Resources for Teaching Online

My department (Art History and Communication Studies, McGill University), got together and did a little skillshare on teaching online. Or rather, we broke into groups, people did homework, and then reported back. The resulting document is our best attempt to produce something useful for ourselves. It still leaves open questions about office hours and other things, but it’s a start.

Extra credit to my colleague Darin Barney, who took the lead in organizing the whole thing.

Download it here and feel free to share widely.

Cancer, Covid, Masks, Risks, News

Another week another doctor visit. This time I actually wound up seeing my oncologist in person. First, the good news: my tumour marker remains very low, so low that he told me it’s the lowest he’s ever seen with someone in lung mets. I am a very lucky person. I’m trying a new blood pressure drug.

Also, it has been over three weeks since I had diarrhea. I think I got lucky and got into a rhythm with eating, excreting, and Imodium, and now if I take 2 Imodium at the right time, I can get through the day without discomfort. I’ve had a couple bad days with cramps and all the rest, but at least I’m not getting super dehydrated on top of it.

So it turns out that my in-person doctor meeting was sort of by accident because the College of Physicians issued confusing instructions this week. But we are sort of in that phase. Quebec numbers are down, hospitals aren’t overrun with Covid cases, and restrictions are loosening…a bit.

And yet, I can’t help resenting people who are not wearing masks indoors or not wearing them well. Almost everybody at the Jewish had one on (certainly all the professionals) but a surprising number of people pulled out their noses, wearing them “feedbag style,” to borrow a phrase. There’s still a pandemic on. Everyone’s waiting for a magic bullet, but this is one thing we can do that reduces transmission (along with staying apart). The New York Times had a typically moralistic headline this morning, “Not Wearing a Mask is Like Driving Drunk.” I couldn’t bear to read the piece, but I understand the sentiment. I look at someone indoors without a mask and it feels like they are telling me, personally, to fuck off. It feels like an act of aggression, or at least coercive. Are they asserting their rights to public space over mine? Are they daring me to say something?

But of course it’s not about me at all, which is part of the problem. It’s people thinking about themselves, and doing so in the most ideological way possible: “I am an exception”; “the rules don’t apply to me;” “I am willing to accept this risk for myself and it’s an individual decision.”

The doctor and I also had a long conversation about various activities and risk, with me asking him about various scenarios. We can expand our socializing a bit from what we are doing now without worrying too much. At the same time, it’s going to involve frank conversations with people. Carrie and I were joking that it’s going to turn our social life into a parody of S&M, complete with boundaries and safe words–“I’m comfortable doing this, but not this.”

But, alas, no indoor singing with people not in our household, at least not yet….

Diminished Faculties Work Update

I said that I would get the revised manuscript done by July 1st. July 1st is next week.

That is not going happen. Let’s say August 1st.

I am behind. The reasons are not interesting; everybody is behind and I’m less behind than lots of others. I don’t actually care that I’m behind other than wanting the satisfaction that comes with sending it back out.

Here’s some stuff that has happened since my April post:

Two chapters have split like amoebae. So they are now four, which will make them more readable.

Wormholes have been thoroughly explored regarding Levinas, earplugs, sublimity, and a few other topics.

My desk is a hideous mess and needs to be cleaned.

I got stuck in fatigue, but after temporarily abandoning it, I think I am ready to return to it this week and see if I can get it where it needs to be.

Two other chapters require some rewriting but the rethinking has happened. I am excited to get into those.

I have mapped out the requested conclusion in the form of a user’s manual for impairment theory, complete with legal disclaimers and instructions for disposal. I am essentially writing it as a mad lib.

So August 1st. My 50th birthday is a few days later so the timing would be ideal.

Recording your lectures 2: the one thing you can do to improve your recording experience

Tl;dr: record in segments of 5-10 minutes. Never record a full class’ worth of material in a single take.

That’s the short version, but there’s a bit more to it than that.

