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Connecting with Students from a Distance: 10 Ways to Stay Engaged Inside and Outside the Learning Environment

The EvoLLLution | Connecting with Students from a Distance: 10 Ways to Stay Engaged Inside and Outside the Learning Environment
As institutions prepare for the fall semester, it’s important to keep student engagement fresh and exciting no matter what kind of environment we’ll be in.

“Our ability to connect with others is innate, wired into our nervous systems, and we need connection as much as we need physical nourishment.” 

– Sharon Salzberg, Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection

In the first two weeks of March 2020, faculty across the U.S. were notified in waves that they needed to move their in-person classes online due to COVID19 stay-at-home mandates. All of these individuals were in the final weeks of winter quarter, past the mid-term of the spring semester, or poised to take a desperately needed pause with the upcoming spring break. Classrooms shuttered, offices were abandoned and dining rooms became makeshift workspaces.

These same individuals also faced the daunting tasks of homeschooling their own children, braving grocery stores to stock up on essentials and reconfiguring their homes to become offices/schools/bunkers. Even the avid “preppers” were not prepared for this. How could anyone proactively anticipate a disruption of this magnitude?

Fast forward and it is now June. We have survived. We will make it through the next rough patch. But what lies ahead continues to be undefined and unknown. Few of us can say for sure what the 2020-2021 academic year will look like.

Some universities have already opted to stick with 100% online course delivery through fall while others plan to return to in-person classes with a side note that they will “look and operate in new ways.” What does that mean? It is too early to say for sure, but if we learned nothing else from this pandemic and #StayHomeStayHealthy era-–-we must find creative ways to connect with students inside and outside the learning environment.

Taking into consideration best practices and practical tips, here are ten ways faculty can engage with students from a distance:

Be yourself

In a classroom setting, we put on our professorial hats and stand at the front of the room. This helps us command attention and set a tone for each class session. Online, we can let our guards down a bit and remove some of our armor. Perhaps this is how we dress (more casually), play with virtual backgrounds or introduce our kids or pets (briefly) to the group. It is not unprofessional. It is relatable.

Practice empathy

Both you and your students are disrupted. COVID-19 news and stay-at-home orders create anxiety, impact confidence and heighten fear. Soften how you speak to your students, infuse warmth and patience into your language and tone. Pull away from the bold and direct and replace them with acknowledgment and understanding. This does not mean your standards decrease or your deadlines disappear. Empathy will bridge the distance between you and your students and help inspire them to keep going.

Live office hours

Office hours can be set at fixed times throughout the week or scheduled as separate meetings. They can be open-format with drop-ins or established as 1-on-1 meet-ups. Do what works best for you, but to maintain a sustainable connection to your students. You must be available outside of class. Interactive face-to-face sessions will be most engaging but phone and real-time email or chat sessions are good alternatives.

Weekly announcements with to-do lists

Create weekly announcements using a repeatable model, so you can build and schedule them in advance. An example of a repeatable model would be to start with an introduction, provide a summary of what was covered the previous week, include a to-do list for the current week and close out with an update on your priorities (e.g. grading, prepping next lesson, etc.)

Livestream lectures in real-time

Pre-recorded asynchronous video lectures are a great way to deliver course content. They are typically one-way, however, and are not as effective at inspiring real-time student engagement. As an alternative, consider hosting live video conference sessions via Zoom, Skype, or GoTo Meeting. In this digital space, you can run your course more organically by sharing your screen (e.g. walking through lecture slides, demonstrating a task, or navigating through a case study or website) and encouraging a mix of live discussion and virtual chat. These lectures can be recorded sessions that are stored in the Cloud or on your desktop and posted later for those who were unable to attend or who want to review the content at a later date.

Get creative and be visually appealing

Whether you record lectures for asynchronous delivery or hold live virtual sessions, getting creative and adding visual appeal will go a long way in keeping students engaged. Adding visual appeal does not necessarily require design skills or training. By simply adding virtual backgrounds in your video conference sessions, color and pictures in your lecture slides, or showing video clips or infographics, you will inherently create a more engaging user experience. We all must be mindful of making our content accessible. Refer to Medium’s University Design for Learning (UDL) Center for various resources on principles for adapting course content that supports all learners.

Video conference small-group breakout rooms

Breakout rooms are a terrific way to inspire engagement in large groups when leading live virtual sessions. Zoom, Skype, and Microsoft Teams all have this feature. You can manually create groups or let the tool select participants randomly.  Simply assign the larger group a prompt for discussion or activity for completion and send them off into their virtual breakout rooms. You can pop into each room to observe how things are going, and you can later bring the large group back together to convene on what was discussed. It breaks up the time you have together and motivates students to engage with each other as well.

Incorporate interactive tools

Using interactive features in your course can improve attendance and participation, as well as build confidence and increase retention of key concepts presented. Several free, web-based interactive tools work well in distance delivery. Here are a few free tools that are worthy of exploration:

  1. Padlet: Padlet is an online virtual bulletin board where students can easily collaborate, share pictures and links and contribute to the discussion as themselves or anonymously. In Padlet, you can create polls, lead brainstorming sessions, conduct Q&As, share content or give writing prompts with which students can build off of each other’s contributions.
  2. Kahoot: Kahoot is an interactive game and study tool. You can create your own games or select one from a large databank. Topics range from academia to pop culture. It is simple, fun, free and interactive.
  3. Slack, Discord, or Microsoft Teams: These are all tools for keeping a group connected, interactive and supported over a long period of time. Through the creation of folders, channels, messaging and file sharing, students can engage with each other and with the instructor on a moderated and curated platform.

Start a conversation

Learning management tools like Blackboard and Canvas have a discussion forum feature that works well for sustained engagement between students and the instructor. Through the use of prompts, students can be asked to provide an original contribution, and with guidance, engage with their peers to create a well-rounded conversation. Discussion prompts are a great way for students to demonstrate their completion of assigned readings or reviews of critical course material. Professors can also create a “questions for the instructor” forum as a central place for students to post questions or ideas. Often, they will answer each other’s questions in this forum and ease the burden on the instructor.

Survey students often

Using tools like Qualtrics, SurveyMonkey, or Google Forms, is an efficient way to get regular feedback from students on how they are progressing through the course, identify pain points and gain a better understanding of overall sentiment. Surveys can be distributed at various times and in various formats, depending on the breadth and depth of information. They can even be issued through a live virtual session using a tool like Zoom’s polling feature to check in with students to get a pulse on whether or not they are keeping up, need a break or would like additional information.

These ten ideas barely touch the surface of what is possible in engaging students in a virtual space. Here are three other articles that cover this topic:

Resources for faculty teaching classes online:




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