Teaching intelligence: how to keep students engaged at a distance

As universities accept that online learning is here to stay, we hear from three experts how to ensure students are able to effectively engage with remote teaching

June 24, 2020
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Concentration lapse: students are struggling with workload as remote learning offers more opportunity to procrastinate

Months into the global lockdowns, universities around the world have begun to take stock of what has happened to teaching and learning since the rapid and unexpected shift online. The fear that students would disengage was real and pertinent, but many have learned useful lessons and generated innovative new methods.

The Singapore Institute of Technology recently conducted a survey to explore students’ engagement after six weeks of remote learning. Of the nearly 1,000 students who responded, almost 60 per cent agreed that remote lessons were clear and they were able to discuss and clarify doubts.

However, more than half of the students reported that they struggled with self-discipline and time management and that work piled up as a result of constant procrastination.

The findings show how important student engagement is to effective remote teaching, according to May Lim, an associate professor at the Singapore Institute of Technology and director of the Centre for Learning Environment and Assessment Development.

The survey proved beneficial to the university, she said: “It showed that many students found the chat box on online platforms especially useful, as they can prompt questions during live lectures…and that they value recorded lectures as it allows them to have multiple views of the content and learning can take place at one’s own pace.

“We are promoting a wider usage of online tools and learning analytics to help educators identify students who may not be engaging. Instead of waiting for someone to do badly in a test, technology offers new ways of catching academically at-risk students before they fall,” she explained. “We can let students know how well they are progressing by collecting badges through submission of learning artefacts or [issuing] e-certificates after passing online formative assessments.”  

Another feature was the use of automated email notification features in the learning management system, which can alert instructors when students fail to log in. “Keeping in touch or nudging students who are at risk of falling behind is vital, [given] the lack of face-to-face interaction, to check in on students’ motivation,” Dr Lim said.

José Guzmán, a lecturer at the University of Washington, said one real positive from the new situation is that it “has made us talk about effective teaching. And we have talked a lot about it.”

Once UW moved online the conversation changed from: “‘How can I move the content of my course online?’ to ‘How can I teach this course online so my students learn?’” he said. “I have talked about students’ engagement, accessibility, flexibility, equity and active learning with faculty more in the last three months than I have in the last three years,” he said.

Teachers at the university found weekly seminars and online teaching workshops, organised by the UW Center for Teaching and Learning and the College of the Environment, very helpful, said Dr Guzmán. He added that providing a space for that conversation on a smaller scale, departmental level or in faculty meetings, was particularly useful. The take-home message is “adopt a bottom-up strategy”, he said.

Dr Guzmán said that implementing a “think-pair-share” structure, using breakout rooms on Zoom and a Google doc, was particularly effective.

Michael Draper, professor of law at Swansea University and director of the Swansea Academy for Inclusivity and Learner Success, said that, now more than ever, it was important to recognise how vital the relationship between personal tutor and student is to engagement and academic progression.

“In an environment in which value for money is increasingly under the spotlight − and even more so with online delivery − the one-to-one personal tutoring relationship adds value to the student experience,” he said.

In response to the ongoing Covid-19 restrictions, Swansea University, in partnership with the United Kingdom Advising and Tutoring association, has produced a series of top tips and other activities to ensure that personal tutors adapt and provide effective personal tutoring online.

UKAT, an association for higher education practitioners and researchers, has also launched a professional recognition scheme to ensure the continuing development of that relationship.

The tips include regularly checking in with students to reassure them, as well as taking the time to get to know them and asking how they are coping. Ensuring students know where they stand by setting and keeping virtual office hours and proactively arranging appointments with tutees, including who is responsible for making the call, is another. However, UKAT adds, it is also important to establish “clear boundaries and expectations and to protect your own privacy and work/life boundaries when working from home”.

It advises being wary of relying only on technology and not to underestimate the value of a telephone conversation when supporting a student. “After each meeting, email your tutee a copy of the notes, together with any links, documents and resources that will be useful to them. Keeping meeting notes electronically makes sharing easier,” the guidelines say.


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