A Virtual Semester In Review

Reading Time: 6 minutes

This semester has been one for the history books. After a somewhat disjointed virtual spring semester, faculty, students, and teachers alike found their footing for Fall 2020. Many successful changes were implemented, like office hours, mandatory zoom sessions, and the cameras-on policy. And there is still more room to continue improving—increased engagement with freshmen, more project-based assessments, and clearer grading breakdowns. Read our evaluation of this semester of remote learning:

Working with Technology

Adapting to the new technology in remote learning has, undoubtedly, been one of the biggest challenges—and most notable successes—for teachers. Beyond simple usage of Zoom and its features (“raise hand,” reactions), teachers have been implementing breakout rooms to mimic “turn and talk” discussions in live instruction. Breakout rooms have, for the most part, been successful: despite occasional awkward Zoom moments, having the chance to speak with peers is refreshing. Perhaps one method to improve on Zoom breakout rooms would be pre-assigning groups, so that students meet with the same two or three peers during every class session. This consistency would allow students, especially underclassmen, to grow more comfortable with each other and develop friendships that could develop into out-of-class studying.

In addition, teachers’ use of different technological platforms has been engaging for students. Desmos activities for math, Peergrade for science, and Perusall for history all allow for remote interaction. As long as teachers centralize all of these platforms with links on Google Classroom, they are, for the most part, useful and beneficial to the virtual learning experience.

Grading & Transparency

Remote learning has heightened an ever-present need for transparency about grades. Despite public department-wide grade breakdowns, students have encountered difficulties and inconsistencies surrounding grading. First, it is often unclear which category certain assignments fall into. For example, many teachers share that “homework” makes up 20 percent of a students’ final grade. But students are left wondering if 10-minute JunoPods are considered “homework” or “assessments.” Sharing the category of every assignment—whether through a key on Jupiter Ed or through a syllabus on Google Classroom—is immensely helpful to students.

Second, especially given the virtual environment, teachers should try their best to frequently update students’ grades. This way, not only will students be aware of all their grades come third marking period, but students will also be able to identify the subjects and units with which they are struggling early on and nip these difficulties in the bud.

Third, many students have encountered a lack of transparency surrounding the meaning of certain grades. For example, Jupiter Ed allows teachers to submit a word—like “good” or “ok”—as a grade out of 10 points. While the intentions of such strategies might be to “humanize” the cold reality of numbers, they often cause unnecessary stress and confusion among students, who do not know if “good” is full, three-quarters, or half credit. Similarly, grading participation can sometimes feel arbitrary in the virtual class setting where it is more difficult for teachers to measure engagement and for students to take part in class discussions.

Finally, the newly introduced “preparation” grade seems two-faced. On face value, the “preparation” grade appears to be generous to students who might be submitting homework late due to extenuating circumstances. But in reality, the grade simply transitions the weight of such missing assignments from “homework” to “preparation,” thus not achieving its intended effect.

Communication from Teachers

The communication between many teachers and students is truly commendable this semester. Teachers have discussed problems students have faced—and potential solutions—during class. Moreover, many teachers have reached out to students to survey their experiences with remote learning: some teachers sent out forms at the beginning of the year to gauge students’ preferences with virtual learning; some sent out anonymous feedback forms mid-semester to receive information on the pacing of the class, material, and additional suggestions; and others asked students to e-mail them with a “virtual check in.” Such initiatives from the teacher’s end have allowed students to share honest feedback with their teachers without fear of repercussions. We hope that all teachers formulate a feedback form, especially for annualized classes before the end of the semester, to hear student input and adjust their class accordingly to their needs.

Mandatory office hours have also been a prime forum for communication between students and teachers. The ease with which students can transition between Zoom rooms makes it easy to meet with multiple teachers in one afternoon. At the same time, however, some teachers simply do not have a Zoom meeting open between 2:30 p.m and 2:50 p.m every single day and require students to e-mail and schedule a meeting with them in advance. To ensure that communication between students and teachers is seamless, all Zoom rooms should stay open for these full time periods without prior scheduling on the students’ part.

Remote Testing

Even in in-person school, testing is a hefty task for teachers and students alike. In a remote setting, many additional questions have arisen: “Should tests be timed?”, “Should tests be open-note?”, “How can cheating be prevented?” All teachers have answered these questions differently, resulting in a plethora of testing methods, ranging from in-class tests over Zoom to take-home exams to no tests at all. These testing methods have been met with varying degrees of success. Live testing on Zoom, for example, has created unnecessary stress for students and seems to expend valuable class time. In addition, when students have a question during these live exams, they often have to ask their question out loud, thus distracting their peers. Administering tests outside of class time—whether timed or not—has been far more successful: students can take the test whenever is most convenient for them (perhaps, when their apartment is the quietest) and teachers are able to use class time for instruction. As for academic dishonesty, open notebook tests and quizzes are most effective in preventing students from cheating: if students can reference their own sources (notes, the textbook), they are less inclined to reach out to the internet or other students for help.

Surely, though, the best way to avoid cheating is assigning more project-based-assessments. Rather than relying on take-home exams, or short, unannounced quizzes as the sole source of the “assessments” part of one’s grade, teachers should make use of more creative projects. While such projects are, of course, more easily implemented in humanities classes, they can be applied to STEM subjects as well: projects, such as powerpoint presentations and labs, effectively convey information to students and are nearly impossible to cheat on.

Enthusiasm & Engagement

Throughout the past few months, the school community has seen a massive increase in engagement from both students and teachers. One contributing factor to this shift was undoubtedly a more cohesive policy concerning live classes—the requirement for every teacher to hold synchronous instruction for at least 25 minutes ensures that students actively engage with the material and do not fall behind. And even seemingly small changes, like requiring that students keep their cameras on, have had an overwhelmingly positive impact: seeing one's teacher and classmates serves as a major motivational factor, further encouraging students to tackle their classwork and homework. New projects that take advantage of our remote setting, like Flipgrid videos, also work to successfully engage students.

The administration and Student Union (SU) have also implemented measures to promote school-wide engagement. Principal Seung Yu’s daily e-mails, for example, help create a sense of community while we all inhabit separate bedrooms across all five boroughs (and beyond). The SU has also hosted numerous events, most recently a “speed friending” via Zoom. While these efforts have been marginally successful for upperclassmen who are already aware of the dynamics of Stuyvesant and have a set of peers with whom they are well acquainted, they have not been as positive for freshmen. Many members of the class of 2024 have yet to set foot in the Stuyvesant building and have struggled to engage with their peers remotely while also acclimating to the academic pressures that Stuyvesant presents. The Big Sib program has put an admirable step forward in hosting biweekly homeroom meetings for freshmen, though to a seemingly similar effect. To bolster attendance and engagement at these events, Big Sibs should create more dynamic programs for these Zoom calls by expanding beyond the standard Among us and Skribbl.io and work with the guidance department to encourage freshmen to attend.