How to Engage Students in Smaller Remote Courses
If you ask faculty what they’re worried about when it comes to remote teaching, you’re likely to hear – at some point in the conversation – that they’re worried that they’re losing an important chance to connect with students.
At some level, I think a lot of us are concerned that our courses will be more about delivering content (assigning a reading, giving a lecture) than about guiding students to discover important ideas and develop key skills; or that teaching remotely will be a stilted pantomime resembling education (full of interruptions and dropped ideas) rather than a fulsome collaboration with students.
These are reasonable worries. Remote teaching is new for a lot of us. And yet our situation – our new dependence on technology – doesn’t only present us with limitations. There are possible advantages.
Moreover, our smaller classes (and by small I’m thinking under 30 or so) present a unique opportunity to offer a course that is vital and engaging. In these smaller classes, we can find a lot of ways to show a good amount of care for our students’ ideas and their learning.
In fact, one of the best ways we can engage students in our smaller remote courses is to find ways for them to contribute their ideas. We need to find ways – and we can, especially in synchronous, smaller courses – to get our students talking.
I’ll say upfront that I don’t think it’s a good idea for the go-to strategy to be to require students turn on their cameras, with the hope that it’ll encourage their participation. We don’t know why that camera is off; it might be because they don’t want share their home with other students in the class.
Getting Students Talking
Whether we’re in face-to-face or remote courses, there are some key ways to get students talking. You can:
- Ask open questions.
- Do your own thinking out loud.
- Remember to find something worthwhile in a students’ contribution before moving on or finding fault.
- Connect students’ contributions to each other and to the issues under examination.
- Offer a low-stakes form of participation, before asking really big, tough, risk-heavy questions.
- Be comfortable with tentative and conflicting answers.
- Give students a structure to follow, with specific, scaffolded questions.
- Encourage the students to apply the course materials to their experience.
You’ve probably done all of these (and a few more) in your courses. Aim to keep doing them in your remote courses; they might feel a bit awkward at first, but they have a good chance of working.
Special Considerations for Remote Courses
Here are some special considerations for engaging students (and getting them talking) in remote courses. As I’ve been thinking about teaching remotely, I’ve been thinking a lot about an essay by Dr. Aimée Morrison on the coaxed affordances of Facebook. She makes the case that, like any other built object, online spaces are designed to encourage particular expressions of identity, relations of power, and forms of communication. Their set-up obliges how we see ourselves and relate to one another.
It’d be naïve to think that Zoom or even Blackboard were any different. They’re closing down or shifting particular ways of thinking and speaking – and encouraging others. The key, I think, is to find what works best in those spaces to overcome their limitations and leverage what they’re very good at, what they’re actually designed to do.
Both of those tasks – overcoming the limitations and using the potential of these spaces – are easier in small classes.
Speak with energy.
Overheard in the Twitterverse somewhere: the camera doesn’t add 10 lbs; but it does suck all of your energy.
When I’m recording, I usually think that I’m conveying the right amount of enthusiasm. And then when I watch it back, I’m surprised to hear a slower than expected pace, a flatter than desired vocal range.
There are some reasons for the lower energy, the flatter voice. My energy seems to be relational; I convey more when I’m with someone, rather than with a camera. I also think sitting down relaxes me more than I realize.
So, when I’m recording or simulcasting a lecture, I’m going to turn up the dial of my own energy. I’ll move around if need be. I’ll make jokes. All of our energy that we would have at the front of the room now has to be pulled through the pinhole of the camera. And that energy will be felt and perhaps inspire the students to send back their own ideas.
Be quiet. (Or, you know, just. stop. talking.)
I have made the same joke about nine different times over the past few months. In my face-to-face classes, I would love to have a tumbleweed (even just a prop) to roll across the front of the room when the class gets quiet. In my Zoom workshops, I talk about wanting a cricket sound effect.
Here is the secret. I don’t actually want either. I just want to keep making the joke because it recognizes the awkward silence in the room, and signals my own comfort with it.
