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The Challenges of Zoom Teaching in 2020

by Sarathi Sathasivan, CEO Squarecap Inc., on Dec 20, 2020 4:04:41 PM

At Squarecap, our goal is to empower teachers to increase student engagement so that every student can earn their degree. It’s critical for that goal that we understand the unique challenges teachers faced while teaching online in 2020, so we recently surveyed teachers from across the country to gain insight into what’s working and not working for them.

The Challenges of Zoom Teaching in 2020_small

First, we asked teachers what challenges they experienced this semester in terms of engagement or feedback. Based on our survey results, it’s clear that many teachers struggled to get their students participating and engaged via Zoom.

“[We’re] competing for the attention of students in class while they look down at phones, view another screen, or walk through Walmart.”

Students this year struggled to take ownership of their online courses, as the lack of a social presence meant there was no external pressure to stay on task in class. Teachers reported feeling “ghosted” as many students left their cameras off and possibly disappeared completely after logging in to Zoom. Classes no longer felt cohesive, with one professor reporting: “[it's] as if I am teaching 50 individuals… as opposed to a class of students.” Others voiced heightened concerns over academic dishonesty, as teachers had to settle for imperfect and intrusive methods of digital proctoring.

“Teaching has become the equivalent of shouting into the void.”

Teachers also reported that class discussions weren't as engaging or rich as they can be in person. Students were more reluctant to write down their thoughts in classroom forums, and Zoom chat was a distraction more often than not, with many questions getting lost in the feed. Even in hybrid in-person classes, “students seem reluctant to discuss, as [everyone is] wearing masks and social distancing.”

Teaching via Zoom goes slower than teaching in person...current students will not be getting the same amount of education." 

Finally, many teachers reported feeling like they had less time than ever before, despite not having to commute or walk from class to class. Some teachers mentioned that administrative tasks and grading are more difficult in an online-only environment, while others felt that they weren’t able to cover the same amount of material that they would during a normal semester. Zoom usage itself became burdensome for many teachers and students especially at the start of the semester, with many students simply dialing into the wrong classes at the wrong times. For students and teachers alike, Zoom fatigue routinely drained the energy out of the learning environment over the course of each week.

Next, we asked teachers what teaching strategies they’ve found to be most effective in addressing the above challenges. Primarily, we learned that many teachers were able to make their online classes feel more cohesive and memorable by adding structure in the forms of etiquette rules and participation policies.

1. Clearly State Etiquette Rules

The teachers we surveyed were surprised by an overall lack of online etiquette from their students, which can be partially attributed to newness of the online learning experience. To educate students on how to behave in online classrooms, some teachers are now clearly stating Zoom etiquette rules in their syllabus.

For example, stating in the syllabus how students are expected to utilize cameras can ensure that cameras-off isn’t the default. While most schools discourage requiring students to keep cameras on for privacy reasons, it’s entirely reasonable to ask students to display a picture of their face at a minimum. This makes it easier for teachers to get to know their students and creates a feeling of community among peers.

2. Attendance vs. Participation

Because students can now simply “turn on and tune out” their Zoom sessions, some teachers are completely forgoing attendance-only policies in favor of more comprehensive participation policies, so that merely logging in to Zoom won’t guarantee that the student will be counted present. For teachers measuring participation online, it’s important to have a simple, consistent, and time-efficient method in place, which often can’t be accomplished with Zoom alone. For larger classes in particular, using a classroom engagement tool like Squarecap is essential for quickly tracking attendance, participation, and comprehension in one place.

By implementing a mix of graded and participation-only content questions—and the occasional open-ended brain-break question—teachers using Squarecap were able to quantitatively measure participation throughout each class. Some teachers found that opening the floor for semi-anonymous student questions helped foster a sense of online community, while those who still track attendance used Squarecap to generate multiple join codes at the beginning, middle, and end of class. Squarecap’s automatic grading and grade-syncing options also saved teachers hours of time outside of class compared to manual methods.


Just about everyone—teachers and students alike—struggled with the state of education in 2020, with many teachers saying that it’s been the most challenging year of their teaching career. In surveying some of the brightest minds in the country for this blog, we’ve been inspired by how diligently these professors worked to give their students the best semester possible. We recommend that every teacher take the time to reflect on what’s worked this past semester, and to not be afraid to try something new that might improve your quality of life or your students’ academic success.

Topics:Teaching TipsAttendanceOnline LearningPollingStudent SuccessCovid19