Whether your classroom spans virtually across laptops or convenes in person, student engagement is high on the priority list. A student that is actively engaged learns effectively and quickly.
However, structuring your lessons to support these goals can be a challenge: Which activities are exciting? How can I balance fun while promoting a deep understanding of the content? In these top five tips (that were approved by a high school student!), we outline key factors and activity ideas to consider when planning your next session.
1. Follow the 20-20-20 Rule.
Looking at a screen all day can be tiring for both students and adults. Although it isn’t an exact science, attention span and eye straining can be managed through the American Optometric Association’s 20-20-20 rule. To prevent digital eye strain:
- Take a 20 second break
- Every 20 minutes
- To look at something 20 feet away
Twenty seconds is long enough to send students on a scavenger hunt or take a restorative breathing or stretching break. For example, set a timer and ask students to:
- Stand up and touch your toes.
- Take three “bee breaths” (“Smell the flowers” as you breathe in and make a buzzing sound as you breathe out).
- Find something near you that begins with the /s/ sound.
- Put on your favorite song and dance!
Need more ideas? We have many more suggestions available in our distance learning courses!
2. Break up the visual scene.
Teaching without visual variance makes for a forgettable day. Keeping students engaged often involves frequent changes of pace, location, and activity. Think about when you’re scrolling through Instagram stories — the ones that vary the visual background or break things up by including a poll or a “tap here” are probably more engaging than the series of stories with a person just talking to the camera. The following strategies can break up the visual content on your screen and help keep students engaged.
When analyzing larger blocks of text, break up passages into chunks that are easily tackled. Highlight and annotate “live” (i.e., during each class) so students see authentic movement on the screen. Use different colors, and ask students to chime in with their own notes about the text. Annotations give students a visual bookmark they can refer back to when reading and also help students:
- Isolate and organize important material.
- Identify key concepts.
- Paraphrase sections of the text.
Mix up the programs you use during class. For example, instead of using a slide show for your entire class period, switch between a Google document, Padlet, Jamboard, or document camera. The act of switching between programs will help vary the visual background.
If you have a lot of text on a slide, add animations so each section appears only as you are talking about it. Not only will it not look overwhelming to students from the get-go, but each animation will change the visual scene and help keep students interested.
3. Provide opportunities for collaboration.
After over a year of disconnectedness, offering safe opportunities for students to work with each other can help introduce them to new perspectives. Talking to others, whether it be in breakout rooms over video calls, or in small groups in person, can also enhance creativity and develop their confidence.
To make the most of synchronous collaboration, give students a task to complete. If they are discussing a text-dependent question, start one Google document or slide deck on which each group records their response. Once they return, take a few minutes to highlight answers from each group. You could also structure small group time by doing a jigsaw activity in which each group answers a different question about a text, completes a different section of a graphic organizer, or annotates a different paragraph, and then presents their work to the whole class.
4. Check for understanding and ask for feedback.
Polls, chats, and this-or-that activities offer students the opportunity to let you know how well they understand the lesson and give feedback in real-time. Incorporating students’ feedback into upcoming lessons strengthens the connection between teachers and students and encourages active participation. Giving students an opportunity to voice their opinions in the classroom can lead to increased academic performance.
You can quickly check for understanding or ask for feedback during a lesson with a Zoom poll or a program such as Mentimeter (as a bonus, this also breaks up the visual scene!). A simple multiple-choice or true or false question would be okay for a mid-lesson check for understanding. Or, ask students a question like: Do you want me to spend more time explaining this topic? to help you decide whether you can move on to the next part of your lesson.
5. Allow students to take a teaching role.
Getting students to participate and engage often involves a level of trust. Allowing students to spend part of the class period teaching their peers can help them feel like a valued member of the classroom. For example, start your lesson by asking a student to summarize a section of text from yesterday’s reading before diving into the next section.
You could also set aside an entire class period for students to lead their peers through a close reading of the text. They could spend the week preparing in small groups and then take turns asking text-dependent questions and annotating different sections of the text with the class.
- “Annotating Texts.” Learning Center (2020)
- “Benefits of Collaboration” National Education Association (2018)
- “Improving Teaching With Expert Feedback” EduTopia (2016)
- “Elevating Student Voice in Education” Center For American Progress (2019)
- “Students as Partners” Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence (2016)