In January 2022, Nova Southeastern University (NSU) resumed its classes in their regularly scheduled formats including in-person, hybrid, and online. However, we were encouraged to continue practicing flexibility in our teaching due to the recent surge of the Omicron variant of COVID-19. As a faculty member, I have had the opportunity to teach face-to-face, online, and blended courses to undergraduates, master students, and doctoral students. The following offers 15 strategies that I use most often in these various formats to engage my students. Many of these strategies overlap and can be used regardless of delivery mode.
Five in-person engagement strategies
- Use name tents: One practice that I have carried over from my days as a corporate trainer is name tents. Name tents are made by taking a white sheet of cardstock and folding it in half. On the first day of class, I give students a blank name tent and colored Sharpie markers and ask them to write their first and last name (the way they would like to be referred to in the class) on the front and the back. That way, I can see their names and their classmates can see who is sitting in front and behind them. I might also ask them to draw or write something on the name tent that is relevant to the course. For example: “When you think of project management, what is the first thing that comes to mind?” After they create their name tents, we do introductions. During the introductions, they describe what they wrote or drew related to the course topic. Using name tents is helpful in several ways. First, it enables me to call students by their preferred name rather than relying on what’s written in the system. Second, at the end of each class, I collect the name tents until the next class. When I pass them out, it quickly helps me see who is absent. Finally, it creates a sense of verbal immediacy (Gorham, 1998), which is important when we want to create connections with our students.
- Change it up: I have taught classes that run from one hour up to three hours. Regardless of the seat time, I change up my delivery every 15-20 minutes. For example, I might present 15 minutes of content and follow it with some type of active learning technique such as think-pair-share, a Socratic discussion, or small group activity. Even a small transition from lecture to a short video clip that illustrates the lecture’s key topics is helpful. I’ve also received feedback from my students that even with the shorter class times, they appreciate a 5- or 10-minute break. These short breaks enable students to return a quick text or phone call, use the restrooms, engage in a short conversation with classmates, or simply decompress.
- Make Canvas your launching point: Over the years, higher education has evolved in its use of technology to support teaching and learning. While Canvas, NSU’s learning management system, was traditionally only used for online courses, it is now expected that our faculty use Canvas at the very least for assignment submissions. As we learned with the HyFlex format we implemented in 2020, creating a robust course in Canvas can be an effective and efficient way to ensure our students are able to engage with our learning content at any time and any place. Even for my in-person courses, I create and house everything related to the course in Canvas. That way when I’m in class I know where everything is (e.g., PowerPoint presentations, schedules, articles, etc.) and can use our Canvas course to facilitate my in-person class.
- Start with retrieval practice: Retrieval practice is a strategy that instructors can use to enhance learning by asking students to recall information from memory (Stachowiak, 2017). At the beginning of each class, I ask students to take out a piece of paper, their tablet, or computer and give them 60-seconds to jot down what they can remember from our last class together. Sometimes I give them prompts such as: Think about our last class. What did we discuss? What did you learn? Think about the topic we discussed last week. What did you find most interesting? Then, we take a few minutes to debrief on what they wrote, which also enables me to fill in any gaps. This strategy not only helps students remember what they learned but also helps them get focused on the course so we can move into the new content together.
- Give yourself an energy boost: Needless to say, these past two years have been stressful! I have often found myself drained and unmotivated before it is time to teach my class. There are many techniques that I use to give myself a boost of energy (aside from a strong Cafecito, which can keep me up later in the evening than I prefer). During the winter months in South Florida, I’ll go outside for a short but brisk 10-minute walk. Other times, a (no more than) 15-minute power nap or 15-minutes dedicated to relaxing the mind can help. Additionally, a guilty pleasure of mine is dark chocolate, which has the benefits of caffeine and flavonoids and have shown to boost cognitive skills and improve mood (Nehlig, 2013). Being energetic and upbeat seems to make my students more engaged and interested.
Five online engagement strategies
- Provide a weekly schedule: My background is in project management so I tend to use project management tools and techniques to run my classes. A useful communication tool is the schedule. I call my weekly schedule the RADar. The RADar includes what students should Read, what Actions they need to take, and what is Due. See Figure 1 for an example.
2. Create a course introduction module: Our Learning and Educational Center (LEC) provides faculty with three different Canvas templates to select from. These templates were designed with Quality Matters guidelines in mind. One of my favorite parts of the template is the course introduction module. This module includes the course description, course objectives, course schedule, assignments, meet your instructors, and concludes with a “Meet your classmates” discussion activity. Figure 2 and 3 show examples of the course introduction module with LEC Template A and Template C.
3. Include a variety of media: I find that my Canvas courses can be dense with text. However, they don’t have to be. Canvas has made it easy to add a variety of media such as photos, audio, and video to my announcements, discussions, and assignments. As Redi pointed out, “…an integration of multiple media elements (audio, video, graphics, text, animation, etc.) into one synergetic and symbiotic whole that results in more benefits for the end user than any one of the media elements can provide individually” (Mishra & Sharma, 2005, p. vii). Some of the ways I incorporate media into my courses include using images on Canvas pages to support the text; embedding a YouTube video to an online discussion or quiz assignment where students watch the video and then post their reactions/thoughts or answer quiz questions; responding to student assignments using audio in addition to text feedback; inserting our course Zoom meetings within the Canvas course using the Embed Kaltura Media feature. Figures 4–6 are examples of how I use a variety of media in Canvas.
