Distance learning is hard, right? The headaches. The feet swelling. The fatigue. And on top of all of that, your lackluster classroom engagement does little to assuage your technological frustrations.
But what if that could change? What if you could take control of distance learning and make it a platform for meaningful interaction with your students rather than the daily deluge of dimly-lit and exhaustingly unproductive exchanges it currently is?
The ideas found in this article might be just what you’re looking for…
But, first, a little bit about me. My name is Aminah, and I’m a senior in California. Why should you trust unsolicited and under-qualified advice from a 16-year-old? Because I don’t think you deserve to work in a vacuum. Yes, you may be doing professional development to prepare for this upcoming school year, but why not get answers directly from the students themselves?
In this article, you’ll find 16 ideas related to mindset, environment, and technology that may just take your distance learning experience from awful to AMAZING (or at least make distance learning less stressful and more rewarding). Part 1 will explore tips you can use before your actual classes. Parts 2, 3, and 4 will explore tips for what to do at the beginning, middle, and end of the class period, respectively. Part 5 will provide tips for what to do after class.
Now this is a pretty long article. I understand that your time is precious. Feel free to skim or read only the sections of this article that most apply to you!
With all of that out of the way, let’s get into the 16 ideas that will take your distance learning game to the next level!
Part I: Before Class
1. Your Class is a Zoom Class.
As far as I can tell, Zoom will be our medium of education for the foreseeable future. So, it doesn’t serve you to approach your class with any of the following thoughts:
- “Arrgh! XYZ would be so much easier if we were in person.” OR
- “Teaching XYZ is so hard to do on Zoom!”
Mindset is key. Everyone knows that. So lets make your mindset work FOR you rather than against you. By practicing radical acceptance and embracing the reality of a Zoom classroom rather than leaning away and refusing to accept that reality, you are empowering yourself to carve out solutions and clarity where there was only frustration and confusion before. One quote, widely attributed to Haruki Murakami, comes to mind:
“Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.”
In the spirit of accepting the Zoom reality that has been foisted upon all of us, here are a couple of phrases you can try out the next time you’re frustrated with Zoom or technology in general:
- “I know XYZ is not the easiest to teach over Zoom, but bear with me, and we’ll get through this together!” OR
- “I know XYZ is a really hard topic to understand–especially over Zoom–so please feel free to ask any questions or voice any concerns.”
2. Audit and Improve Your Environment.
Look around right now, and what do you see? Piles of books? Coffee stains? Post-it notes everywhere? Now tell me, does this environment make you excited to teach?
Chances are, you probably just said, “Heck no!”
Luckily, changing your surroundings is something that’s within your control, and right now it is essential to focus on the things we can control. Now, you might be wondering, “why do I need to change my surroundings?” In an article titled “How To Change Your Environment To Be More Productive,” Stephanie Wells asserts that, “Your environment can play a powerful role in the way you work and how you accomplish important tasks. ” So, you see, a simple improvement in your environment can make your class set-up feel inspiring and motivating rather than discouraging.
Where to begin? First of all, you need to improve your office ergonomics in order to make sure that you are not experiencing any unnecessary pain while sitting at your desk for prolonged amounts of time.
Second of all, you need to ask yourself this question: What makes you feel better (or excited!) about teaching? While this might go against all things ergonomics-wise, I think it is a vital question. What makes you feel like you are an amazing teacher? Is it motivational quotes on your walls? Essential oils? Do you enjoy the feeling of standing and using sweeping hand gestures during class or would you actually prefer to teach while sitting in a rocking chair or bean bag? Do you prefer that most of your students have their cameras on or are you okay with teaching to a Zoom grid of profile pictures?
I want to make it clear that I’m not asking you to spend money trying to recreate your classroom in your home or buying new furniture. In fact, I actively encourage you to use whatever you already have rather than buying new things. These changes can be as simple as printing out some quotes that really resonate with you or dragging a rocking chair into your office.
3. Provide a Class Agenda Beforehand.
How many times have you been stuck in a faculty meeting that just seemed to drag on forever? In those meets, did the host provide that meeting’s agenda or did they just begin a long speech immediately? Did you zone out? Check your email?
According to an article titled “4 Ways Effective Meetings Benefit Your Organization,” writer Ian Cornett explains that “Sharing the agenda and goals with the team provides a shared sense of purpose because everyone understands the importance of the meeting and why they have been included.” Similar to how you would benefit from receiving an agenda before your next faculty meeting, your students focus and sense of purpose will significantly increase by making a class agenda available before each class.
