Tips to keep your students engaged while teaching remotely

An image showing a student jumping over books

Source: © Alice Mollon/Ikon Images

Help your students take off while they are studying at home

Teachers across the world have been teaching remotely for a couple of months now – and it seems unlikely this will change for many before September. Some children in England will return this month, but many won’t. Scottish pupils may be following a programme of blended learning once they commence their new term in August, and some universities are even talking about conducting classes online for the whole of the next academic year. However long this continues, many educators are finding that one of the trickier aspects of not having their pupils in the classroom is keeping them motivated. In fact, a recent Teacher Tapp survey found the vast majority of teachers feel that their students are working two hours or less a day.

Among your students, maybe you have found it’s the lower attainers that struggle the most with motivation, or maybe it’s simply the same group that were not motivated even in school. ‘We have been teaching all of our lessons really successfully online.’ says Penny Robotham, senior teacher and head of science at The National Mathematics and Science College in Coventry. ‘What has been surprising is that some of our quieter students have really grown in confidence online. It’s very easy for some students to make excuses about not doing work, but mostly it’s the same students who were already unmotivated in the classroom. Though, I did have one student who was in lockdown in a hotel for two weeks – and they suddenly became very motivated.’

Unfortunately we can’t keep our students in a room with nothing else to do other than their chemistry homework. So what strategies can we employ to boost their motivation remotely and keep them learning?

1. Work with parents

‘At my school we have been focusing on communication between SLT and parents, says Penny. ‘We can report anything that happens in a lesson really quickly through the pastoral team.’ Her advice is echoed by Amy Jordon, head of chemistry at St Dunstans College in London. ‘As a school we have been emailing home if there are any problems. I’ve also found that while students are busy doing something else during online lessons you even have extra time to write up emails!’

Though, this can be hard with limited support from home. ‘The online teaching presents new issues for some students, particularly those who find that the people in school are their main support network,’ observes Penny. Keep up a rapport with these students as far as possible, encourage them to stay connected to their support network, and try your best to engage their parents. If you are having trouble communicating with parents, the government recommends reaching out to your school’s learning mentor or family liason officer (if you have one) or appropriate external support services, such as your local education welfare officer or behaviour support team.

2. Let them pick

Autonomy has been shown to boost learning. You can get students to feel more autonomous by directing their own learning, setting their own goals and studying material at their own pace on their own terms, but what if they’re not motivated to start the task in the first place? You can try making tasks more engaging by letting students pick which one(s) they want to do from a selection. When setting an activity, give them at least two options to choose between so that the activities are more tailored to their interests and they can feel more autonomy over their learning.

3. Positive reinforcement

Lots of praise is effective, says Amy. ‘Not just directly – I have also been putting through commendations for my students.’ If your school has an awards system, keep using it – and even make it more short-term. Rather than termly commendations, consider weekly awards for positive contributions to class discussions, responding to feedback, etc, making sure to reward and praise things such as students’ effort or completion of a task rather than their attainment.

4. Competitions

A bit of healthy competition can be great for boosting motivation, as well as teaching students the importance of learning from failures and losses. You could run small class competitions or larger projects with a small prize, even if it’s a virtual gold star. Or rather than competing individually, split each class into teams (or houses if you have them) and give them points for completing tasks, contributing to discussions, being positive, etc – which might also help boost a sense of connection and community with their fellow classmates.

5. Address them directly

Make sure you regularly engage with students individually. ‘Engaging with students by name really helps,’ says Amy. ‘During an online lesson, I do a paper register at the beginning so that I know whose microphone works and who needs to use the chat function. Having this paper register in front of me really helps me to remember to ask each person a question at least once. It means they can’t avoid you, and they all feel included!’

6. Tailor your strategies

There are different types of motivators: intrinsic (eg genuine interest in the subject, a sense of accomplishment) and extrinsic (eg parental or societal expectations, personal goals) – and each student will be motivated (or not) by a web of different factors. You know your class best: if a particular member is struggling to stay motivated, do you know what drives them? For example, if they like a sense of accomplishment, set them a series of small, bite-sized tasks for a series of easy wins. If they like rewards, use plenty of positive reinforcement or shower them with house points at any opportunity.

Do you have more ideas? Share your tips and experiences with your colleagues in the comments below or on Twitter @RSC_EiC.