In a traditional lecture hall or seminar group you have a captured audience. In contrast, your remote lectures have to compete for attention. From financial concerns, to the day to day challenges of childcare, a YouTube video from a friend, or a sunny day outside – your students are surrounded by distractions. And that means re-thinking your approach to lectures.
Right now, many of the students who are physically logging in to lectures are mentally switching off.
"I had virtual lessons for all my subjects. They are ok – just incredibly dull. A 3 hour lecture on a laptop in a boring environment. You log on and say you are attending and then you just do anything else. We get a 15 minute break in the middle. You just can’t concentrate that long."
– Tourism Student
There are challenges to presenting an engaging online lecture - but there are also techniques that will help your lectures capture your students’ attention. So much of it is in the preparation - both your own, and ensuring that your students know what to expect. It can also be useful to consider the student perspective. By understanding why they don’t engage - and empathising - you can remove barriers and create a culture that facilitates active learning.
Expertise, structure, and well planned learning experiences can transform your lectures.
Review the checklist and reflect on changes you can make.
You’ve created an engaging lecture – what is holding your students back?
10 ways to manage low engagement
Practical tips for boosting engagement in your online lectures.
Giskin Day is a Principal Teaching Fellow at Imperial College London. She was awarded the Imperial College President's Medal for outstanding contribution to teaching in 2015 and was made a National Teaching Fellow in 2016.
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Three techniques to engage your students
Here are 3 techniques to sustain your student’s interest and make the learning experience more satisfying:
Show your expertise
Structure your lectures for clarity
Create learning experiences
Show your expertise
Students are often passionate about their subject, and are motivated by learning from experts in their field. For some university students this is the highlight of their course. In a rapid transition to remote delivery it is easy to underplay your strengths and lose the value that your insight adds.
Make space for higher level teaching – this will engage and inspire your students.
1. Avoid simply walking through a presentation. Live lectures provide the opportunity for deeper learning, and for the personal insights that go beyond a textbook. Share your own experience, relevant anecdotes, and stories that will stick with them, help them remember and understand.
2. Build in time for your students to ask questions, and for you to expand more deeply into the topics that emerge. This creates a unique experience and a bespoke connection with you.
3. Students have reported that they feel remote learning has coincided with their learning being dumbed down. Whilst students struggling with technology, financial, or emotional challenges may appreciate the let up, others find it demotivating. Include opportunities for your students to be academically stretched by more complex concepts and activities.
"A teacher’s enthusiasm for the subject matter helps, and a teaching approach where they are opening things up rather than closing down. Where they are recognising and responding – appreciating your input. It feels like a dialogue – as though your input is valid."
– Education Student
Structure your lectures for clarity
Remote lectures require higher levels of concentration from your students. Technical issues such as poor sound and the loss of your body language cues make it harder to process information – and they can no longer turn to their neighbour for a quick explanation. They are less immersed in the experience. Alone and unobserved, many students report multi-tasking in lectures.
Structure your lecture clearly to help students stay on track.
1. Create a clear pathway through your content, communicate it to your students, and move through it in a logical way. A more spontaneous approach can work in a traditional lecture hall as you can see your students and gauge their engagement and understanding.
2. Break your lecture into sections and plan in 5 minute activities, so that students can discuss, respond or practice applying what they have learned, just as you would in a face to face environment.
3. Keep your lecture short. Students will find it hard to concentrate for more than 45 minutes. Looking at a screen for a long period is tiring – this is equally true for a lecturer! If you have a longer period assigned for your lecture, consider allocating the first half hour for an extended preparation activity, or breaking for an activity.
"Online lectures are different from face to face. Face to face seem fuzzy and slow whereas online are much clearer and more structured. Perhaps lecturers monitor themselves more because they are on camera?"
– Epidemiology Student
Create learning experiences
Follow the principles of flipped learning: use live lectures for activities that encourage deeper learning, rather than simply transmitting information. Applying new ideas, analysing a problem, evaluating a possible answer – these can give students greater satisfaction and a sense of achievement.
They also give students the opportunity to interact with other people, which can be intrinsically motivating.
