• Brendan Harcourt

Amherst College STEM Courses Transition to Remote Learning

In response to the current COVID-19 pandemic, Amherst College opted to shift to remote learning beginning March 23, immediately following its spring recess. All students, except for those with extenuating circumstances, were expected to leave the campus by March 18. The college believes that these preemptive measures were necessary to secure the safety of its students, as “neither this College nor others have sufficient quarantine and/or isolation options to protect the community should the virus spread to our campus.” However, the transition to remote learning has sparked concern among students and faculty. Amherst College strongly emphasizes the benefits of its hands-on liberal arts education; many fear that an online learning format will inevitably sacrifice some of these values.

Above: Many professors have opted to use Zoom, a video conferencing application, to meet with students in real-time.


The environment inherent to remote learning fundamentally differs from the environment of a conventional classroom. Even in STEM courses more commonly associated with lectures, in-person discussions foster a sense of intimacy, enabling students to confer with peers and seek guidance from professors. Yongheng Zhang, a professor for MATH-211 (Multivariable Calculus), believes that these opportunities are vital for students to effectively advance through calculus. According to Professor Zhang, “One needs to study the concepts and work on the problems incessantly in order to understand and make progress, and it is necessary that one has someone to talk to in order to ask and share.” Unfortunately, online learning impedes these advantages by forming a barrier between student and teacher. Julia McQuade, the professor for PSYC-364 (Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychology), anticipates that replicating in-person conversations between students and between students and faculty will prove challenging. “I also have realized, after teaching my 45-person class, that it is challenging to have a discussion with more than six people (and there are 15 in the seminar). Much of the social cues are lost online and so I think it will take my seminar class a bit of time to find a way to interact online that is effective,” Professor McQuade notes.


To overcome these obstacles, Professor Zhang will focus on preserving his students’ familiarity with the structure and format of MATH-211. He will upload pre-recorded lectures on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays to align with his normal class schedule. Similarly, students will follow the same schedule of weekly homework and monthly exams. His decisions stem from his previous experience with online learning. He states, “As a MOOC [Massive Open Online Course] learner myself, I found it difficult to get through a 1-month course in a home environment, say nothing of taking four full courses at home.” To account for the disconnect between student and professor imposed by remote learning, Professor Zhang will implement resources such as discussion forums and recorded explanations of difficult homework problems. The Math Fellows Program and Moss Quantitative Center have also transitioned online, providing students with additional resources. With these measures, Professor Zhang hopes to create a meaningful online learning community for his students.


In her faculty profile, Professor McQuade describes PSYC-364 as an in-depth seminar that highlights “the importance of developmental changes and the connection between theory, empirical research, and case examples.” She encourages her students to engage in thoughtful discussions with an emphasis on critical thinking and nuance. Online courses are not conducive to these values, especially given the college’s sudden shift to remote learning. Consequently, she has reduced her expectations for student independence, stating that “Now, I'm providing much more scaffolding in the form of video-taped lectures on the foundational content and critical points of the articles read. This typically would have been interspersed in the in-person meeting and I would have asked students to identify much of this themselves.” Despite these limitations, Professor McQuade still strives to promote purposeful thought and reflection in PSYC-364. Students will collaborate during live meetings centered around discerning and understanding big-picture implications; those unable to attend a meeting will complete an alternative assignment based on these big-picture questions. While some of the course’s nuances will unavoidably be lost, Professor McQuade hopes that PSYC-364 will remain a valuable learning experience for her students.


Amherst College encourages its students to practice social distancing and follow all applicable CDC directives and preventative measures. For more information about COVID-19 and the college’s response, visit the college website’s COVID-19 page.

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