4. Develop a Routine Structure for Your Class.
While it can be tempting to curate a wide variety of new activities to keep your class “fresh” and interesting, I really don’t think that that is necessary. You don’t need to reinvent your classroom everyday.
Humans are creatures of habit. We work well with routines. We like to know that each day we’ll go to the same restaurant for lunch or read during the same 30-minute time slot before bed.
This tendency for humans to respond well to habits and routines can easily be applied to classes that maximize a small amount of simple, reusable structures. Whether it’s creating a consistent discussion-worksheet-discussion structure for your class, or preparing a fixed number of activities for each class period, allowing students to become comfortable with your class routine(s) will allow them to feel more in control, and know what to expect from class each day.
Let the quality of your class be exemplified not by how many platforms and gadgets you use, but by how effectively you are able to share new knowledge with your students.
5. Make Tech Your Friend.
I know technology can be extremely hard to navigate at times (Zoom, we’re looking at you 👀) but I definitely feel that the convenience it affords us is worth the uphill climb.
If you aren’t already, you need to begin creating digital copies of your lecture notes or teaching material. No one has the patience to wait for Zoom to focus on your (beautifully) handwritten lecture notes or whiteboard diagrams. Whether it’s transcribing important points with an iPad (or a much cheaper writing tablet) or creating PDFs of your diagrams as a teaching reference, digital class resources are a must-have. Not only do they improve your organization and help reduce your physical clutter, but they also make sharing lecture notes with your students that much easier.
A note of caution: Similar to my advice in Tip #4, you don’t need every single website, app, gadget, or gizmo that is suggested to you. Pick a couple of things, and keep it simple! The focus needs to be on learning; technology is only there to help facilitate education.
6. House All Class Materials in One Place.
Please. This will just make everyone’s life easier.
Part II: Beginning of Class
7. Recruit Students as TAs.
They don’t pay you enough. It’s true. That’s why I recommend recruiting students as teacher assistants. Students are great for all sorts of tasks that don’t specifically require you. Suggestions include: chat-monitor, scribe, time-keeper, or group presenter.
You do not have to handle the burden of teaching alone: your students can be a part of the solution. On top of that, recruiting students as TAs can also empower them to take charge of their education and feel more invested in the class.
8. Warm Up the Crowd.
Is it one of those days when our students just won’t respond or ask questions? It may help to warm up at the beginning of the class period with an interesting icebreaker or other low-stakes activity.
Warm ups can take any of the following forms: simple review questions from the previous day’s content using a Zoom poll or Google Survey, short personal questions (i.e. what’s your favorite video game?), sharing cool music (bonus points if you can find music that relates to what you’re teaching that day/week!), or sharing facts about yourself. Another ice-breaker I recommend checking out is a show-and-tell, but I recommend this with the caveat that you would need to be intentional about making it an equitable experience for everyone involved.
While all of this ice-breaking may feel uncomfortable or unnecessary, I believe that it does the necessary work of humanizing you to your students, and that humanization works wonders for making class run more smoothly.
Part III: During Class
9. Create Breakout Rooms With Deliverables.
How do you ensure that students in breakout rooms are staying on task? Besides cycling through each breakout room to offer help, it’s also helpful to send students to their breakout rooms with worksheets to fill out or other tangible tasks.
Speaking from personal experience, I’ve noticed that the least productive breakout rooms involve lethargic students halfheartedly picking at the provided discussion question before growing quiet as they scroll through their Instagram feeds. The most productive breakout rooms involved students working together to fill out a challenging math worksheet or develop an argument that they would later need to present to the rest of the class.
By providing students with deliverables, you are able to qualitatively assess the work your students did in their breakout rooms instead of simply hoping for the best.
10. Invite Students to Ask Questions.
Shy students especially may find it more difficult than ever to work up the courage necessary to ask their questions in class. A good rule of thumb is to wait about ten to fifteen seconds before beginning a new task or after teaching new content just to allow students the space to ask their questions. Another effective strategy is pausing and prompting students by asking, “Does anyone have any comments, questions, or concerns?”
The main idea here is to normalize asking questions, whether that occurs verbally or in the Zoom chat.
11. Build in Breaks.
A great deal of research confirms that taking breaks can help improve one’s energy levels, focus, and productivity. Here are two equally useful approaches to taking breaks in the classroom:
- Task-Based Breaks: In order to leverage the concept of flow, schedule a 5–10 minute break for after your students complete a task or a discrete segment of that day’s lesson.
