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Research has shown students learn better when they are actively engaged in the learning process, rather than just passively listening to a lecture.

However, the coronavirus pandemic has forced what many thought would never happen: online courses extensively replacing traditional programs.

Over the past three years, our faculty team and teaching assistants at the National University of Singapore successfully created an engaging large in-class course for our students, who were notorious for their unwillingness to participate actively in class.

When we moved our class to teach entirely online, we learned many lessons on how to avoid losing the student engagement that we had worked so hard to develop.

Our team offers a three-pronged approach that educators can use to maintain engaging online learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The three-pronged approach to engage learners online. (Fun Man Fung)

1. Strengthen student-teacher interaction

When students and teachers are physically distant, it becomes more critical to create a social connection.

While students are waiting for class to start, we use the chat function to ask them how they are doing. During the first session, we orient them to our course structure and requirements.

This initial connection makes them feel more comfortable with using this channel to offer questions and comments during the class.

Also, we remind them to turn on their videos. This makes them more responsible for paying attention to the class to avoid succumbing to other distractions associated with learning from home.

Read more: How innovative videography can supercharge education

Teachers should optimise their communication techniques, which includes ensuring high-quality sound, video and lighting.

We suggest positioning the camera in front of our monitor at eye-level. This allows us to look at the students instead of our laptops or notes.

Standing during our class enables educators to express themselves using hands and body language. Even if the camera angle only covers our heads and shoulders, students still can see our body movement and it helps communicate our messages.

We stand up and teach for better energy. Note that the camera is positioned at our eye level. The teaching assistant seated on the right supports answering students’ questions in real time on the Zoom chat function. (Fun Man Fung)

We are fortunate to team-teach in our class, with a back-and-forth conversation between lecturers. Team-teaching helps bring up different ideas and perspectives on the same subject.

At the same time our teaching assistants work the “backend”, taking care of any real-time technical issues, helping to place students in breakout groups, and providing a real-time summary of the class discussion by group chat.

They also acknowledge questions from the students and manage the appropriate time during the class for the lecturers to answer them.

2. Plan regular checkpoints with live student responses

Regular, real-time responses from students provide valuable insights into their opinions and help us understand their grasp of the content.

These live responses enable us to tailor the subsequent lessons to suit students’ level of understanding of the concepts and keep them engaged. For example, these unannounced checkpoints can be in the form of short, non-graded questions and polls.

Students enjoy seeing real-time responses from their fellow students. We use Poll Everywhere, but occasionally use other interactive platforms such as MentimerKahoot!, Padlet and Pigeonhole Live when we need different features for our checkpoints.

Students use their mobile devices to submit their answers to receive real-time class feedback. Fun Man Fung/National University of Singapore

Our students typically won’t raise their hands when asked a question in class, even the simplest one. They are more open to answering these polling systems, which is helpful to get students to reply and engage with the subject.

3. Utilise student interaction

Our classroom experience wants to ensure students will comfortably interact, ask questions and contribute in groups, much more often than they do in large lecture theatres. As a result, we decided to divide students into teams where they answer problems posed by the teaching team.

It is even more important to insert group work in the virtual classrooms. Group work allows students to deepen their understanding of the materials. We determine the membership of each group, which is fixed over the course.

Read more: How to use Snapchat in the laboratory for better student engagement

Students then rotate responsibility for leading their groups, taking notes and reporting back to the larger class. The also enjoy getting to know other students in the class (especially those from different disciplines).

We have found it essential to provide “ice-breakers” at the beginning of the course to introduce team members to each other. Our teaching assistants or faculty staff “drop in” to group sessions and provide suggestions, but do not replace the student team leader of the session. Although it takes extra time, at least one or two of the groups should report back to the entire class at the end of the group activity.

Team teaching is fun and rewarding. Here, the team of three faculties is setting up the online classroom. Fun Man Fung

Worth the investment

Keeping students engaged virtually is more challenging because it is harder to pick up on the clues you get during a traditional class: knowing when students are lost, distracted or confused and when to speed up or slow down.

Learning How to Learn Better by Fun Man Fung, PhD, and Robert Kamei, MD.

By effectively using teaching techniques and available online platforms, lecturers can deliver engaging lessons while achieving meaningful interactions among the teaching team and students.

We encourage educators to explore and expand on the various methods to make online learning more engaging for students. Although it will take time to do, it is worth the investment.

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