Effective Brown Faculty Strategies for Online/Hybrid Teaching: Fall 2020 Update

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In Spring 2020, Brown University instructors quickly moved to online and remote instruction, generating an array of creative responses to the rapid shift in modality. In Fall 2020, faculty had the benefit of more lead time to plan, but the movement of 960 courses to hybrid or fully online formats was still unprecedented. (It is hard to imagine now, but previously, Brown offered only a few online courses, and there were none offered in Fall 2019!) To capture reflections on their experience, all faculty were asked to respond to a December 2020 survey that invited them to consider three dimensions of the transition: “Thinking about your fall course(s), please tell us about one teaching approach or strategy that worked well for your students. Why do you think this was effective? What might you do differently in the Spring Term?”*

With a high response rate (71%), this survey offers an opportunity to share a comprehensive picture of teaching approaches that faculty perceived to be effective at Brown. We link key themes to research and highlight specific examples from over 30 faculty. Although the faculty perspective is the key focus of this newsletter, for context, we do offer that student feedback was generally quite positive, with the vast majority (91%) of students agreeing that their Fall 2020 courses were effective for their learning experience (88% response rate to course feedback).

Interestingly, nine months ago, faculty offered a very different response to a similar survey question about teaching approaches that worked well in Spring 2020. At that time, the most frequent observation from instructors was that they made very few adjustments, finding that the pivot online was relatively fluid. However, in describing Fall 2020, lack of adjustment was a relatively infrequent reflection (only 21 comments).

Instead, faculty detailed a number of modifications to their course, with the advantage of more planning time over the summer. In many cases, faculty, such as James Kellner describe a substantial re-thinking of their courses.

Teaching online is like vegetarian cooking. You cannot just take a meat dish and substitute tofu and expect it to work well. A good vegetarian dish begins with a different premise and builds differently from the ground up. I did this over the summer with my lecture material and feel that it paid off.

     -James Kellner, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

This planning and re-thinking likely was a key reason that most faculty (88%) agreed that they felt prepared to teach in the Fall Term. Here, we report on the top three strategies that Brown faculty found effective, with links to research and examples from Brown classrooms: breakouts, alternate presentation modalities, and written discussions.  Each section also includes suggestions specific to hybrid courses. While research suggests that hybrid learning outcomes are similar to other formats (Raes, Detienne, Windey, Depaepe, 2020), Brown faculty who taught in hybrid format reported lower levels of preparedness (84%) than those who taught fully online (90%).  Therefore, we also offer particular attention to strategies that were reported to work well in hybrid courses, which can present more challenges to instructors.

Breakout Discussions

Zoom breakout discussions were the most frequently reported strategy for effective synchronous instruction (83 comments), and increasing the use of breakouts was also the top theme for what instructors wished to change for Spring 2021 (37 comments). Instructors found that these small-group discussions helped students learn course content, practice skills, and develop a sense of community with peers. For example, Scott Frickel (Institute at Brown for Environment and Society) noted that students “valued intense interactions with classmates about the ideas presented in readings. These small groups were safe spaces for them.” Similarly, Anita Shukla (Engineering) used breakouts for problem solving in her 42-student Biomaterials course. Michael Kennedy (Sociology) also used breakouts, combining “students strategically, [with] overlapping interests but diversified assembly, so that each student got to know every other student. They bonded powerfully.”

Breakout rooms were used by instructors to develop student-centered classrooms. Taking advantage of the relatively new feature that allows students to select into rooms (available if all participants on the meeting have Zoom 5.3.0 or above), Evelyn Lincoln (History of Art and Architecture) began each class with a student presentation, which offered three questions that then formed the focus of these self-selected breakout rooms. She notes, “The students felt responsible for the success of the discussion, and it was very participatory. I, and I think they, felt connected through this.” For more on this approach, the resources Teaching Problem Solving and Designing Effective Group Work offer ideas for teaching with  breakouts, and Using Zoom for Remote Teaching offers helpful technical guidance.

Hybrid classrooms: For discussions, instructors who taught in hybrid format found it helpful to make the class less heterogeneous, separating student groups or course format, as needed. To illustrate, Nina Tannenwald (Political Science) had two separate TA-led discussion sections -- one entirely in the classroom and another fully online -- which “helped make the course feel more ‘normal’.” When not feasible to separate students, several instructors noted that it was helpful to have an additional webcam in the classroom, logged into the same Zoom meeting, so that all students could see each other. Other instructors included all students in the same format but switched modality by course objective. For example, Jesse Shapiro (Economics) met online for more-discussion focused weeks and gathered in-person for weeks involving more lecture. Similarly, Anna McNeary (Visual Art) allocated one day a week to online learning (critiques, discussions, pre-recorded videos) and another day to studio work. 

