I suddenly have to move my face-to-face physics/astronomy course online! What should I do?

posted March 13, 2020 and revised April 22, 2021
by Linda Strubbe and Sam McKagan, PhysPort

In the wake of COVID-19, many faculty are being asked to quickly shift their classes online. If you're looking for ideas about moving lab classes online, please see our other Expert Recommendation. For many physics and astronomy educators, teaching online is new, while some have been teaching online for years. There hasn't been much research on making this type of sudden transition. We are sharing with you ideas and resources that align with research-based pedagogical principles, research-validated resources for teaching online, and ideas that colleagues are trying as they make this transition. This recommendation is being regularly updated during the outbreak, so if you have ideas and experiences to share, please let us know in the Comments section, or by emailing editor@physport.org.

Overall guiding ideas

  • Be extra compassionate and caring towards your students. And be gentle to yourself. We're all in this together.
  • Promote community. Students (and you) may feel more isolated during this time.
  • Remember that your in-person students did not sign up for an online course. Best practices for online courses can be helpful during this transition, but remember that the current situation is different from teaching a normal online course.
  • Remember the diversity of your students and keep equity issues in mind. Don't assume that everyone will have easy (affordable) internet access, computer access, time, or a quiet place at home to do class. Recognize that students may be caring for children or sick family members, may be sick themselves, may need to work, and may be facing any number of other challenges and stressors. Recognize that if libraries are closed, students may lose the internet and computer access they relied on.
  • Support your students who have disabilities. It may be harder for them to receive support and accommodations they usually have in person; e.g., a sign language interpreter, or extra time on tests. Keep in touch with your campus's access and disabilities office. Explicitly offer universal accommodations to your students so that they do not need to directly ask for them; at the same time, reach out individually to students who have disabilities and offer them individual flexibility, because universal accommodations may not be enough for their needs. We offer more suggestions on these below. Learn more: 20 Tips for Teaching an Accessible Online Course and Introduction to Universal Design (from the Center on Accessible Distance Learning, part of the DO-IT Center at the University of Washington).
  • Give students the option to continue taking advantage of learning opportunities without any negative effect on their grade: let students know they are guaranteed at minimum their current grade in the class (based on assignments and assessments thus far). Find ways to make sure you do not penalize students who face obstacles to online participation, while you are also trying to offer quality learning opportunities for students who are able to participate.
  • You can still do interactive things.
  • Think about how to maintain a sense-making frame with your students.
  • Be extra explicit, and offer flexibility. Offer students multiple ways to participate.
  • Recognize that you will need to reduce the amount of content you aim to cover this semester. This transition to online will take time and mental resources for everyone.
  • Find ways to keep your teaching assistants (TAs), who usually depend on their stipends to survive, employed. For example, TAs can facilitate chats during lecture, online breakout sessions, or discussion forums; help create captioned videos; or support you in other ways. The Learning Assistant (LA) Alliance has great resources for how LAs can be involved in online teaching.
  • Be ready to recognize and disrupt any anti-Asian racism/xenophobia that may arise when students make comments or ask questions about the new class format.
  • Be ready to recognize and disrupt any ableist or ageist comments that may arise.
  • Reflect and collaborate.
  • Send students a compassionate email. Let them know what's going on, what you're doing, why you're doing it. Send regular updates as things are changing. Consider offering students advice on how to adjust their study habits. Explicitly tell students, it's OK to ask me for help -- and remember that some students may not feel comfortable asking for help even if they need it. Follow up with students who express concerns.

