Best Strategies for Learner Engagement (Virtually)

Meet the Makers

Angie Nastovska, iLEAD Schools

What do you have too much of?

People say (and I object) that I have too many shoes. Around 15ish pairs but, “No woman ever said, I have too many shoes” is my response.

What skill would you most like to learn?

Playing the piano!

Where is the coolest place you have traveled?

When I was in 8th grade, I went to a small village in Australia.

This Week’s Why?

Over the past few weeks, we have been faced with many challenges due to uncertainties in education. Will my kids show up today? How many will come today? Will my COVID test be positive? If yes, what is my plan? How many kids will need to quarantine? One of the biggest concerns has been learner engagement in a virtual setting.

This Week’s Focus

Driving Question

How can we design engaging and equitable learning opportunities for virtual experiences?

This week’s focus is on effective strategies for engaging learners virtually. What are some ways in which we can effectively improve participation in our classes or learning experiences? (strategies adopted from Emelina Minero)

Synchronous Strategies

According to many educators, we have faced many pandemic-induced challenges. Whether it’s been independent study, synchronous and asynchronous teaching and learning, or adapting traditional strategies from live instruction to remote, it has been challenging to say the least. Here are some commonly used strategies that have been identified as effective:

  1. Spider web discussion: During remote learning this spring, learners can lead their own discussions on Zoom. Before the live class, learners can answer questions independently, and then share their responses at the start of the meeting as a jumping-off point for a broader class discussion. While learners converse on video, facilitators (or appointed learner) can listen and draw lines on a sheet of paper tracking the flow of the conversation, resulting in a spider web. At the end of the discussion, the drawing is shared over video. We can then  ask learners to reflect on the experience, what they learned about who talked, who listened, and who built on the ideas of others.
  2. Using chat to check for understanding: Using the chat feature to ask and answer questions or type in emojis — like a thumbs-up or thumbs-down — to show whether learners understand a concept. To create structure around the responses, we can guide learners in creating norms around using the chat feature.
  3. Flip your class to stimulate deeper discussion: a blend of asynchronous and synchronous instruction works well to stimulate discussion during remote learning. One example is to have new content asynchronously through recorded videos and online activities. At the start of the live session, learners can briefly summarize the concepts learned together and then divided into breakout rooms to solve related problems in small groups. This flipped approach allows us to spend less synchronous time in direct instruction. Additionally, listening to learners at the start of a session and in small groups helps identify, and then address, where learners are struggling. 
  4. Adapting think-pair-share to Zoom: Giving more project-based learning tasks to learners — and allowing them more autonomy over tasks—naturally encourages richer discussions in virtual sessions. One teacher (Tahmaseb) notes “If we give students as much freedom as possible to experiment, research, and pursue interests within our content area, then they inevitably have a lot more to say”. When it comes to a group discussion we can adapt think-pair-share to Zoom. Learners are given a prompt, broken into groups, and then placed into breakout rooms to discuss and record their answers on a shared Google document, which allows learners to share their thinking in writing or read aloud. Since we cannot be in every room, the Google doc keeps learners accountable. Once they return, volunteers from each group can share their answers with everyone.
  5. A new twist on show-and-tell:, Think about converting the “show-and-tell” activity into “think, write, share.” The founder of Write the World asked middle and high school students to find a photo, painting or drawing that represented intergenerational connection. They had to independently respond by writing to the following questions from the Making Thinking Visible Framework before discussing them over video as a class: 
  • What are we looking at?
  • What makes you say that?
  • What do you notice (see, feel, know)?
  • What more can we uncover?
  • What do you wonder? 

“It helps to break the ice in a virtual learning setting where unplanned participation can prove challenging for some students,” said Collins.

Asynchronous Strategies

Aside from the great effectiveness of the live sessions, the asynchronous discussions can be more equitable because they open up participation to learners with low bandwidth, who have schedule limitations, or who are uncomfortable engaging with the full class.

  1. Online forums create back-and-forth dialogue: posting discussion questions/prompts online. When learners comment, we can reply with clarifying questions to create a back-and-forth dialogue. We can also ask every learner to respond to at least two of their peers’ comments to create a broader base of discussion. A fifth-grade teacher Raquel Linares used Nearpod Collaborate (Apple, Android) – a virtual collaboration board – to get learners to share images or write a response to show what they had learned about an article they read. To inspire connection and reflection among classmates, Linares also used Flipgrid (Apple, Android), so that learners could hear their peers’ voices even though they were remote.
  2. Seeing and critiquing peer work through virtual gallery walks: Virtual “gallery walks” can offer opportunities for learners to view their peers’ projects while learning from each other. Joe Marangell, a high school social studies teacher, had his students present their own projects through five-minute screencasts, then they were required to give feedback to at least two other peers on theirs. Using Google Sheets, they provided feedback to their peers by answering the following prompts: 
  • What’s something new I learned about this topic?
  • What’s something that surprised me about this topic?
  • What’s something I liked about this presentation?

The online format gives learners the opportunity to see their peers’ work and their assessment on theirs for deeper reflection.

Moving station brainstorming online: In person, for this strategy, a small group of learners rotate around a room to different stations to view something, answer prompts, and view and add to each groups’ responses. Online, you can divide learners into groups and create shared Google docs, JamBoard, or a series of Google slides — for the prompts/questions. Each group can document their thoughts under the questions by the assigned date and then followed up by commenting on the other groups’ responses the next day.



Check out: Write the World

Tips from Dr. Marzano:

The Highly Engaged Classroom

More Magic

Why do Student Engagement Strategies Matter?

It can be easy to write off disengaged students as unsavable, or even to write off ‘student engagement’ as a concept for teachers with more time on their hands. But by taking a dive into this topic, you’ve shown motivation to motivate. And that’s motivational!

You’ve taken the right step towards improving your students’ learning. Here’s why it makes so much sense to have student engagement strategies in the classroom:

  • 53% of American students are not-engaged or actively disengaged in lessons. (Gallup)
  • By the end of the 2020 academic year, 1.3 million students had stopped engaging because of the switch to distanced learning. (Remind)
  • Engaged students are 2.5x more likely to conclude that they get excellent grades in school. (Gallup)

Lawrence Haywood 07 Jan 2022 



Being Makers

Being Makers

Being Makers is a team of change-making leaders from Maker Learning Network and iLEAD Schools focused on project-based learning and social-emotional growth.
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