Distance Learning: Keeping Learners Engaged and Motivated While Remote

Student engagement — particularly at the end of the school year — can be a challenge when you’re in the classroom. Now, with millions of students learning from home for the foreseeable future, keeping students engaged and motivated is a top priority for many teachers. 

While it may feel like everything is different in this world of distance learning, two things remain true: high levels of student engagement are the result of building good relationships with your students and including strong materials into your lessons. In this post, we’ll outline some remote-friendly strategies you can use to strengthen relationships and keep your 6-12 learners motivated and more excited to participate. 

Cultivate peer-to-peer connections.

Creating a sense of community is important with students of all ages — whether they’re learning online or in a physical classroom. According to a 2018 study, starting the day off with a simple relationship-building activity can increase academic engagement by 20 percentage points. Additionally, in a recent survey TpT conducted, nearly all of the teachers who participated mentioned the strides that they were taking to remain connected to their students during school closures. 

But how do you create moments of connection and collaboration when your students are not in the same physical space? Consider these strategies from expert Teacher-Authors:

Set up time for small virtual groups to meet. 

TpT Teacher-Author Kacie Travis recommends that teachers strategically create virtual meet-ups for small groups of students. “Select groups of friends and plan short, social virtual meet-ups. This could be a ‘lunch bunch’ or during after-school hours. Play a quick game such as Two Truths and a Lie and then just let the students have conversations. Help facilitate the conversation, but join in and let them get to know the ‘outside of school’ version of their teacher. While this is trickier in secondary, when you may have 100+ students, it is so worth it.” One teacher that Team TpT spoke to from Florida, hosts weekly Zoom parties with her students: “Every Friday, I have a Zoom party, and they come on and last week we did a pajama party and [everyone brought] a stuffed animal, this week we’re going to do a scavenger hunt.”

Engage learners in collaborative discussions. 

For these types of discussions, TpT Teacher Author Jadyn Thone takes advantage of her school’s online learning platform, where there is a “collaboration” space that allows students to interact with each other in real time. “For my physics class, I post discussion questions that ask students their opinion or require them to argue their point,” she says. “It’s great fun to read the banter between students as they learn about the science concepts from their peers and how everyone brings something unique to the conversation. Every now and then, I throw in a just-for-fun prompt, like ‘share your best physics joke, memes acceptable.’ (The top contender at the moment is ‘When Isaac Newton slaps a car, the car slaps Isaac Newton’). 

Similarly, TpT Teacher-Author Senorita Creativa likes to do a fun icebreaker-type activity with her students. One of her favorite ways to do this is to pose a hypothetical question in order to get them thinking and to create opportunities for mini-journaling and reflection. “Some of my favorite questions I’ve posed are: ‘Who would play you in the movie about your life and why?’ or ‘If you were the owner of an amusement park, what would the park be like?’ or ‘If you had to describe your life in 20 words (or less), what would you say?’” she says. “I’ve used this activity with Google Slides and had students type their response below the question, but my favorite way of using this is to post one of the questions as a discussion prompt in our learning management system. While some students don’t interact with each other much, I do see a lot of great interactions and conversations happening around these questions.”

Incorporate relationship-building activities into lessons.

While you and your students may not be in the same room, you can still take steps to foster a sense of community through relationship-building activities that’ll leave students feeling connected to one another. Jadyn Thone uses an activity called “round the room writing” to not only foster connection between students, but deepen their storytelling and writing skills. “First, using OneNote Class Notebook, I set up pages in the Collaboration space, with a prompt at the top of the page, and assign each student a starting page (e.g., Jack starts at page six),” she says. “Then, I set a timer and give students two minutes to write the start of their story. At the end of the two minutes, students move down to the next page (e.g., Jack goes to page 7), and are given another two minutes to read what the previous student typed and continue the story. Students really enjoy this activity and can bond over having created something awesome together. Just make sure you set a limit to how many rounds, so students know when they have to start wrapping up the story!”

Create time and space to be online.

When teaching virtually, teachers should consider how and when they can be present and available for their students, if they need support. There are a few ways you can do this, according to Teacher-Authors:

Hold virtual office hours or support sessions.

“In addition to answering questions through email and having whole class virtual meet-ups, teachers can offer optional, virtual help sessions,” says Kacie Travis. “Students can attend the meeting to get help or ask questions in a smaller group setting. You can set up a few hours per week that are dedicated to these small group sessions.”

Set specific time frames and boundaries.

“As a secondary teacher with six classes and just over 100 students, making myself available to each child is just impossible,” says Teacher-Author Jadyn Thone, “especially as my school is not allowed to use video conferencing applications like Zoom. To avoid burnout, but encourage the flow of communication, I’ve found that setting a specific time-frame to reach out to each class is really important. For example, my Physics cohort can email or chat to me on OneNote Class Notebook when I’ve signed in for their hour.”

Most importantly, don’t forget to celebrate success!

Celebrating growth or words of inspiration are just one of the many ways to motivate students and keep them energized for learning. Below are some suggestions for celebrating student success, growth, and participation while remote:

Create a virtual rewards system for participation.

Kacie Travis, for instance, does a weekly drawing of all the students who attend the required virtual meet-ups. “Rewards could be a homework/assignment pass, a small gift card, or their favorite candy dropped at their house.” shes says, but notes that, “It is also important that we reward student work with meaningful feedback. This will not only help their understanding of the content, but it assures them it is not busy work.”

Showcase student work.

Teacher-Author Sarah from Curiosity and the Hungry Mind likes to showcase work samples each week so students can take pride in their work and see the work that others are submitting. “It encourages them to keep going,” she says, “and realise that they are still part of a class and our class community.” She also celebrates all work that is handed in a weekly newsletter for each grade level.

Resources to keep students energized