I was actually going to write about a different topic this week, but in a recent meeting a colleague mentioned how fatigued she was because her virtual synchronous sessions were basically all black boxes with the same four students participating each time. This particular colleague is up for a pretty rad teaching award this year, and I mention this not only to give her props, but also to say that this participation slump can happen to the best of us. I’m not going to lie to you and say that all of my virtual synchronous class sessions have been amazing—some have been downright dismal and soul-sucking. But in general I’ve weathered the virtual synchronous storm fairly well, so I thought I’d pass along some of the things I think about making virtual synchronous participation work. Perhaps many of you are like, “too late, I won’t have to deal with this crap soon,” but to that I would reply, “don’t count your chickens before they hatch” and “this advice should work well for your in-person classes too.”
- Give Yourself a Break (and your Students too)
It’s not just the black screens and internet connectivity issues that are to blame, but this whole year has been one huge drain on our emotional, physical, and spiritual reserves. It is OK that you AND your students are not operating at full capacity right now. Manage your own expectations so that when things do go well, you can rejoice and not feel like a perpetual failure.
2. Now, REALLY, Give Yourself and Your Students a Break
Because I taught half my classes online before the pandemic, I took for granted that my colleagues would, by and large, choose the option (if one was given) to simply move ALL their f2f class sessions to virtual synchronous—yikes. Depending on your teaching load, that is a LOT of video-call hours. This is where we can (partly) blame the technology factor. Video-call platforms are designed for video calls. Not classes. There is a very REAL difference between the two experiences for you and your students. No wonder you’re all tired AF and no one is participating. My solution? Make some of your classes asynchronous if possible. If not, make it a hybrid. One day synchronous, one day asynchronous. Wouldn’t you rather have one totally upbeat, engaged day of teaching instead of two mediocre ones every single week? In my experience, students are more willing to “bring it” if they only get once chance per week to do so. If you can’t redesign your courses, build in some “independent research” or “working days.” I’d bet money they’ll return to class with renewed energy.
3. Begin by Talking about ANYTHING Other than Coursework
This piece of advice came from another colleague whose students petitioned her to spend the first 10 minutes of class just talking. I realize I begin class similarly by chatting with them about my new notebook, the weather, how they’re doing, or asking them for new Netflix recommendations. I actually can’t imagine jumping straight in without a little chitchat. Think of it as participation lubricant…or don’t and just give it a try.
4. Tell Them WHY to Participate – Give them Outcomes
I’m really big on the “why.” This gets me into trouble sometimes because I can easily end up in a meta-rabbit hole on just about any topic (MLA formatting, the history of DOIs, library database boolean operators). But I’ve learned that students really appreciate learning about the “why.” Often they are given a set of instructions or tasks and they have no idea why they are doing them. This not only limits buy-in but also the efficacy of the ask. When it comes to in-class participation, give them the “why.” Why should they answer your discussion questions? Why should they practice speaking to one another about your topic?
5. Tell Them HOW to Participate -Give them Options
I’ve never been the kind of teacher who likes to measure participation in a formal way. It always seemed so micro-manager-y, and in general I rebel against policies that treat adult students like children (or which have the potential to be discriminatory). So when I was planning my synchronous literature class for 60 students, I balked at the idea of tracking participation. However I also realized that in order to give them all a chance to participate in a given 75 minute class, I would need more options than “speak up at least once.” So I brainstormed all they ways they might participate including taking class notes, locating some specific contextual information we might need, posing questions, answering questions, and synthesizing the discussion after the fact (via email). This has worked out incredibly well. Students especially appreciate the option to send a synthesis email after class because sometimes they miss the chance to contribute their ideas in such a large class because we moved on before they could pipe up. An added bonus of this option is the email exchange we sometimes have after the fact which extends our conversations and helps me get to know them better as individuals in such a large class. I do track it (I mean to say that my sainted TA tracks it during class) but only for my own benefit to see who is engaged with our material and who isn’t so I might check in with students who haven’t contributed in a while. The point I’m getting at is to be clear with them how you want them to participate and to try and make those options as inclusive as possible.
6. Bring their outside-class work IN (Make Their Participation Do Double-Duty)
This is one of my favorite things to do in class, synchronous or asynchronous, virtual or not. I sometimes begin the class by exploring ideas and questions they posted in the last week or from their asynchronous work. Mentioning them by name and drawing attention to their previous participation efforts makes them feel less like their participation is perfunctory for a given assignment or class period. Helping them see their work as part of a course-long tapestry of ideas makes it more likely they’ll want to keep adding to the tapestry. In a 60 person course this means I need to take some short-hand notes to remember who said what, but it is really worth it to see them expand on an older idea or respond to a peer whose reply initially went unanswered in our discussion forum.
7. Give them a Problem, a Puzzle, a Task
In the early days of the pandemic you probably read some of the same articles I did about creating meaningful online learning by providing students the chance to talk to each other in groups and also horrifying incidences of totally silent breakout rooms. Sometimes our best intentions go awry. I found that it helped if student groups had a specific task they were responsible for and were not just expected to hold a general discussion. Ideally the task would involve some discussion, but having a specific question, problem, or activity helps to give it some focus. It also helps if they have access to a tool in order to record their group’s work and share it with the larger class (see #8)
8. Use TOOLS
Padlet, GoogleDoc, Zoom Whiteboard, even things from your LMS will work as long as they can use it to record their ideas and respond to your ask. My only caveat is don’t let the tools dominate. You don’t want to turn your synchronous class into an asynchronous one by having them work with tools the whole time. Keep the activity short and sweet and then bring it into the larger class to generate more discussion.
9. Poll Them – Ask them WTF is WRONG?
This one comes from my beleaguered colleague herself. She said it didn’t help, however, because most of the responses amounted to, “you’re doing the best you can to get us involved, it’s just not happening.” Polling your students to ask how the class is going probably makes us cringe a little (aren’t regular evals bad enough?) But if your class is really struggling it might help you take a new approach. That being said, refer to point 1 again. As a global community, we are going through a major crisis that has rippled out (tsunami-ed out?) in different ways we can’t always plan for. Sometimes just getting through it and trying again next term is the best way forward.
10. Be HONEST with Them
Being vulnerable in the classroom can be difficult in the best of times (and more difficult for women and women of color, I want to note), but it can also build trust and foster community. I’ve had students email me to say things like “I’m so glad you mentioned how tired you are right now, me too.” Or “you’re the only professor I have who’s ever said how hard this year is for us, thank you.” I personally struggled with being honest with my students as a new teacher. Even today I am always asking myself, how personal is too personal? (Good to keep in mind lest you accidentally turn your class into your therapy session). This line is hard to walk, but it has really and truly made my classes better. We develop a rapport which helps us through the awkward classes that just aren’t working well. They trust I have their best interests in mind. We are in this space of learning together.
I want to close by saying that if you’re reading an article like this I’m confident that you do have your students’ best interests at heart and you are already doing what you can to help them through a really rough period. You are enough. You do enough.
Let me know in the comments if you have other tips for virtual participation. I want to hear about all the awesome ways you are making it work.
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