Students will be more interested in learning if the educational content is varied.
Online environments are well-suited to engagement methods that are backed up by research on memory and learning.
Students will find it easier to connect with lessons that are relatable, challenging, interactive, and thought-provoking.
By Jeffrey S. Nevid Ph.D. Cengage Author, Professor of Psychology, St. John’s University
I was not like many college instructors who refused to accept the sudden shift to remote instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic. I had to be dragged from the classroom, screaming and kicking.
The classroom has been my professional home as a Psychology Professor for more than 40 years. It was a place where I could look my students straight in the eye and engage them in exploring Psychology’s many different aspects of our lives. Take note of the precious moments when their attention was focused on the subject, and the times when they struggled to keep it.
I switched abruptly mid-semester from synchronous online instruction to synchronous online teaching. I quickly became used to seeing the upper half of students in little boxes on the screen, rather than their sitting in classrooms.
Teaching online is an adjustment
In an effort to keep the class akin to an in-person class, I taught Introductory Psychology classes at the regular times. I also gave exams remotely, shared my PowerPoints, and old videos that illustrated key experiments in Psychology. YouTube provided a wealth of clips that allowed me to sprinkle humor on the topics we were discussing.
It was easy to see the differences between classroom and online instruction. My online classes were conducted in a fixed seated position because I am an instructor who rarely, if ever, sits in the classroom. This was to ensure that I was always fully in camera view. I had to remind my students, for the first time in my teaching career, to dress properly and sit upright for class.
Zooming or Webexing was so easy to penetrate the invisible wall between public and private spaces. The webcam brought students into our homes just as easily as it brought us into theirs.
Online instructors face a major challenge when trying to keep students interested in Zooming into class. Some students log in to class, but don’t keep the webcams activated. We might wonder if they are paying attention or distracted when their cameras are off. Are they simply logging in and then snoring?
Students seemed less involved, distant, and passive even with an active webcam. If the “medium” is the message, then watching a class on a screen might be more like watching Netflix than speaking with a live teacher. To keep students interested, I had to retool.
Use Teaching Strategies backed by Research
Effective learning is built on engagement. Modern research shows that the metaphor of the brain as a sponge that passively absorbs knowledge or a funnel through the which educators pour ideas does not fit with modern research.
We all know that without paying attention, there is no way to expect any learning. This means that we will only be able to retain a few facts or bits of information. For deeper, more meaningful learning, you need to pay closer attention and be sustained in your attention. Instructors can use established pedagogical methods to engage students, whether they are in the classroom or online.
These tips are based on my research on learning and memory, as well as my own experiences teaching remote students. They are designed to engage students even when it isn’t possible in person.
Start with an Attention Grabber
Instructors have very few opportunities to grab students’ attention at the beginning of class, whether they are teaching online or in classrooms. Get students involved in activities such as:
Interactive exercises can be used, such as class surveys, demonstrations, and polling questions. Online polling platforms such as polleverywhere.com or survey features built into video platforms are useful tools for collecting student opinion and showing tabulated results. I ask Intro Psych students to give their opinions on whether men or women are smarter. I then discuss the research evidence that shows no gender differences in general intelligence.
Use YouTube clips or other popular movies as lecture openers. It’s a good idea for students to use video clips as lecture starters. Use guiding questions that link your clip to the material being discussed in class. Students will think they spent too much time watching videos in class.
Sharing personal vignettes or news features that illustrate the topics or issues being discussed in class. This makes the course material more relevant to our daily lives.
Make it relatable
As a Psychology Professor, I often remind Pavlov that he would not be deserving of any more titling.