Skip to main content


Perspectives on Remote Learning and Teaching

April 29, 2020 | By Z.Y. Zhuoying

With the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, many schools across the nation are implementing online teaching and learning. UC San Diego is no exception, with spring quarter classes and labs underway virtually as part of the collective effort to keep people safe, to stop the spread and to flatten the curve.

Division of Physical Sciences science writing intern and chemistry undergraduate Z.Y. Zhuoying conducted an informal survey to find out student and faculty perceptions of virtual labs and classrooms. Read on to learn what they had to say.

Student Perspectives - Labs

John Nickolai Joaquin, second-year biochemistry major

On virtual physics lab: “It feels easier and less stressful to take the lab because making mistakes in a lab and having to start from the beginning is very stressful. An online class eliminates the ability to make mistakes with the work you would be physically doing.

I feel that studying is much easier when the Zoom lectures are recorded and posted online because I can watch them and pause whenever I need to in order to search terminology up or understand something difficult. I like this better than before when nothing was recorded because I would have to find other videos online to answer my questions.”

How’s the lab structured? In my physics lab, you join a Zoom call and then the TA provides questions for the students to answer, and then puts everyone in “break-out rooms,” which are small rooms that hold a couple people. In these rooms people discuss the questions and find the answers, and are then brought back to the initial main room with the TA to go over the solutions. 

Pros for virtual lab: Since the TAs seem to always be in the Zoom calls, whenever you ask a question in chat you are almost guaranteed a quick response from a TA, which is really nice.

Ryan Liu, third-year biochemistry major

On virtual chemistry lab: Online lab is pretty hastily put together, but it still has its components. The lab goes over the goal of the experiment and then focuses on each step: why and how things are done; the reaction process and reasoning for choosing what goes in the reaction. Reports are probably lenient and are more of fill in the blanks, along with some what-if questions.

Pros for virtual lab: More in-depth on the experiments and reasoning behind the reactions. No stress about yield and analyzing the mistakes in lab.

Hien Nyguen, third-year biochemistry major

On virtual biochemistry laboratoryI believe it is very hard to operate the online lab. My professor is still struggling to find a way to show the experiments and send data for students to write reports. The syllabus and the grading scale is still the same from last quarter with prelab, post lab write up, midterm and final. The professor will send us the data for the calculation, and students will write the report individually and answer the question in the postlab. Each student will have different data so that we cannot have the same answer.

Pros for virtual lab: I feel more open to participate through Zoom with TA or professor with the camera off.

Rae Liu, fourth-year chemistry major

On virtual chemistry lab: My first reaction to the online lab was quite shocked. Since the purpose of a lab class is to have students familiarize with the equipment, operations and safety, I think it would be very hard to move lab class to online platforms.

How’s the structure of the lab changed? Now the lab report changes to be quiz-like. It is basically questions about identifying compounds given a spectrum, and everything became much more theoretical because we can't do anything practical anyways. This course makes me feel it's a chemistry class, not really a lab, the only difference is that we will have lab operational questions in quizzes/exams. Participation is mandatory since we will have quizzes in sessions every other week.

Pros for virtual lab: No concern with PPE (personal protective equipment).

Carmela Villegas, third-year molecular biology major

On chemistry laboratory: Each week, we are expected to complete online experiment simulations, as well as watch experiment videos (featuring outlets TAs), which consists of them showing us the techniques and theories behind the experiment. We complete a lab worksheet, which covers safety hazards, techniques and scientific reasoning. Our worksheet is based on real data, which is given.

Our professor and the TAs have set up the course so that we would have time to adjust to the transition online. Our first week, we worked on the safety exam; the second week, we simply met up with our TAs to discuss the organization of the class; experiments start Week 3.

My chemistry course requires students to complete online experiment simulations, and I think this is a great way to allow students to explore the “what if” questions they have about the experiment. Although I think this is great, we are definitely missing out on the technical skills.

Pros for virtual lab: The great thing about remote instruction is that students tend to ask more questions during lectures. For all my classes, I realize that there has been a lot of professor student interactions. The chat feature also makes it easier to ask our questions.

Faculty Perspectives - Labs

Professor Liang Yang, physics

On virtual teaching: Since the decision to do virtual teaching was sudden, there was not much time for online lab preparation, and it is still a work in progress.

How has the structure of the lab changed?  We reduced the lab reports from six to two this quarter; the first one is an individual lab report which uses software technology to analyze data. The second one is a group project which has two students collaborate online and do some measurements at home—it could be a measurement of gravitational constant or elasticity of a basketball they have. Students don’t need to get the measurement accurate; the idea is to be creative with their household items. Then, they write a lab project and do an oral presentation.

