Engaging Students and Eliciting Interaction While Teaching Remotely

Medford/Somerville, Mass. – Sarah Gargaro, A18, and Ari Gizzi, A18, chat in Tisch Library on April 25, 2018. (Anna Miller/Tufts University)

by Heather Dwyer, Associate Director Tufts’ Center for the Enhancement of Learning & Teaching

An essential component of the learning process comes from the interactions that students have with instructor, the course content, and their fellow students. The experience of a sense of community results in feelings of belongingness and autonomy, which improves motivation and behavior around learning. Is it possible to achieve this while teaching remotely? Though students won’t be able to interact physically and may lack some of the nonverbal cues inherent to a face-to-face setting, there are a number of things instructors can do to foster and manage interaction in an online learning environment.  

The following list of questions and ideas for solutions came out of a virtual roundtable among instructors preparing to teach remotely, held on March 20, 2020. 

How can I encourage all students to participate, including the shy or reluctant ones? 

  • Use non-verbal response tools such as polling software. Zoom allows students to provide quick and simple feedback by indicating “yes,” “no,” “go slower,” “raise hand,” etc. (see the Manage Participants tool). Software such as PollEverywhere.com or polling software native to your video conferencing tool may also be desirable options. 
  • Leverage the chat (synchronous) and/or discussion tool (asynchronous). Often, students are more comfortable typing their contributions rather than saying them aloud. To maintain structure, you can pose specific questions to the class and/or set aside limited time to use the chat.  
  • Leverage breakout groups if your video conferencing software allows for it.  
  • You can pre-assign the groups or randomly assign them.  
  • While students are in breakouts, have each group identify a reporter for their group so that someone is responsible for communicating the group’s ideas to the entire class. 
  • While students are in breakout groups, visit the groups one by one. Invite groups to share their ideas with the entire class once you reconvene. 
  • Have breakout groups collaborate on a virtual whiteboard or a shared document and ask groups to share their document once you reconvene. 
  • Once you reconvene, invite students to share a peer’s idea (rather than their own) – perhaps one that resonated or that prompted reconsideration. 
  • See More at Fostering Inclusion and Equity in Remote Teaching

How to I manage the live chat and the potential for distraction while simultaneously teaching over video conference? 

  • In collaboration with your students, generate guidelines for behavioral expectations regarding the chat. 
  • To reduce distraction, design students’ engagement with the chat to be structured. Perhaps the first 5 minutes of class are available for students to chat freely, and thereafter, you can set aside specific times for students to use the chat to respond to specific prompts. 
  • If available, have a TA or other teaching support staff monitor the chat while you focus on other aspects of teaching. 
  • If need be, disable the chat.  
  • Remember, it’s inevitable that you have less control over students’ behaviors in the online environment than you do in person. To keep students engaged, divide your lesson into chunks, switching up your pedagogical approaches as appropriate. Each time you shift gears, it will cue students to refocus. 

How do I best conduct asynchronous discussions? 

  • Use the discussion board in Canvas (or your LMS). Provide clear prompts and limit the length of students’ responses. 
  • Require students to respond to each other’s contributions. It can be helpful to have distinct deadlines for students’ original contributions to the discussion and their responses to one another.  
  • Provide students with a model response and/or provide “Dos” and “Don’ts” for responses. Identify aspects of responses that are particularly valuable. 
  • If you are grading the discussions, leverage SpeedGrader or other grading efficiency tools available through your LMS. 

How do I include students who may be in various time zones or have other constraints preventing them from participating synchronously? 

  • Record your lessons so students can access them later. Make sure to clarify to students beforehand that you intend to record. 
  • Conduct as much of your course asynchronously as possible. This way, students can access the course content when most convenient for them. 
  • If you want students to interact with one another in real-time, for example, to work collaboratively on project, assign them to groups and instruct them to find times to connect that are compatible with their schedules. 

Given that we are all experiencing a stressful life disruption, how can I help students process the transition to remote learning? 

  • Remember that all students will process and navigate the transition differently. Some may need time to express their emotions first, while others may be anxious to return to course content. 
  • Acknowledge the difficulty of the situation that we’re all in and give students time to express their feelings before moving on to regular course content. Allow students to “pass” if they don’t feel comfortable sharing.  
  • Start each class with a short prompt or ice breaker. Students could provide these if appropriate. Students can respond through the chat, using their microphones, or via reflective writing. 
  • Possible prompts: 
  • “What thoughts do you have right now?” 
  • “If you were a song today, what would you be?” or “If you were the weather, what would your report be?” 
  • “What is something small that you’re grateful for?” 
  • “What is something you are hopeful for?”  or “What have you been doing for self-care?” 

See Also