How to Keep Students Engaged During Virtual Learning


Everything about this new normal is challenging. Just thinking about all of the “unknowns” is enough to make you want to pop a Xanax. In our recent post about connecting with students, we suggested that we turn our attention to what we know for sure and what we actually have control over. Let’s continue down that path today. In addition to building relationships with students

There are so many unknowns. So today, can we focus on one thing that we know for sure? Engagement matters! Not a little, but a lot. It mattered when we were in our classrooms and it matters now. Did you know that engagement is linked to achievement? It makes sense: when a learner is engaged in a task, they spend more time doing it, which means they are practicing more. More practice leads to greater skill.

In her Reading Strategies Book and Writing Strategies Book, Jen Serravallo says,

“Engagement is everything! Without engagement, we’ve got nothing.”

Jennifer Serravallo

In fact, in her Hierarchy of Reading Skills she places the goal area of engagement at the tippy-top. Whether we are face-to-face with our students or sitting across a computer screen, engagement still matters.

I get it. Preparing online lessons is hard. We feel uncomfortable videotaping ourselves. We fumble with the technology in our live sessions. Let’s extend grace to ourselves as we try to flatten our own learning curve. But once we have a bit of a handle on our learning platforms and schedules, can we quickly turn our attention to making our lessons and interactions with students more engaging? Because, here’s the thing: if our lessons aren’t engaging, once the novelty of the virtual classroom tools wears off, we have lost our students and our time was wasted. One of my friends recently told me that her son’s middle school class convinced the teacher to let them black out their screens because they felt too embarrassed to be seen on camera. Her son used that as an opportunity to let the lesson play, the teacher’s voice drone on, while he went into another room to play. [insert “face screaming in fear” emoji].

So how can we keep engagement high during online lessons? First, can we talk about two things that are not engaging?

  1. Packets. Packets are not engaging. I realize that not all students have internet access and that some schools are still getting their online platforms set up. I’m not addressing that audience right now. But I’m not just talking about the paper packets that have staples in the corner. Even the online version of worksheets is not engaging and will not grow authentic readers and writers.
  2. Google slides. I love me a good slideshow to disseminate lots of information quickly. But slideshows are not going to maintain student engagement–even if your own voice is narrated over the slides.

There are many ways to engage our students, so let’s address a few: (still brainstorming here)

  1. Stories
  2. Visuals– talk about using document camera interactive anchor charts instead of slides
  3. Goal setting – examples of having students set their own learning goals
  4. Build community
  5. Keep lessons short and explicit
  6. Active involvement: thumbs up
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