Maximizing Student Engagement in Virtual and Blended Learning through Relationship Building
By Colleen Robinson
Education is an ever-changing and adapting trade that has educators constantly evolving to the conditions around us. Like the banded snails that continue to transform their colors to adapt to the climate change surrounding them, us educators find ourselves preparing students for a coming climate unknown to us and in unique technologically expanding times. Though we are all cognizant of these truths the circumstances we find ourselves in came with unprecedented times and considerable shifts in learning creating challenges in the new virtual and blended learning platforms. Some Families are now opting for virtual settings, educators are scaling blended learning, environmental distractions, and instructing to quiet-dark zoom boxes; all leading to the overarching student engagement educators are grappling with in this new and altered habitat.
Though this is not the way educational university programs instructed us to teach, (I don’t recall a college course on educating eight-year-olds via the devices and the internet) we have to establish the roots we know well, building the community in our classrooms. Just as relationship building becomes ingrained into our pedagogical methods so must technology. Finding ways to create a welcoming environment to impact student engagement in the virtual world is the first obstacle we face. A research study by Han and Johnson (2012) found emotional information processing more challenging in virtual settings considering the limited emotional and social cues in this environment which greatly impact social bonding; however, numerous studies demonstrate the vitality of fostering the relationship between teacher-and-student and student-and-student. The study by Sánchez, González, & Martínez (2013) highlights building mutual trust and demonstrating interest in students’ growth directly correlates to confident and comfortable learners impacting student development. The same study indicates when students feel respected and sense they have an approachable instructor they are more likely to take the risks essential for any student’s growth and success.
With the endless research and understanding we have of the importance of building relationships and increasing student engagement there’s little to no answer as to “how” in the virtual and blended learning models, this can be rendered.
Building a Virtual Community
With every start to the year begins the building of a new class community; the same is essential for our virtual classes. Taking the first days (and beyond) to focus on the classroom community in the virtual environment is crucial to building engagement. Consider how an instructor builds this in their in-person classroom environment and how this might translate to virtual learning. Some things as simple as get-to-know you questions and games to learn students and their interests and allow for space for them to do the same as you and their peers. Using the technology features to play or introduce one another is also a good way to model the expectations in the virtual classroom as well.
A few ideas for students of any age:
In an in-person educational environment it’s good practice to greet students and welcome them at the door or even for some of the added greetings in circle time or morning meetings. Greeting one-another may seem rudimentary, however there is a power in valuing the “we”-ness or belonging that comes with a simple acknowledgement and welcoming of everyone to our space as the study by Shields-Lysiak, L. K., Boyd, M. P., Iorio, J. P., & Vasquez, C. R. (2020) highlights. Something as simple as a chaotic unmuting of the class for one big “good morning” or “welcome” or more individualized welcoming of each student, e.g. look for (name of student) and wave at them when you find them on your screen, can go along way to welcoming students to the space. Students could also use the first few minutes of class to head to a break-out room and ask them to greet their group and share after being given a fun question (e.g. a simple question like favorite comfort food, or a question to really spark debate like is a hotdog a sandwich?)
“Camera on if game”
To reinforce cameras on while getting to know one-another, this game would allow for students to make connections with peers and teachers. The class begins with cameras off. The person to go first makes a statement about themselves in the phrasing of “Cameras on if… you have a sister”, everyone who agrees with the statement then turns on their camera. The last to turn their camera on gets to make the next statement. The goal is for the person whose turn it is to make a statement that relates to themselves but may also relate to others in the class. In this game students are making connections in what they have in common with peers and their instructor.
Would you Rather
This is a get-to-know-you game that could also be played as a quick start to a lesson throughout the year to continue the relationship building and break up the mundane. It could relate to something fun like the season or more content based in the subject they’re learning at the time (e.g. if you were moving into the subject of space, a would you rather could be, would you rather adapt to live on the planet Mars or Venus, sparking discourse on what those adaptations might be based on their knowledge of the planet and engaging students into the topic.)
To begin the year, students can use the reaction tools in a live virtual class to respond. For example, “react with a thumbs up for the first choice and a heart for the second choice. Would you rather see 10 minutes into the future or 150 years into the future?” or “Would you rather watch Netflix or Hulu?” In a Learning Management System (LMS) this game could be done via discussion board with students responding to one-another to contest as to why they choose which for each round.
The more opportunity students have to share and engage with their classmates and teachers the more so allotted for a welcoming and trusting environment for learning. Plan intentionally for students to share, learn interests, funny anecdotes, and especially find space to know students for who they are and build one-on-one relationships.
