5 ways to increase student engagement — both on and offline

It’s 2020 (a year we’ll not soon forget) and connecting virtually has quickly become the new normal. We’ve been forced to pivot, innovate, readjust, and restructure just about every area of our lives. We’ve seen, heard, and experienced the struggle that many teams and educators have as it relates to keeping students actively engaged in a virtual world. Let’s be real, in a virtual classroom it’s not easy to read a room, encourage students to respond, manage multiple tech resources & supplements, and become an overnight TikTok sensation, all while speaking to a computer screen — we feel your pain! The struggle of student engagement isn’t new, it’s just amplified. When it comes to education …

Are we really innovating or are we merely holding our breath, waiting for the dust to settle, and praying for the opportunity to “go back to normal”?

We should anticipate that when our kids leave high school, they will inevitably enter a digital world and work environment. They will need to learn how to use technology effectively, efficiently, and productively. We see the shifts happening around us. Companies are allowing remote work as permanent fixtures in their HR policies and homeschooling interest has exploded as parents learn to balance and students learn to establish community online. Everyone is figuring out how to make the necessary shifts, but schools aren’t following suit. The answer to our future problems doesn’t lie in waiting until we re-enter the classroom and return to business as usual — the answer is in changing the way we view education and learning how to engage with students in meaningful ways that will ultimately prepare them for 21st century careers and opportunities of the 4th Industrial Revolution.

Like many educators, the HYPE team began running virtual coding camps and afterschool programs when COVID-19 originally rocked our world. We were pushed outside of our comfort zone and forced to innovate fast and often for survival. During the process, our teachers grew stronger, our curriculum became more solid, and our student engagement sky-rocketed. I’m not saying that we’ve figured everything out, but I am saying we’ve uncovered a few cheat codes to this whole “virtual learning” thing by moving our focus away from the pain of virtual and towards the purpose of student learning.

Here are 5 practical tips based on our personal experiences on how to increase overall engagement and create more positive learning experiences for students — both on and offline.

1. Frontload the Fun

Kids of all ages get antsy staring at a computer screen all day (and let’s be honest here, so do adults). Online instruction doesn’t provide as many opportunities for fun breaks between classes, like recess, lunch, and walking between classrooms of in-person learning, so we like to frontload the fun. If students associate their experience with you as a fun and positive one right from the start, they are more likely to stay engaged and actively respond to questions throughout the synchronous lesson. In our HYPE programs, we kick each session off with music, icebreakers, and activities for connection building. These help students to feel more comfortable with one another and prompt casual conversations that keep the classroom environment friendly and fun.

2. Make Students Owners of their Experience

Give students five minutes at the beginning of class to search for a background image that corresponds with a theme that they choose (e.g. favorite Disney movie, dream vacation spot, etc). Create student pairings and assign each group a different day to select the theme. Many virtual meeting platforms, including Microsoft Teams and Zoom, support the custom virtual background feature. We’ve found that this gets students to turn on their camera and identify commonalities with others — they’ll ooh and ahh at each other’s backgrounds and chat about the theme. This is a fun way to encourage students who may feel more reluctant to show their faces, and it normalizes using a virtual background for those who may not want to show their home settings to the entire class. In general, giving students varying degrees of autonomy and freedom will empower them to be leaders and feel a sense of self-efficacy in their learning experience.

3. Set Clear Expectations — and model them

This one is probably second nature to most teachers, but we must remember that as students gain more independent learning time, they will need clearer structure, increased guidance, and well-defined boundaries — even if they don’t ask for it. Set clear expectations for classroom rules and norms and the quality of work they are submitting. Model the behavior you expect and hold students accountable. You may even need to give instructions more explicitly since students won’t have as many opportunities to ask questions. Always err on the side of too much detail and clarity. It will definitely keep you on top of your game, but an added bonus is that it will keep your students and their parents/guardians on top of theirs as well!

4. Use Tech Tools to your Advantage

We’ve been loving tools like Pear Deck, Mentimeter, and FlipGrid as resources that allow us to make presentations more interactive. Being a computer science education program that works directly with underrepresented minorities, we absolutely can’t drop the ball when it comes to being interactive. The girls that we serve are already being conditioned to believe that computer science isn’t for them — so using tools like the ones we mentioned helps to make lecture time more fun and give students avenues to share their thoughts and opinions. They also allow teachers opportunities to conduct in-the-moment checks for understanding and adjust as needed. Most of these tools can integrate easily with Google Slides or Microsoft PowerPoint.

5. Use Asynchronous Time Strategically

As educators, we can often feel a lot of pressure to cram as much information as possible into our limited live class meeting times, but using asynchronous time strategically can alleviate pressure and allow students with different learning styles to succeed. Some students need time to digest on their own before working on a project or applying what they have learned. Others need time to work out a problem on their own to solidify understanding. Asynchronous time can provide the flexibility that different learners need to grasp and retain new material and be more hands-on than a fully lecture-style meeting time. Giving students well-planned asynchronous assignments also frees up the teacher to create supplemental videos uninterrupted. We often create mini-tutorials by recording a Zoom meeting (with no actual attendees) and posting the links as resources for our girls, which has proven to be one of the things that HYPE participants appreciate most!

At the end of the day, we should be preparing our scholars to thrive in the world that they will be entering when their training with us is complete; not preparing them to be comfortable in a classroom that — as we’ve recently experienced — can be uprooted at any given moment.

If these tips were helpful to you or you’d like more support and professional development in increasing student engagement (either virtually or in person), HYPE is available to host professional development training and workshops. Reach out to our team at info@gethype.org for more information!

Kristina is a passionate advocate for diversity in tech, a social impact entrepreneur, and Founder & CEO of Hope for Youth, Inc in Atlanta, GA — www.gethype.org