1. Let your students know your expectations. Be clear that they need to prepare for the lecture. You may want to give them a specific question to consider, or even some related group work in advance of the lecture. Let them know that you will expect them to participate – and how. This will depend on the size of the group, the technology they have access to and the activities that you have planned. Will you ask them to keep their camera and microphone on, or work with other students in a breakout room? In a larger group, you may find it easier to use polling tools, which allow multiple students to respond to a question. They can create a word cloud, answer a multiple-choice question or indicate whether they agree or disagree with a statement. Ask your ed-tech team about any built-in functionality, and how to support students with accessibility requirements.
2. It is common practice to include a live chat alongside your lecture. Plan in pauses so that you can review and respond. If possible, ask a colleague or teaching assistant to monitor the chat and feed you the key points. Encourage your students to type in a brief greeting at the start of the lecture. This helps build trust and familiarity within the group. By using a low risk entry point, you increase the likelihood of your students using the chat during the lecture.
3. Engage your students’ emotions. Emotions such as frustration, resentment and anxiety can affect students’ attention and concentration, their memory, and their behaviour. However, activities can trigger positive learning effects. Whether you incorporate gamification, creativity, intrigue or surprise, try to include some fun activities. This will make your lectures more memorable and re-energise your students if their attention is flagging. It may also give your students a different perspective on the concepts they are learning.
Why students don’t engage – and what to do about it?
Sometimes you may build in opportunities for engagement, but your students don’t respond. It is useful to understand what holds them back and what you can do about it. It is worth persevering as the students I interviewed agreed that they would take in more if they participated.
Loss of cues
Students feel uncomfortable talking online due to the loss of visual cues.
"I don’t want to start saying something and someone else start saying something. It just feels awkward and uncomfortable. It’s just being able to pick up social cues in person."
– Tourism Student
Lack of confidence
Some students feel nervous putting their views forward, even when they are academically able. Communicating online is a skill in its own right and students will need to develop it over time.
Whether speaking in a lecture or answering a question in a chat room, students feel vulnerable. They feel their response is more visible and more permanent than a spoken response that they do in a lecture hall.
‘In a classroom you feel it is a safe environment. You feel you can ask things and float around ideas. In your house the kind of safety net feels like it’s been taken away from you. It adds a level of discomfort for people. The atmosphere of being sat in your room… it's more exposed.’
– PPE Student
Students experience high levels of social risk when putting themselves forward online. They feel that any errors will affect how they are seen by their fellow students.
What can you do? 10 tips for managing low engagement
1. Set any necessary reading in advance and share the questions you will be asking. Remind them at the beginning of the class. By allowing them to prepare you’ll give them a better opportunity to demonstrate their strengths, rather than putting them on the spot.
2. Include low risk activities early on in the session. This helps warm your group up and can reduce the fear of failure. Asking students to connect in a risk free way can also be used to create a bond between the group. If they trust one another they are more likely to contribute.
3. Provide positive feedback – even when an answer is not correct. You want to encourage the student to continue to participate. One way is to help them find the correct answer themselves.
4. Moderate discussions to manage the loss of visual cues. Ask students to ‘put their hand up’ to indicate when they are ready to speak, rather than interrupting one another.
5. Ask clear questions and prompt students to respond. This reduces the uncertainty of whether a response is expected.
6. Include activities that allow multiple students to respond simultaneously and/or anonymously. Some examples include using polling tools to respond to a question, or drawing/editing tools to indicate a response on an image or graph. Some universities use chatbots for this.
7. Group work can reduce the pressure on individual students. You may also want to set larger or more creative tasks in advance – for example sharing a short presentation or walking through their answer to a problem. Alternatively, set up breakout rooms for a small group discussion, or ask students to work in pairs to assess each other’s work.
8. Make it exciting, make it fun. Regardless of your subject there is the opportunity to make activities creative and intrinsically enjoyable.
9. Some lecturers give marks for participation. These normally make up a very small percentage of the overall module grade, but can incentivise some students.
10. Ask students for feedback. Prompt them for anonymous tips that would help them engage more in your lectures.
Remember this is a learning curve for your students. You can provide scaffolding through setting clear expectations, and structuring your lectures to encourage engagement. Keep it simple at first. And when students don’t engage, consider what is holding them back. Share your challenges with colleagues and your ed-tech team to find strategies that move them forward. By helping them engage you are helping them learn.
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Becky Hartnup is an independent EdTech consultant working with universities, content creators and tech suppliers to research and implement technology in education, while never losing sight of the people involved. She was awarded an MBA with distinction from Imperial Business School, having studied on their Global Online programme. Research interests include student experience, human centred design and immersive learning.