Seven Strategies for Sustaining Student Engagement Online

Thanks to an extremely well-timed sabbatical, I have not had to teach my nonmajors biology class during the COVID-19 pandemic. But I have paid attention to what my colleagues are doing with their classes, and I have read a bit about best practices. I am especially interested to find out which pandemic-era teaching practices will remain when normal life returns.

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I know that pandemic teaching has necessitated new strategies for maintaining student engagement, which is a challenge that I ponder even in the best of times. For example, in one previous blog post, I wrote about the benefits of random calling, and in another, I wrote about Kimberly Tanner’s excellent article describing 21 teaching strategies that promote engagement and cultivate equity.

A great companion to these articles just appeared in CBE-Life Sciences Education. The new article, by Daniel L. Reinholz and colleagues, is called A Pandemic Crash Course: Learning to Teach Equitably in Synchronous Online Classes. It describes a situation that will feel familiar to anyone who was teaching in spring 2020: The rapid and unexpected mid-semester shift from face-to-face to online instruction. In this case, the “students” were instructors who were participating in a professional learning community focused on equity. That is, the instructors in the learning community were meeting face-to-face to discuss equitable teaching in their face-to-face classes… and when their own classes went virtual, the instructors’ learning community did, too.

The article contains a lot of details about how the participants used a classroom observation tool called EQUIP, but that’s not what I want to highlight here. For me, the most interesting part comes near the end, in a section called “Strategies for Promoting Equitable Participation.” The authors recommend seven strategies, which I have listed (and commented on) here.

  1. Re-establish norms: In face-to-face classes, you may or may not articulate the “rules” of the game, but students quickly come to understand whether, when, and how to ask questions or participate in the discussion. In a virtual classroom, students need to know whether to use Chat, or Q&A, or raise their actual hands, or just interrupt with a question, and they need to know how you are going to decide who to call on. Clarifying the rules will place everyone on equal footing from the start.
  2. Use student names: This is, of course, a good practice in any classroom. One of Zoom’s big advantages for teaching is that everyone’s name is visible on screen, so you don’t have to spend time memorizing names as you might in your face-to-face class. Using names, especially to call on those who have been quiet during a class session or to reinforce a point that a student made during a discussion, helps students feel “seen” and signals that you value their participation.
  3. Use breakout rooms: I have little experience with breakout rooms, but the authors of the article say that students who might be shy about speaking up in the “big class” will be more willing to participate in a smaller discussion group. You might consider popping in on the breakout rooms and then, when the whole class comes back together, calling on students by name to share some of the interesting ideas you heard them discuss in their small groups.
  4. Leverage chat-based participation: A lot of students would rather type into a chat than speak up. Depending on the size of your class, keeping an eye on the chat while you’re juggling your other responsibilities may be overwhelming. In online classes I’ve observed, a teaching assistant has monitored the chat sidebar, typing answers to questions that pertain to individual students and alerting the instructor about issues that need clarifying for the whole class. If you don’t have a helper, then consider taking periodic breaks to skim through the chat. You can then call on students to talk out loud about the comments they typed in. Or you can bring up selected issues that you see in the chat, which will demonstrate that you are listening and responding to their questions and concerns.
  5. Using polling software: Having students answer questions can liven up any class, whether face-to-face or online. If you don’t want to grade responses, then you can use the informal polling using tools built into Zoom or whatever online course delivery platform you’re on. If you want to grade the responses, then you can use applications like Poll-Everywhere or Top Hat or a similar cloud-based system—but then, of course, you will have to deal with the student registration problems that will inevitably arise.
  6. Create an inclusive curriculum: According to the authors, “Equity in a classroom is… reflected in… how an instructor validates different ideas, identities, and cultures (e.g., through the choice of course content, through the use of affirming language).” Part of the idea is for all students to feel welcome to bring their personal experiences into the classroom. I confess that in my own nonmajors biology class, I have been so focused on explaining the core scientific ideas that I have neglected the social implications of biology, as well as my students’ unique reactions based on their own experiences. I am only now waking up to the idea of exploring these avenues as a way to boost inclusiveness and equity, so I don’t have much concrete advice to add—at least not now.
  7. Cut content to maintain rigor: I am genuinely excited about nearly every topic in my nonmajors biology class, so it’s been hard for me to cut content over the years. However, I have also been thinking lately about what my students are missing, such as in-depth discussions about scientific topics that are relevant to their lives. In the words of the authors, “one of the barriers to equitable participation was simply trying to do too much in a course rather than doing fewer things well.” Hear, hear… now to figure out how to do it!

Finally, I appreciate Matt Taylor for offering one more suggestion from the perspective of a student who has been taking online classes during the pandemic. He suggests allowing students a lot of flexibility to complete coursework on their own schedule. Instructors are struggling to balance many competing demands during the pandemic, but so are students. Flexibility shows that you see your students as humans. It also doesn’t hurt to be liberal with your praise for what your students are accomplishing during a super stressful time.

I hope this list gives you something to think about as you plan next semester’s courses, which will almost certainly have an online component. Remember, when looking at any list of strategies, it’s important not to get overwhelmed by all the things you COULD do. Instead, look through the list and pick one strategy to focus on first. See how it works, get comfortable with it, and if you’re ready for another challenge, take the next bite. I am sure I am not alone when I say that I am eager to learn what you try and how it works—so please, leave a comment!

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