Around the world, teaching professionals have to turn to virtual platforms to teach their students. While some virtual learning is seen as a poor substitute for in-person teaching, it doesn’t have to be. Because when it comes to virtual learning, then a shift in mindset can quickly bring you to a different perspective. From the perspective where virtual learning opens the door to all kinds of new opportunities for learning – where students can “virtually do anything.”
That’s not to say that teaching through virtual channels is easy. Teachers worldwide know that it’s much easier to hold a class’s attention when you are there in person. That students naturally engage with what you are saying if they see you there in front of them. And that merely getting your students to complete worksheet after worksheet just isn’t going to cut it.
What’s engaging to the brain is engaging to your students
What captivates its attention? What stops it from getting bored?
When we do this, then we see some basic principles emerging. For example, having a distracting environment, feeling stressed out, or being mentally or physically fatigued can interfere with the brain’s attention system. What’s more, engagement comes with having clear instructions, goals, and rewards, so the brain knows what it’s meant to be doing. This is why so setting out expectations in your lesson starters is even more important than usual. Finally, it’s worth remembering that the brain thrives when it’s curiosity is piqued, when it listens to narratives or stories, and when it has experiences that evoke emotional responses.
Creating experiences, not worksheets
So how does this all translate into the day to day virtual learning setup? Well, whether you are live teaching or using pre-recorded videos, it’s important to remember, first and foremost, why your students like school. It’s because they get to see their friends and have shared moments and memorable and enjoyable experiences. It’s not that math sheet that you sent them last week. Sometimes you’ll have to rely on creating these experiences yourself if you are pre-recording videos, but if you are live teaching, then you can do this collaboratively by asking kids to bring items from around their home to their lessons or even getting them to do their research and taking the lead to teach their classmates about it.
There are lots of things you can try to improve student engagement. Here are some ideas:
- Capitalize on all five senses where possible. Although the dominant sensory mediums of virtual teaching are visual and auditory, capitalizing on all five senses is often a way to boost engagement. While in a classroom, this might be something you set up in advance. Sharing your plans with your students upfront and getting them to join in and bring relevant items to the lesson can help you utilize sensations that are more difficult to transmit virtually!
- Get your students moving. Sitting in front of a computer all day is hard for all of us, but especially hard for children. Although it’s tempting to keep them glued to the screen to make sure you are keeping their attention, getting them moving is key to keeping their brains alert during the lesson.
- Setup brain breaks and capitalize on the power of nature. Although the weather isn’t always in our favour, science shows that nature has a powerful restorative effect on our attention. Even nature microbreaks for 5 minutes can help. Set a screen timer and give the kids regular breaks when you see their attention drifting or when you think they should be taking a break in a pre-recorded session. And nature is only one brain break idea – you can also include mindful breathing, stretching, coloring, a quick game or puzzle… there are so many options to try. And as remote teaching isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon, pacing is critical.
- Use stories and narratives. It’s well known that stories and narratives are much more engaging and persuasive to an audience than facts and figures. Find a way to wind your teaching content into a story to keep their brain captivated and motivated to tune into the next “episode.” If you feel like getting creative and adding in backgrounds and scenes to help you get the story and content across, then even better!
- Don’t just impart knowledge. While questions and answer discourse is always essential in a classroom, it’s even more critical to virtual learning. Thinking hard about how you are asking your questions and giving your students plenty of time to ask open-ended questions and contribute to the discussion will allow you to go beyond simply imparting knowledge and foster virtual enquiry-based learning.
- Let your students take the lead. Students generally love to bring items to show in their lessons and make them feel involved and engaged. The home is usually full of exciting show and tell items that can facilitate everything from french vocab learning to scientific investigation and beats a worksheet or app, hands down. You could even get your students to do individual projects around specific items, themes, or artifacts that give them the freedom to express themselves uniquely whilst also being tied to curriculum needs.
Setting up good virtual working habits
When you’re in the classroom, you naturally set up good learning habits in your students, and it’s just as essential to encourage good virtual learning habits. Although the home environment isn’t always ideal for focused study, habits generally form more easily when rewards are involved. And although virtual rewards are often harder to recreate (although still possible), heavily focusing your preparation on ways to improve student engagement will not only ensure that the content you’re delivering will be consolidated into their memories but will also help create positive virtual learning habits. These will motivate your students to persevere and look forward to their virtual lesson, and even give them opportunities to experiment and contribute in ways that would never have been possible in the classroom.