- Time-Based Breaks: Schedule a 5–10 minute break at a certain time during the class period (i.e. half-way through class or every 45 minutes).
Regardless of which approach you take, it’s important to encourage movement. The idea of establishing deliverables for each break (similar to what I discuss in Tip #9) can work wonders for making sure that students actually disengage from work and get their blood flowing. The next time you give your students a break, try asking them to come back with their favorite snack/ beverage, or an object in their house that is bright yellow!
12. Adjust to Multiple Methods of Student-Teacher Communication.
Before corona, you may have received much of your student feedback verbally or through physical cues. Over Zoom, however, there is a broader range of ways students can communicate, including chat, reactions, and participant features such as the “raise hand” function.
Taking the time to establish common classroom hand signals may also aid in facilitating communication. Common hand signals include a thumbs up or thumbs down, but can also be expanded to include hand signals for when you want to get students’ attention or when students need to go use the restroom.
Though it can feel discouraging to hear less verbal feedback than normal, getting used to–and even encouraging–non-verbal communication will definitely help increase classroom engagement.
Part IV: End of Class
13. Give Students a Choice.*
Sometimes kids just aren’t in the right head-space to learn for two or three hours straight. The information overload makes our brains feel waterlogged and we need to throw in the towel. If you notice the energy of the class becoming more sluggish or disinterested, it may be wise to give your students a choice between leaving early or pushing through the rest of the lesson. Now I know, your immediate concern is falling behind schedule, but here are my arguments for why this is a good idea:
- Personally, if I know that a teacher is genuinely interested in my wellness, then I am more likely to be receptive in their classroom, and more likely to put additional effort into the work that I do for that class. Letting your students leave early once in a while will encourage them to like you, and you want your students to like you.
- Especially during distance learning, it is important to prioritize community wellness over content or class rigor. It is better to reschedule part of your lesson for a different day than to spend all of your energy giving the lesson to tired students. I assure you that whatever you are trying to teach will go in one ear and out the other.
*Use this tip sparingly.
14. Provide Simple Review Questions.
Zoom polls can be tricky to set up, but they are very convenient and useful for live feedback. Getting into the habit (see Tip #4) of giving your students simple and short review question(s) at the beginning or end of each class period–whether it’s through Zoom polls, Quizizz, Kahoot, or Quizlet (pick one, don’t use all of these!)–can work wonders for both you and your students. These review questions (or pop quizzes, yikes!) will allow you to gain invaluable feedback about what topics your class is struggling with, while also giving your students a chance to practice active recall, a process known to greatly improve students retention of class material.
Part V: After Class
15. Make Lecture Notes and/or Class Recordings Available.
Building off of Tip #5, I highly encourage making class recordings available for your students to reference after class, especially for the auditory or visual learners in your classroom. Allowing students to access recordings of the class may lighten the burden of trying to understand a complex topic in the span of a short, virtual class, and may prevent the rushed “what was that one thing you said in class?” emails. If you already followed step #5, then sharing lecture notes with your students should be as easy as the click of a button, and here is how to record meetings automatically on Zoom.
16. Don’t Schedule Extra Help Manually.
Just don’t do it. Please. It’s a waste of precious classroom time and takes time away from the students who aren’t interested in signing up for extra help. Remember, technology is your FRIEND.
I recommend using a website like Calendy to schedule your extra help meetings for you. With your personalized Calendly link, students will be able to schedule extra help on their own time, without all of the back and forth, saving both of you a lot of time.
I’d be the first to admit that I have no actual qualification to give this advice besides my own personal experience. That said, I sincerely hope you found at least one piece of useful advice in this article and I commend you for getting all the way through! I know so much about education can be difficult to optimize, but this article was designed to empower you to seek out solutions for some of your most frustrating challenges.
Just because distance learning is difficult, doesn’t mean that you are a bad teacher. In fact, distance learning is making you a better teacher! If you keep that sentiment in mind (and on resume 😉) this upcoming school year, I’m sure we’ll all have a meaningful and amazing time.
Disclaimer: The tips detailed in this article are limited in scope; not every unique circumstance can be accounted for. This article was written from my perspective, but I do not claim to be the sole owner of these ideas. These ideas were an aggregate of effective tools I’ve seen used in a number of my previous classes. I am just one student hoping to help.