illustration of three secondary students

Keeping students engaged in their learning can be a challenge when you’re in the classroom. But student engagement during distance learning has a host of additional challenges. While it may feel like everything you know about student engagement is different in the world of distance learning, two things remain true in a virtual classroom: high levels of student engagement are the result of building meaningful relationships with your students and including strong materials in your lessons. In this post, we’ll outline ways you can increase student engagement in remote learning by strengthening relationships and keeping your 6-12 learners motivated and excited to participate.

How to increase student engagement during distance learning

Cultivate peer-to-peer connections.

To improve student engagement, 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 distance learning. 

But how do you create moments of connection and collaboration to encourage student engagement during distance learning when your students are not in the same physical space? Consider these three strategies for building stronger relationships and boosting student engagement in a virtual classroom.

Set up time for small virtual groups to meet. 

To get students to feel more engaged in their remote classroom, 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.” Building virtual meet-ups into your schedule can encourage student engagement by helping students feel more connected to their classmates and ultimately more invested in what’s happening in their online classroom.

Engage learners in collaborative discussions. 

To engage students through a collaborative discussion during distance learning, TpT Teacher Author Jadyn Thone takes advantage of online learning tools that allow 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 boosts student engagement in her virtual classroom with  fun icebreaker-type activities that get students comfortable participating remotely. 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. “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 during distance learning, you can still take steps to foster a sense of community and encourage student engagement 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. She starts by creating a collaborative document with a prompt at the top of the first page, and she assigns each student their own page to start on. “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 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 engaged during distance learning. Below are some suggestions for celebrating student success, growth, and participation while remote.

Provide meaningful feedback and reward participation.

To encourage student engagement, Kacie Travis 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.” she 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.” Thankfully, providing students with timely feedback can be even easier using online tools. For example, you can assign many of your favorite TpT resources to your students online as Easel Activities. When they return the completed activity to you, you can use the pen tool to mark correct and incorrect answers, the text tool to provide additional explanations or questions for thought, or the highlighting tool to point out areas you’d like them to fix. Then, you can immediately return the assignment to the students for review at the click of a button.

Learn more about how to use Easel by TpT in this post.

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

End of the Year Reflection Activity for Secondary Students DISTANCE LEARNING

The Teacher-Author indicated this resource includes assets from Google Workspace (e.g. docs, slides, etc.).

FREE Boom Cards™ Right Triangle Sample DISTANCE LEARNING

The Teacher-Author has indicated that this resource can be used for device-based learning.

Dichotomous Keys Dinosaurs

This resource is compatible with Easel by TpT. Customize this activity and assign it to students, all from Easel. Easel by TpT is free to use! Learn more.

Stem-Changing Verbs Mystery Images | Use with Google Apps | Distance Learning

The Teacher-Author indicated this resource includes assets from Google Workspace (e.g. docs, slides, etc.).

Scatter Plots with a Graphing Calculator

This resource includes a ready-to-use, interactive Easel Activity you can assign to students to complete from any device. Easel by TpT is free to use! Learn more.

FREE Warm-up, Discussion, Writing Prompt Activity – Education PRINT, TPT DIGITAL

This resource is compatible with Easel by TpT. Customize this activity and assign it to students, all from Easel. Easel by TpT is free to use! Learn more.

ESL Writing Activities FREEBIE | Paragraph Builder Freebie

This resource is compatible with Easel by TpT. Customize this activity and assign it to students, all from Easel. Easel by TpT is free to use! Learn more.

Although keeping students engaged during distance learning has its challenges, many of the solutions you would use in-person can be applied to the remote classroom, as well. In a virtual setting, student engagement often requires meaningful relationships, support systems, and moments of celebration that keep students motivated to learn. Not to be overlooked in the student engagement puzzle, too, are strong materials, and if you’re looking for resources to engage your students during distance learning, be sure to check out Easel by TpT. With Easel, you can create interactive digital activities that your students can complete on a device by adding text boxes, annotations, and movable pieces to resources on TpT or your own materials.