Looking for ways to keep students engaged while they’re in classrooms part-time or studying remotely at home? Here are some ideas to help you stay connected and excited about educating your students this fall.

It was a tale of two learning styles in my household this spring. 

Like millions across North America, my children and their teachers were abruptly plunged into remote learning when schools shut down to decrease the spread of COVID-19. 

My daughter, an enthusiastic, self-motivated Grade 11 student, quickly adjusted to online learning.

My son, a less than engaged Grade 8 student, just as quickly figured out the many loopholes to be found in remote learning—and exploited every last one of them. 

Neither of my kids is wrong or right. Nor are their teachers, who all seemed to have a disparate approach to e-learning.

They were all thrust into an unprecedented situation that was as challenging as it was unexpected. The result for many school boards was an uneven approach to remote learning that struggled to fully engage even the most industrious students. 

 

remote learning for educators

 

In the remaining weeks before the 2020-21 school year begins, school districts everywhere are working hard to determine a safe solution for education in the midst of a global pandemic.

Many plans include a ‘blended learning’ model in which students come to school part-time and conduct the rest of their coursework online.

No matter how you’re educating your students, student engagement must be the foundation of any framework.

What is Student Engagement? And Why is it Important? 

Educators have been grappling with student engagement since the beginning of time, beginning with defining what it really means to learning.

According to youth engagement consultant Adam Fletcher, “Students are engaged when they are attracted to their work, persist despite challenges and obstacles, and take visible delight in accomplishing their work.”

Benefits of an engaged student include:

  • Improved academic achievement and satisfaction
  • Persistence in the face of academic struggles
  • Higher standardized test scores
  • Better social skills
  • Higher graduation rates

An engaged student is a successful student.

But while engagement is easy to identify, it can be hard to apply, particularly with diverse student populations who have a variety of needs and limited resources to make it happen.

And yet there are winning strategies that contribute to helping most of the kids, most of the time. 

 

remote learning for educators

 

“Grounded in the learning sciences, engagement is deepest in environments that support fostering relationships, productive instructional strategies, and social and emotional development,” report university professors and researchers, Kerry Rice and Kristin Kipp in EdSurge

Here are some strategies educators are exploring as they prepare for in-class and remote learning (more likely a blend of the two).

Connect with students more than ever

There is a strong link between student engagement and the teacher-student relationship. When a student feels important to even one teacher, they’re more likely to attend class and be motivated to learn. 

Strategies to promote a strong connection in remote and blended learning environments include:

  • Meeting one-on-one with each student, remotely or in-person, as regularly as possible. Some educators set aside “office hours” each week during which students can sign up for 10-minute mini-meetings with their teachers. Others make a point of reaching out to a few students every week, rotating through class lists so everyone has regular touchpoints.
  • Showing them you care. During school shutdowns, many educators delivered hand-written notes to their students with a message of, “We care about you even when we don’t see you.” A student I know received a bookmark from his teacher with a little note on the back. His mother says he uses that bookmark all the time and reads the message often. Don’t underestimate the power of these simple missives.
  • Creating short videos. It’s easy for students to disengage when school is out of sight and out of mind. Continue to be a friendly face by posting brief videos regularly during remote learning times. It might be a lesson, an interesting fact or a simple hello.

 

remote learning for educators

 

  • Responding to students quickly. If a student reaches out by email, direct message in a school-related app, phone or any other communication, answer them immediately. Reassuring them that you are available goes a long way towards establishing trust and a positive relationship. You can create boundaries, if necessary, once you have a strong connection.
  • Asking them to engage with you. Show that you care about students’ feelings and experiences as they learn in-class and remotely. Make time to take their “emotional temperature” by doing everyday check-ins like the rose and thorns exercise or asking them to share an emoji that best illustrates how they feel.
  • Pivoting from correction to praise when learning remotely. “Educators should consider only identifying student successes in virtual meetings in order to model positive interactions… this will prompt other learners to behaviorally and academically follow suit. Intentionally recognizing the positive will in turn build a more productive, motivational, and supportive online community for all students,” writes school counselor Kate McKenzie in Making the Switch to Remote Learning: Your District’s Guide to Preparing K-12 Students for Future Success.

Connect students to each other 

We know that peer relationships are powerful, and they play a strong role in increasing student engagement.

When potentially disengaged students “see” each other (even remotely) participating in school activities, they are more likely to follow suit, especially when their teachers work to create an environment where everyone feels they belong.  

Strategies to foster strong connections between your students include:

  • Having regular meetings. Whether it’s in-class or via video remotely, set aside time for everyone to get together. One educator devoted the first 10 minutes of each video lesson to socializing time and achieved a 100% attendance rate as a result!
  • Assigning group work. Zoom and other virtual meeting tools provide possibilities for break-out sessions with small groups, so even when they’re not in school, kids can collaborate.
  • Creating pen pals or class buddies. In a blended learning environment, educators and students may lack the continuity that a classroom provides. Consider pairing up students or creating small groups who constantly connect with each other, no matter where they’re learning. 

Be flexible

In a blended learning environment, not every student will be able to log on at a prescribed time for a lesson. Technology may be at a premium in the home.

Students may struggle with motivation to log on. Flexibility will be key to establishing and maintaining student engagement. The more students feel understood and supported, the more likely they are to stay tuned into learning. 

Strategies for providing flexibility include:

  • Giving students permission to do the work when they can. Instead of listening to a lesson “live” from home, allow them to watch the recording at a time that works for them.
  • Being clear on assignment due dates and optional activities. Even the best apps can’t keep a student who struggles to stay on top of things organized. With every touchpoint, reiterate due dates and point to where they can get assignment details. Build in multiple forms of offering instruction, including text and video.
  • Thinking in terms of a weekly structure. Give good line-of-sight to what’s happening in the week ahead. Day-to-day may make students feel unsure of what’s next. And a view longer than a week may feel overwhelming.
  • Providing a “menu of options” when assigning tasks. Rather than just one way to complete an assignment, offer two or three i.e. drawing, writing, building. “[This] cultivates student engagement because the empowering act of choosing builds trust, confidence, and motivation,” writes social studies teacher David Sherrin in Education Week Teacher.

Think outside the technology box

This year, educators everywhere were challenged to quickly learn, adapt and integrate new technology into their (virtual) classrooms.

Standbys like Zoom and Google Classroom were commonly used, but there’s a whole world of Edtech available and all of it contributes to student engagement. (Have you met a K-12 student who isn’t profoundly digitally adept?)

Look beyond Zoom and Google Classroom for tools like:

  • Poll Everywhere and Kahoot! help you easily create fun, individual trivia games
  • GradeCraft and Classcraft help you gamify your lesson plans
  • Flipgrid helps you record and share short, awesome videos
  • Classkick helps you track your students’ progress as they work at their own pace
  • Xello helps your students build self-knowledge, personalized future readiness plans and critical life skills
  • Remind helps you stay in touch with students and their families through direct messaging
  • Parlay helps facilitate class discussions and develop critical-thinking skills

Educators are being challenged and empowered like never before to engage students in exciting and extraordinary ways. A blended learning model may not be what we asked for, but the situation could spark creative new ways to engage students. 

Which strategies will you employ?

Heather Hudson
ABOUT HEATHER

Heather Hudson is a Toronto-based freelance writer and journalist. She specializes in content marketing, corporate storytelling and good old-fashioned journalism. You can read some of her work in The Toronto Star and learn more about her at heatherhudson.ca.