Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Keeping Students’ Attention During Online Learning


A recent article in the Washington Post captured my attention.  Entitled “Why are teachers’ faces covered in stickers? To get kids engaged in remote school – and it’s working,” it highlights some of the challenges of keeping students’ attention in a 100% virtual learning environment. 


In the article, a middle school math teacher had tried all kinds of tricks to encourage her students to actively participate in online class.  Thinks that apparently did not get the students to answer questions or otherwise be engaged in the learning process:  calling on students randomly by name, creating small group discussions in breakout groups, enticing students to earn extra credits through competitions, or breaks called movement or brain breaks.


What did work?  Something very silly (and perhaps not exactly age-appropriate for middle schoolers); the teacher promising to put a sticker on her face every time a student answered a question or participated in a class discussion.  The middle school students initially responded because they thought it was hysterical.  But the competition between the teacher’s three classes to see which class could end up with the most stickers on the teacher’s face was the most effective strategy to foster class participation.


The article gave examples of teachers using the sticker method for students of all ages.  One successful example was a professor of an online college-level introduction to psychology class, who reported that more students than ever had participated in class discussion when he rewarded them with stickers.


So, that got me to wondering what other strategies have been effective to get and keep students’ attention during online learning?  Here’s a quick list of some strategies I’ve learned about:


·      Create an expectation of surprise.  A teacher of students in grades 3 through 8 asks a different class each week to pick which color he will dye his beard that day.  If the vote results in a tie, he’ll dye the beard in both colors (it’s a pretty long beard).  I am assuming that the students in each class need to meet some minimum participation requirements to be included in the weekly voting.

·      Nurture curiosity through mystery.  Present the students with a mystery (an information gap), and send them off to find the missing information.  The example given was to have students find out how dolphins can stay awake and alert 24/7 for 15 days.

·      Encourage exploration by having some assignments done away from the screen or the desk.  For online learning, this may mean assigning students to take virtual tours of museums (see this blog post for some suggestions) or giving hands-on assignments (e.g., ask students to survey their family and friends, ask them to design something).

·      Be clear about the real-world meaning of the lesson.  It is much easier to listen to a long lecture, or to study somewhat tedious details, if the student knows why the content matters.  How the learning is going to be applicable to their current or future life.  The teacher can speak to this point by explaining why the studies are relevant.  A strategy perhaps bringing the point a little closer to home is journaling – asking the students to write a journal entry giving their suggestions of a real-world problem that could be addressed by whatever the day’s or week’s lesson was about.


What’s the moral of these stories and strategies?  Teacher creativity, even silliness, can help students of all ages rediscover their enthusiasm for learning, both in person and online.  If they tune it at first to see what crazy thing the teacher is going to do next, they can’t help but learn while they’re tuned in to class.  If the students are asked to apply the learning, rather than simply regurgitate what the teacher says, they may actually learn to love learning, whether that learning is in person or online.


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