How to Better Online Classroom Participation: 5 Terrific Tips For Teachers

Ask a teacher to describe their time in a classroom with students, and they may probably say something like this, “I often have an enthusiastic audience. But they are more eager to talk to each other, and have little interest in what I’m saying.”

Sounds like a nightmare, doesn’t it? 

Welcome to the teaching life! Because this is what most teachers deal with on an everyday basis. 

Image depicting how tough teachers can have it.

Which is why I say… Teachers are superheroes! 

Especially in this whole let ‘s-live-our-lives-online world that we are currently in. 

Even for experienced teachers, an online classroom is challenging. After all, it isn’t easy facilitating virtual classrooms when your students are in different locations. 

Sure, technology makes it easier to connect online, but it’s not that simple, is it? Digital platforms add another layer of learning barriers. And then there is the lack of non-verbal dimensions of interaction. 

Think about it! Would you be able to spot a student in a Brady-bunch style screen? And then figure out if the lack of expression on their face is disinterest, boredom, or disdain? 

A lot has been said and written about improving online classroom participation. There are also heaps of conversation around facilitating digital meetings.

But are we missing something? Can what we know about improving engagement in virtual workshops and meetings applies to virtual classroom participation? How?

Take a look! 

Winning at Online Classroom Participation: Secrets from Digital Facilitators

Sure, it sounds silly to compare dealing with adults to dealing with kids. But here’s the thing. The fundamentals of how to keep human beings engaged haven’t really changed. 

After all, aren’t we all just kids playing at being grownups? And handling a virtual audience can be a lot like dealing with children.  

Keep that in mind as you read these tips. 

#1 Preparation is Key

Talk to any digital facilitator worth their salt, and they will tell you how important planning and preparation is. 

In an interview with folks over at Workshopper, Robert Skrobe, the owner of Dallas Design Sprints, says, 

“You have to prepare as much as you can. Not only for the flow of the entire Sprint itself but also for how to communicate and connect with those that are going to be part of the process.”

The same is true for an online classroom, too. 

Daniel Radcliffe highlighting the mantra of always be prepared during online classes.

This is, of course, something teachers are familiar with. Lesson planning, after all, is an integral part of their lives. 

Take this attention to detail and planning to your virtual classroom. Think about every detail. 

  • Which video conferencing or online classroom platform should you use? Are there better platforms more suited to online teaching? 
  • What kind of activities do you have to plan? Are you dividing students into groups? Will you be using breakout rooms?
  • Do you want to organize a quiz or take a poll during the class? Does the platform you use have engagement activities? 
  • Do you need a virtual whiteboard? 
  • Do you want to share learning material during the class? Can you use shared documents? 
  • Do you know the ins and outs of the platform you are using? Will you be able to troubleshoot any issues that students face? 

With all these different requirements, you need a bouquet of online tools. A video conferencing platform, a document sharing and creation tool, a virtual whiteboard, a chat system, engagement activities… The list is endless. Pick platforms that make your experience as seamless as possible. 

Like Toasty! Which allows you to do all of this and more. 

#2 Cater to the Before and After

Here’s what some 200+ meeting experts and digital facilitators we spoke to said about workshops. 

Facilitators and meeting leaders still think of virtual workshops only in the present tense. This is because we are used to the physical space that these meetings occupy.

Teachers face the same problem. Teaching an online classroom needs a shift in mindset. 

Worried about the class getting too boring? Flip how it’s being conducted. 

Share learning material asynchronously through pre-recorded videos and shared documents. Let students come prepared for the class. They are better engaged when they know what to expect in class. 

Start each class with a quiz or a poll. Divide the students into smaller groups in breakout rooms to discuss their answers and summarize their learnings. 

On Toasty, we have made this super simple with our intuitive Poll feature. Test students’ knowledge and divide them into smaller groups, all with a straightforward, short poll. You can then prompt discussions with our focused breakout room activities. Makes your job easy, doesn’t it? 

This is a great way to spend less class time in instructing students. Instead, use that time to listen to students and identify learning gaps.

But what about after the class? Use Google Sheets to create a dedicated feedback form of sorts. Ask your students to answer questions like, “What’s something new I learned?” and “What surprised me?”. Encourage them to ask follow-up questions. Use the sheet to share something new about the topic if you think a student was really interested.

Keep the communication channels open and alive.

#3 Be Inclusive 

Now here’s where teachers have the upper hand over digital facilitators. 