Running synchronous online classes

  • Synchronous online classes through Zoom, Blackboard Collaborate, Skype, Microsoft Teams, etc. are a great way to continue to do a lot of the things you do in your in-person classes, including maintaining a sense of community and connection, engaging students in small group activities, and answering student questions, and even maintaining an atmosphere of sense-making. However, there are some limitations to keep in mind.
  • Recognize that not all your students will be able to attend synchronous online classes due internet access, connectivity, scheduling, health, and family situations. Some platforms allow participants to call in via phone, which allow them to hear and participate in audio conversations, but not see slides, screenshare, or video. Find ways for students who can't connect in real time to still participate (e.g., by making recordings available after class), or consider not running synchronous classes at all: asynchronous learning can be much more equitable for students with different levels of access, health and privilege. These are also good things to keep in mind when you are teaching in-person classes.
  • Speak more slowly than you normally would -- to help students with disabilities and/or connectivity issues.
  • Arrange the following equipment for yourself, and suggest to your students to arrange it as well: laptop, desktop computer, or mobile device you can use to teach; reliable internet connection; quiet room; optionally: microphone, headset, webcam.
  • Find a platform that is accessible and easy for you to use. Many faculty have access to Zoom: Zoom has been partnering with universities to make services easier and less expensive, and Zoom just announced that K-12 teachers can get some of their paid features free, so we will describe technical features in terms of Zoom. (The free version only allows meeting up to 40 minutes.) Check with your institution about which companies they have agreements with, and whether there is any extended access due to COVID-19. The following features will be really helpful:
  • Run a practice Zoom session for your students. Show and let them practice doing things like raising their hand, responding to a poll, turning on and off their camera, writing in the chat window, and writing on a collaborative whiteboard.
  • If you have the option, it's helpful to have someone else -- e.g., a learning assistant (LA) or teaching assistant (TA) join you for your teaching -- to monitor the chat and help students if they have connectivity issues. Another possibility could be to collaborate with another faculty colleague: you could join for their class meeting and they could join for yours, even it's just for the first one while everyone is getting oriented.
  • Consider trying to arrange for live captioning of your lecture. Microsoft Teams offers this natively (although you can't save the transcript); Zoom can do it too but you need third-party software or someone to type the captions; post the transcript after class if you can. Alternatively, post your full slides and lecture notes before class, so that students with disabilities and/or connectivity issues can still follow. Try to post notes or slides in text-readable format (not just a scan or photo) so that assistive technology (e.g., screen reading software) can interface with the document. When creating or using videos for your class, keep these ideas in mind: "Creating Video and Multimedia Products That Are Accessible to People with Sensory Impairments.”
  • Consider what format makes sense for the size of your class. Our colleagues have successfully run Zoom classes with breakout rooms for classes with up to ~65 students, and Zoom meetings allow up to a maximum of 100 attendees (although this has increased to as many as 300 in agreements with some universities). However, for very large classes Zoom meetings tend to not work as well. For large classes, consider running everything asynchronously, or using Zoom in webinar mode, where non-presenters can only interact via chat.

Ideas for what to do during class

  • Join the Zoom Room a few minutes early, and welcome students as they arrive.
    • Display a welcoming slide, so students know they came to the right place.
    • You can play music.
    • You can share something about what's going on in your week, if you want to. It's a nice way to keep everyone feeling human. (It might feel a bit like being a radio host, speaking out into a void -- but worth trying!) You can also chat informally with students as they arrive as you might do in person, especially if you already know your students by name.
    • You can create a blank slide for students to write on as they arrive. For example, you can ask an icebreaker question (e.g., draw your favorite animal, what are you planning to do this weekend, etc.) Or you can ask students to write a question they had about the reading, video, assignment. Write any instructions explicitly at the top of the slide.
  • Give extra time for transitions (e.g., between lecture, polls, breakout discussions).
  • Encourage students to turn on video if they are comfortable, especially while they are speaking. (There might be some limit about how many can have video on at the same time; also some students may have bandwidth issues or be calling in from a phone.)
    • Students can use "virtual background" in Zoom if they prefer not to show where they are.
  • Ask clicker-style questions using the polling feature.
  • Check in with students through the class on where they are at. E.g., you can ask them to "raise their hand" when they are done with a task, or to give "thumbs-up" / "thumbs-down" to let you know how well they are understanding.
  • Have students write ideas or symbols on a slide you prepare.
  • See the section on doing group work online for ideas for ways to incorporate group work into an online class.
  • Ask students to give short presentations in class. This can be done in groups or individually.
    • Students can send you a single slide ahead of class, and you can collate these into one slide deck. (That will go more quickly and smoothly than having each student share their screen and then switching.)
    • Let students know how much time they will have to present, and keep time carefully. Remember that transitions between presentations will take time. You can invite classmates to ask questions or give feedback after each presentation, and give ideas for the kinds of feedback that will be constructive.
  • If you have an extra person (e.g., a learning assistant) to help you:
    • Have them monitor the chat window. They can reply to questions there, bring up questions to the whole class that are useful for everyone to hear, and help individual students with connectivity issues.

