10 ways to improve student engagement in virtual classrooms

Young female student bites pencil while learning online

These days, not every student rolls out of bed and trudges to the bus stop to head to school. Instead, more and more students are simply flipping open a laptop, turning on a tablet, or unlocking their phones. According to the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), almost 300,000 students were enrolled across 501 full-time virtual schools in the 2017 – 2018 school year. That number may seem big, but it is dwarfed by the six million students who participated in at least one online higher education course in 2017, according to the Online Learning Consortium.

Virtual classrooms offer numerous benefits to students, instructors, and schools. They allow students to learn from anywhere in the world, including in rural and disadvantaged communities where schools and universities may be lacking. Virtual learning can also be a solution for students who may otherwise struggle to fit in with a normal class, and they can save school districts serious money. However, for all the upshots they offer, virtual classrooms also present significant challenges. The virtual nature of the class can leave students feeling disconnected and disengaged from the material.

How can teachers engage and excite their virtual students when they may live a world away? Here are 10 great tips for improving student engagement in your virtual classroom.

1.Break the ice

Start your course or semester on the right note by creating a fun, engaging atmosphere. Help students feel connected to each other and to you by offering up simple ice breakers that will force the students to learn about each other. One option is to ask students to pair up and interview each other. Another fun game is to ask the class to answer trivia questions or non-controversial personal questions using Poll Everywhere. For example, ask students to choose their favorite color or see how many are the oldest, youngest, middle, or an only child in their family.

2.Foster a community

Students will feel more engaged in your class if they feel they are part of the larger group. This can be one of the trickiest things to accomplish in a virtual classroom, but there are still plenty of ways to build a strong community. Create a community structure, such as message boards, or even a Twitter hashtag that students can use to communicate and connect during and outside the class.

3.Create individual learning plans

Use the unique benefits that a virtual classroom offers to help build individual learning plans for your students. That includes incorporating technology that will allow you to actively track each student’s performance. By assessing a student’s performance, you can discover holes in their knowledge, adjust the pace of the lessons, and determine what type of learning they respond to most.

4.Develop curriculum around shorter content

Not only are attention spans shorter than ever, but virtual students can easily skip out on long lectures or skim complicated readings. With so many distractions available to them, you’ve got to work extra hard to grab and keep their attention. One way to do this is to focus on creating short, captivating lessons. Consider recording 5- to 10-minute lectures or having students engage with interactive media, such as YouTube videos, music, or even live performances as part of your curriculum. Encourage student interaction during your lessons. That means less lecturing and more open discussions.

5.Integrate face-to-face virtual interactions

Isolation is a big downside of virtual classrooms, which can quickly lead to disengagement. You can combat isolation by encouraging or even requiring virtual face-to-face interactions. Start by recording a video of your lectures, so your students can see your face. Next, encourage or require students to meet in small groups via video conference. (Google Hangouts is a free video conferencing software.)

6.Learn by doing

It can be hard for students to feel engaged in class (virtual or otherwise), if they only listen to lectures and fill out multiple-choice tests. Depending on the topic of the class, encourage them to find creative ways to solve problems or express a lesson. For example, for history class, ask students to design a period costume. For math class, challenge students to find the square footage of a room in their home and document how they did it.

7.Add flexibility into the curriculum

Engage your students by letting them use their existing talents and interests to complete assignments. Not everyone wants to write an essay or do a book report. If you want the class to dive into the novel Dracula, let them show you what they got out of the book in a way that most appeals to them. Maybe a student will perform a one-man show from Dracula’s point of view, while another discusses the changing mythology of vampires in history. Be flexible in assignments, and your students will likely surprise you with their ingenuity.

8.Provide opportunities to collaborate

Group of students sitting in front of a laptop

Another great way to fight feelings of isolation among your virtual students is to assign partner, group, and class projects. When students collaborate, they can combine their creativity, share unique perspectives, and create relationships that will help them feel more comfortable participating in class. It will also keep them honest. No one wants to let their partner or their team down.

9.Communicate, communicate, communicate

You’ll never know if a student is falling behind or feeling bored unless you ask. Virtual classrooms make it easy for shy or disinterested students to fade into the background unless a teacher makes a concerted effort to reach out. This may go beyond just handing out your email. Offer virtual office hours, create a social media group for the class, and consider scheduling one-on-one consultations with each student during the course.

10. Solicit feedback

If you want to know if your students feel engaged and are grasping the material, why not just ask? Not every student will want to be honest if you question them directly, so consider creating anonymous polls that allow students to let you know what they really think. This is a great way to assess how much they know about the topic at the beginning of class, what types of assignments they want, if a topic needs more discussion, and what they would recommend changing at the end of class.

Poll Everywhere gives you the software you need to seamlessly create and administer polls. Your students can answer quickly and easily from their computers or phones. Write multiple choice questions or let students write out their own answers. You’ll get valuable feedback that will let you make your next virtual classroom even better.

Want even more great student engagement ideas? Check out our 5 Summer School Secrets to Improve Student Engagement.