4. Provide structure: Two factors of success for online learners are self-direction and self-motivation. In-person classes offer more time management cues, such as attending class on a regular basis and completing in-class assignments. In an online course, students must manage their own time management and success plan (Darby, 2019). Providing a well-structured course is one way that I aim to support my students. In addition to the RADar schedule noted earlier, I structure my Canvas course in a simple yet logical way. For example, I only include the Canvas navigation links that we use in the course; I hide the rest. I also organize my modules into categories such as: Introduction, PowerPoints, Readings, and Additional Resources. I have also started to publish all of my assignments at the beginning of the semester, this way students can get a better idea of what to expect. Although students are able to see the assignments, the assignments won’t actually become available to them until a specified date. See Figure 7.
5. Have student-led discussions: Student-led discussions can work as a strategy for student engagement and to enhance metacognition (Snyder & Dringus, 2014). When I implement student-led discussions, I make sure I provide clear guidelines about their purpose, expectations, and how to facilitate them. At the beginning of the semester I provide a list of topics and readings, and students are instructed to email me indicating their first, second, and third choice of bi-weekly segments to facilitate. I organize the schedule based on their choices and distribute the schedule to the students in Canvas announcements. Specifically, students are expected to read the assigned reading(s) prior to their facilitation date, introduce the discussion topic/readings, provide guiding questions for the discussion, encourage participation, keep the discussion focused, encourage multiple viewpoints of the issue(s), and end by summarizing key highlights. I also find it helpful if I model the process of student-led discussions before I ask students to do it.
Five remote (Zoom) engagement strategies
- Implement the silent/quiet meeting: Amazon’s founder and executive chairman, Jeff Bezos, uses the concept of a silent/quiet meeting for senior executive team meetings (Lashinsky, 2012). For example, he might ask everyone to read a shared memo and brainstorm notes/ideas for 30 minutes before any discussion begins. This approach is designed when reflection and contemplation are desired (Reigeluth, 1999). It requires attendees to read, reflect, and summarize their thoughts before getting into a more worthwhile conversation. Silent/Quiet meetings can start by giving everyone a specified time (e.g., 10-30 minutes) to read a common article or passage and take notes before a discussion begins. A tip that I learned from Doug Shaw (http://dougshaw.com/okzoomer/) is something called “The Enter Key is Lava!” In Zoom, you can ask students to type in the chat their response to a specific question or prompt related to the reading but ask them not to press the enter/return key (it’s lava!) until you instruct them. After the designated time, ask students at the count of three to press enter/return. At that time, everyone’s responses populate the chat box. Give students an additional five or 10 minutes to read through everyone’s response and then continue with your discussion about the common read.
- Conduct Socratic dialogue: Socratic dialogue is a type of discussion in which the instructor guides the learners to discovery through a series of questions (Adler, 1982). I have often used Socratic dialogue in conjunction with the silent meeting. Once everyone has a chance to think about and post their initial responses to a topic, I ask guiding questions to dig deeper. I’ve even used breakout rooms for this where I post the guiding questions in the chat, assign students to the breakout rooms, and have them discuss then re-join after 10 or 15 minutes to discuss as a class. It’s important, however, to post clear instructions in the chat about what you want students to do in the breakout rooms before you send them off.
- Use polling: Zoom polling is an easy way to engage students. I use it as a way to help students practice what they learned in the class. The polls also enable me to check-in with the class to see how things are going. In addition to creating course-related polls, I oftentimes insert questions related to how they are feeling that day. It gives me a chance to empathize with my students, celebrate their happiness, and even discuss strategies to address difficult emotions such as stress and anxiety.
- Enlist the help of your students: It can be difficult to manage both the content, technical, and interactive aspects of a remote session. One of the strategies I use is enlisting the help of my students. At the beginning of the meeting, I ask for volunteers to do various tasks. One student might monitor the chat and bring comments and/or questions to my attention. I might assign another student as a co-host and ask that person to help with the technical issues such as muting and unmuting, welcoming students from the waiting room, and creating breakout sessions. I also ask for volunteers to lead the breakout discussions. Enlisting the help of students not only keeps them engaged in the course but also helps me run a more efficient class.
- Plan for Zoom downtime: We’ve heard about Zoom fatigue and Zoom burnout. Even a 30-minute Zoom session can be exhausting. I’ve implemented intentional downtime to help my students and myself in the Zoomosphere. Downtime can involve asking everyone to turn off their cameras for a set period of time. During this time, students can participate in various types of activities while the camera is off, such as simply listening to a lecture, working on a particular activity, or doing something creative and fun like a virtual scavenger hunt. The scavenger hunt can relate to the course or it can be used to create a sense of community as an ice breaker.
Regardless of what course delivery format you teach in, you hold the key to engaging your students. Whether you are new to teaching in higher education or you are a seasoned professional, we can learn from each other by engaging in dialogue about effective teaching and learning strategies, asking questions, and sharing our ideas. I hope you find these strategies useful in connecting with and engaging your students.
Marti Snyder is a professor at Nova Southeastern University (NSU) and serves as the director of faculty professional development in NSU’s Learning and Educational Center. Her research interests include non-technical aspects of cyber defense such as cyber awareness, education and training; IT in healthcare, knowledge management and workplace learning; design theory; project management; and learning designs for online, blended, mobile, mixed-reality, and simulations.
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Snyder, M. M. & Dringus, L.P. (2014). An exploration of metacognition in asynchronous student-led discussions: A qualitative inquiry. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 18(2), 29-48.
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