Slightly longer summary:

  1. Plan your class as you would normally (making whatever adjustments you make for it being online).
  2. Using the plan, record 5-10 minute segments of your lecture. Label each one clearly in terms of what it covers.
  3. Before you record, make a test recording to make sure levels are good and there isn’t a bunch of room echo. Use a test phrase. I always say “testing, testing, sibilance, sibilance, plosives, plosives. I love kittens, yes I do, I love kittens, how ’bout you?” (I am not kidding.). Then listen back and make sure it’s clear. That’s the only thing you will audition in its entirety.
  4. Record your first segment. Only stop if you really spectacularly embarrass yourself. When done, spot check it to make sure it sounds ok. Label it and save it in the right place so you don’t record over it.
  5. Record your next segment….etc.
  6. When done, upload your segments for your students. Make sure they are properly labelled, and make the order is clear.


In the first instalment of this series, I focused on modifying your recording space as the most important factor in improving the sound of your lectures. In this instalment, I focus on how you will spend your time recording them. How very Cartesian of me.

(the next instalment will discuss addressing your students and performance factors)

People prepare differently for lecture courses when they are in a classroom. Some lecture from a script, some work from notes, some build an elaborate lesson plan. Some build it all into a slide ware presentation using PowerPoint or Keynote. I’ve been a “notes-with-quotes and stage directions” guy, so I walk into class with something like a chart of what I want to cover, but there is lots of room for spontaneity.

Think in terms of adding components together, rather than dividing up your time: However you prepare, once you’re in the classroom, it’s a block of time that is subdivided. You experience it that way, and your students more or less experience it that way (just add some boredom and distraction into the mix).

For an online class, you need to think in terms of addition rather than division. It’s not that you are dividing, e.g., 80 minutes into small units, it is that you are making smaller units that add up to 80 minutes. The pedagogy people will tell you students’ attention spans wane when they have to just sit through 80 minutes of you talking, but I am concerned about you, the teacher, in this episode.

What happens if you make a big mistake 40 minutes into recording an 80 minute lecture?

In a live setting, you’d correct yourself and move on. But perhaps because it’s recorded you are now more self conscious. Now you have a dilemma: you either learn how to edit audio (a nice skill to have but in the context of all you have to do for the fall, it’s Just One More Damn Thing), or you live with it.

By building up lecture from 5-10 minute units you reduce the need to edit and audition your recordings after the fact. Think in terms of topics or ideas or examples you want to cover. Or just stop every 5-10 minutes. It also allows you to course-correct if you, like me, do not work from a script and may realize you need to explain something else in advance of what you are discussing. Now, you no longer have to record your lecture for class in the order your students will hear it.

If you are recording audio into PowerPoint, this is super easy, since you just record the audio that does with a slide. If you don’t like the audio, you redo it, but you avoid having to re-do the whole lecture.

Building up lectures also lets you work in other activities the students can do for the class meeting. In a classroom setting, I pause every 10 minutes, give or take, to ask a question, solicit feedback, or do something else like look at an image or show a clip. This is also highly recommended for online learning, though it is more fiddly.

Finally, lectures in small chunks, if they are well-labelled, means that students can find the part they need more easily when it is time to review. This saves you the trouble of marking up a longer lecture for students, or them digging through it to get the bit of information they need.

Assessing your audio recordings: I’ve heard it said that Zoom meetings are like having meetings in front of a mirror: you are constantly looking at yourself. Recording your voice is in a sense worse because you are not used to hearing yourself speak, and our heads remediate the sound of our voices, so our voices sound different to us than to anybody else. The good news: you have gotten this far in your career not listening to your lectures. You probably shouldn’t start now. Yes, you should spot-check each recording for sound (just skip around to a couple spots). You are simply making sure it is intelligible. Don’t listen to the whole thing. It’s true you might miss a problem, but if there is a huge problem, students will tell you, and that’s ok–just like in a live classroom setting.