Chances are you already know some of your students. You know who is an introvert, who may fall victim to classroom hierarchies, is easily excitable and can be a dominant personality. That’s a goldmine of information.

Illustrative GIF from Inside Out that shows a teacher recognizing children with different personality traits.

It’s easy for students to hide in virtual classrooms. Use what you know about their personalities and spot the quieter kids. 

But what do you do when you are explaining something, say on a digital whiteboard? 

Amr Khalifeh, AJ&Smart Workshopper, has a pro-tip to handle this situation.

Set up the working space in a way that will allow you to observe both the Miro board and the participants: so, for example, give three-quarters of the screen to the board and a quarter to the video call. That way you can see everybody’s faces and if you notice someone looking confused you can react to that.”

Do the same or use a second monitor to have your virtual whiteboard on one screen and your students. 

Another popular solution? Think virtual breakout rooms!

If used effectively, they can be a great way to engage every participant (student). The question is, how. 

Smaller groups are the way to go. 

Instead of large groups of four or five, have small groups of maximum three students. In fact, the ideal number is two. With two students, each of them needs to participate, either as a speaker or a listener. This improves individual engagement levels. 

#4 Always Check In

A gospel truth that all digital facilitators hold dear to them? 

Proactively seek out feedback and provide feedback when conducting a virtual workshop.

Teachers often do this in physical classrooms… Ask students if they understand what’s being taught. 

Illustrative image to highlight how teachers need to constantly check in with their students.

But how does this translate virtually? And how do you ensure you don’t miss out on non-verbal communication? 

Remember that earlier tip about using two monitors? It holds true here, too.

Digital facilitators often prompt for verbal responses or use interactive features like polls. It’s also a technique to level up mental presence at virtual meetings.

Worried that too many interactive activities may cause chaos or eat up time? Use the chat window.

Encourage students to ask questions. Also, use it to check if they have understood a concept. 

With your students, draft a list of online classroom rules about emojis. Yes, you read that right. Use emojis for different responses like thumbs down if someone’s not understood something, thumbs up if they have, or even star eyes if someone loves the topic. Creating rules around usage will help you decode emojis quickly and interpret the flow of information faster. 

Teaching even younger kids? Use simpler response techniques like typing in T or F for True or False or Y or N for Yes or No.  

#5 Let Them Chart Their Journey

We at Toasty are huge believers in the Law of Two Feet. It basically says that if you aren’t contributing to a meeting, use your two feet and find a place where you are valuable.

But what does that mean? 

Giving your audience the autonomy to choose their own group to make meaningful contributions. 

And how can that translate to an online classroom? 

The most significant issue in virtual classrooms can be that students take on the role of an observer. As a teacher, if you facilitate online classrooms, encourage them to take responsibility for their learning. 

“Engage your students as active learners from the beginning. Rather than simply asking students to participate or requiring poll responses, give them specific reasons to engage beyond obligation.” 

Lucy Swedberg, Editorial Director, Harvard Business Publishing Education

Some teachers we’ve interacted with suggested giving students the autonomy to pursue interests within the domain of the topic being taught. 

Funny gif about Rihanna taking a singing class during an online classroom.

Sure, if that means your students gets Rihanna to sing in your classroom, why not?! 

But seriously, give your students the freedom to experiment. 

Allocate virtual breakout rooms to different themes of the topic and let students choose what they want to focus one. Each of these breakout rooms can then create a shared summary document to share with the large group. 

Another easy option? Using Toasty’s Discuss Cards to discuss different sub-themes and collate a group response. 

The Way Forward With Online Classrooms

Here’s the thing. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to more engaging remote classrooms. 

We are still new to this whole scenario, and structured virtual classrooms are even now being constructed.

Embrace the malleability and flexibility of online classes. It can be accessible, collaborative, and, if used well, engaging. 

Set out clear guidelines, take students’ feedback, and create a lesson plan achievable in a virtual setup. 

A massive, instructional lecture may be a recipe for students sleeping in class. But one peppered with short polls, quizzes, breakout activities, etc., can keep students and teachers on their toes. 

👩‍🏫 Online classrooms need a lot of preparation, and they can be tough to conduct. At Toasty, we help you organize your classes better with a feature-rich platform that enables you to create agendas, use engagement and collaboration tools, and have a more fruitful breakout room experience with focused activities. Give Toasty a try today.