Careers Clinic: how do I keep students engaged in online lectures?

THE’s new Careers Clinic series brings together the great and the good of higher education to answer a burning careers question

December 8, 2020
Online lecture zoom
Source: iStock

With many classes set to be delivered on Zoom for a good while yet, we asked five experts for their top tips on keeping students engaged in online lectures. From modelling a chaotic workspace to posing Socratic questions, here are their responses:

“Keeping students engaged online is no different to keeping them engaged in the classroom – build a supportive classroom environment, deliver interesting and relevant content with enthusiasm and plan interactive learning opportunities. Choose technology carefully – smaller classes work well with everyone on video, but larger classes need more text-based tools. Discuss online etiquette at the start and for small groups, strongly encourage everyone to have their screens on, if possible − perhaps model having a bad hair day or a messy space so that students feel comfortable. Use the technology deliberately – screen sharing or uploads for slides or video, chat boxes for comments or questions, break-out rooms for small groups and whiteboards for group work.”
Ella Kahu is a senior lecturer in psychology at Massey University in New Zealand, and her primary research is in student engagement and the experiences of higher education students.

“My top tip would be to use students’ interests and skills in the online lecture content. Building flexibility and activities into your content that encourage students to co-create, peer review or discuss with one another is likely to engage students. Varying the type of activity, or the medium for responding to it, allows students to differentiate their engagement. Similarly, by enabling them to use their own individual experiences in the online lecture, you are likely to sustain their engagement through building more meaningful relationships between what they know and what is being ‘taught’.”
Julia Sargent is a lecturer at the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University, UK. 

“Everything in teaching starts with relationships. What kind of rapport do you have with your students? If they find you likeable, or they respect your knowledge, or feel you understand their struggles, they’re much more likely to be engaged with what you have to say. That doesn’t just ‘happen’, so consider what kind of relationship you want to have with your students and what you’re doing deliberately to establish that connection with your classes.”
Jennifer Lawrence is the program director for academic success at the University of New England in Australia.

“A proven strategy is to break up the material into short segments of 10 to 15 minutes and intersperse learning activities between segments. Based on learning science, asking students to work with and reflect on new information will improve retention as well as help them stay attentive and focused. Examples include answering poll questions, writing three quick takeaways, articulating one question about the previous topic, self-quizzing or quizzing other students, drawing a concept map of the material or completing a guided notes document.”
Flower Darby is a scholar and the author, with James M. Lang, of Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes (2019).

“In live or synchronous sessions, the key is interaction, much as it is during in-person class. Presentations should include many ways for students to contribute, such as quick check-ins (verbal or technological), Socratic questions (aimed to provoke thinking and discussion), students working through problems all together or in small groups, polling, collaborative whiteboard writing and so on. Longer lectures should be shifted to recordings whenever possible, so the synchronous time can be spent on more interaction. Besides lectures, instructors can create lessons based on simulation, role playing, experiment or guided discussion.”
Bryan Alexander is a futurist specialising in higher education, and a senior scholar at Georgetown University in the US.

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