Kabacoff: Teaching Quantitative Analysis during the Pandemic

Robert Kabacoff,

Robert Kabacoff

When the COVID-19 outbreak disrupted in-person classes last spring, several faculty found innovative and creative ways to adapt to online teaching and learning.

In the fourth of a fall-semester series, we’ll be highlighting ways faculty from various departments are coping with teaching during a pandemic, and showcase individual ways courses are thriving in an in-person, online, or hybridized environment.

In this issue, we spotlight Robert Kabacoff, professor of the practice in the Quantitative Analysis Center. This fall, he’s teaching QAC 201: Applied Data Analysis; QAC 356: Advanced R: Building Open-Source Tools for Data Analysis; and QAC 385: Applications of Machine Learning in Data Analysis.

In the past, all of Kabacoff’s classes were taught in-person, but he’s currently teaching all three virtually.

“It’s a new experience,” he said. “The biggest challenge is keeping students engaged so they don’t feel like they are watching television or a YouTube video.”

To prevent Zoom fatigue, Kabakoff takes the following steps:

  1. He encourages all students to keep their video on to have a “classroom” feel.
  2. He sets up a forum at the beginning of the course where students share a bit about themselves, including their year, major, goals in the course, and at least one fun fact about themselves.
  3. He regularly checks in with them via Zoom chat, asking them to share a word or two about how they are doing.
  4. He uses polls to check their learning.
  5. He regularly groups students into breakout rooms to discuss and work on problems. Each group selects a representative to share their findings when they come back into the main room.
  6. They use Google’s Jamboard (whiteboard) during discussions, so that each student can add their thoughts in real time.
  7. Students read articles and watch videos via Perusall, a software tool that encourages them to comment on what they are reading or viewing. Students share thoughts and ask questions that other students try to answer. “The goal is to make a community learning environment,” Kabakoff said.

Although these approaches are working well, remote teaching has its downsides. Since he’s not meeting the students in person, Kabakoff tries diligently not to let students “fall through the cracks” and to keep them actively engaged in their own learning. He also helps students in different time zones feel connected and assists those who have poor internet service.

Kabakoff’s QAC 356 and QAC 385 classes have semester-long group projects. “Students work together via Zoom and use other team-building tools to complete the assignments together. At the end of the semester, they present their results to the class virtually,” he said.

But for his QAC 201 course, the class is a flipped classroom; students watch videos, complete readings, and take short quizzes on the material before class. In class, they work on a semester-long original research project. They do this by working at permanent virtual tables with five other students and a peer mentor (a student who has taken the course before and excelled on their own project).

“My role in this course is to provide very short lectures and act as a resource for each ‘table’ as they work on their projects,” Kabakoff said. “The course was designed by two Wesleyan psychology faculty and funded by an NSF grant. It has always been a flipped classroom, but has only now been offered virtually at Wesleyan.”