Educational practice has a problem: it hasn’t substantially changed in the nearly 200 years since compulsory education mandated every child into a classroom to learn reading, writing and arithmetic.
You know how those sessions go even if you’ve never led a classroom: teacher talks, students (presumably) listen.
In reality, students’ attention wanders. They fidget and doodle, pass notes and read other materials besides their coursebooks. These days, with practically every learner (save perhaps for the very young) having a personal electronic device, there’s a whole other realm that pupils inhabit while physically still at their desks.
If students’ rapt attention is not a given in the classroom with the teacher present, how can any teacher or tutor assure themselves that their students are wholly present for online lessons?
The first small tweak you can make to your lesson delivery is standing while teaching online.
Have you ever noticed that public speakers tend to move around a bit – a couple of steps to the left, a couple to the right, stepping back and stepping up as they deliver their content? Those subtle movements help keep their audience engaged; as they pay attention to your small positional shifts, they are also focusing on your words.
You might also encourage your students to stand up and stretch periodically during your lessons. A bit of movement will do them as much good as it does you.
You may need to engineer yourself a stand-up desk and, perhaps, invest in a microphone so that, when you step back, the device will ensure your voice still comes through loud and clear.
Another great tip is to use low-tech visuals. If you have an easel or some way to prop up topic-related posters behind you as you speak, your students will have something lesson-related to focus on.
These visuals don’t have to be industrial-grade or professionally produced. They might be humorous and colourful; you could even hide ‘Easter eggs’ in your visuals and challenge your students to find them by the end of each lesson.
Mixing things up – alternating between hi- and low-tech visuals, availing yourself of online teaching resources and switching from teacher talking time to student talking/working time all take a substantial amount of planning if you want your lessons to go smoothly.
Of course, if you’re an experienced teacher, you know that lesson planning is nothing new but teaching online, the kind that ensures student participation, takes a bit more preparation.
Having the applications you want to use loaded and ready to go will ensure that you flow from one phase of learning to the next with minimum disruption or inconvenience. If you plan to use any web pages, have them open too.
The platform you use to conference with your students matters a great deal because each has tools built-in that make your teaching sessions seamless.
Zoom became the overwhelming favourite during the mad scramble to establish online lessons at the start of the pandemic. By contrast, many online tutors prefer to use Skype for their one-to-one tutoring sessions. These two platforms have much in common – screen sharing, private messaging and more built-in.
Whichever platform you use, make sure your students know about all of the features and how to use them.
Some of these offered tools encourage student-led learning. For instance, Zoom has a breakout room utility so teachers can group their students and assign them projects, which they will later present to the group via screen-share. Your learners can then show their work on the application’s whiteboard.
You might have guessed where all of this is going: the very best way to capture and keep students’ interest during your online learning sessions is to give them buy-in – something to be interested in.
Calling students by their names is very important, as is ensuring they keep their cameras on. Doing so acknowledges that they are a vital part of your class, not just another face on the screen. Give groups broad assignments and let them figure out how to divide the work among themselves. Keep your lecturing or video segments short – ideally six minutes or under, lest their attention wander.
And, above all, encourage your students to ask questions and explore topics related to the lesson. Don’t be shy about asking them questions either.
There’s been a feeling of doubt about standard educational models for the past twenty-odd years, in part because advances in classroom technology have caused the teaching focus to shift from the teacher to more independent, student-led learning.
Still, even those innovations pale in comparison to how the pandemic has made the need for a new pedagogy obvious.
Whether you’re a schoolteacher or a tutor, these tips will hopefully help you keep your learners engaged and active during your sessions.