Realistic Expectations for Online (Remote) Classes

online learning

I have been hearing many complaints from colleagues who have growing (if possible) frustrations with teaching online. Are you frustrated? Some of what I hear is that the breakout rooms are not working perfectly well, internet disruptions, students are not engaging, or the time runs out before the problem gets solved in a Zoom breakout room. Few teachers are happy with lab simulations and of course, they are concerned that students may not have any access to actually using the lab tools for the entire school year.

I also hear complaints about cheating, and while this is a realistic and valuable concern, I hope to help you with some coping techniques here. I am not offering solutions or attempting to show the perfect online class. I hope I can offer some suggestions that might help you to feel better about this school year as an Instructor, and if you feel better about what you are doing, more students will feel better as well. In this pandemic, I hope I can provide my students with a place to share their learning frustrations, and the confidence to believe that they can do this becasue I am there to guide them every step of the way.

Have you ever asked yourself why you are teaching a particular concept? Maybe you wondered why you are teaching "that" a particular way? Now is the perfect time to try something new and creative. Focus on the larger topics, and help your students to learn how to learn science. Pick a smaller topic that you really love and find applications to which your students may relate. Use a news article, or Chemistry in Context, or a local event to help them engage. Ask test questions differently. Give them a incorrect name, or structure, an incorrect reaction or math solution and ask them to explain why it is incorrect. If you are fortunate to have a small class, meet with students one on one.

What you are putting into the course content? It may not be reasonable to make your online classes exactly the same as your on-campus classes. Consider using recorded video content for asynchronous learning and hosting the class in a Zoom room during the scheduled time for critical thinking problems (not just math problems) and give points for engaging. Offer points for engaging offline in discussion posts for those students who may be struggling with COVID related issues or even the wildfires and evacuations taking place on the west coast. There are many excellent teachers posting content videos on YouTube which are closed captioned (students really like that) although you may have to search for someone you like. There is no longer a need to reinvent the wheel and record all of your own content. If you find someone whose manner and presentation you like, it may save you the time from making your own content videos. Then you can use your time to work in smaller groups with your class. If you would normally meet with them F2F for 5-7 hrs/week, set up one hour every day at different times to meet with smaller groups and get to know each person a bit better. You might flex your schedule to have a couple of one hour sessions on the weekend or evenings but be sure to take a day off during the week. Self-care is very important.

For college level science classes, it is common practice to suggest that students spend 2-3 hours of study time including reading, preparation for interactive classes and labs, and homework for each hour of F2F instructional time in a classroom. I suggest this to be a reasonable amount of time to expect from your students when planning your courses. When you set up a weekly class schedule, carefully consider how much time the average student would need to put in to be successful each week. Be careful not to add content just because you can. 

I read once, a long time ago, so I apologize for not referencing this, that we need to "hear" something 6 times to remember it. "Hear" in my mind means read, listen, and write. Therefore I am listing my guideline as #1 - #6 for lecture guidelines for this reason. 

Lecture guidelines:

  1. (1 hour/week) I expect (okay, hope) my students spend about 60 min to prepare for lectures I would teach F2F by making a hand written glossary of the terminology that they do not recognize from the text. For example, I know when I mention the term electrogenativity, students are mentally trying to make sense of this English word that is really a made up chemistry word. If they took the time to write the definition out, then they would be more likely to "lean in" to hear what I am saying about it. How many chemistry specific terms are part of your native language that your students may not get out of context?

  1. (1 hour/week) Then I took the list of specific "course content objectives" that our Chemistry Department collectively developed, and broke them into weekly topics to be addressed and put them in the same module right up front. I suggest that students hand write these in the notebooks. If they do this and the glossary before watching the content videos, they will absorb more from the videos.

  1. (4 hours/week) I know exactly how much content I can cover in a 2 hour class period twice a week. I have been teaching the same classes for over 25 years! In fact, I have to remember to allow every student to ask their question completely and "pretend" to think carefully about the answer, since they ask the same questions every year. Our team of online instructors made a series of content videos that cover the same amount of content I would cover in a F2F class, using what we call Thinker Buddy questions, which are deeper thinking questions that we ask them to hit pause and work on before continuing the lecture video. If they stop and work on these, there is approximately 4 hours of time required. This simulates the time they would be spending in class, listening to the "lectures" and working in groups to solve Thinker Buddy questions. 

Here is where you, as an instructor, can be creative but also be aware of how much time you are asking of your students each week. For example, if you are requiring students to show up for Zoom classes 4 hours/week, then do not require them to spend an additional 4 hours watching recorded content videos, even the fun ones. If you have a great deal of optional videos in your modules, think about how overwhelming that may be for students. Consider splitting up the lecture time into some recorded content and some Zoom time.

  1. (1 hour/week) Have a short quiz (open book format; 4-5 questions) after each content video. Make these questions increase in difficulty. The 1 hour time would be 30 min for the quiz and 30 min to review the quiz. I suggest the self grading method. Upon completing the quiz, they can send you any corrections and get some credit for their self analysis.

