School staff have learnt a lot about maintaining student engagement online. Here’s some tips for taking these strategies back into the classroom.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a dramatic effect on teachers and students. Remote learning and teaching online have changed the role of teachers significantly.
There is no question that teaching online is different to being in the classroom. Transferring from ‘room to Zoom’ and back again is not simple – it requires considerable adaptation.
For some students, there have been advantages to online learning: improved time management, independence, concentration, self-pacing, accountability and self-motivation. However, many students have struggled. They have felt disconnected from their peers, their school and their education. Mental health problems have soared.
Delivering online learning requires all our facilitation and self-management skills, plus an awareness of what works and doesn’t work in this environment, as well as the best ways to utilise technology. But so much of what we’ve learnt while teaching remotely can also be taken back into the classroom.
Relationships are key for the mental wellbeing of students, as well as their educational development. We all have a deep need to belong to a group, whatever age we are. At Groupwork, we call the process of developing this belonging ‘groupness’. It is about creating a space where students feel safe to be themselves and have their voices heard.
We often say: “The road to groupness is paved with risk.” Asking a question or sharing a story is a small risk. But if a student has taken that risk and their contribution is received positively, they will be much more likely to go on to take a bigger risk, such as expressing a different opinion to others in the group.
We can also create processes that help students get to know each other better by mixing up small groups and creating new pairings. A critical process in ‘groupness’ is creating agreements about how to behave together. By developing behavioural norms collaboratively, students take ownership of their group culture.
Given that building relationships is fundamental in creating engaged students – and engaged students are more likely to learn – it’s a no-brainer.
Maintaining energy & engagement
We know students have different learning styles: visual, aural, verbal, physical, logical, social and solitary. So, for both online and face-to-face learning to be engaging, it needs to be designed with these styles in mind. What follows is a list of common engagement processes used by facilitators.
Mix up the dynamics
We’ve all learnt that staring at a screen for extended periods can be exhausting! Help students maintain their energy levels and focus by mixing it up, using these techniques:
Think, pair, share – reflect alone, then share with one, then whole-class share.
Small groups – encourages different perspectives, allows students to get to know each other, mixes up the energy.
Reflection pause – what has been learnt so far; what have you found interesting; what do you have further questions about?
Mix up the media
Everything we have learnt about technology can open up opportunities to be more creative. Many teachers have been using music, videos, photos, etc. to mix up their presentations. Encourage students to do the same.
Mindful use of technology
We’ve also discovered that things such as the quality of sound and lighting makes a huge difference to how we connect online. And that when technology fails us, that’s OK – we can model resilience and move to Plan B.
Friendly competitions such as games and quizzes can raise the energy. Kahoot! is just one great tool.
Get small groups to present work together. This helps them learn from each other and delegate roles. Perhaps even encourage them to use props, dress-ups, music.
Transferring from ‘room to Zoom’ and back again is not simple – it requires considerable adaptation.
Energise the room
Get students up and moving to keep them engaged and energised – great for transitions between subjects to help them refocus. These are some of my online favourites, which can be adapted for the classroom:
Find it fast – find an object in the house or classroom, first one back with the object wins.
Dance to the leader – play music, form a circle and take turns doing a move that everyone else follows.
What am I doing? – someone mimes an activity and everyone tries to guess what it is.
Puppies and kittens – divide the group in two: half puppies, half kittens. The puppies have to try to make the kittens laugh. If a kitten laughs they become a puppy, till there is only one kitten left.
Write your name with your body – start with the hand, then the elbow, foot, knee, bottom.
Be creative, be daggy – and acknowledge when students have shown vulnerability by stepping out of their comfort zone.
Scan the class
Whether online or in person, which students haven’t said anything in a while? Check in with those who appear to be uncomfortable or disengaged. Perhaps call a break or provide more clarity – adapt to their needs.
Keep instructions simple
Step-by-step instructions broken into stages can help keep all students on track.
Create opportunity for quiet voices
Not everyone feels comfortable speaking up. Apps such as Google Jamboard can be great for engaging quieter students.
Provide prompt feedback
As many of us did online, provide prompt feedback when work is submitted – even just to acknowledge receipt – to help maintain student motivation.
As we transfer back to classroom-based learning, some students may have some challenges readjusting.
Hold one-to-one sessions
Set up a time for a quick session to check in with each student – find out their challenges, what they are proud of, and how you can better support them.
Having fun is engaging for teachers and students alike. A teacher’s number one job is to share our own love of learning.
Back to the future
As we transfer back to classroom-based learning, some students may have some challenges readjusting. We will all be getting used to being around so many people again, and our energy levels may waver with the increased stimulus. Be gentle on students and yourselves.
Given that our focus may be reduced for a while, consider building in regular breaks. Manage your expectations – and theirs – of what can be accomplished in a single lesson. You may also want to look at processes to support the return to on-site learning. In the rush to hit the books, have you given the class a chance to debrief, discuss what help students may require, or whether there is a need to develop new classroom agreements?
Taking care of yourself
Educators are among the most overworked and under-appreciated people in our community. Working with young people requires a lot of physical and emotional energy, and the past couple of years have been especially taxing.
Now, more than ever, educators play a crucial role as community leaders. Our students need us to demonstrate resilience and how to live with uncertainty.
Without taking away from the genuine problem of heavy workloads, it is still vital to look after yourself. Communication is more than words – it’s in our tone of voice and our body language. If you’re not feeling enthusiastic, your students won’t either, no matter what you’re saying.
Do all you can to maintain the basics – exercise regularly, get enough sleep, eat a balanced diet, drink plenty of water, take time out to relax and do something you enjoy. For example, a five or ten-minute meditation every day can make a significant difference to your state of mind.
Write a self-care plan to remember to put yourself first, at least some of the time. This will give you the best chance of staying motivated, managing the challenges that come your way, and having a positive impact on your students.