For whether the recording is good enough, ask yourself if it is roughly of the quality of a lecture you would give in a classroom. You can stop and start, hem and haw, stumble to find the right words, have odd timing. There can be weird background noises from time to time so long as you are clear. Students hear that sort of thing all the time in a classroom. For years I lectured over the racket of 200 people typing on their laptops. People coughed, farted, munched, sipped, stirred, shifted, sneezed, and shuffled over one another. A phone would go off now and then. That’s what an undergrad lecture course is like.

You will get better at it as the semester goes along, but you are used to hearing polished audio from radio or live performance. Your goal right now is not a perfect radio show; it’s a usable, easy-to-understand lecture. Focus on that.

To recap, this is how I would recommend doing it:

  1. Plan your class as you would normally (making whatever adjustments you make for it being online).
  2. Using the plan, record 5-10 minute segments of your lecture. Label each one clearly in terms of what it covers.
  3. Before you record, make a test recording to make sure levels are good and there isn’t a bunch of room echo. Use a test phrase. I always say “testing, testing, sibilance, sibilance, plosives, plosives. I love kittens, yes I do, I love kittens, how ’bout you?” (I am not kidding.). Then listen back and make sure it’s clear. That’s the only thing you will audition in its entirety.
  4. Record your first segment. Only stop if you really spectacularly embarrass yourself. When done, spot check it to make sure it sounds ok. Label it and save it in the right place so you don’t record over it.
  5. Record your next segment….etc.
  6. When done, upload your segments for your students. Make sure they are properly labelled, and make the order is clear.

These first two instalments are all you really need to get going on recording audio for your students. But I will add additional posts on performance and technical subjects for those who want to get deeper into it.

Recording Your Lectures 1: the one thing your can do to improve your students’ listening experience

Hang a blanket, quilt, or something else that’s absorbent behind you while you make your lecture recordings.

That’s it.

A whole lot of people are going to be audio recording their university lectures in the fall, or delivering lectures live over Zoom. This series of tutorials will give you some easy steps to make them better.

Students are going to spend hours listening to recorded lectures. It’s going to be difficult for them. Some small improvements in sound will make a huge difference in their experience of your course.

The most important thing you can do for the sound of your lectures is to reduce the room echo that people will hear in your recordings.

After months of Zoom meetings, I can tell you that many people deliver lectures from echo-y spaces. The current fashion for sparse decoration, and hard wood floors means that sound bounces around the room a lot.

The problem with echo is this: If you record yourself with a lot of echo, your words are less clear. It’s like doing course readings from a bad photocopy with blurry font (#gradschoolflashback). If your students have trouble hearing you, they have to turn you up more, which also amplifies all the echo in your room, which means they have to turn you up even more. Pretty soon they are blasting their ears. Now multiply that by 5 classes by 160 minutes a week. Brutal.

The solution: Luckily, this is easy and low tech to fix. You do not need fancy room treatment (unless you are a nerd like me and doing other audio recording).

You just need something behind you that absorbs sound. One inexpensive solution is a moving blanket or thick quilt. A Canadian Tire moving blanket will set you back about $20 (Canadian). You will want to hang this a couple feet behind you, about a bit higher than your head while sitting in the position where you will record. Anything can be used to hang it: a clothes rack will work just fine. Just make sure it’s hanging behind you and the mic.

Why this helps: Reverb comes from sound reflecting around a room. Your microphone tends to pick up sound coming from behind you.* By having something to absorb the sound, you get less echo in your mic, which is then less amplified by the software, which makes your words clearer, which means that students don’t have to work as hard to hear you, which makes your lectures easier to understand.

But this isn’t a perfect solution. This will not get you perfect acoustics, but it will greatly improve the sound your students hear. You can move the blanket around and position yourself as you like and try different approaches. It is worth messing around a bit to find a sound you like for your voice. Then just do it every time and forget about it.

Bonus round: If sound absorption is the goal, and fabric absorbs a lot of sound, should I record in a closet where all my clothes are hanging? Ask yourself if you want to record a semester’s worth of lectures from inside a closet. I believe the answer is a hard no.

