My First Week Teaching a Big Zoom Class

It’s been a long time since I taught my first big lecture course, and at this point, I’ve got a system that I think works well. My students take notes while I lecture, but they also spend lots of class time working in small groups solving problems and answering meaty questions.

When colleges around the world (including my own) sent students home this spring and switched into online teaching mode, I wanted to replicate as much of the in-person experience as possible. This might sound familiar to regular readers of this site as that was my plan way back in 2014 when I taught a much smaller version of this class using Zoom in Yale’s Summer Session.

Cornell classes started up again last week, and we finally got to reconnect with our students. I have 130 scattered all over the world, and about 100 showed up for two live sessions. Overall it went smoothly, but there were definitely lessons learned:

  1. It’s important to actually see at least some of your students while you teach, so ask them explicitly to turn their cameras. The non-verbal feedback you get will tell you when you’re being unclear or boring. Do tell your students that being on camera is optional and that they shouldn’t do it if it makes them uncomfortable! Cornell alum Richard Thaler taught us all that default options matter, so be sure to make video on the default for your course meeting.
  2. Require students to authenticate themselves through your school’s server. This helps prevent zoombombing. I thought getting zoombombed would be a fun distraction until I saw some truly scary video. Let’s not have that experience!
  3. Some students will have trouble with the authentication process on the first day. If you can find a willing teaching assistant (or colleague), have them run a separate Zoom meeting that doesn’t require authentication for the first 15 minutes of class to help these students.
  4. Get yourself an iPad Pro, put your slides on it, and annotate them in realtime while you teach. I use GoodNotes on the iPad for this. You won’t regret it. If you have a Mac, you can share your iPad screen from Zoom directly (wired or unwired). If you run Windows, it should theoretically work, but it’s finicky. My colleagues use AirServer to mirror their iPads on the PC, and then they share that window in Zoom.
  5. Zoom breakout rooms are great—They let you organize your students into small groups in their own conference rooms with the push of a button. I did this in my summer classes whenever I asked my students to solve a problem required substantial work. The Zoom user interface lets the instructor quickly jump between rooms and then bring the whole class back together when you’re ready. I believe online students really benefit from peer to peer contact, so I try to encourage it as much as possible.
  6. Most people let Zoom randomly assign students to new breakout rooms each time. This worked well when my class was small and everyone knew each other. For a bigger class, I strongly recommend pre-assigning students to the same groups each time so they can build strong relationships during the semester. I do this in my in-person class, so this term they are already used to working in these fixed groups.
  7. When they are in breakout rooms, students can press a button to ask for help—It pops a message up on the instructor’s screen with a button that takes you straight to that breakout room. Encourage your students to use this button.
  8. Have all your students keep their microphones muted while you lecture. When they want to talk, they can press the hand-raise button. I was worried I wouldn’t see hand-raises, but it turns out I notice most of them as there’s a subtle (but not too subtle) pop up.
  9. Record your class for students that are in far away time zones. I teach at 1:30 in the afternoon east coast (US) time, and that makes it pretty tough for my East Asian students. I set up Zoom to record automatically so I don’t forget to press record, but it means I usually need to trim the first few minutes of pre-class chit chat.
  10. When class is over, stick around to answer questions and just provide live personal interaction with students who want it. Most instructors do this in physical classrooms, and it’s even more useful in an online environment.
  11. Zoom will give you a report of who attended your class. I matched this report with my course roster after the first day to identify the students that didn’t show up or just showed up for a few minutes. That let me reach out to them to see if they needed help connecting or had any other issues I should know about.

Live Zoom classes really can be extremely similar to in-person lectures, even with lots of students. They are dynamic in ways pre-recorded lectures aren’t, and they allow for lots of instructor-student and student-student interactivity. It might take some time to get used to, but it’s totally worth the effort.

Update: I added a few more tips for Zoom teaching.