  1. (3 hour/week) Do homework as soon after watching the content video (or attending the Zoom Class). I suggest that you provide a great deal of flexibility and incentive by assigning more examples than they need for full credit, dropping an assignment, or allowing late work for partial credit. I strongly dislike punitive homework, such as dinging them for getting any problem incorrect if they attempt it. I give my students up to 15% of HW points just for emailing me to ask for clarification on any HW problem, even if they got it wrong (1 point for each email specific to HW, up to 15 emails per term = 15 points toward HW). They usually appreciate that I trust them to have done the work, and they learn to trust that I will encourage them for trying so hard. I suggest that they work out each problem or reaction in their notebook and send me the image of their work so I can be specific with my response, but I answer and give points for every HW email. I keep track by sending those emails to a separate folder for each class, each term and look at names at the end of the term. However, most questions come early in the term; after a few weeks, they tend understand how HW system works and have more confidence to try another attempt on their own. Also, since I offer over 200 possible HW points and only require 150 points, most students do closer to the 200 points (no extra credit, just for their own learning) by the end of the term and do not need the email points I promise. I suggest that they try to get about 15 points each week, and if I see that someone is falling behind, I ask them how I can help.

  2. (2 hours/week) Study for the exams (major quizzes). Review homework and graded lab reports. I suggest that that they copy the HW question into their notebook, then work out the answer, so now the student can put a blank page over the previous answer, and redo the exact same question(s). When they get it correct, their confidence grows. If they get it incorrect, they can try to figure out why, and ask for more help. They can redo the blank page trick until they get it correct. I tell them if they find themselves peaking at any answer while trying to work it out means they don’t "own" it. The one hour/week time expectation is cumulative. If you give a midterm after 4 weeks, then they should study approximately 4 hours for it.


  1. (1 hour/week) Prepare for labs by reading the lab, making sure they have all the necessary items for an "at home" wet lab, or make sure they can access the virtual web site.  Read the report form if one is provided. I provide a Lab Report Form that has points assigned to each part. I ask students to fill in data tables, record observations, show math if any, answer questions, write a guided conclusion statement, and write a unique reflection statement.
  2. (2-3 hours/week) Do the wet lab, or engage in the virtual lab assignment. Keeping a notebook and taking photos (if a wet lab).
  3. (2 hour/week) Complete the lab write up.
  4. (1 hour/week) Review graded lab reports. 

Adding up the total number of hours above = 18-20 hours of time that I expect my students to put in to my 5 credit online courses each week. I provide them this breakdown in the first module. I provide it again after each major quiz, particularly if they ask how they can score better. I ask them to show me their specific schedule of time each week if they are willing to share it, and I can guide them to schedule more carefully. I often suggest that they spend more time preparing, or perhaps more time reviewing past quizzes and graded lab reports. I have anecdotally found that those students who struggle on the first quizzes, tend to skip the preparation hours. I also acknowledge that these are the ideal study guidelines, but I have had several students who acknowledge that they followed this closely and earned the A in a class that they were terrified of taking.  

I determined the number of hours to expect from my online students each week by considering that in a 5 credit science lab class, students previously met for 7 hours F2F in pre-pandemic days, 4 hours (lec) + 3 hours (lab). It is reasonable to expect up to an additional 14 hours/week for excellence. Translating this to a remote or fully online class, a student might schedule up to a total of 21 hours of time to dedicate to the class.

I would appreciate any suggestions you might have to improve on this idea, and to better prove to students that this time spent is beneficial to them.

Attached to this blog is my Student Time Planning doc (or name it, How to get an A), which is similar to the suggestions I described above.

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Comments 2

Bethany Brauer | Thu, 01/07/2021 - 11:45

As a high school student, I find this really interesting how you've taken the time to break these concepts down. The suggestions seem like they could be a great benefit for both the teacher and the students. When I originally started to read this, I thought it was going to be helping the teacher and lacking the understandment for the students in those teacher's classes, but these ideas help bring both the teacher and their students together through communication and commitment. 

Kathleen Carrigan's picture
Kathleen Carrigan | Sun, 01/10/2021 - 12:51

Dear Bethany, I believe it is our responnsibility as chemistry teachers of the first two years to guide students how to learn.  My years of experience have shown me that many students mix up the vocabulary of chemistry, ex: precipitation (rain, snow etc) does not have the same meanning in Chemistry.   Also, I struggled in my learning, and my confidence did not come unitl I started teaching.  The first three years, I had to "re-learn" the basics that were far in my past but also a part of my critical thinking skills.  So I did every single problem every year for three years until I could problem solve without peeking at the answers. It did not come easy.  I undestand that students do not have the time to do every problem 3 times, but if you could do 10% of the problems again, without peeking at the aswers, how do you think your confidence would grow?  Learning is different for all of us, but there is value in hand writing definitions, and hand writing the learning outcomes before attending class (that is two intros to the topic).  Then attend class engaged, (3), do homework soon after "class" (watching the course videos) (4), and follow the "rules" or "guidelines" carefully to draw structures, determine solubility etc, (5), then studying (6).  Six "touches: of the material is helpful for learning memory. 

Also, too many students take Chemistry after Biology.  I believe that taking chemistry first enhances the biology experience.  In addition, we do not want you to memorize (I know there is more to bio than memorizing, I am over simplifying here), we want you to apply rules to different chemicals to problem solve.  

Thanks for your encouragement!