Engaging Students throughout a Virtual Course
As you begin to build the classroom community in the virtual or blended learning environments it doesn’t stop at just the start or your class. As mentioned above, some beginning course activities can be brought back throughout the year. It’s also important to keep in mind some of the main aspects that sustain students’ engagement. Taylor and Parsons (2012) found that an engaging classroom consists of five essential components: content is relevant, technology-rich, fostering a positive yet rigorous classroom climate, an open and respectful learning environment, and facilitating a culture of discourse amongst both students and teachers. Though this article does not submerse into specific content and can therefore not focus on the relevance and rigor of your instruction we can however focus on many aspects that studies show foster engagement.
Some simple ways of positive and open student-engagement:
Continue to get to know your students
Plan with intention. An opportunity to spark conversation or a weekly get-to-know you activity brings students interest and attention to the lesson at hand. They can easily be added into lessons or in self-paced discussions or surveys. One of my personal favorites was a survey I created of what pumpkin flavored things students would be willing to try and displaying pictures of the most obscene pumpkin flavored things for fall like pumpkin spice flavored Spam.
Use the technology as differentiated ways for students to engage
How will students engage with lessons? As we know, not every student is one to unmute. Variety is the spice of life, offering the opportunity to respond in a range of ways. Using reactions, the chat, surveys, interactive tools like discussion, virtual drawing boards, or even virtual backgrounds as a few ways to give opportunities for all types of learners to feel comfortable and confident to engage in the lesson.
Starting class with a quick check-in shows students you want to know how they are doing. Check-ins can be simple, fun, and engaging like different dog expressions matched to a reaction and as students enter virtual class they respond to how they are feeling by what dog expression they best relate to and choose the reaction. Or asking them to share a meme in a discussion board that summarizes their week. This not only lets students know you want to know how they are doing but gives you an opportunity to get a pulse on them as well. Maybe the question pertains to how they feel about the course or course work at the moment.
Tips and Tricks to Reinforce Engagement
Relationship building is essential as many studies show and though this article provides some creative ideas to build and maintain your classroom community we know that the stamina for a virtual setting can be abbreviated. I want to leave you with a few other ideas that can help to maintain students’ engagement (while also fostering relationships) throughout a lesson and course.
“While you wait” activities
Provide opportunities to instantly engage in the class. As they log in, what are they doing? Is there a question posted to answer in the chat? Is there a quick survey? Is there a quick check in question on their understanding of the material they learned from the previous lesson? Consider offering more breaks in a lesson, just a quick 3 to 5 minutes break for a long lesson while also providing a “while you wait ” take for when they return from break.
If a lesson is particularly wordy on the instructor’s end there are lots of ways to gamify the lesson to make it more alluring for students. Add an icon or character throughout lesson slides, challenge student to find them all (e.g. hide a “where’s waldo”), take a 30 second timer to display a puzzle like a picture find or find the difference puzzle to get students attention back to the screen and lesson at hand, or search for online sound boards and sound effects for drawing students attention.
Continuing to encourage the “camera on”
With the start of the year you may have made your expectations clear or pleaded with students to participate and keep zoom cameras on when possible for your own sanity if nothing else. But here is where potentially the most consistency is needed in keepings students accountable in the classroom. The games and involvement that require participation, especially with cameras, force students to engage in this way and therefore turn cameras on. Continue to be consistent with this i.e. beginning class or coming back from a break with “I see we are waiting on a few classmates to join us, when I see your cameras are on I know we are all here and ready” if this isn’t something that has students ‘present’ ask the class to message you privately to let you know if there are circumstances not allowing for cameras in the days lesson. Then taking the time to reach out to students individually about concerns with camera or general engagement. We know there are circumstances that allow for cameras off such as home environments or just poor internet bandwidth. But reach out to these students and encourage them to show their participation in other ways so you know they are engaged.
Many of the relationship building and engagement strategies are just the tip of the iceberg. I hope you can take from these ideas and also ignite creativity moving forward in your pedagogy as it pertains to the virtual and blended classroom making the environment one of convivial and prosperity for the students so that they too can continue to adapt and thrive to their developing climate.
About the author
After more than 10 years of experience in the classroom including virtual instruction Colleen Robinson moved into roles coaching educators. Through technological instruction, designing, leading a variety of professional learning opportunities on the implementations of technology into instruction, engaging in virtual learning, blended learning, and digital resources and tools.
This article was originally published by The Learning Counsel, a research institute and news media hub focused on providing context for the shift in education to digital curriculum.