10 Teacher Tips to Engage and Inspire Remote Students

Remote learning has created opportunities for educators, but also countless challenges. For every student that thrives in the self-directed digital classroom, there are many who struggle to pay attention or need one-on-one instruction. Despite these challenges, educators continue to find ways to inspire remote students to keep them learning and trying their best. 

Check out these 10 tips by educators across the country. You can engage your students and combat your own remote teaching burnout at the same time. 

1. Give Students A Little Social Time

Many teachers are worried that letting students socialize will create distractions in the classroom, but a few small breaks to chat with each other and catch up virtually can have major benefits to your engagement rates. 

“All children need unstructured social time with friends, both for their emotional well-being and to support their engagement in school,” writes former teacher Jessie Welcomer, now vice principal at West Contra Costa Unified School District in San Pablo, California. “Before my daily lesson, I offer open social time for my class on Zoom. This supports their social and emotional needs while simultaneously incentivizing on-time attendance.” 

With this method, Welcomer reported 100 percent attendance for most days that she taught remote lessons.  

2. Play Music at the Start of Class

One way to engage students and help them transition into your class is to play music at the beginning of each live presentation or pre-recorded lecture. 

“Playing music at the beginning of class will set the mood and tone for the rest of the lesson,” Lynie Wong at Poll Everywhere, writes. “Your students may be feeling overwhelmed, stressed, or worried about their health and grades, so playing music before class may help them relax.” 

Wong suggests playing music that reflects the lesson — like a high-energy piece before a science lesson or a period-relevant classical number ahead of a history lesson. 

If you incorporate a few social moments before the start of class, this music can direct students back to you for the lesson. 

inspire remote students

3. Know the Signs of Disengagement

Educators often identify disengagement when students stop doing the work or logging on to their classes. However, there are warning signs well ahead of that. Christine Russell, Ph.D. identifies a few signals that students are moving away from learning in an article at Illuminate Education:

  • The student expresses frustration about the assignments.
  • Their quality of work decreases.
  • They often aren’t paying attention or are unable to answer basic questions related to the material.
  • The student provides one-word or very short answers and doesn’t always answer the questions asked of them.

Catching these problems early on can help you meet with the student to better understand why they are disengaged and what parts of the lessons that they missed.

Disengagement comes when students fall behind and feel like they can’t catch up, but it is also a product of boredom. According to the national non-profit YouthTruth, which surveyed 20,000 middle and high school students, only 39 percent of learners agree that they learn a lot every day, a decrease from pre-Covid surveys where 59 percent of students thought they learned a lot each day. 

Older students reported learning less than younger ones, with only 25 percent of grades 10-12 students reporting learning more every day after the pandemic.  

4. Break Your Lessons Up Into Chunks

One of the biggest challenges of remote engagement is covering all of the material without burning students out. Many educators break up their lessons into smaller bits to keep students focused. 

Isha Sood, associate general manager of marketing at Harbinger Interactive Learning, suggests following the 10:2 method for processing information. After 10 minutes of instruction, teachers give students two minutes to think about the information they learned or discuss it and ask questions about the content. 

With the 10:2 method, you can ask students to write down their questions during your instruction period and address them specifically during the two-minute block. You can also give students two minutes to talk with a buddy or group about what they think about the information.

Shannon Hart, a senior learning strategist at eLearning Industry, says teachers can set a timer for different learning “sprints” to break apart the lessons. This can be an inward-facing timer so your students don’t see the clock ticking down and can guide you to a natural stopping point when it goes off. 

Your students will stay more engaged if they just need to pay attention for 10-15 minutes at a time, rather than a solid 60-minute class.

inspire remote students

5. Develop a Process for Creating Your Lesson Plans

With classes that include breaks and social time, you may need to rethink how you create lesson plans and change up your process from previous years. 

“I’m enforcing a rule in my virtual teaching: If it takes longer than 15 or 20 seconds—or more than two or three sentences—to clearly explain what I want students to do, I forget about it or modify the assignment,” writes high school teacher and Ed Week teacher advice columnist Larry Ferlazzo. “This rule functions as a double-check on me to increase the likelihood that my students will be able to be successful in completing the task.”

