How to increase student participation and engagement in your online lessons

You’ve gone from the exhilaration of standing at the front of a classroom to being faced with a screen full of black squares and an awkward silence after every question. You’re also missing out on the ability to walk around the classroom to see how students are doing as they complete work. While online lessons are never going to fully replicate a classroom setting, this article will introduce to you to different strategies you can use to encourage student interaction and engagement. It also suggests platforms and tools you can use to make your lessons more interactive and make it easier to see how students are doing as they work. 

An important sidenote: when introducing new tools to your lessons you should consider which devices yours students will be using. Some tools – such as the whiteboard and collaboration tools – will be used in a web browser. This means students using a mobile phone need to move between the video conferencing app to a browser and back in lessons. We tested them on our mobiles and found it was awkward (but not impossible) to do this. Another thing to note: your students won’t be able to see or use the chat function if they are in a separate browser. Don’t worry though, they will still be able to hear you speak.

Individual responses: making the most out of the chat function

The simplest method is to use what you already have – the chat function – in the most effective way possible. This is ideal if you have students who are joining from their phones as it means they won’t have to switch between apps or browsers.

Cold calling – The classic strategy of picking on people. To make sure you’re not picking the same students each time you can work your way through the register.  

Name wheel – A more exciting way of picking people which can create much suspense in lessons is using a random name picker. A wheel works well as anticipation gathers over whose name it will land on. 

Type, wait, send – Get everyone to type their answer in the chat and then either get them all to click send at the same time (great for discussion) or pick on one student to click send.

Utilising the ‘like’ button – If your video conferencing platform has this feature in their chat function then you can get feedback from students quickly by writing something in the chat and getting them to like it. 

  • I am confident I can complete this task independently
  • I’m not sure what I’m doing and would like more explanations  

You can also use this method to find out when students have finished a task:

  • Like this when you’ve finished

Full class participation: quizzes and online whiteboards. 

The chat function is great but it limits you to seeing only a small proportion of your classes’ responses. Moreover, students may be scared to use the chat freely in case they get an answer wrong in front of the whole class. Anonymising responses is a great way to improve student confidence as the anxiety of looking stupid in front of their classmates is squashed. Moreover, by getting the whole class to respond you are able to get a better idea of how your class is doing.

Quizzes 

Online quizzes are a great tool for retrieval, to review knowledge, test understanding and keep students on their toes. 

Google Forms is great for basic question and answer formats like multiple choice or short written answers. Once students have responded, you can easily see the proportion of students who have got certain quickly analyse answers.

Another tool which gives you greater variety in terms of ways your students can answer questions is Quickfire from Spiral. Pick from open questions to aid discussion, closed questions and multiple choice questions which are both automarked. It also has features that enable students to record audio responses that you can either review individually or as a class, a canvas to draw and label [label what], annotation to mark up [how is this different from canvas?].

Using whiteboard tools – mini whiteboards 

A different option from using the chat which gives more versatility in terms of answering are using online whiteboard tools. While the video conferencing platforms all have whiteboard functions, specialised whiteboard tools will offer you more features to use in your online lessons.. 

Whiteboard.fi – This is a really simple-to-use whiteboard tool. You can quickly and easily create a classroom and send your students a link to join. They won’t need to download an app; they can simply open it in a browser without having to login. Each student has their own individual digital whiteboard and these are very versatile: Students can write, draw, use symbols to create maths equations and more. You can see all the whiteboards in real time and also zoom into individual whiteboards. 

Spiral’s Quickfire Lite → Like whiteboard.fi, each student has their own mini whiteboard which will allow you to see quick responses from all your students when you’re asking questions. Your students won’t need to sign up to anything, you just share a link with them during your lesson.

Why they’re good → Students can only see their own whiteboards or that of the teacher. This means less confident students can answer questions and do work without the worry of other students seeing their mistakes. 