Alternate “Times for Telling”**

In Fall 2020, Brown students were located in 23 different time zones, a third of whom were outside of Eastern Time. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of undergraduates signaled a preference to have recorded class sessions, especially lectures, to accommodate this dispersion, technical barriers, or personal challenges (Fall 2020 student survey). To be responsive, many instructors reported that it was effective to alter the lecture portion of their classroom (57 comments), and this comment was especially frequent among instructors teaching larger courses. As in spring, many faculty developed recorded lectures, following evidence-based guidelines to develop shorter, “chunked” videos. For example, Daniel Weinreich (Ecology and Evolutionary Biology), who taught the 83-student “Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Disease” course, observed, “I found asynchronous lecturing to be liberating because it freed me from the traditional requirement for 50-minute performances. Instead, lectures were tied to specific concepts and lasted only as long as it took to teach that concept.” For more on creating course recordings, please see the guide Introduction to Creating Course Videos, and the Brown Faculty Strategies named in the Spring 2020 survey (see “asynchronicity”).

Mary Flynn, who taught the 98-student course, “Principles of Nutrition,” reflected, “I think splitting the course material into 15-20-minute blocks and having quizzes after each module was superior to teaching in person which I have done since 1998 at Brown.” As Professor Flynn observes, incorporating short low- or no-stakes quizzes into the recordings can help increase student engagement and performance on later course assessments (Kinsella, Mahon, & Lillis, 2017). 

Instead of, or in addition to, recordings, some faculty used text. To avoid “Zoom fatigue,” Joseph Reed (Classics) posted lecture notes and asked students to read them in advance. As a complement to a live and recorded lecture, Basilis Gidas (Applied Math) sent out a .pdf of lecture notes to students after class, then followed up in subsequent class sections for questions. Vladimir Golstein (Slavic Studies) distributed a written lecture, then asked students to respond with a written critique. He notes, “Their comments were excellent, and they were very happy to do that, instead of attending passively on Zoom.” 

For synchronous sessions, several instructors also made use of collaborative note-taking tools, such as Google Docs. Mark Seto (Music), who taught small classes online, “made extensive use of google docs in class for note taking, brainstorming, and synchronous and asynchronous collaboration.” Such collaborative note-taking can be an equitable strategy in both face-to-face and online courses, allowing students to support each other’s learning and helping to level the “playing field” for students with varying levels of preparation (Harbin, 2020). Research suggests that if instructors use this approach, it is helpful to have a discussion of norms and expectations for the document, e.g., using different color codes for comments or presentation and student reactions to them (Harbin).

Hybrid classrooms: Instructors who lectured in person appreciated student presence and the flexibility it afforded for the lecture components of a course. David Henann (Engineering) noted that this set-up allowed him to offer in-person interaction, synchronously share with remote students, and record for students in different time zones, which “accommodated all students’ situations, and several students would switch between the different delivery mechanisms over the course of the semester as their situations evolved.” For student presentations, Malte Schwarzkopf (Computer Science) found it useful to meet with students in advance, “to prepare them for the challenges of presenting in a hybrid setting” and with the goals of helping students pay attention to both audiences (remote and in-class) and ensuring equitable participation. Google slides can also be used to support this work, such as Alison DeLong’s (Molecular Biology, Cell Biology, and Biochemistry) collaborative slide presentation, for which “each student was assigned a figure to present from a primary paper.” Faculty also advised that reviewing the classroom technology set-up in advance with Media Services was useful. 

Written Discussions

In Spring 2020, the sixth most frequently reported effective approach was use of writing to prompt reflection, in lieu of (or precursor to) verbal discussions. This strategy moved up in the Fall 2020 survey, serving as the third most frequently named approach (50 comments). 

Most frequently, instructors named Canvas discussions, identified by faculty who taught both large and small courses. Mark Suchman (Sociology) used discussion posts in his 61-student “Macro-Organizational Theory course” (see quote to the right). Likewise, in the 18-student “Philosophy of Mathematics” course, Joshua Schechter (Philosophy) found that "having a discussion board with set weekly prompts (for instance, raise a question about the reading, summarize a passage, or identify a confusing quotation) followed by responses by peers increased the students' engagement with the material, and also fostered a sense of community." The resource Asynchronous Strategies for Inclusive Teaching, offers guidance for using discussion forums effectively.

Weekly asynchronous Canvas discussions helped the students to arrive at their synchronous (Zoom) section meetings already primed for the week's topic. I have used this technique in seminars in the past, but this was the first time that I incorporated it into a large lecture course. It worked so well that I plan to retain it, even after the course returns to face-to-face instruction.

     -Mark Suchman, Sociology

Other written modalities that were used for discussion included Zoom’s chat feature. Amy Remensnyder (History) found that the chat backchannel served as a “simultaneous meta-conversation” that could be integrated into the verbal discussion and “allowed the students who were more shy to share their thoughts in ways that they might not have otherwise.” Class blogs, Google Docs, and the Zoom whiteboard feature were other ways that writing helped to create a participatory classroom culture. The online resource Writing to Learn in Times of Change, offers additional suggestions for integrating writing into asynchronous and synchronous course activities.

