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Remote Mechanics Teaching. How to do it well?

Many of us will be teaching remotely soon.  I wonder what is most effective when it comes to mechanics.

In our department we have been having meetings to help professors figure out what is the approach to the online teaching modality.  There have been lots of suggestions:

  1. Synchronous (voice over tablet writing, kind of like on a black board), with live viewing and maybe recordings
  2. Asynchronous lectures (voice over tablet writing)
  3. Flipped class rooms (view async material, then discuss and work on problems in groups during lecture time)
  4. Synchronous with games and activities mixed in, zoom polling, 
  5. Formal group homeworks

Many ideas emmenated from Collaborative learning techniques : a handbook for college faculty / Elizabeth F. Barkley, Claire Howell Major, K. Patricia Cross

Mechanics teaching, especially at the graduate level (which is what I am teaching this Fall semester, Introduction to Solid Mechanics), seems to be slightly unique compared to what a lot of the colleagues are doing.  Thus I thought it would great to hear what others are thinking of doing during next term.  It would be especially helpful to hear from those that have actually tried out particular techniques.

In the Spring, I went with live lectures (voice over tablet writing), and the students seemed to like it.  I also recorded the lectures and they told me that they often viewed them again to solidify their understanding.  I taught both (graduate) Statistical Mechanics for Engineers and (undergraduate) Applied Structural Mechanics.   However, even though the students seems pleased, I wonder if I can be more effective.  

In some past years I have also taught a fully asynchronous course for 2nd year undergraduate students (statics and strength of materials combined); this involved pre-recorded lectures, check your understanding quizes every lecture, etc.  There my experience has been mixed, with many students falling hopelessly behind and failing to develop any sense of community. Here is a link to the lecture portion of the course (all videos on youtube).

The added difficulty this Fall semester will be the fact that 30% of my students will be in Asia (UTC+8) and I am teaching from Berkeley (UTC-8).  What is the best way to make sure they are well involved in the course?

I think many of us are in the same situation.  It would be great to get a robust conversation going on this topic.


Zhigang Suo's picture

Thank you Sanjay for this timely question. I have just tweeted your post:

Last semester I taught Advanced Elastocity, a graduate course at Harvard. I used Zoom live and wrote on iPad using onenote. I used no slides. It went OK. I had 20+ attendees. I could call on people to ask questions. A student walked on treadmill while atending the class with full attention! I have tried to mimic in person experience, and completely ignored all possibilities of innovation. I recorded one lecture because a student could not make the class. The students were kind in their course evaluation. They said that they liked the course and that the difference of zoom teaching and in person teaching was insignificant. 

Should I learn about innovations on zoom for the Fall? I look forward to learning from experience from colleagues. I will be teaching graduate course on fracture mechanics in the Fall.

Well Zhigang, it looks like we are the only two teaching remotely this fall!  Or our simple voice over iPad white board is the best that can be done.  Someone must have a better idea of what can be done.

Wenbin Yu's picture

I am going to teach in-person with a mask on. I don't know whether we will end up in converting back to virtual or not. Speaking with a mask on for 75 minutes will not be pleasant. Students will be socially distanced in classroom. Handouts/homework/exam will be handled electronically. Students can choose to come to classroom or stay at home watching videos. Everything else will be business as usually. 

Ravi-Chandar's picture

Last spring, I taught an undergrad mechanics of materials class and a graduate fracture mechanics class. The undergrad class had 160 students. Prior to transition online, I wrote things on an iPad using GoodNotes; the lectures were recorded and available to students for asynchronous viewing. So, the only thing that changed was that instead of in-person delivery, I recorded the lectures ahead of time and released one at each assigned lecture time. Students commented that while the transition worked well, the lack of interaction was an issue - they felt out of touch. The graudate class had 10 students; after the very first recorded lecture, they indicated that they prefer live lectures, and so that is what I did, still writing on the iPad. I would always preload into my iPad, all the files, figures, problem statements, etc necessary for each class so that all materials are accessed through a single device. 

This fall, I am scheduled to teach Introduction of Solid Mechanics (Linear); I plan to do live lectures with the iPad-zoom interface.