An alternative solution: Some kinds of microphones pick up less room sound. These are particularly good for voice recording (and are often used in radio). If you use one, room sound is less important. The mics in laptops are just fine for recording your voice, but they do tend to get a lot of room sound because of how they operate. I will cover this in my microphones tutorial.

Next up: how to actually make the recordings with a minimum of fuss, and what to do when you screw up.


*not true for all microphones, but that will be covered in a later microphone post

And now, a cancer update

I feel like these should be called “Iatrogenesis” updates but that wouldn’t make sense to most people.

So, the good news: I had my bloods done Wednesday. Same deal as last time: go to the Jewish, get my blood drawn, leave. Again my tumour marker is the lowest. it’s. ever. been. Tg is .5 for those who want the numbers.

The drugs are working.

Although Montreal is in no way safe from Covid right now, I learned this week that the air in our practice space is not circulated between studios (and everything is double-walled for acoustic isolation), so it is highly unlikely I would get sick from someone next door. This is where being married to a drummer comes in really handy. Since we already breathe the same air every day, it’s fine for us to go in and play together. I have cleared it with my doctor and have permission. I am also cleared for some very restricted outdoor, distanced, and ideally masked socializing. I don’t think most of my friends meet the criteria but it’s also not zero. I think our social lives will still mostly be Zoom dinners for now, with a couple exceptions.

So I will be leaving the apartment for something other than errands, starting tomorrow with going to the practice space (I’d go today but my calendar is full of stuff I have to do).

The drugs are also still working in other ways to produce side effects. My hand and foot stuff continues. Carrie and have been walking a lot (her every day, me some days) and on the longer walks my feet get quite sore. I am thinking of taking up biking again. I will try a bike soon and see if I like it before investing in a comfortable bike for myself. Hands are the same as always.

My blood pressure is well-controlled at the moment, but I am having dizziness issues. We are stopping one of the drugs to see if it makes a difference.

And then there’s the…pooping. No big updates there from previous posts, except to say I have been continuing to experiment with food and Imodium combinations, but have not found the right art or science. Between this and the rather stringent timing rules on my food consumption (nothing at all after 8:30pm, give or take), I am continuing to lose weight, which is the one side effect I can really get behind. On the phone yesterday, my oncologist said it’s fine “but I don’t want you to become a stick.”* I laughed out loud. We are still a long way from that.

Fatigue is still there and waxes and wanes. Diarrhea doesn’t help.

*said no doctor to me ever.

Multiple Choice Exam Theory: Remote Teaching Edition

(This is a revised edition of a 2012 blog post I did for the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s ProfHacker column, which is now in 404 Error Heaven.)

At McGill University, as of this writing, it is allowed to have students in remote courses take timed multiple-choice exams, so long as the window is flexible.  This means you can’t have everyone take the test at the same time.  

This also means you can’t be absolutely sure that students will not seek help. This is a concern for some people. But it doesn’t have to be. “Academic integrity” can mean many different things.

From 2011-2014 I developed a system for COMS 210, a 200 student lecture course, that allowed students to seek help and collaborate while taking multiple choice exams.  My results are unscientific, but overall test averages only went up by about 3%.  I was honestly quite surprised. Student complaints about testing, and even test anxiety, seemed to drop precipitously. It required more front-end preparation, but the grading was easy and the learning experience was better.

A couple caveats are in order here: 1) students need to adjust to it and may initially really dislike it.  They have good reason to feel that way.  It looks like other multiple choice tests but it’s not, so skills that were well developed in years of standardized testing are rendered irrelevant.  

2) in past courses, multiple choice was only one axis of evaluation for the course.  Students must write and synthesize, and they are subject to pop quizzes, which they also dislike (except for a small subset that realizes a side-effect is they keep up with readings).  On the syllabus, I am completely clear about which evaluation methods are coercive (those I use to make them keep up with the reading and material) and which are creative (where they must analyze, synthesize and make ideas their own).

So, here’s my multiple choice final exam formula.

