How to help students pay attention in an online meeting

Paying attention in online meetings can be hard for all of us. We have a weirdly close-up view of other people’s faces (so many of them sometimes that it can feel overwhelming!). Zoom and similar technologies don’t let us read facial expressions well. We may be distracted by what is happening in other’s backgrounds–or by own image on the screen. The silence of others gathered but on mute is a little unnerving. And there may be a lot going on around us outside of the meeting, including children who need help, doorbells ringing, dogs barking, and other kinds of emergencies that we just didn’t previously have to deal with as meetings happened. Finally, leading an online meeting is hard and, for those of us highly sensitive to other’s feelings, it can be difficult to watch people fumble, forget to take themselves off mute, or fail to check if they have spinach in their teeth before we all get a tight headshot of their face. 

Students have the same struggles. The best way to keep them engaged in online meetings is to make the meetings important to their learning. If they can sleep through it (or hire a bot to show up on their behalf) without missing much, then the meeting isn’t important. So the first way to encourage engagement is to make sure that the content of the meeting wouldn’t be more effectively shared via an email or recording. 

If the content is best presented in a synchronous meeting, help students focus as they engage in online meetings (whether live lectures, small group discussions or workshops, or one-on-one conferences), here are some tips:

  1. Require headphones, which protect the privacy of classmates and those who the student may be near. Plus, they help the student enter the world of the classroom by blocking out the surrounding noise.
  2. Require external mics, which reduces noise distractions when someone is speaking. 
  3. Provide students with a clear purpose of the session and an overview of it in advance. An email with a description of the session and a bullet list of what you’ll do, in order, is enough, but students often appreciate a worksheet or set of guided questions that they can use as a study guide later.
  4. Prepare students to focus by encouraging them to get out their materials and close their other tabs (or open a new browser, not just a new window). Teach them how to pause desktop notifications. Remind them to turn their phones to vibrate and put them out of arm’s reach so they aren’t distracted by them. 
  5. Teach students to alert you when they are away from keyboard so that you don’t call on them and embarrass them. If you teach them to do this, they won’t feel like they have to sneak away.
  6. Signpost where you are in the session as you speak, and include numbers on your slides that includes the total number (Slide 1/10, 2/10, etc) so students can see how much is ahead.
  7. Start on time and end on time. I recommend keeping sessions shorter than regular class sessions when students are learning from home. They aren’t having to walk from building to building, but they do have to get a child a drink, help another one login to their own online class, etc. 
  8. Keep sessions focused. Come early to chit chat, and set up breaks in the session to invite student feedback and engagement. Don’t wait until the end to ask if anyone has questions because if they can get out early, no one will. 
  9. Teach students to change their Google Meet or Zoom settings so they don’t have to see their own face. For many, it’s highly uncomfortable. 
  10. Instead of asking, “Does anyone have questions?” give them directions early to write down questions in their notes or in the chat. Pause regularly for questions, and ask “What are your questions so far?” or “What part of this is most confusing to you?”
  11. Ask specific questions with a variety of possible answers. “What is your favorite example of this phenomenon?”  or “Tell me about a time when you saw this happen in real life or history or pop culture.” Require students to answer these questions in the chat or in the conversation. 
  12. Frequently require feedback of some kind (“Give me a thumbs up in the chat if you feel confident you are prepared to answer a question about this on the exam.” “Show me on your fingers on a scale of 1-5 how ready your paper is for submission.” “Go to our Google Slide now and add a slide that summarizes a key point from today’s lecture in your own words.”)  I aim for 1 contribution from students every 5-10 minutes with at least 2-4 required contributions per session per participant. 
  13. End with an exit quiz, so students have to answer some questions about the session in the last few minutes of class.
  14. Require note-taking. They can complete an online note-taking assignment using Google Docs, a Rocketbook (which allows them to take notes by hand and submit them digitally), or even using pen-and-paper and a camera to take a photo and upload them. End lecture 5 minutes early so students have time to upload them.
  15. Require note-taking but collect and grade only a few students’ notes per session to reduce your grading load. Just make sure that you grade everyone’s notes the same number of times before the end of the course. 
  16. Offer Easter eggs, if that’s your thing. Use a new funny coffee cup or water bottle each session, organize your book titles to spell out something funny on the shelf behind you, stick a new stuffed animal there to say hello, or, of course, introduce your pet. 

Remember that not every student is ready to engage online in a lively way. Some students may hesitate to speak into a microphone, and others hate to see their own faces online. If they turn off their camera, assume that they’re blowing their nose or eating lunch, not that they’ve fallen asleep.

Above, Joseph Ducroix’s Self-Portrait, Yawning (1783) shows a man from the waist up, standing, caught in a stretch as he yawns.

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