Student engagement is one of the most important elements for successful teaching and learning. An engaged classroom promotes active learning, critical thinking, and knowledge retainment. When the majority (or even a good chunk) of students are engaged, they co-create a positive learning environment where students not only engage with the materials, but also help support each other’s learning process. When student engagement is achieved, learning can take place in one of its most beautiful forms. Here, the classroom becomes a community—a space in which students cultivate and share common goals and support each other through their journeys of learning. It is magical.
The sudden switch to online teaching and learning due to the COVID-19 outbreak unfortunately means that educators like us no longer can cultivate and nurture student engagement through face-to-face interaction. While I wrote in my other blog post advocating for asynchronous learning, it is also true that a sense of community can often only emerge if there are some elements of real-time learning. Moreover, access to a learning community might be especially essential when teaching particular subject matters and/or to specific audience. For instance, subjects that are perceived by students as being challenging might require additional support other than the instructor’s. Students who lack prior knowledge or experience in the discipline (e.g. college freshman or high school students) might also need some extra encouragement from peers. In these instances, real-time class meetings can be particularly useful.
Here, I provide a few simple and concrete tips for boosting online student engagement during the pandemic.
- Checking in
This is a confusing and stress-inducing time. As someone who has just recently developed the skill of grounding myself, I understand how much easier it is when there is external support for finding inner peace amongst the chaos in everyday life. Being the instructor automatically grants us special power—we are the guides from whom students expect directions, the leaders to whom they look up. By simply asking students how they are doing helps them release some of the fear and anxiety that they have accumulated throughout the day (or days). It lets them know that they and their wellbeing matter. It creates a space for them to support each other by simply learning that they are not alone.
Depending on how big your class is and the duration of the class period, allow 10-20 minutes to check in with each student. It is worth it—the flip side is that students are drowned in their own emotions and cannot focus on learning at all. These check-ins allow students to enter the zone of learning. They give them a fair chance to connect to the learning space virtually, cognitively, and emotionally.
- Creating Small Group Discussions
Another tool that I often use is small group discussion. This is especially useful in large classrooms where there are more than 15 students. If your class takes place on Zoom, I highly recommend the usage of “breakout rooms”. The breakout room function allows instructors to manually assign students into smaller groups. Alternatively, Zoom can automatically assign breakout room participants based on the number of students.
Since I usually don’t have time to enter each breakout room to facilitate discussion, I ask students to select a spokesperson to synthesize their ideas. The spokesperson then shares their group’s ideas once they leave the breakout rooms and re-join the larger classroom.
This practice takes the pressure away from students who are introverted or do not wish to speak in front of everyone. Spokespersons also do not feel as much pressure because they are not only sharing their own ideas, but also those of others as well. Small group discussions give students the opportunities to develop a sense of agency as they contribute to the collective process of knowledge production. It generates a sense of ownership among students. And it builds community.
- Soliciting Reactions
Unlike teaching in traditional classrooms, teaching online means that it is not possible to keep eye contact with students and detect their reactions. To compensate for that, I resort to asking students to press the reaction buttons on Zoom periodically. This often happens during transitions or when I sense that I’m losing some of them. For instance, I often ask students to give me reactions after I check in with them. This way I can make sure that everyone is still with me as I transition to lecturing.
- Answering Questions After Class
Similar to offline teaching, sometimes students would like to stay after class to ask questions or to seek further interaction with their teacher/professor. I always tell students that I will stay behind after class to answer any questions they have. For me, there are often a few students who do. Even though technically class is over, these are valuable moments that can help strengthen student engagement. Students who stay behind often end up becoming more active over time. They help support other students in small group discussions and other learning activities. And for those of us who get a kick out of teaching, we all know how nice it feels when students do stay behind.
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