Fun feature → You can upload pictures or diagrams to your whiteboard, share it with your students and get them to annotate them.

Negative → Students using their mobile phones for their online learning will need to navigate between the video conferencing app and the web browser window which contains the whiteboard. Also, mobile phone screens are small which means the whiteboards will be hard to read and can be fiddly to write or draw on.

Longer tasks → Google Docs or One Note

Some tasks such as worksheets and writing tasks aren’t suitable for tools such as online whiteboards. Moreover, these tools can be fiddly and impractical to use on a mobile phone. Using Google Docs and One Note is a great way to see how your students are getting on with written tasks. Being able to see your students working in real time and give instant feedback (using the comment function) can increase motivation and productivity. Additionally, students may find it easier to interact with you outside of the chat where they won’t run the risk of feeling stupid or perhaps overly geeky in front of their classmates. 

At the start of the lesson or task give each student a copy of the same document. This could be a worksheet or contain tasks to complete during the lesson. You need to open a new tab for each student’s piece of work. To ‘walk around the classroom’ virtually, you just need to click the tabs to see how your students are getting on. You can use the comment function to give feedback, tips or help. The document can be submitted at the end of the lesson for you to go over in more detail if required. 

Group work and student collaboration: Breakout rooms and Teamup

With everyone so separate it often feels impossible to do group work. Students will be craving interaction with their classmates so incorporating group work and encouraging collaboration is a great way to increase engagement.

Breakout rooms

Utilising breakout rooms is an easy way to increase engagement with students. Unlike some of the other suggestions in this article, using them doesn’t require any additional preparation work. Although the process may be slightly different for Google Meet, Microsoft Teams and Zoom, in general you just need to create the number of rooms you require and assign who you want to be in each room. During the lesson you can circulate through the rooms to see how your groups are doing.

Collaborative projects 

A great suggestion for more longer term projects is using Teamup from Spiral. The platform enables your students to link their devices and collaborate to create presentations. Once the project has finished, the teams can take control of the lesson whiteboard from their devices and present their work to the rest of the class. 

Making presentations and videos interactive: Using Discuss and Clip from Spiral

If you want to make sure your students aren’t passively watching your presentations/ or want to easily check their understanding, then the below options are great. 

Discuss from Spiral → This enables you to turn your presentation into a discussion thread which your students can participate in. It’s great because you can import your existing presentations – Google Slides, Microsoft Powerpoint or PDFs – into it which saves lots of time, or you can create a presentation within Spiral if you prefer. Spiral then enables you to add questions to your slides to make your presentation interactive. In the lesson, your students will click on the question button and can type in their answer. You can also choose to enable your students to make comments or ask questions even when there isn’t a question in your slide. This is effectively moving your interaction from your chat to your presentation Spiral. 

When you’ve finished Spiral will show you all the slides and the responses to each question. Students can save the presentation together with their answers to their folders at the end of the lesson.

Clip from Spiral → You can turn any public video into a live chat with questions and quizzes. You upload the video and then pick where you want to ask a question. Features include quizzes, polls, boxes for discussions and more.

Useful feature: Spiral’s activities can also be set as assignments for students to complete independently. You simply make the activity and share the link or code with your students. 

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There are many different ways to encourage student participation and increase engagement in an online lesson. Whichever strategies you choose to incorporate in your lessons, try to avoid jumping from platform to platform. You don’t need to shoehorn in lots of features for the sake of trying to keep it interactive, it will be exhausting and students will find it hard to follow. Instead, you should consider what resources you will use in your lessons and if any of these features will help to add to what you’re doing. Don’t be afraid of keeping it down to the bare basics – using the chat function and Google Docs or One Note – especially if your students are using their mobile devices for their lessons.

However hard you try, you will never be able to fully recreate a classroom environment. Nevertheless, small changes to your teaching style, utilising a new tool or incorporating ways of making your current resources more interactive can make a big difference to your students’ learning experience. 

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