Anatomy and Physiology can be intimidating, especially online. By showing her human side, Kelli Roberts, MS, makes the class relatable—and fun.
Assistant Professor of Biology,St. Louis Community College-Meramec in Missouri
MS and BS in Biology
“That aha! moment when the students engage in biology is what I live for,” says Kelli Roberts, MS. But how the professor sets up those moments has changed considerably since she began teaching at St. Louis Community College in 2013. That is, in large part, because many of her courses are now entirely online.
“When I was teaching face-to-face classes, I could read the room and sense the energy. I knew if students were with me,” says Roberts. “With online courses, it’s tougher to be sure. So I’ve focused on how I can make the virtual experience so engaging that the student audience is alive, awake, and paying attention.”
Below, Roberts shares the five strategies she uses to ensure that her virtual classroom is just as exciting as real life.
“Education is a team marathon and not a solo sprint. This means that I ask my students to learn not only from their instructor but also from one another. I design group projects and thought-provoking discussion boards that require collaboration to address various issues. I believe all students are capable of academic success, and that education should be learner-centered. This core belief is the foundation of my teaching style and pedagogy.”
-Kelli Roberts, MS
Course: BIO 207 Anatomy and Physiology I
Course description: Anatomy and Physiology I is the study of inter-relationships between the structure and the function at gross and microscopic levels of the organization of living body. This course will use the body systems to emphasize the anatomical terminology, cellular and tissue level of organization. Anatomy and Physiology I includes the integumentary, skeletal, muscular, nervous and the endocrine systems. The laboratory component reinforces topics and concepts covered in lectures.
Roberts’s 5 strategies for entertaining learners online
Roberts is so enamored of the approach outlined below that she uses it in all the online classes she teaches. However, she finds it especially helpful when teaching Anatomy and Physiology I and II.
“These are make-or-break classes for students who must pass them in order to go on to whatever higher healthcare education they might want to pursue, from nursing to medical school,” she says.
Here is how she brings her online course—and her far-flung students—to life.
1. Cheer them on, starting on Day One
“My online courses incorporate personal development, mindfulness, and self-actualization skills to cultivate a growth mindset in my students,” Roberts says. “On Day One, I greet them through a welcome video, and then I follow up with weekly emails that always end with an inspirational quote.” These can come from sources as varied as Walt Disney, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Phelps, Maya Angelou, and Neville Goddard.
Roberts emphasizes to her students that, no matter what kind of student they were before they came to the class, they are capable of learning biology. “You have the ability,” she tells them. “Don’t necessarily ignore your past, but don’t be defined by it either. We are going to come through this class and we are going to come through it strong.”
2. Spark spirited debate with discussion groups
“Education is a team marathon and not a solo sprint,” Roberts says. “This means that I ask my students to learn not only from their instructor but also from one another. I design group projects and thought-provoking discussion boards that require collaboration to address various issues.”
For example, each week she posts a topical question on the discussion board, to which students must respond with a minimum of four posts: one must be a response to her question, but the other three must be to other students’ posts.
She also leads at least one virtual group project, such as analyzing a case study about a disease. For this, students worked in groups of four to determine the cause of a disease, its origins, how it was identified, and how to treat it.
3. Follow the KISS principle for videos
When recording a video lecture, Roberts says her aim is to “keep it short and simple.” To her, “short” means 45 minutes or fewer, and “simple” means keeping the camera on the lesson, not on herself. “I don’t show my face because I don’t want students distracted by me or what’s in the background,” she says. “So I must focus my enthusiasm to my voice, and I make sure I put lots of energy in what I say.”
Her best trick for this? Smile when doing the recording. “I know that students can feel it when I am smiling, and they will pay more attention,” she says. “Believe it or not, student can tell, even via recording, if you’re into the material or not.”
Bonus tip: Roberts says she records most videos with Blackboard Collaborate but has recently starting using SnagIt Videos, which automatically uploads the end product to her YouTube channel with one click.
4. Turn yourself into a YouTube star
When Roberts first began teaching online, some of her students had problems accessing the school’s learning management system. So Roberts created the Kelli Roberts YouTube Channel and began posting videos there, too. (She has since found that students prefer YouTube since they use it so much anyway.)
“If you have any bandwidth, it’s so accessible—more so than the LMS,” she says. “Students can even listen to the YouTube videos in their cars. And they cover all topics, from motivating students with learning tips and cheerleading to the specific biology topics that are part of the class.”
5. Let your personality shine through
Adapting personal hobbies or interests to the course material can make it fun. Being “human” with students helps build a level of trust, Roberts says, which is especially important for virtual teaching.
For Roberts, this means infusing her teaching with examples from pop culture and celebrities. “Whenever there is an interesting event in the media or a new meme everyone is talking about, I use it in class,” she says. “They seem to love that. I think it makes me more relatable. And the more relatable I can be, the more my students will pay attention to what I am sharing with them about biology.”