Ideas for how to connect with students outside of class

  • Email students more often than you usually would.
  • Check in with students about how it's going. Solicit their feedback often.
  • Use discussion forum feature on your LMS and/or another platform (e.g., Piazza).
  • Host virtual office hours on Zoom. Try to offer them at a variety of times.
  • Try to send slides to students ahead of time, especially to help if they have connectivity issues.
  • Post pre-lecture videos for students to introduce physics concepts before they come to class. Use your LMS to ask students questions before class, and tailor part of your class time to helping students with concepts they didn't understand well. See ideas from Just-in-Time Teaching. There are links to many physics and astronomy videos at the bottom of the article. If you want to record your own, there is free software that allows you to record your video and screen (on a Mac, Quicktime is already installed; on Windows, you can use Microsoft Gamebar). Edpuzzle (which has a free version) allows you to create your own interactive video lessons with embedded questions.
  • Record your remote lectures and post them on your LMS. That way, students who couldn't make it to class can watch the video, and students who were present can watch again to review.

Ideas for doing group work online

If you are used to having your students work in small groups during class, there is technology that allows you to do many of the same things you do in your in-person classes online.

  • Put your students in small groups using breakout rooms on Zoom and use the whiteboard feature for them to collaborate.
    • Tell them what to work on and how long they will have.
    • Ask them to introduce themselves if they don't know each other already. Consider giving students some time to catch up with each other informally during this difficult time.
    • Encourage them to turn on their video if they are comfortable. They can use "virtual background" in Zoom if they prefer not to show where they are.
    • Assign roles -- e.g., note-taker, time-keeper, reporter. (e.g., the person whose birthday comes first should be note-taker, etc.) Try to cycle these roles each breakout session.
    • You can give time warnings to let students know the discussion time is ending.
    • You can assign students to breakout rooms automatically or manually, or they can join specific rooms themselves. 
    • Give longer than you think for a breakout discussion. It can take time for students to get oriented once they are in the room. Probably you'll only have time for 1-2 discussions like this per typical class session.
    • You can adapt many small group activities to work online too. See our PhysPort Expert Recommendations on finding and designing small group activities for students, and on supporting engagement in small group activities. Many ideas from our Recommendation on Best practices for whiteboarding in the physics classroom can work online too.
    • Give students explicit instructions about what to do in the breakout room.
    • Students can share ideas by writing on a collaborative whiteboard in Zoom or AWW App. Students can draw diagrams or type text; e.g., ideas for how to solve a problem, or notes on what their group discusses. (Be aware that their shared whiteboard will disappear after the breakout session ends, so they should take notes or take a screenshot if they want to save their ideas.) See below for how to collaboratively write and draw physics.
    • You can subtly pop in and out of the breakout rooms to see what students are up to.
    • After the discussion, give groups the opportunity to share out. For example, ask every group to write a sentence or draw a diagram on a shared whiteboard in the Main Room, and ask a few groups to share out loud.
  • Use Google Docs or Google Slides to allow students to produce collaborative assignments synchronously or asynchronously.
  • Teach students how to collaboratively write and draw physics
    • Drawing
    • Students can draw diagrams using a mouse / touchpad (if they have a computer) or stylus (if they have a tablet).
    • Students can also draw on a piece of paper, and upload a photo from their phone.
    • Writing math
      • Show students how to access Greek letters and math symbols (on a Mac or Windows).
      • Google Docs has a pretty good equation editor. (Tip: You can use Latex commands in addition to the buttons)
      • If your students know Latex, they can use software like Latex equation editor, or LaTeXiT to create gif files of equations, then paste those onto a Google Slide.
  • Use discussions forums for asynchronous student discussions.
  • Create group homework assignments or projects. (see below)