 In graduate school, students often need to present their research within a limited amount of time, so what we are doing now in the lab can be useful for the students in the future, especially for most of the students this is the first lab they take. 

Pros for virtual lab: The workload is reduced.

Student Perspectives – Lectures

Yilang He, first-year math major

On virtual math lecture: The virtual settings do change the class logistics. For example, homework takes a higher percentage of the final grade. Participation is not mandatory. Most classes record the lectures so that people in the different time zones can also access these resources. The most major difference for me is that people can’t discuss the problem with their neighbors.

Pros for virtual class: It saves the time it takes going from one place to another. I think Zoom is a very good platform that can provide most of the functions that a traditional lectures needs, like PowerPoint, polling or chat.

John Nickolai Joaquin, second-year biochemistry major

On physics lecture: The lectures are pre-recorded, but on Wednesdays the professor has a live Zoom meeting that goes over questions that people have been asking and the problems he has been seeing that the students are having, as well as anything logistical.

The structure of the class is the same, all equations are derived on slides and explained; even “clicker” questions are asked and we pause the videos to answer them, and then he goes over them after a couple seconds.

Pros for online lecture: Note-taking is much easier because I can pause the recorded lecture whenever I need time to write anything down. I believe that the ability to ask a question where you have access to all TAs and other students is incredibly helpful because it allows for quick responses and better learning.

Anthony Tran, fourth-year physics major  

On physics lectures: As physics students, we mostly go to lectures and do homework. If the professor does things such as active learning, that will be harder since we learn a lot when participating in class.

How is the virtual physics class structured? For my physics classes, the structure is the same since the professor would just give his lecture, and if a student has questions, they can raise their hand and ask it live. In my other physics class, the professor decided to record and condense the lecture beforehand. Students are not able to ask questions, but they are able to watch the lectures faster. In place of the lecture time, it is open office hours.

Pros for virtual class: The pro of learning online is being able to learn whenever you want. Participation is not mandatory for my classes. You get to stay at the comfort of your home, eat your parent's food if you go back home, and be able to set a consistent sleep schedule. Note-taking is convenient since I have all my note-taking tools with me. One of my teachers is doing 50% homework and 50% quiz/final for my grading, which is really nice. It seems to make it easier to get a better grade, but since you are mostly on your own to do things, I have to really organize my time to make sure I get things done.

Faculty Perspectives - Lectures

Professor Armin Schwartman, math

On virtual lecturing: I was worried at the beginning about how this would work with teaching 300 students, whether there would be technical problems in the online lecture and whether I would be flooded with emails from students. It turned out to be much better than I expected. The internet was able to handle the bandwidth for transmitting to that many people. Interaction with the students has worked well, as I detail below. The personal touch is still missing, though. 

Pros for online teaching: One noticeable advantage is a change in the way students ask questions in class. In a large classroom, many students would not feel comfortable to raise their hand and ask questions. However, in a Zoom live lecture, they can simply write their questions in the chat box. It seems that students feel more comfortable doing that, and so the online format gives them, ironically, more of a chance to ask questions than in a frontal classroom situation.

Professor Michael Fogler, physics

On virtual lecturing: Online teaching is something I need to get used to, but it is fine. It takes a couple of days to prepare for the lecture, mostly to figure out the technical set up and the software. The class is live and the recordings are available after the class.

Does online teaching change your way to prepare or conduct lectures? I use a whiteboard (or other note-taking apps) and stylus pretty much the same way I normally use the blackboard and chalk, except the writing area is now much smaller, so I have to "flip the pages" more often. I think I can make use of online videos and other digital tools to some good effect, but so far I have not attempted that.

How do you enhance students’ response and interaction? I periodically pose questions to the class to make sure they follow. In this case when no one answers, I typically rephrase a question (e.g., make it a yes/no one) and ask it again until someone answers. I used to do the same in a live class, so there is no difference

Pros for online teaching: I do not have to travel anywhere, so it is convenient.

While students and faculty responded with positive perspectives about this new virtual approach to learning and teaching, they shared some of the challenges, too. For students these included missing the hands-on experiences of the onsite classrooms and labs, exams with heavier emphasis on theory, lack of face-to-face interaction with classmates and instructors, difficulty outcompeting other students on exams and having the discipline to watch all the lectures and complete the assignments.

The faculty members queried shared similar challenges: the hands-on experience is hard to replace; the challenge of making classes interactive; the absence of seeing students’ faces and hearing their voices and generally missing the personal interaction.   

Z.Y. Zhuoying thanks all faculty and staff who made the transition to online classes smooth and steady for students, and she commends everyone who is self-disciplined and committed to virtual learning. “As always, stay home and stay healthy!” she said.