Best Practices for Remote Student Engagement

The COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented level of activity in online and remote learning. Students and instructors alike were forced to learn how to adjust their approaches and expectations in the classroom. This massive and immediate shift in education requires new strategies as we move forward in the world of remote learning.

Remote Learning Hierarchy of Technology Needs

Below is a pyramid which displays the level of technology needs students have. Click on each level of the pyramid to display a description. As you click on each tier, you will see a list of problems that may arise. These lists are not meant to be exhaustive, but merely to illustrate the challenges facing students in a remote instruction environment.

The 4 Dimensions Explored for Remote Teaching Strategies

The Research and Best Practices Subcommittee has collectively identified four areas of challenges facing instructors in remote environments. Please read the summaries below and click on the interactive drop-down menus to read more about potential solutions to these issues.

1. New Norms in the Online Environment

This section helps instructors to effectively communicate new norms and expectations in an online environment.

Norms are patterns of behavior that socially enforced. Sometimes norms are explicitly spoken or taught, but more often they are silently modeled and learned without a person being aware of their existence. A good example of a norm that is never explicitly stated but that is generally understood is the way people seat themselves in public. In a public setting such as on public transportation or a waiting room, it is generally understood that a person only sits directly next to another person when there is no other seat available (in times before social distancing and the six foot rule). Think about how awkward and uncomfortable you would feel if you were the only one in a large waiting room and a stranger sat down in a seat directly next to you. This might feel like an act of aggression. You may feel threatened. This is an example of an unspoken norm.

The sudden transition to remote learning may leave students wondering what behavior is expected of them. For example, what should a student do when have a question during lecture? Should they interrupt the instructor? Type a message in the chat window? Click on the “raise hand” button? Or wait until the end of class or office hours to ask?

Norms which may have been previously well-established in a face-to-face classroom may need to be explicitly defined and stated in a remote environment. Consider explicitly stating your expectations to your students in the following areas.

  • How should students participate during lecture?
  • How can a student ask a question during lecture?
  • Should students have their audio on or off during lecture?
  • Should students have their video on or off during lecture?

Face-to-Face classes were historically distraction free. At the postsecondary level, most students have learned the cultural norms associated with expected classroom behavior, so the need for classroom management is low. Additionally, distractions that may enter the classroom such as cell phone use, food, or drink can be addressed and eliminated by the instructor. But what happens in a virtual environment when the instructor may not even be able to see the student?

Below is a list of challenges facing instructors teaching in a remote environment:

  • Students walking away from their computers during lecture.
  • Students distracted by their environment (children, other people, cell phones or other electronic devices, etc.)
  • Students fall asleep during online lecture because they are lying in bed instead of sitting up.
  • Students attempt to watch lecture while they are driving or even working at their jobs.
  • Students cannot unmute themselves because their environment is so loud they cannot be heard over it.

These instances and many more are not conducive to learning. Consider taking time at the beginning of class to encourage students to create an environment conducive to learning. You may even have the students break into small groups and discuss strategies they can use to minimize distractions.

For lectures that span more than an hour, consider giving students a scheduled break at a fixed time so that they know if they need to use the restroom, get food or drink, or take care of any other tasks, they may do so during the break.

You may have to be creative when thinking of ways to address these concerns, but the main thing is to openly talk about these issues on Day 1 so that students can establish and maintain a distraction-free learning environment.

Online tools that allow students to interact with the instructor and with each other include polls, surveys, and breakout rooms.

If students are reluctant to engage and participate in an online environment consider administering a short survey or poll at the beginning of class. Then incorporate this anonymous feedback into the lesson to help break the ice.

Breakout rooms are another way to foster discussion among students in a remote learning environment. Both Zoom and MSTeams have versions of breakout rooms. If you plan to use breakout rooms, make sure you follow the following guidelines:

  • Give students a clear, specific objective they are to accomplish in their groups
  • Make sure every student knows what the objective is before they leave the main room and join the breakout room.
  • Tell students how long they will be given to create a task and set a timer for yourself so you can hold them to this time limit.
  • Visit each breakout room in turn to ensure students are on topic, to ensure they don’t have any questions, and also to make sure that they haven’t all completed the task and are just wasting time until you call them back into the main room.

2. Navigating the Virtual Classroom

Instructors are used to having to repeat information. However, in remote learning, the need to repeat information is at an all-time high. Why is that?

It is helpful to remember that in a traditional classroom setting, students received almost all of their information aurally as the instructor made announcements and answered questions in class. In remote or fully online courses, students must now find the information themselves. Students may find this process intimidating or overwhelming.

How can instructors make it easier for students to locate information pertaining to assignments, calendar information, deadlines, rubrics, etc. when they need it and not be overwhelmed?

Create a video or design an activity that provides students with a tour of the online course. Consider giving a quiz to hold students accountable for finding important course information. To add an element of fun, make this activity into a game or contest to see who can find the course information first.

Be sure to provide multiple links to important information such as office hours or instructor contact information.

Create practice versions of all tools (quizzes, assignments, etc.) that you plan to use throughout the course in a low stakes orientation activity. This gives students the ability to try out the tools in the course and for you to identify any issues early in their submissions.

3. Executive Functioning Skills

Executive functioning skills include time management, prioritization of tasks, planning, scheduling and problem solving. In a remote setting, the demand for these skills is at an all-time high. How can instructors foster and encourage executive functioning skills so that students can succeed academically?

At the beginning of the semester, give students a calendar that lists all important due dates for the course. Consider making important deadlines on the same day each week for deliverables such as quizzes or assignments. Additionally, you may consider posting these deadlines in multiple places. For example, the deadlines could be contained in the course calendar, and you can remind students of upcoming deadlines in the Announcements section of Blackboard. This section has a box that you can click to email students the announcement so students also receive an email containing the announcement text. For synchronous courses, you can also remind students of deadlines during lecture.

During the first week, have the students brainstorm ideas of how to be successful in the course. Prompt them to include personal obstacles they may need to overcome and then have them provide their own solutions. This can also be a part of an orientation activity.

The Student Success Center offers academic coaching to students at no additional cost. Academic coaches help students to keep track of their assignments, prioritize assignments, and complete other executive functioning tasks associated with being a student. Make students aware of this free resource and encourage them to take advantage of it.

4. Communication Among Students

Teamwork makes the dream work. Peer study groups and student-to-student interactions facilitate the learning process. Additionally, students often help each other remember deadlines or other administrative aspects of a course. In a virtual environment, such interactions disappear. What can instructors do to bring back communication among students?

The army assigns battle buddies during basic training. Battle buddies keep tabs on each other and make sure they are ok and not falling behind. Consider creating a battle buddy system at the beginning of the semester by pairing (or tripling to be safe) students in a group at the very beginning of the semester. Give them their own space on Teams or have them exchange contact information. This can also be beneficial for projects where you have peer-to-peer feedback or editing.

If breakout rooms are being randomly assigned, this usually means students will end up with a different group every lecture. To increase a sense of community, consider assigning students to the same group across multiple lectures in order to build a sense of community within each small group.

Consider adding projects or group work that requires students to work together to accomplish a task. Such assignments need not constitute a large part of the students’ grade. However, requiring students to work together can increase a sense of community and cooperation.

In a traditional learning environment, if students wanted to study together outside of class, they could simply pick a time and location to meet. In a virtual environment, students may not know how to create their own virtual meetings without the presence of an instructor. Make sure students are able and comfortable with this process so that they can study together if they choose to do so.