Ideas for assignments and assessments

  • If you decide to change your grading structure in response to this new situation, be sure to let students know clearly what the change is and why you are making it. Try to be flexible and give students options, if you can.
  • Give longer periods for students to complete assignments than you normally would. Consider making at least some assignments optional; e.g., let students substitute these for lower grades they got earlier in the term.
  • Ideas for handling exams, in particular if you are worried about students "cheating":
    • If your school has an Honor Code or statement of academic integrity, you can remind students about it. You can let students know what you expect in terms of using/not using resources, and then trust them.
    • You can reduce the weight of exams in your course grading structure.
    • You can give open-book exams so you don’t need to worry about whether your students are “cheating” by looking at the book.
    • You can give collaborative exams where you intend students to work together on problems in groups, so you don't need to worry about whether your students are "cheating" by talking to each other.
    • You can create an exam with an enforced time limit on your LMS. For example, you can make the exam available for 26 hours, and students can choose any two-hour window in that timeframe to take the exam. If you want, you can set up the exam on your LMS so that they must take the full exam in one setting.
    • Consider not giving exams this term, and changing your grading structure to put more weight on other types of assignments.
    • This article has more ideas for handling exams during COVID-19.
  • Consider creating group homework assignments or projects.
    • This can help maintain a sense of community among students in this potentially isolating time. You can scaffold students in working together remotely: e.g., suggest a platform for their collaboration like Google Docs; help them figure out a medium for typed communication (Email? Text? Whatsapp?); and encourage them to find times they are mutually available to meet online (maybe through a free zoom account).
    • Break project steps into smaller pieces than you usually would. This is to reduce student cognitive load during this stressful time, and to help you monitor engagement and progress over multiple weeks.
    • Students can present their work in class; see above.
  • Consider new ways for students to submit assignments online: e.g., record a video of themselves, or take a photo of their handwritten work.
  • If you were using research-based assessments (such as concept inventories) on paper in your class, you can move to administering them (pre/post, or post alone) online: See our other Expert Recommendation for advice.

Ideas for moving labs online

See our other Expert Recommendation all about labs.

Reflect and collaborate

  • Keep a teaching journal. You can write a couple of quick notes after each class about what you tried, what worked well and what didn't, and what you might try differently next time.
  • Solicit student feedback often -- via your LMS, Google Forms, direct email, etc.
  • Share your ideas, questions, etc., with colleagues. So many people are going through this -- let's share, we're in this together! See AAPT’s email lists.

Free physics and astronomy online teaching resources

Notes: (1) Consider the accessibility of web resources you consider using in your teaching. If you investigate the accessibility of specific resources, please feel free to share in the Comments box at the bottom of this page, to help other instructors as well. (2) Some resources we list are offering free trials during COVID-19. Make sure you check whether resources you want to use are compatible with your institution's data privacy policies. Also keep in mind that whatever resources you choose now, you may want to keep using in the future, and they may cost money (to you or students) later on. 

By topic

We are gathering resources by topic, and will list them here as the collections are ready.

Interactive online activities

  • Astronomy Demonstration Videos - 5-minute videos on astronomy topics such as Kepler's Laws and hydrostatic equilibrium. Many of the videos have embedded Peer Instruction questions and accompanying worksheets.
  • Five minute physics - Online modules with readings and embedded simulations, designed as pre-class assignments. Topics include electromagnetism, modern physics and fields.
  • At-home Interactive Lecture Demonstrations - Interactive Lecture Demonstrations adapted to use Physlets and PhET Interaction Simulations.
  • Interactive Video Vignettes - Web-based assignments in introductory physics that contain embedded multiple choice questions.
  • Physicsclassroom.com - Interactive materials that can be used as assignments or for students to formatively assess their level of understanding. The site tracks student progress and awards a "completion certificate"; you can consider asking students to screenshot and send you their certificate to demonstrate completion.
    • Physics Interactives - Activities, simulations and games with questions and activity sheets, designed for K-12 learners.
    • Concept Builders - Questions of varying difficulty and complexity that develop understanding of physics concepts, with immediate feedback to students.
    • Positive Physics - Practice problems aimed for Conceptual Physics through AP Physics 1. Collaboration with physicsclassroom. Free through July 2020.
  • PICUP (Partnership for Integration of Computation into Undergraduate Physics) - A collection of free open-source computational modeling activities, contributed by educators around the U.S., many of which could provide a viable substitute for some experiments and/or demos.
  • RealTime Physics iOLab Mechanics - Lab curricula available for free, using the iOLab hardware (a device with built-in sensors to measure quantities such as force, magnetic field, rotation, light, sound, temperature, and voltages).
  • STEM coding - Videos with coding activities across topics in physics, astronomy and other areas of STEM. Each video contains a link to code in p5.js. You can sign up to join their learning management system to help you track which students have completed which activities and give students feedback.
  • Direct Measurement Videos / Pivot Interactive