So, in your small remote classes, consider living with the silence after you ask a question. We’re tempted, I think, especially when we can’t see our students, to fill the absence with our own voices. In fact, it might be helpful to shift our thinking about silence. Silence isn’t awkward; it makes room for other people and their ideas. Or to put it another way: silence gives people a chance to reflect – and sometimes after the silence you’ll get more considered, better formulated answers.
Put the pen in the hands of the students.
When you’re faced with silence, you have three options: let it be, fill the space with your voice, or find another way for students to fill it with theirs.
They’re all good options – and all could work well in your smaller remote course. But there are some caveats.
Let the silence be. Silence works, only if students are actually prepared to answer the question. Sometimes silence is a sign of discomfort or an indication that students aren’t ready to answer the question. So, rephrase or proceed to one of the next options.
Fill the silence with your own voice. If you’re going to start talking, consider repeating the question, rather than providing an answer. Otherwise, students will realize that if they just wait long enough, you’ll do the work.
Find another way for students to fill the silence with their own voice. I think of participation in class as an elevator. I have to start with something easy – a question that everyone can answer – then as the questions get tougher and the difficulty rises, people will feel more comfortable to join me as the elevator goes up.
Some of those easier, ground-floor level modes of participation might annotations on a slide. In Zoom, annotations of all kinds that can happen. A colleague at University of Toronto, Dr. Stephanie Nixon, uses the annotation tool in Zoom for students to complete all sorts of check-ins and first responses; I’ve include a few samples of her slides (with permission) in Appendix A.
Also consider a chart or specific questions for students to fill out and complete on their own. That chart or list will help them follow along if their wifi connection freezes or disappears. They’ll also help the students collect their thoughts before raising their hands or taking the risk of unmuting their mics.
Breakout rooms are a key feature of Zoom, and a good way for students to find their voice before sharing it with the main group. We offered some guidelines for breakout rooms in Going the Distance:
- Give clear instructions
- Check in.
- Give the task time.
- Review the work that happened in the breakout room.
- Honour the work that you’re asking the students to do.
If you would like to learn more about breakout rooms in Zoom, visit our Guidelines for Using Breakout Rooms in Zoom resource.
Group projects are also possible in remote courses. All the wise practices remain for group work:
- define the task,
- clarify roles and procedures,
- encourage collaboration,
- check in, and
- give the criteria by which the projects will be evaluated.
Most of the advice for group work, though, in online environments says that as the instructor you’ll need to be sure to provide some seemingly formal spaces/times for the group to meet; Microsoft Teams might work well for those group projects. You might also need to check in on the groups more regularly than usual.
It’s also possible to make unofficial group assignments. Aimée Morrison (yes, the same person who wrote about coaxed affordances) has recently written well about semester-long groups (usually of 3-5 students) who are responsible, on a rotating basis for collective class notes and one-page summaries – both of which are shared with rest of the class. Check out the helpful posts:
Think about going even smaller, too. If the rule of thumb is to keep Zoom sessions short, then replace them with individual meetings with students. I’ll be doing so in my graduate course (if we’re still remote teaching in the Winter term). My plan is to use 60-90 minutes for synchronous discussion – and then ask students to meet with me, individually, once every two weeks or so to discuss a piece of their writing.
Share students’ work.
In smaller courses, especially at the upper-undergraduate level or the graduate level, you might have a colloquium, where students present usually a shorter version of their culminating assignment. That’s possible, too, in smaller, synchronous remote classes. Dr. Suzanne Bailey, for example, has hosted (to great effect) a research café, in which she has students post recordings (of various sorts, in various forms) of their research presentations. Then, students watch and can respond to these presentations.
This sharing of work can happen on a smaller scale; consider having students post and share their responses to readings or labs ahead of class.
Morrison, Aimée. “Facebook and Coaxed Affordances,” Identity Techonologies. U of Wisconsin P, 2013.
“Resilient Pedagogy: Collaborative Class Notes,” “Resilient Pedagogy for Fragile Times,” Hook and Eye. 2020.
Written by: Joel Baetz
Last Updated: 3 September 2020