Talk to any school teacher who was forced into teaching online class during the COVID pandemic, and they’ll likely tell you how difficult online classroom management was. Students tuned out and got distracted by other things on their computers, or pointed their cameras towards the ceiling fan, or lounged in bed and eventually fell asleep. Not only did those students learn very little, but they also demotivated and distracted their peers. For many teachers, online teaching was a nightmare they never want to return to because classroom management was so difficult.
A great online teaching and learning experience is possible, however. While there are some key distinctions to make between the two approaches, for the most part good classroom management online is a lot like good in-person classroom management. Teachers who employ some commonsense principles and have supportive school policies can successfully manage their classrooms so all students can thrive. Here are some strategies we have seen work:
Strategy 1: Give students agency where appropriate.
Include students in a discussion about what makes for a great online classroom experience and then have them work on some classroom policy proposals. Students might come up with a great idea the teacher had never considered, and even if they don’t, at least they will have started thinking about how they might contribute to a positive classroom environment.
Of course, there are some policies that the teacher should just set. Students do not always know best, nor do they always want what they should want. The remaining strategies are suggestions teachers should consider employing regardless of student preference.
Strategy 2: Require students to have their cameras and their faces illuminated unless they are explicitly permitted to keep them off.
Having a cameras-on policy ensures that students feel a sense of accountability and belonging. It also allows the teacher to see facial and body expressions like nodding and hand raising. While video conferencing certainly makes it more difficult to read people, allowing students to have their cameras off makes doing so impossible.
Of course, there are several reasons why a student might have a legitimate request to keep a camera off. Those should be handled on a case-by-case basis. Concerns about backgrounds exposing inequities can be solved with virtual backgrounds. Creative teachers should consider making a class background for all students to use. This can help create a unifying virtual space while eliminating evidence of economic disparities amongst the students.
Strategy 3: Begin class with something that helps students become fully present.
Students come to class with a lot on their minds – what happened last period, the test they have next period, the status of their relationships, the post they just made on social media, the next level they want to beat in their current video game. Some have anxieties, insecurities, or even traumas they are processing. They need a chance to acknowledge the distractions and commit to setting them aside during class. Jumping right into class content may seem like an efficient use of class time, but for it to be effective, students must be ready to transition mentally and emotionally. To help them stay present, many schools employ mindfulness activities to accomplish this goal. Religious schools might also use a time of meditation or prayer to help students focus. Any exercise that helps students become aware of what is happening in their minds and bodies at the outset of class and then helps them commit to giving their full attention to class can work.
Strategy 4: Call on every student every class period.
A great way to keep all students engaged is to call on them regularly. As in a physical classroom, if students do not feel included in the discussion, they will often tune out, and in an online class, accountability is even more important. It is far too easy to get distracted and for a student’s disengagement to go unnoticed in an online class. Teachers must actively draw all students into the class activities if they are going to keep them engaged.
Strategy 5: Use chat effectively.
While calling on students can be great, sometimes students, especially the introverts or those who are struggling in the class, do not feel comfortable being put on the spot. Additionally, while one student is being called on, the other students might be disengaged. A great way to counteract this is to require all students to put their answer to a question in the chat. This allows every voice to be heard and allows the teacher to affirm a student who may be hesitant to speak up but has something important to say. Students are more likely to share when their ideas have already been certified by the teacher.
Strategy 6: Use formative assessments to check for understanding.
To keep track of how well students are tracking with the lesson, formative quizzes and polls are a great tool. Often teachers think that because they did a great job presenting material that the students must be getting it. That isn’t always the case, and the only way to know whether the students are acquiring knowledge and skill is to test them. Low-stakes assessments tell the teacher important information about what needs to be retaught or reinforced and the assessments themselves signal to the students what is most important for them to master.
Strategy 7: Require students who do not participate appropriately to meet with you for office hours.
Students who tune out, turn their cameras off, or display lack of comprehension when quizzed or asked to write something in the chat need additional accountability. Requiring them to attend office hours shows them that the teacher has noticed their disengagement, that their progress matters, and that checking out is not an option. Additionally, one-on-one time with the teacher will allow the teacher to reiterate expectations and then help the student get back on track.
Strategy 8: Communicate regularly with parents and guardians before their students start struggling or misbehaving.
Once the above strategies have been tried, if the student is still not engaging or refuses to attend office hours, then the parents or guardians need to be brought in to help. The online format can only work if there is alignment and cooperation between the teacher and those authority figures who are physically present in the student’s life. Teachers who establish a good relationship with open communication with parents and guardians prior to problems developing are more likely to get their buy-in when the student needs discipline and accountability on the home front. If parents and guardians only hear from a teacher when there is bad news to report, then their response is more likely to be defensive, and their partnership will be harder to secure.
Online classroom management can be challenging, but creative and strategic teachers find ways to make it work. The above strategies are just eight of many that excellent online teachers have employed effectively. What strategies have worked for you or which ones have you seen employed by great online teachers?
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By: Dr. Sean Riley, Executive Director of Gravitas