September 18, 2020

Kevin Lam: “Students appreciate every little thing we do that shows that we care”

Kevin Lam emphasized the community-building elements of his course to foster well-being in the remote environment.

On March 16, 2020, less than four weeks before the end of the Spring semester, SFU made the decision to suspend face-to-face instruction in response to the spread of COVID-19. Overnight, instructors were required to move their courses and final exams online. Their efforts to maintain effective learning experiences for their students were, and continue to be, heroic. During the summer, we asked six of them how they were doing. Here is what they told us.

Kevin Lam (senior lecturer, Biological Sciences), taught BISC 202: Genetics, a class of roughly 160 students, in Spring 2020. It was a course built on contact and engagement. In addition to weekly instructor/TA office hours, a number of peer volunteers offered four hours of drop-in support each week. Lam also met with almost every student for a five-or-10-minute chat during the first two weeks of the course and gave his cell number to students with an invitation to call him on weekdays.

Silly videos and fun breaks

When remote instruction began, Lam doubled down on these community-building efforts by expanding his drop-in office hours virtually and finding new—and sometimes unconventional—ways to support well-being.

“In addition to the usual student support activities, I added short videos of my kids doing silly things at the end of each lecture video, as a fun break and a way to be more real and approachable to my students.”

To facilitate learning, he posted his lectures as YouTube videos and converted his in-class iClicker questions into multiple-choice Canvas quizzes. He also collaborated with other members of his department.

“My [Biological Sciences] admin made a mail list of all faculty who were teaching that semester, and we shared tools and hard-learned lessons a lot since SFU moved remote. In particular, I shared videos for how to make and post video lectures, and others shared ways to get around all the counterintuitive issues with using Canvas quizzes for exams.

“Now we’re working to figure out what’s the best mix of synchronous/asynchronous activities and how to prevent cheating without disadvantaging particular student sets. We've got a great team.”

Adapting and thriving

Lam’s students responded positively to his adaptations.

“The posted videos seem to work pretty well—more students said they liked it than the few who said it's harder to focus.”

Students also took advantage of the synchronous drop-in office hours and phone contact he offered “because students need to feel like they're not alone and have support that they can access.”

Although remote instruction has its challenges, Lam has seen many students thrive.

“Some students got three weeks ahead in lectures and assignments within the first week of class. Others just seem to appreciate not having to commute so far and long each day, and it's great to hear students appreciating the time they get to spend with their families.”

Lessons learned

When asked what he has learned from his remote instruction experience, Lam cited two lessons: “That writing remote exams that disadvantage and catch cheaters takes about 10 times longer than normal exams (and then they can't be reused) […] so I should start earlier and plan more time; [and] that students appreciate every little thing we do that shows that we care about them and their well-being.”


Teaching Practice, Course and Curriculum Planning, Technology and Media, Remote Instruction