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Encouraging Students’ Participation in Online Classes: Tools and Practices

/ 15 Dec 2020

Encouraging Students’ Participation in Online Classes: Tools and Practices

Editor’s Note: The following article is one in a series offering insights from faculty members at the American University in Cairo on how to make online classrooms more effective. The comments were originally published in New Chalk Talk, a newsletter of the university’s Center for Learning and Teaching, and have been edited for clarity here.

Previous articles in this series: “Making Online Teaching Work: Insights from American University in Cairo Faculty” and “Reduce Workloads to Ease Students’ Stress: Faculty Insights.”

We know many students don’t turn their cameras on and it’s difficult to teach blank screens, but we also know connectivity issues can make it impossible for some students to have good audio while their video is on. We also know students are anxious about how their participation will be graded.

Camera or no camera, students can participate via audio, chat, Google Docs, or doing formative quizzes or polls using tools like Slido, Kahoot or Nearpod. You can ensure every student participates multiple times during a class session using these options. This is actually one of the advantages of online learning—there is space to ensure everyone participates.

Ramy Aly, department of sociology, Egyptology and anthropology:

 “Students can participate verbally, via Zoom chat or via Padlet (which is a great tool). I am also using all the features I can on Zoom to manage participation turn-taking. I should say that most of them are speaking during Zoom, to my surprise, (but) there are a handful who are not engaging using any of these options even though I have sent them many reminders that participation is key and that they can choose their mode of participation. These students will have low participation grades—but there is no way that they don’t know that and in any case that happens whether or not we are online.”

Tarek ElSayed, department of physics, has a simple way of quizzing students during the live lecture:

“I scattered throughout all my slides many (multiple-choice question) quizzes in the content of the current slides. I ask students to write down the answer in the Zoom chatbox, and then I can see the answer of each student and select one to discuss the quiz with him/her. It is the same idea of clickers, done on Zoom.”

ElSayed also highlights student achievements in a “hall of fame” Padlet to encourage them.

“All lectures are synchronous but also recorded for those who are not able to attend. My camera is always on.”

Ramy Aly   Department of sociology, Egyptology and anthropology

However, as a teacher, keeping your camera on at least some of the time (when your connectivity allows) can help students feel connected. Students like seeing your face. “All lectures are synchronous but also recorded for those who are not able to attend. My camera is always on,” says Aly.

Thomas Wolsey, Graduate School of Education:

“When students don’t want to turn on their cameras, it can be a challenge to get to know them.  I awarded a badge to students who created an avatar or put a photo up on their Zoom profile.  The avatar or photo doesn’t always show up, depending on how students access Zoom, but it does help them build a sense of connection to the others in the class. Plus, I learn a bit about them from their photos and avatars. One of my undergraduates has a photo of him leaning on a fence in Germany. Another is at (the resort town) Hurghada. Several of the students’ avatars show a playful side that is hard to project in virtual environments.”

Make the Most of Breakout Rooms

Faculty and students alike are reporting success with breakout rooms. General good practice for breakout rooms includes giving students clear written instructions for what to do in the breakout rooms, giving students enough time to work on it, and choosing group sizes appropriate for the task. It is also important for teachers to have a way of keeping track of what is happening in the breakout rooms.

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Matthew Hendershot, department of rhetoric and composition,

regularly has students take notes of their breakout-room discussions in Google Slides, one slide per group. He checks progress of the different rooms as they unfold (and recognizes when he might need to drop in), and it helps keep a record of participation. Taking notes on slides makes it easier for students to report back to the main room at the end of class, and all students have documentation of everyone else’s notes automatically.

You can also make one of the breakout-room groups stay in the main room with you, to help you see how students are responding to the instructions you give them and help you gauge if students might need more time for the task. Additional resources for building community online are available from the organizations OneHE and Equity Unbound.

Giving Feedback Online

“Effective feedback has many qualities, but three of the most important are that feedback is timely, useful, and kind.”

Thomas Wolsey   Graduate School of Education

Thomas Wolsey reminds us:

“Effective feedback has many qualities, but three of the most important are that feedback is timely, useful, and kind.”

Yasmine Motawy, department of rhetoric and composition, suggests:

“Consider giving audio feedback to students on projects in process: It is much faster to give, (and) the coaching tone and replayability of the feedback makes it preferable to most. It is also supported by the literature: Pearson, John (2018). ‘Engaging Practical Students Through Audio Feedback.’ Practitioner Research in Higher Education, 11 (1). pp. 87-94.”

Khalil El Khodary, department of mechanical engineering, gives students group work with slightly different starting points, “giving them thorough feedback on their progress at a major milestone prior to final submission” and grading their process and reflections, rather than (only) grading correctness/incorrectness of their submission.

Magda Mostafa, department of architecture, recommends using one place (in her case a visual board tool called Mural) for “day-to-day classwork”:

“It is where they submit their work, get it graded, view their rubric, discuss it with us in class and where we as a teaching team annotate their work, give them visual and oral feedback, share resources in the chat. … I am also able to later go back to the board and add more notes and annotations, and can meet a student there during office hours to review their work and my notes. It also gives them a place to go to view others’ work and see the feedback they received and perhaps generalize that feedback to their own work.”

Mostafa  also suggests:

“Give ‘feed-forward,’ not feedback. We have invented this concept of feed-forward, which focuses on constructive comments about students projects and provides suggestions that are both doable and build on the students’ own ideas.”

Nellie El Enany, department of management, amplifies on that idea:

“Feedback seems to be even more important with online, for a whole range of reasons. Magda’s points about feed-forward [are] really important. This concept was really brought to the forefront of learning and assessment about 15 years ago or so (by Neil Duncan and others) and is re-emerging with its links to improved grades, motivation and perceived self-efficacy. A discussion about what ‘good’ feedback is would be useful, particularly at the department level.”

Next in this series: How to make effective videos.

This commentary was curated by Maha Bali and Hoda Mostafa of the AUC Center for Learning and Teaching. If you cite the article, please also include all of the authors: Ramy Aly, Nellie El Enany, Khalil El Khodary, Tarek ElSayed Matthew Hendershot, Magda Mostafa, Yasmine Motawy, and Thomas Wolsey.




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