I think the overall feedback about the online delivery is the absence of connections. So, this fall I am planning to hold a town-hall once a week for 30 minutes or so and provide an opportunity for additional interaction with and between students.

Innovations? I am thinking of animations similar to gaming, but this is resource heavy!


Ravi, I agree that the live lecture is important.  The regular schedule seems to help the students quite a bit.  I do record mine for everyone and find that they come to lecture and then watch it again later for select bits of information.

Matt Pharr's picture

I have found pros and cons of teaching online. 


  • With recorded lectures, students can watch at their own pace: rewind, pause, etc.
  • Some interactive features actually help facilitate participation, if done correctly. I have found that polling and breakout sessions are good for this purpose (although breakout sessions can be difficult to manage in large courses).
  • Related to the above bullet, one interesting thing I have found is that students participate even more when provided with the "chat" (text) feature in Zoom. I think they are less intimidated to use this feature (as opposed to raising their hand and talking in class) and have grown up texting and being online their entire lives. As a warning, enabling this feature can slow progress in your class and can be a distraction in trying to monitor it simultaneously while lecturing. I recommend that you tell the students only to use the chat feature to ask the instructor questions (not to communicate with each other). Even though it slows the class down, to me it is worth it in terms of the benefits of increased participation in class.


  • Last semester I uploaded pre-recorded lectures and then held online office hours for discusison sessions. I found that very few students attended office hours (whereas 90%+ came to class when it occurred in person).
  • Related to the above bullet, I think it is tempting for students to put off watching pre-recorded lectures (e.g., and try to watch a bunch of them all at once near the end of the semester). Likewise, I am sure they are watching tv, their phones, another computer monitor, etc. while "watching" the lectures. With their attention divided, they will not retain information as well.
  • Cheating. A whole other can of worms . . . I try to give open-ended, conceptual questions to help here.

Overall, if we have to teach online, I agree with Ravi (and his students) that doing the lecture live is still very important. It gives students a structured time to attend the course and ask questions. Incorporating some interactive components, even if they seem trivial (breakout sessions in zoom, polling in zoom (even Y/N or T/F), short quizzes during class) is vital, particularly in large classes, to keep the students' attention. An even better version would be to use some interactive "learning modules", e.g., through augmented reality and virtual reality. I have attempted to do this myself and through hiring some undergraduate/graduate students to help (from CS) but implementation is tricky. The know-how to develop these modules requires more time than most faculty members are willing to commit. I have also worked with a couple of AR/VR companies in this regard. Partnering with a company greatly decreases the time for implementation and increases the quality of the final product. The issue there comes in through user rights; typically the companies want to charge per user per semester, which is not sustainable for a single instructor and perhaps not even for a large department.

@Matt can you say more about how you design your polls.  Also for the breakouts, do you have them work on a question and then come back and report to the class?

Matt Pharr's picture

Hi Sanjay,

For polling, I do it mainly through zoom. You can set up the poll (for a given zoom session) before the class in the meeting details on zoom. You can also do it live on the spot. I sometimes do the latter when a question comes up spontaneously in class. As the host, you will be able to see the results (and the names of students if you don't want it to be anonymous, e.g., for grading purposes). The polling is multiple choice, I usually end up doing T/F or Y/N. I mainly use this feature to add some level of engagement in the course and also to see if students are generally understanding the content. There are other polling services (e.g., where you can have more open-ended answering, i.e., students can submit a free response. I know some other instructors use this for group-work related activities. These resources have limitations though, e.g., the number of responses that you can receive is limited if you use the free version (hence again the better utility for group work).

For breakout sessions, yes, it is mainly for students to work on problems together and then come back to class. The students can “ask for help” in their given groups; I can see this as the host and then pop in whenever students have questions. Likewise, I can “move around” the various rooms to check in with each group. With large courses, moving around the groups can be tricky but the “ask for help” feature is helpful in this regard. I also have design projects in my classes, which the students do in groups. I schedule brainstorming sessions related to these projects during class time a few times each semester. Breakout sessions are helpful in this regard as well.

Thanks Matt.  Today I tried breakout groups.  I attempted to flip my class by having them read particular sections of the book before hand.  I then started the lecture with a 10-15 summary of a few highlights of the reading.  Then I launched into working with material.  Periodically (4 times during the hour) I posed a question and sent them to breakout rooms.  When they returned (3 to 4 minutes), I took a couple of suggestions on the answer either by calling on a particular group or taking volunteers.  After that I detailed either a suggested method or just gave a version I felt was more instructive.

I asked a student later about the experience and they said it actually worked (eventually).  The first time they had no idea how to interact in the groups but they figured it out pretty quickly.

I think I will try this for another week and then take the pulse of the class to see if they prefer moving forward this way or returning to the 'usual' lecture format.

Bhisham Sharma's picture

Great points made, Matt!

Like most people (I think) I have resisted the need to alter the traditional lecture format and have stuck with the methods that worked well when I was a student. However, the current situation has served as a positive nudge for me and I have learnt that online tools can indeed improve my teaching, if used correctly. 

This semester I am teaching two graduate classes--Theory of Elasticity and Structural Dynamics. Both classes are primarily online, though I hope to include some experiment lab sessions in the Structural Dynamics class. For both classes, I use Camtasia to record my lectures, using Onenote and my tablet to write the notes, and upload them as SCORM Contents on Blackboard. Camtasia lets me add quizzes at various locations in the videos; this keeps the students engaged, lets me reinforce important concepts, and gives me feedback on which concepts remain unclear for some students. Weekly assignment are posted and recieved on Blackboard as well. Some feedback that I got from students last semester was that they miss having the "structure" of needing to be in class at specific times and the discipline that forces upon them. So, I post the new videos for each week before the scheduled class hours--I am sure there is more I can do on this front. 

I am incorporating more face-to-face interaction through required Zoom meetings with the entire class one day per week, during prescheduled class hours. I use this session to revise the important concepts covered in previous weeks videos, given them problems to solve by themselves and then go over the solutions with them (this part I intend to move in-person when climate permits), let them ask any questions they might have, and quickly provide a quick introduction to what this week's videos will cover. As far as getting students to ask questions goes, I have found the same thing as Matt--students are more comfortable sending me a direct message using the chat feature than asking in front of everyone. I have not had any issues with students chatting with each other. 

One feature which I was missing was peer interaction as well as some level of interactive experience students get in a traditional classroom. It is difficult to recreate a "class-spirit". For this, I am experimenting with MS Teams. I have created a Team for the classroom with various channels related to class material, extra readings and resources, and just general interaction related to the subject. I post all important announcements here and encourage students to contact me directly using the chat function rather than emailing me. The chat within Teams lets me answer their questions more promptly and also allows us to do a quick video call and clarify things for them if we need to. I also keep posting any interesting related material I can find online (for eg. the EML webinars! Markus's webinar last week timed perfectly with me just finishing vibration and waves in strings--saved me a lecture recording since I asked them to watch it as part of their assignment!) and also encourage students to post anything they find useful and help each other discover new and cool things about the topic. I know one can do this in Blackboard too but it just doesn't work well there. Teams has worked out great for me, including for my research group. I also use the Class Onenote feature on Teams to share my written notes with the class.

Cheating is an issue for everyone, I am sure. I have taken an approach similar to Matt. Instead of trying to replicate in-class exams, I now give them more conceptual quizzes that are open-ended and force them to think and apply concepts covered in class. The quizzes are open-notes, open-book..I rely on them to not cheat off each other. I am more existential on that aspect--if they are intent on cheating then there is only so much I can do to prevent it. I trust that they are hurting themselves in the long run if they keep that attitude. On my part, I try to minimize opportunities for cheating and try to ensure an even playing field for all students without resorting to tools that force them to give up any semblance of privacy.

My wish is that there was one online platform that I could use for everything; that would keep things a bit easier for me and the students. But no such magic bullet exists so far, so I am trying to use the best aspects of the tools that are available to me. It has worked out quite well so far and student feedback has been quite positive. I know the approach needs more work, but my hope is to learn from this experience and add in-person components to only make things better. In the future, I am most excited about being able to use in-person time for problem solving rather than lecturing--truly flipping the class was a distant dream for me; turns out that it is easier than I thought it would be. 

Thanks for initiating this discussion, Sanjay. I would love to hear about and learn from other people's perspectives and how they are approaching this. 

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