Step 1: Make it completely open-everything (book/friend/internet), but warn students that they should make a study sheet because they won’t have time to look up everything.  

The advantage of the study sheet method is it allows students to write down anything they have trouble memorizing, but it pushes them to study and synthesize before they get to the moment of the test.

I also advised them to work in groups, but not to centralize study sheet labor, as there would often be wrong answers in the “centrally made” study sheets.

To further reduce student anxiety, I renamed the exams “quizzes” and said we would drop their lowest score (out of 4 of them). Shockingly, I think the renaming made a difference.

Step 2: Rules for the test: for teaching on campus, I told them that if they came to the classroom that day, we would enforce it as a quiet space, but that they could take the exam anywhere they wanted.  Most students selected that option.  So I already know a system like what we’d have to do online can work.

Step 3: Build a unique exam for each student (sort of).  Let’s say you are giving a 50-minute exam with 40 question.  Each question will be an “objective” on a topic.  Now, you need to write four (+/-) questions for each objective.  Yes, that’s 160 questions fora. 40 question test but I follow a formula (see Step 4).  Using the exam tools in MyCourses, each student then gets a set of 40 questions in a unique order, and with a unique order of answers.  They can phone or text a friend for help, or take it with a friend, but if they get stuck their friend has to actually give them the right answer, rather than saying “the answer to #6 is C,” so there is some learning going on.

NB: I am not providing technical support on how to actually design exams in MyCourses.  Please contact TLS if the online training materials don’t work for you.

Step 4: Eliminate recognition as a factor in the test.  

Most multiple choice questions rely on recognition as the path to the right answer.  You get a question stem, and then four or five answers, one of which will be right.  Often, the right answer is something the student will recognize from the reading, while the wrong answers aren’t.  

But recognition isn’t the kind of thinking we want to test for.  We want to test if the student understands the reading.

The answer to this problem is simple: spend more time writing the wrong answers.

I’ve come up with a formula that works pretty well.  Pretty much all my multiple choice exam questions take this form:

Question stem. This is the “question” part of the question in multiple-choice lingo. The ideal question stem has more words than any of the possible answers and is clearly worded, though I do throw in a negation (“not”) from time to time.

A. Right answer

B. True statement from the same reading or a related reading, but that does not correctly answer the question

C. Argument or position author rehearsed and dismissed; or that appears in another reading that contradicts the right answer.

D. Converse of one of B or C.

From here, you’re basically set, though I often add a 5th option that is “the common sense” answer (since people bring a lot of preconceptions to media studies), or I take the opportunity to crack a dad joke.

Step 5: Give the students practice questions, and explain the system to them.  I hide nothing.  I tell them how I write the questions, why I write them the way I do, and what I expect of them.  I even have them talk about what to write on their sheets of paper.  At the beginning of each class, we would do a multiple choice question reviewing something from the last class. At the time, I used clickers, which we also used for surveys and attendance.

A few other guidelines:

Answers should be as short as possible; most of the detail should be in the question stem

Answers should be of roughly the same length

I never use “all of the above” or “none of the above”

Since we are testing on comprehension of arguments, I always attribute positions to an author (“According to Stuart Hall,”), so it is not a question about reality or what the student thinks, but what the student understands authors to me.

Exception: I will ask categorical questions, ie, “According to Terranova, which of the following 4 items would not be an example of ‘free labour’?”

Step 6 (optional):  In 2012, I had students try to write questions themselves.  Over the course of about 10 weeks, I had groups of 18 students write up and post questions on the discussion board (that follow the rules above) that pertained to readings or lectures from their assigned week.  A large number of them were pretty good, so I edited them and added them to my question bank for the final exam.  So for fall 2012, my COMS 210 students wrote about half the questions they were likely to encounter on the final.  If they were exceptionally lucky, their own question might wind up on their own exam (we used 4 different forms for the final).

Here is a link to a copy that assignment. So long as the rules about timed exams do not change between now and September, I plan on using a variation of it for my fall lecture course: