Professors struggle with adjusting to online learning, reminisce about teaching face-to-face

Samantha Greyson

When accounting professor Steven Kachelmeier cracks a joke during his Zoom lectures these days, he’s often met with silence. 

“I use humor in my class. I try to keep it light, and that is so much harder to do online,” Kachelmeier said. “If I tell a joke (or) just a lighthearted comment, and then I hear dead silence … because everyone is muted, it’s hard.”

Since last spring, Kachelmeier said he has learned how to keep online students engaged and get to know them personally — even just by asking informal questions over Zoom. Kachelmeier said he misses the small interactions with students, the “Good afternoon” greetings as students walked into a classroom and the laughter after he makes a funny comment. 

As online learning continues, Kachelmeier and other professors have adapted to remote teaching by developing new ways to engage their students online, but they miss the feedback and student relationships of the in-person classroom. With students logging into Zoom from different locations, professors say personal connections are more difficult, especially if students mute their audio or turn off their video. 

“(Before the COVID-19 pandemic) I could get to a point, a culture in my class, that I’d say something corny and some student would say something back to me,” Kachelmeier said. “I miss the informality. I even find myself looking at their faces when I say something that I hope is light to see if I see anyone smile.”

English professor Elizabeth Cullingford said gauging whether students are paying attention or understanding the material is more difficult on Zoom.                

“In face-to-face situations you can see if a particular student is unhappy or struggling and contact them afterwards or in office hours,” Cullingford said. “But online, students often don’t take care with their lighting, so it is sometimes hard to see their faces, let alone take their emotional temperature.”

Cullingford said she has tried to maintain positive energy on Zoom through mini-lectures and exaggerated responses to student comments. 

“Oddly, there have been some students with whom I have become closer than usual: those who are particularly comfortable with the written word or who have mastered the art of being human on Zoom,” Cullingford said. “Usually these are the confident students … it is harder to reach the shy or to round up the disengaged.”

Management lecturer Michael Peterson said he has used breakout rooms to invite richer classroom discussions on Zoom and encourage the students to get to know one another. 

Peterson said there are certain advantages to the Zoom classroom, such as inviting in guest lecturers.

“You're able to have guest lectures from anywhere in the world,” Peterson said. “I had a guest lecturer join my class from England, live, a few months ago.” 

But while Zoom may have some benefits, Peterson said he misses being on campus.

“I just miss seeing my students' smiling faces and seeing them all at the same time,” Peterson said. “I love my students, and I love UT and I really miss seeing everyone at once.”