Hybrid classes: For those teaching in a hybrid classroom, the use of Google Docs was one of the most frequently named strategies for effective student learning, because it allows more balanced access to participation for in-person and remote students. For example, Shura Baryshnikov (Theatre and Performance Studies), who taught hybrid acting and movement courses, “devised a Google Doc system for feedback for all the students sharing work so that we could all work in the same Google Doc simultaneously, from the classroom and from home.” Emma Belanger (Public Health) taught Qualitative Methods in Health Research and similarly observed that “asking students who come in person to bring their laptops and working jointly on a Google document live together helped integrate class discussions / exercises across in-person and online-only students.” 

Other Effective Strategies

As Jonathan Collins (Education) succinctly noted, in Fall 2020, “Flexibility was key.” While breakouts, alternate lecture formats, and written discussions were the three strategies most frequently found to be effective by Brown faculty, other frequently named approaches include:

  • Amplifying office hours or 1:1 support. For example, Holly Case (History) implemented in-person, socially distanced walking office hours held outdoors.
  • Replacing traditional assessments with collaborative work or alternative assignments. Examples include a collaborative test (Elena Shih, American Studies), a “capstone” problem set (Jordan Kostiuk, Mathematics), or an oral exam (Thomas Goodwillie, Mathematics). Alternative assessments were also used for lower-stakes assignments: Charlene Fletcher (History) and Jesse Ault (Engineering) assigned reading reflection videos for students to engage with course material. Support for students to develop podcasts or videos is offered by Brown’s Multimedia Lab (Sheridan Center).
  • Using multimedia for feedback. Dawn King (Institute at Brown for Environment and Society) used video-based feedback on student work to personalize comments. Because instructors tend to offer more relationship-building comments in video feedback (e.g., addressing a student by name, welcoming students to the course), compared to text-based feedback, recordings can be a helpful way to build connections with students in an online environment (Borup, West, & Thomas, 2015; Ryan, 2021). Tools for offering audio or video feedback can be found on this Visual and Performing Arts Guide.
  • Using multiple modalities for reading and assignments, which can help learning.
  • In lieu of some readings, Nancy Khalek (Religious Studies) assigned podcasts (book chats, interviews with scholars, relevant news pieces), a medium that encourages students to move while listening. (For assistance finding scholarly podcasts in a range of topics, instructors can contact Brown library subject specialists.) 

Educator Stephen Brookfield (2017, p. 99) identifies two defining characteristics of reflective, student-centered teaching: (1) the design of learning environments based on learning more about student experiences, ability levels, racial, and cultural identities and (2) “making continuous adjustments based on what you find out.” As Deborah Hurley (Computer Science) noted, a key “goal in online instruction is to create the strong sense of instructor presence and community.” The 849 distinct ideas that were named in the faculty survey, spotlighted here, suggest that many Brown instructors flexibly adapted their teaching to create student-centered environments, attuned to maintaining the community that is an anchor of Brown’s Open Curriculum.

For a consultation on any of these ideas, please see the links above, sign up for a Digital Learning and Design 1:1 appointment, or email the Sheridan Center ([email protected]).

To subscribe to the Sheridan Center Newsletter, please click here.


*There were 758 respondents to the full Fall 2020 faculty survey. 205 respondents reported that they were not teaching in Spring 2020. An additional 104 respondents did not respond to these questions. Two faculty noted that nothing worked in the spring term, and four noted generally positive comments. Of the remaining responses, there were 849 distinct ideas that were coded by thematic frequency, 494 about what worked in Fall 2020 and 355 about what the instructor would do differently next time. In other words, one respondent might have multiple ideas, which were analyzed separately. For questions about the analytical process, please contact [email protected].

**This title comes from Schwartz & Bransford’s (1998) eponymous article, which describes an approach for helping students learn from a presentation or reading. Although active learning is a critical teaching tool, brief lectures or explanations are also important components of many classes, especially to establish a basic understanding for students new to a subject or, for intermediate learners, to address misconceptions (Wittwer & Renkl, 2008).



Borup, J., West, R.E., & Thomas, R. The impact of text versus video communication on instructor feedback in blended courses. Educational Technology Research and Development, 63(2): 161-184.

Brookfield, S. (2017). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Harbin, M.B. (2020). Collaborative note-taking: A tool for creating a more inclusive college classroom. College Teaching, 68(4): 214-220.

Kinsella, G.K., Mahon, C., & Lillis, S. (2017). Using pre-lecture activities to enhance learner engagement in a large group setting. Active Learning in Higher Education, 18(3): 1-12.

Raes, A., Detienne, L., Windey, I., & Depaepe, F. (2020). A systematic literature review on synchronous hybrid technology: Gaps identified. Learning Environments Research, 23: 269-290.

Ryan, T. (2021). Designing video feedback to support the socioemotional aspects of online learning. Educational Technology Research and Development. Available: https://rdcu.be/cdUPk

Schwartz, D.L., & Bransford, J.D. (2008). A time for telling. Cognition and Instruction, 16(4): 475-522.

Wittwer, J., & Renkl, A. (2008). Why instructional explanations often do not work: A framework for understanding the effectiveness of instructional explanations. Educational Psychologist, 43(1): 49-64.