Distance Learning Tips for STEM Educators

Rocky is a 4th-year biotechnology teacher at South San Francisco High School. He earned his B.S. in Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics from the University of California, Los Angeles. He is a California credentialed teacher in biology, chemistry, and biotechnology.

Since March, educators have been transitioning from in-person instruction to distance learning, including myself. With little or no research on best practices in pandemic-induced distance learning, educators are diving into unchartered territory for the 2020-2021 academic year. We should collaborate and share our "clinical" experience with each other. Here are some distance learning teaching tips that I found effective.

1. Stop with the “app-fatigue.”

With many uncertainties during this unprecedented time, students’ routines are disrupted in many ways. Students’ social interactions, family lives, and many unknown variables contribute to the students’ academic performance and disarray. Graduate teaching assistants (GTA), professors, lecturers, and teachers are the first responders to students' mental health. We can provide an organized structure in our distance learning curriculum so students can regain a sense of normalcy and structure.

One of the ways to create this structure is to use the pre-existing structure from our schools. Learning management systems (LMS) is a digital platform where students and teachers post assignments, grades, and feedback. For example, iLearn, Blackboard, Canvas, Google Classroom are all platforms that are commonly used in secondary and higher education. Essentially, the LMS provides a centralized location for students to access course information. Educators should choose one and consistently use the same LMS and other school-sponsored applications for two reasons. 1) Students are mentally tired, and adding multiple digital platforms creates “app-fatigue” syndrome. There are many great virtual learning platforms and simulations out there. Choose one and only one will help students focus on the content, rather than mastering technology. Here are some great virtual laboratory platforms that I found useful. I have distilled into three platforms with pros and cons:


Pros: Suitable for dual enrollment biology, high-level content, virtual reality-like, best for college use

Cons: Heavy reliance on graphics and processor, lab answers can be searchable on Google. Subscription-based only.


Pros: Suitable for biotechnology, high school biology, simple and user friendly, student handout answers are not searchable on Google

Cons: Less variety of specific topics. Subscription-based after 30 days.


Pros: Suitable for high school to lower-division college students. Simulations are offered in different languages. Free.

Cons: No student handouts provided.

In my opinion, I choose Gizmos for my high school teaching because this platform is relatively new as of 2018. In other words, the handout answer keys are up-to-date and have not leaked yet.

2) The most important factor, is to create collective teacher efficacy. Collective teacher efficacy is the idea where teachers share the same belief, and through that same belief, they are able to positively influence student outcomes (1). In order to create collective teacher efficacy, administrators and teachers must work together to establish institutional guidelines and consistency. Try putting on the student hat yourself, you can imagine platform consistency will offload one burden for students.

2. Less is more.

With our syllabus, many of us stick with the student learning outcomes (SLO) as prescribed by this document. We should acknowledge with current circumstances, students are not able to master these SLOs. On the flip side, it is close to impossible to teach all SLOs in a distance learning format, especially in the science laboratory courses. One strategy is to distill your SLOs into priority standards or priority SLOs.

What are the essential take-home messages you want the students to learn? Identify 3-4 priority standards and dive deep into those standards. Take a look at your own SLOs in your syllabus, ask yourself these questions: What is the must-have skill students takeaway for your course? Prioritize that as a module or unit.

For example, here are my biotechnology course standards, part of the California Career Technical Education.

A1.0 Define and assess biotechnology and recognize the diverse applications and impact on society.

A2.0 Understand the ethical, moral, legal, and cultural issues related to the use of biotechnology research and product development.

A3.0 Demonstrate competencies in the fundamentals of molecular cell biology, including deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and proteins and standard techniques for their purification and manipulation.

A4.0 Recognize basic concepts in cell biology and become familiar with the laboratory tools used for their analysis.

A5.0 Integrate computer skills into program components.

A6.0 Implement use of the metric system, orders of magnitude, and the pH scale in preparation of reagents, analysis of data, and graphing.

A7.0 Understand the function of regulatory agencies for the biotechnology industry and the lasting impact of routine laboratory and communication practices on product development and manufacturing.

A8.0 Follow sustainable and safe practices with high regard for quality control.

A9.0 Understand that manufacturing represents inter-connectedness between science and production.

Out of the 9 standards, I pick A3.0 as my priority standard since this has to be the fundamental principle to know if they would want a career in biotechnology. This is a must-have skill for my student.

With this strategy, you are able to create higher Bloom’s level assessment. Educators can create higher Bloom’s level assessment that involves analysis and synthesis like analyzing a graph from the primary literature, creating a Screencastify video, to synthesizing a conclusion from supporting evidence. These assessments allow students to truly demonstrate their learning progress. Furthermore, high-order Bloom assessment minimizes plagiarism while maximizing creativity.

3. Stop talking too much. Let your students socialize.

To an extent, educators are demoralized by the number of black boxes you see on Zoom or Google Meet. Students are not showing their faces for various reasons: poor hair day (or every day), distracting background, or video downgrades their internet streaming power. As educators, we need to be holistic with these reasons. However, most of the cases I found in my own classroom is that students are not prepared for this “new normal.” Because students lack the need to connect with peers and teachers, their engagement level goes down. What we need to prioritize is to provide opportunity and structure for students to engage in social interaction.

The research behind the two different modes of distance learning: asynchronous and synchronous, is lacking. However, I strongly believe that synchronous instructions should be reserved to maximize social interaction. Teachers can provide discussion prompts in the Zoom chatbox, then arrange breakout rooms. One tip is to have students rename themselves to their group numbers so it is easier for the facilitator to manually assign participants. Having consistent social groups increases students’ learning progress, as shown in my own classroom. The last advice is to talk less in synchronous time. Record yourself and perform video analysis. If you can talk 30% only, then your classroom is student-centered. If you find yourself talking too much, consider rolling out your lectures asynchronously.