Preparing to teach in physically distanced classrooms: advice, guidance and practical strategies

It’s been a busy summer and here we are already at the start of a new academic year facing what will certainly be a challenging Autumn semester.  As we gear up for new and continuing students to return to campus under the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, we all need to be confident about delivering high quality learning and teaching. This is not just a matter of planning online elements of delivery in modules, and it definitely is not simply a question of moving ‘large lectures’ to narrated powerpoints or pre-recorded lectures.  In this blog post we signpost some resources that can help you plan for delivery of learning and teaching in physically distanced classrooms.

In April we ran a pulse survey asking about the move to online learning and teaching and 270 of you kindly responded and identified the following challenges:

  • difficulties of teaching concurrently students online and in the classroom
  • challenge of facilitating small group interaction online
  • struggle to get student engagement in online sessions
  • problems experienced by students (and some staff) about connectivity and IT matters.

Add to this the new challenge of teaching on campus in physically distanced classrooms, conducting a seminar in a large lecture theatre and creating a sense of community among new students who only meet up on campus for 8 hours of taught sessions a week.

What has been done to address these challenges?

Many staff have taken advantage of the training sessions facilitated by the TEL Unit over the summer and will be feeling more confident about using technologies for teaching and learning.  Further training sessions will be available throughout semester 1.  A growing number of staff are also signing up for the Head of Digital Learning’s short course on Digital Learning and Teaching (see staff development booking page).  Requiring just 3.5 hours of learning time and completed over a week, it provides an experiential introduction to effective learning online.

The University has agreed that the Access to Learning Fund can be used to support digital accessibility for students in need.  The TEL Team have produced resources to support students in getting online and using key digital tools and the VLE effectively.

Our Realising Teaching Excellence blog has lots of resources, guidance and tips about effective online learning – see the Moving online series of blogs.  This blog aims to provide some signposts to practical pedagogical advice and guidance on the challenges of teaching in physically distanced (online and on campus) contexts.

So, what about physically distanced classrooms?  

First, to explain what we mean by physically distanced classrooms.  Most classrooms across the University campuses have been re-configured to accommodate social/physical distancing; this means not only that capacity is much reduced but the layout of chairs and tables may be quite different.  Some rooms have been laid out in examination style format with individual desks all facing the front, whereas others retain the small group tables settings, but of course with fewer seats to the tables. Then of course there are rooms, such as lecture theatres or spaces for large group teaching where students will not be sitting next to one another.  All of this presents challenges for interactive teaching.  See this article on the value of testing out possible teaching scenarios with colleagues in advance of start of the semester (A Dry Run at a Socially Distanced Classroom).

We strongly recommend that all staff check out the layout of their teaching rooms in advance of planning teaching.

 And what about concurrent teaching to students in class and online?

The other aspect of physically distanced classrooms is where some of the class may be present in the classroom on campus, but others will be participating remotely via BB Collaborate or Teams in a live streamed session.  This is variously referred to as hybrid/dual teaching or increasingly, hyflex teaching. Whilst hyflex has obvious advantages to students, especially if they are self-isolating or otherwise unable to attend a session, as many colleagues found in the early stages of lockdown, it can be challenging.

If you are experimenting with hybrid teaching, we recommend you tell students you are trying things out and seek feedback from them on what works – we’re all learning to adapt.

So how can we help you to deliver high quality inclusive and active learning in these contexts?

We’ve produced a list of useful and practical reading resources (mostly blogs and short articles) on these issues to help you begin to navigate some of the pitfalls and to stimulate creative and imaginative teaching strategies.

Teaching in physically distanced classrooms and/or in hybrid/hyflex mode

 Dr Jennifer Baumgartner, Associate Professor at Louisiana State University crowdsourced an impressive document this summer with suggestions for Active Learning while Physically Distancing. This resource is currently nine pages long with activities suggested for a variety of goals such as engaging students, monitoring for understanding, and reflecting on learning. They are adapted across different contexts (online-synchronous, online-asynchronous, and a physically distanced classroom).

Derek Bruff, Director of the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University also offered some very practical suggestions on his blog Active Learning in Hybrid and Socially Distanced Classrooms.  This includes useful strategies for facilitating active and participative learning between students in-class but physically distanced and those participating online remotely.   Particularly liked the ideas on use of shared documents

The Colorado School of Mines (yes!) has produced Active Learning Strategies for multiple modalities providing a very useful menu of active learning strategies/activities for physically distanced and hybrid classes.

The Academic for Learning and Teaching Excellence at the University of Southern Florida has produced some guidance to help staff make decisions about Teaching Dual Audiences.

Another gem from the Colorado School of Mines Trefny Innovative Instruction Centre (site is well worth browsing) is a menu based resource on Strategies for developing supportive classroom culture through ‘communities of inquiry’.

See also our own Elaine Swift’s blog post Moving online – connecting with students.

Jisc’s Head of Higher Education and Student Experience, James Clay, has a thought provoking blog (Lost in translation) reflecting on how teaching staff can translate their existing practice into new models of delivery that could result in better learning, but also have less of detrimental impact on staff and students.

Finally, if you haven’t come across the Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook for Historians, it is well worth a browse, whether or not you are a historian.  Written by colleagues from History UK, it deals really well with lots of tricky issues, and is organised around some key questions:

  1. What happens to our students’ experience of learning, in and out of the ‘classroom’?
  2. What happens to accessibility?
  3. What happens to community?
  4. What happens to seminars?
  5. What happens to primary source work?
  6. What happens to lectures?
  7. What happens to assessment and feedback?

Further resources can be accessed via the Library Services Resource List for Online Teaching and Learning during Covid – 19.


Dr Marie Stowell

Director of Quality and Educational Development


September 2020

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