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Simple ways to improve online student engagement your teachers probably haven’t tried yet

April 30, 2020

Engaging students in an in-person classroom setting is hard enough for many teachers. But engaging students in a synchronous online class setting? Most would argue it’s even harder.

Although teachers are experimenting with hands-on learning assignments and online break-out sessions to engage students during online classes, many teachers still notice only a handful of students actively participate on a regular basis. Here are three easy to implement—yet often overlooked—ways to help boost students’ engagement in a synchronous virtual classroom. Although these strategies are not necessarily long-term solutions to every online student engagement challenge, teachers can and should give them a try if they haven’t done so already. 

Ask all students to use virtual backgrounds

As soon as students turn on their cameras for class, they can become easily distracted by their peers’ home environments.  Not only are some students quietly comparing their households with those of their peers, but they may also grow embarrassed of their own home realities. Even if students have questions or thoughts about the content, students who feel self-conscious of their home environments may default to staying quiet to minimize attention from peers.

To help students feel more comfortable in participating when their cameras are turned on, teachers should ask each student to select and use a virtual background whenever they join class. This strategy is most effective when all students use these backgrounds.  To get started, have teachers share this list of free virtual backgrounds and walk through these instructions to help students use them.

End each lesson with a cliffhanger

Surprisingly, Netflix series producers may be able to teach teachers about increasing student engagement in a synchronous learning setting: cliffhangers can be a genius tool to get your audience excited about your next episode (or lesson). Have teachers integrate a “cliffhanger” section at the bottom of their lesson plans to remind them to deliberately craft their lesson endings to be exciting and intriguing. Teachers may not be able to add special effects to their reading or math lessons, but they can insert some sort of hook at the end, such as an interesting, unanswered question that they will revisit in the next class, or postponing story time until the end and stopping right before something exciting happens. Getting students excited about what’s next at the end of the lesson may be just as important as securing their interests at the beginning.

Align lessons to neuroscience by alternating between 10 minutes of instruction and 10 minutes of processing time

Neuroscientists have found that spaced learning—or alternating between teaching new content for 10 minutes and allowing learners 10 minutes to digest and review new  content—is the optimal way for students to retain information and feel engaged. Studies have shown that 10 minutes is the average maximum attention span for most students, with 5 minutes being the max for young elementary students. Teachers can make their synchronous lessons more engaging and effective by simply delivering new content in 10-minute segments and then allowing 10 minutes for students to process what they learn (i.e. discussing content and questions or providing practice opportunities for students).  To promote the use of spaced learning across your district, challenge teachers to break their lesson plans into 10-minute segments of new content and processing time and encourage them to use timers as friendly reminders.

By now, almost all K-12 teachers have tried to learn and master the many technical requirements of online teaching in one form or another. As teachers become more proficient, they should also begin to adopt strategies to ensure students stay engaged over the weeks (or months) of distance learning that lie ahead. 

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