How to Engage Students in Online Learning: Tips for Elementary School Teachers

Photo: Zoey, age 6, learns to type at her at-home workspace.

When the school day starts with students logging in instead of walking into your classroom, it helps to set up some routines and procedures to make sure you can grab and keep their attention as you teach. Attention is a limited resource—the brain can only focus on one thing at a time—and it’s natural for minds to wander.

Student Engagement Strategies for the Online Learning Environment

When teaching online, it’s not as easy to see that students are getting distracted and bring them back. That’s why it’s important to help students set up a workspace at home that minimizes distractions, keep students engaged from the beginning of a lesson, build in ways to sustain their attention, and establish nondisruptive ways for them to communicate with you when they’re struggling.

Help students set up their workspace.

Elementary students will need help setting up a space for schoolwork in their homes, so provide guidelines to both students and their caregivers about what is needed. Here’s what they will likely need:

  • A quiet space that’s free from distractions: Show students and their caregivers your workspace and list the key elements. Having a room with a door that closes is ideal, but the kitchen table or a bedroom corner can work just as well with some adjustments. Face the workspace away from the television or other distracting devices, and send siblings or other family members who are not engaging in quiet work to another room. Clear clutter from visible surfaces—a pile of papers or toys that haven’t been put away can lead to mind wandering.
  • Materials required for the lesson: Have students gather the materials they will need for the lesson beforehand by sending out a list of what’s required the night or week before. (e.g., notebook, graph paper, pencil)
  • Headphones: Encourage students to use headphones, as this reduces distractions and dampens background noise.
  • Webcams (if available and appropriate): Tell students whether and how you want them to use webcams. Student webcams can help teachers monitor their students’ attentiveness, but not all students have access to a webcam and seeing their other classmates’ video feeds may be more distracting than helpful. If you want to use webcams, you might limit their use to only when a student is speaking or only for small-group, collaborative activities.
(Photo courtesy of Connor's family)

The at-home workspace for Connor, a 6-year-old in Maryland.

Grab attention at the beginning of a lesson.

Students will need help transitioning from whatever is going on at home to the learning environment before they can give you their full attention. Here are some ways to help them make that shift:

  • Remind students to turn off device-based distractions: These distractions include streaming services, social media websites, and messaging applications. Students should be reminded to turn them off before starting each lesson.
  • Start each lesson with a routine: Routines help students shift gears from whatever is happening in their home to the learning environment. This should be fun and engaging: a song that everyone sings together, a word of the day, an image or anecdote related to the topic of the lesson, or a modified version of your usual morning meeting.
  • Establish and share a consistent schedule for each live session: This helps students know what to expect and where to focus their attention, and it helps you stay on track time-wise.
  • If you have a webcam, turn it on: It helps students to see that you are there speaking to them, rather than being a disconnected voice narrating a set of slides.

Build in ways to sustain attention during the lesson.

A novel learning environment combined with the lack of an in-person teacher presence is a recipe for mind wandering. Make peace with that fact, and build in ways to bring students back over the course of your lesson:

  • Take some time to practice online classroom management routines: These are similar to what you used in the classroom, including a quiet cue to get students to stop what they are doing and listen for directions. A quiet cue can be a clapping pattern or a visual sign that you hold up to your webcam.
  • Establish guidelines for muting microphones: Show students how to mute their microphones when they are not speaking so the background noise in their homes doesn’t distract other students. Students should only unmute when they are speaking.
  • Virtually call on students to answer questions: Keep your class list handy so you can tally the number of times you’ve called on each student and ensure that everyone gets a chance to participate (and keep everyone on their toes). You can also simulate handraising using the chat window—students can virtually volunteer to be called on by typing in their name, or even a single letter or number if they aren’t able to type yet.
  • Use online quiz tools to check for understanding: Tools like Kahoot! can provide real-time formative assessment data during a lesson so you can address misconceptions on the spot and give students a chance to retrieve what they’ve just learned. These moments keep the learning active rather than passive.

Establish ways for students to communicate that they’re struggling.

Young students are still developing executive function skills like self-monitoring, so they might not realize when they are struggling and need to ask for help or clarification. Encourage them to become more independent learners by modeling monitoring behaviors and getting caregivers involved to fill in the gaps: 

  • Pause frequently to ask if there are questions: It’s harder to see when students are struggling in a remote learning environment, and when the material starts to get over their heads, it’s more likely that students will tune out. Build frequent pauses into your lesson to ask students whether they have questions or if any of the material was confusing. They can use the same hand-raising procedures described above to ask questions. Older elementary students can also use the chat function to ask their classmates questions.
  • Ask caregivers to provide feedback on how their students are doing: Elementary students might not realize when they are struggling, so establishing clear lines of communication with caregivers is key. Use online survey tools to create exit tickets for caregivers. Caregivers can ask their students a couple of questions pertaining to the day’s learning objectives and send in their responses, giving you an idea of how well students understood the information. Provide some open-ended space for caregivers to share comments about how remote learning is going for them and their students so you can refine your approach.

Engaging the online learner, especially at the elementary school level, presents unique challenges, but the underlying principles of how attention works remain the same regardless of whether you are teaching in person or through a screen. It may take a couple of weeks before you find the right formula for adapting classroom-based, attention-directing strategies to online instruction, but know that in the process, you are also helping your students develop important 21st-century skills for learning, communicating, and collaborating using technology.

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To help you continue teaching and learning during the current outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19), visit HMH's At-Home Learning Support page for free resources. 

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