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5 tips to boost student engagement in a virtual classroom

Updated: Mar 29, 2022

Almost everyone in the education industry — faculties, students, administrators, even IT technicians — can tell you that it has been and continues to be a challenging school year for many to adapt and navigate the new normal of hybrid and remote learning amid the pandemic.

5 Tips to Boost Student Engagement in Virtual Classrooms

It may seem that after almost two years of distance learning, we should all be used to it by now — 93% of U.S. parents with K-12 children at home said their children have had some online instruction since the coronavirus outbreak began in February 2020. However, despite the comfort and convenience it provides, distance learning also presents difficulties for students who grapple with challenges such as distraction and isolation and for teachers who find it daunting sometimes to fight for students’ attention in virtual classrooms.

With this in mind, we have collected five useful techniques to enable teachers and lecturers to use online and video conferencing tools to increase student participation.

1. Start with an ice breaker

Like how all journalists like to start an interview with the good old question “what did you eat this morning,” you want to build that rapport with your students and warm up the class for a more connected two-way communication throughout the lecture. This applies to both small and big group classes.

Depending on the size of the class, you can ask students to introduce themselves in the old-fashioned round-robin style, in a discussion board, or by diving them into several auto-generated breakout rooms. Here is a selection of icebreaker questions to get you started:

  1. What’s your weekend highlight?

  2. If they made a movie about your life, who would you want to play you?

  3. Do you have a secret talent? If yes, what is it?

  4. You just got a free plane ticket to anywhere in the world, but you have to leave immediately and cannot pack anything. Where are you going to go?

  5. If you were a type of animal, what would you be?

  6. What do you wish you knew how to do that you don’t understand?

  7. Where is the furthest you have traveled from your hometown?

  8. What is your favorite food?

  9. Favorite age you’ve been so far?

Alternatively, for educators looking to add more creativity to the curriculum, tools like Mural and Figma can become handy with pre-made icebreaker templates, and activities such as virtual theme days and sound ball are proved to be fun and engaging.

2. Break down the lecture into short sessions with 10-15 minutes’ breaks

According to McKinsey & Company, the best practice for holding live videoconferencing classes is to keep it as 30 or 45 minutes per session. As the lecture proceeds, research has shown that student engagement alternates between attention and nonattention in shorter and shorter cycles.

To keep students continuously interested and avoid fatigue, teachers and instructors should plan to limit the length of each class session. Allow yourself and students to have a short break in-between for some fresh air and reflections on the class content. It's always a good idea to return to class with a quick stretching exercise like classroom yoga or a brief meditation as well.

3. Don’t just throw students into the breakout rooms; plan ahead

Just as how you’d set up and test the computer and projector ahead of time in a physical classroom, you should also plan to set up virtual breakout rooms before the lecture begins for better student interactions and participation.

Breakout rooms work well in a virtual setting. Teachers and lecturers can design interactive activities around your learning outcomes, especially topics students usually get confused by.

Remember to give enough notice and instructions to the students in terms of what to expect, how to organize as well as how to time the breakout, how to communicate with the class instructor (or instructors) when they are stuck, and what to bring back to the class discussion (if they’re expected to present the outcome of the discussion and who should be the presenter).

When thinking about pairing the students, here are eight classroom grouping techniques and the best times to use them, according to Scholastic:

  1. Random Grouping: use it when forming groups of equal size or helping students get to know each other better

  2. Achievement or Ability Grouping: place students with similar achievement levels or academic strengths in the same group

  3. Social (Cooperative) Grouping: assign each student a different role (e.g., leader, presenter, or helper) to allow them to practice specific social skills

  4. Interest Grouping: assign students to a group or have them designate themselves to a group based on their interest in particular topics of study

  5. Task Grouping: put together students who are successful in completing given types of activities

  6. Knowledge of Subject Grouping: group students with similar background knowledge of a given subject or hobby when you want them to see likenesses among one another and share information

  7. Skill/Strategy Grouping: group together students who need practice with a specific skill or strategy

  8. Student Choice Grouping: when you want students to take the lead, allow them to group themselves according to a shared preference (e.g., for an author or genre in reading, or historical period or country in social studies)

4. Time the breakout rooms for small-group and one-on-one coaching

This goes hand in hand with the last tip and requires advance planning from teachers and instructors. If you plan to join the student breakout rooms one by one to provide small-group or one-on-one feedback, keep the rest of the class updated on when you’re jumping to the next one on the list.

Either send a timeline of which team you will visit to the rest of the class to remind them to come back at the right time or instruct students to work on assigned tasks while waiting for their turn. The last thing you want to happen is for students to wait too long in a quiet breakout room until you boom the session and start cold-calling them.

5. Always ask students for anonymous feedback after class

Last but not least, it is always wise to seek feedback from students through surveys after class since this is the easiest and most timely way to evaluate the effectiveness of course design and measure student participation in online learning. Whether you are starting a new course or testing an existing curriculum in an online environment for the first time, students can give you first-hand advice on what works and what doesn’t work.

Your survey may vary depending on your questions, but here is an excellent resource from Panorama Education just for reference — a guide with 45 survey questions to understand student engagement in online learning.

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