don’t. They need the form and they need the anonymity to be able to get feedback across. But however it gets to us, as long as it gets to us and we keep doing better, that’s all we can ask for.

6:26 How would you change the videos in the future to better meet student needs?

There are some ways in which the denser content, these shorter videos, because they’re not paced for note taking along the way, that can be harder. So there’s some number of students who would rather see the videos go slower and have deliberate pauses and breaks or auto pause, right. And that’s something that I didn’t know how to do at the time and couldn’t figure out the time in the semester how to automatically make videos pause and stop–

–But for next year, I’m going to be certain to figure out how to be able to implement that. And if implemented, then that way, there are these breaks every 30 seconds or 45 seconds that allow a student before a frame advances in the video to actually catch up and think through it and then deliberately hit play if they’re ready to continue.

The videos will hopefully be of lasting value, so I do want to make use of them in the upcoming years that I teach the course. I think, the hope, is that they accompany the lectures. So a student will tend to come to the live lectures and be there and interact in the classroom. But if something doesn’t make sense, here are these denser, high production quality things that they can open up and take a look at.

It’s hard to serve the students at the very end of the spectrum who are getting everything and really want to be pushed harder. It’s at times really hard to serve the students who are really struggling with the content, right, at the other end. We don’t want to give up on any of them, so we spend extra time in office hours and outside of the class to help those who are struggling, give extra papers to read and frontier content to those at the other end. But then use the classroom time specifically to focus on some center of this population of students.

The videos give us that opportunity to serve people on both ends of the spectrum, right, even at the extremes of spectrum. A student’s really struggling, can use the asynchronous videos. A student who wants more advanced content, you can also have a set of videos that are made to cover much more advanced difficult topics.

The majority of class is not, the class really isn’t expected to watch, but if someone who wants the class to be more challenging can watch. So we’re able to tailor more things then to individual students, which just wouldn’t be possible otherwise. That’s a level of complexity that we haven’t reached yet. That’s something that I look forward to and want in the future.

8:42 What will you take away from teaching during the pandemic?

We’ve all been through something together, and we’ve all learned to cut each other some slack because of that. What I think we don’t always realize, is that even when we don’t think something is off in someone else’s life, they’re often can be. There can be something specific going on in their life that we don’t know about. It can just be a general feeling over a period of time that are going through that’s difficult. And there’s just so much more room for empathy I think in education.

I think grading by itself can sometimes seem harsh. And deadlines, there’s a certain way in which one wants of course to evolve. But there are ways even in a system of that sort to build in some slack to give people the time that they need to collect themselves and to do as well as they want to do. That’s something that I think needs to be always there in our entire educational system, so that’s something that I want to ensure that we carry back with us from the pandemic era.