Distance Learning

Promoting College Readiness Through Technology, Self-Pacing and Empathy

An AP chemistry teacher shares how he guides his students towards independent learning, no matter if they’re in the same room or not.

Midway through the 2020-2021 school year, our principal at Juan Seguin High School in Arlington, TX, sat the entire faculty down to discuss the topic of empathy and student mental health. To drive home his point, he shared emails from a handful of students highlighting the struggles of remote learning and other stressors brought about by the pandemic.

"I don't want to be a disappointment to my teachers."

"I'm watching my GPA drop, and I'm worried going into the AP test."

The list went on and on.

The last 14 months have been challenging territory for even the best of students and the most seasoned educators. As professionals, COVID-19 forced us to grapple with an important choice: Continue doing things as we always have, or use the constraints of remote learning as both a teachable moment and a tool to help foster college preparedness. Here's how I deliberately structured my virtual classroom to encourage success, empathy, autonomy, and preparedness for the AP chemistry test and for post-graduation life — and how I plan to apply that next year as well.

Promoting College Readiness Through Technology, Self-Pacing and Empathy
Parvinder Singh, Tien Hoang, Bao Duong, and Lam Phan

Setting the Stage for Remote Learning

Seguin has a diverse student population. When I first arrived, the chemistry teacher had quit suddenly, leaving nearly 90 students feeling disenfranchised and devalued. The class population included kids from very tough backgrounds where survival was prioritized over learning and thriving. And I thought, "This is where I need to be. This is how I make a difference." A year and a half after I took over the AP Chemistry class, COVID-19 hit. My students left for spring break, and they never returned.

The sudden transition to remote learning was not an easy one, and it left my AP students in a state of uncertainty leading into the AP test. It wasn't until mid-April that information about the test's revised format was made available to the district. As a result, 25% of the class received a score of 2, which falls below passing. One student scored a 5. Given the circumstances, I counted it as a victory and turned my attention toward the future.

The Challenges of Remote AP Chemistry Instruction

Remote learning seems like an easy proposition on paper. It effectively leverages technology to the students' benefit. But in practice, it comes with a laundry list of challenges attached.

Technology was a godsend, but what I didn't anticipate was the human factor involved. I quickly discovered that while my students were adept at using social media, their core computer competencies were significantly lacking. The first month of AP chemistry became entirely based around tech support.

Another problem was engagement. I found that with a remote structure, you only get about 20% of the class actively participating. By participating, I mean speaking on the video conference rather than using the chat or remaining silent.

Finding a substitute method for hands-on labs was another challenge that I had to deal with. Hands-on laboratory work is an essential component of AP chemistry. All of this against the backdrop of failing student mental health helped me craft a sound pedagogical approach that translated to the remote format.

Pedagogical Tools and Methods

The foundation of my remote and hybrid classroom methodology was a software called Canvas, which lets you set up your own modules with videos and other rich media resources. Every day, I would use UWorld's Learning Tools for AP Courses to provide students with practice questions related to that day’s lesson. To augment the lessons found on UWorld, I made videos of myself to supplement where necessary. We got into a rhythm of “Read this, watch this, do this,” that helped students develop a self-directed pace when completing assignments.

Students still needed direct instruction to help them through the modules, though. At the beginning of the year, that involved answering questions via Microsoft Teams after school hours, a strategy that proved unsustainable. Instead, I started setting up breakout rooms for each individual student using Teams and an integrated virtual whiteboard. Not only did I see student engagement skyrocket, but I was able to help clarify difficult subject material, effectively keeping students on pace for the AP exam. To address the issue of hands-on lab work, I enlisted a resource from the Colorado Department of Education that allows students to simulate experiments.

As the year wore on, a handful of students returned to the classroom. I primarily employed synchronous instruction with both my remote and in-person students so that everyone would receive the same information simultaneously. There were asynchronous portions of our class as well, but those were split between breakout rooms and providing students dedicated time to work through the lessons at their own pace.

Preparing for the Future

We've completed another school year here in Arlington. In the end, it went better than expected. It took a mix of hard work and dedication, appropriate use of technology, patience, and empathy to create a successful virtual classroom.

With an increased amount of the population finally vaccinated, the 2021-2022 school year promises to be a return to normalcy. I intend to continue leveraging UWorld's Learning Tools for AP Courses to foster a research-based environment in my classroom. My role is to be a resource to the students. Learning should be at their pace, and they should be given all the tools to help them find their own answers. As I described it during the height of the pandemic, remote learning, which relies heavily on technological proficiency, isn't just an AP chemistry skill. It is a life skill. This method of learning is in line with what students can expect in the higher education setting. That's why I set my modules up to promote self-paced learning. My mission isn't simply to teach chemistry. It's to prepare my students to enter the next phase of their lives as smoothly as possible.

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