A complicated or confusing lesson can throw off students, causing even your best learners to struggle with what you are asking of them. Shorter lesson descriptions can help you convey the assignment while preventing you from wasting time repeating it. 

For another lesson plan development option, Terry Heick, founder and director of TeachThought, promotes the BDA strategy in remote lesson planning. BDA stands for before, during, and after. As you develop a new lesson, ask these questions:

  • Before: What do you want your students to know before the lesson?
  • During: What skills or information will they acquire during the discussion or activity?
  • After: How can they apply this information after the lesson? How can they prove what they know?

These questions can help you map out your various lesson plans and ensure each topic is valuable and relevant.

6. Look for Opportunities to Step Away from the Screen

As your students become more autonomous with their learning, you can develop lessons that allow them to log-off of Zoom or move away from the screen for a short while to complete their work.

“A challenge to remote learning is designing lessons that spark student interest,” the team at the TechnoKids blog. “Often it can seem like school has become one boring worksheet after another.” 

They recommend creating projects that address real-world issues and challenge students to use what they learn to solve problems. 

“When students bring their schoolwork into the real world, they’re practicing self-directed learning and building valuable skills,” Maria Kampen writes at Prodigy. “Plus, you might be surprised at your students’ creativity!” 

There are multiple creative ways to bring the remote classroom offline, if only for a short while. For example, if you want your students to keep a journal, they can write their thoughts by hand and then upload a photo to show you that they are writing.

7. Try the Flipped Classroom

Another option to engage students remotely is with the flipped classroom model. This occurs when students learn outside of the classroom and then complete their homework in class. 

“Send students resources such as texts, videos, podcasts, etc., to provide background knowledge that they can apply in subsequent learning activities like group or one-on-one discussions,” Karen Roper, director of instructional leadership consulting at Pearson Online, writes. 

With a flipped classroom, you can focus on helping students who aren’t getting the materials while more independent students work through the assignment and tackle advanced problems on their own.

8. Conduct Mini-Assessments Along the Way

You can keep students engaged by creating more conversations in the classroom and finding ways for students to share with you what they know. 

Jessica Leigh Brown, a former high school English teacher, recommends building smaller formative assessments into each lesson to gauge what students are learning and how much of the lesson they are taking in. These assessments can be in the form of trivia questions, mini-quizzes, or small challenges like drawing scenes or creating examples of their own related to a concept. 

Letting students answer these questions can also prepare them to complete their homework or take a graded test in the future. This is part of the Expectancy-Value Theory. Kristen DiCerbo, Ph.D., chief learning officer at Khan Academy, recently broke down this theory for educators. 

“People are more likely to do something when they expect that they will be successful at it and when they value the activity,” she writes. 

For example, you are more likely to bake a cake if the recipe is easy or if you have done it before. You are also more likely to work to improve your baking skills if you want to create something special for a friend’s upcoming birthday. 

As students become comfortable with your mini-assessments, they can become stronger testers because they will think they are more likely to succeed. 

9. Gamify Your Classroom

You can gamify the classroom to encourage participation and reward students for completing basic tasks and following your remote classroom rules. There are a few examples of educators doing this already, so you can learn what works and what doesn’t. 

“Kids would earn virtual coins for things like completing a special assignment or returning from a bathroom break in a reasonable amount of time,” writes Leslie Daniels, communications and external affairs advisor for the Department of Education and Early Learning at the City of Seattle. “ At the end of the week, students could turn in their virtual coins for an educational reward such as a book or game that would be mailed to their homes.”

These rewards points can help your students feel seen — especially if you teach quiet, independent learners who often fly under the radar because of their rowdier peers. 

10. Keep Testing New Ways to Engage and Inspire

Hundreds of educators are working to create new and engaging lesson plans for the remote classroom. You aren’t the only one looking to improve and help your students. Continue learning and seeking out ways to connect with students so they want to learn.

“Knowing what you believe also means adding to what you know,” Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski says at Two Writing Teachers. “As educators and people, we grow and change with time, reflection, and by actively choosing to learn more about our craft.” 

For some educators, this means engaging with Twitter chats or attending virtual conferences. Others might prefer to read books or blogs and listen to podcasts about education. 

Take what you learn and apply it to future lessons. You may need to retool some of your lessons from last spring to account for what you have learned this year. This is all part of your growth as an educator and teaching professional. 

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