Large Classroom Success with Online Learning

Monday, February 8, 2021

Suzanne Ellenberger 
Chemistry instructor Suzanne Ellenberger between classes. 

Suzanne Ellenberger teaches Chemistry II, considered by many to be one of the most challenging introductory classes offered at the University of Georgia. The changes Ellenberger made to accommodate teaching during this pandemic have increased student test scores this past fall, adjustments she may have found difficult to introduce in a traditional face-to-face teaching environment.
 
Ellenberger taught three sections of chemistry with roughly 200 students per section for a total of 600 students. Given the size of the class and the need for social distancing, Ellenberger, who is director of general chemistry at UGA’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, had to adapt her formerly all in-person course.
 
"I made quite a few formatting changes to my classes this year, including moving everything online, and honestly, my students are excelling,” said Ellenberger. “Students test scores are averaging 10 points higher than when I was teaching face-to-face.”
 
Test scores aren’t the only thing improving. Year over year reports show that CHEM II students receiving either an A, B, or C  increased to 92.1% compared to 85.8% this same time in Fall 2019.
 
So what, exactly, is Ellenberger doing differently? Last spring, when the pandemic hit, she spent some time with UGA Online reformatting her course on eLC, UGA's learning platform. She created a single course log in for all students, where she uploads and shares content and feedback with all 600 students in a central space.
 
"I have more time to spend with students since I am uploading content to one place instead of three and they benefit from seeing questions and answers from all sections of the course,” says Ellenberger.
 
This fall, CHEM II met twice a week. One day online and the other had students log into a zoom meeting at class time. For the online day, Ellenberger broke up her lectures into individual topics and created short 10- to 15-minute videos as opposed to the previous long format lectures she offered when teaching in person. Each lesson includes two to three problem-solving videos where Ellenberger demonstrates how to use the lesson to solve a problem. Students are then required to complete a worksheet on the day's various topics and must show their work.
 
"I was previously using clicker responses in my classes," said Ellenberger, "but students have shared that the worksheets are more beneficial to understanding and remembering key concepts."
 
On the second day each week, attendance was mandatory, requiring students to log in at the time of class. They were then split into 10-person groups and paired with a Peer Learning Assistant or PLADawgs. PLADawgs are current upper-class students who have previously passed CHEM II. They serve as in-class facilitators and tutors. Students worked together in these small groups with the assistance of a PLADawg to complete a new worksheet.
 
"Attendance was part of their grade, and students must have their cameras on. At first, I received some resistance, but as students warmed up to the idea, they enjoyed seeing their peers and collaborating," said Ellenberger.
 
Another change this fall was expanded office hours, including 4 hours a week designated for groups. She regularly had 40 to 70 students in attendance during this time. She also offered an additional 2 to 3 hours a week for individual office hours.  
 
"With such a large percentage of the class joining group office hours, I make a regular practice of asking what is working and not and make adjustments to instruction in real-time," said Ellenberger. “This has really allowed me to create a teaching environment that works for the students.”
 
This spring brings more formatting changes to Ellenberger’s chemistry courses, where she teachers the first half of the semester and another instructor teaches the second half. Her classes are offered in-person at the West End Zone lounge in Stanford Stadium, with enrollments set at 130 students. Where she previously used break out rooms in Zoom, now, three-person groups pair with their PLADawgs in class to work through challenging problem sets and worksheets.
 
“The PLAdawgs are also doing a variety of creative activities this semester to help the students such as making videos solving difficult problems, holding exam reviews, running discussion groups, holding office hours, etc.,” shared Ellenberger.