• Theresa Capra

Remote Roundup Part II: Zoomed Out of Engagement & Motivation

Updated: Oct 8


Part II in the series Remote Roundup, which examines the most widely reported issues related to remote learning and offers possible solutions. #remotelearning #onlinelearning #distancelearning #technology #theresacapra #teachingtips #Covid19

Remote learning is marching on! Luckily, its steps are becoming more predictable as some of the tech kinks dissipate (or at least become routine). But as tech shock recedes, issues related to the pedagogy move front and center.


Even though distance learning is nothing new, for the approximately 50 million K-12 students and 3 million teachers in the United States, it’s a new song with an entirely different ensemble. The same is true for higher education. In 2019, only 20% of undergraduates had enrolled in a virtual course and despite an ocean of literature, the abrupt thrust left little time for evaluation.

In Part I of Remote Roundup, I examined three major issues: #1 technology malfunction, #2 wasted time, and #3 academic integrity. Now I turn to issues related to pedagogy and cognition: engagement and motivation.


Issue #4: Engagement


Anyone? Anyone? It’s a common refrain uttered by teachers during synchronous web classes. Direct instruction and lecture are inevitable, regardless of the classroom setting, but when they are conducted virtually, it can feel like leading a séance. Webcams can verify physical presence, but how can instructors take cognitive attendance?


Zoom fatigue is real. Our brains are split between processing information and connecting with participants. As we try to learn, or communicate, we are simultaneously searching for connectivity because it is still a shared experience. In a traditional classroom, a student may glance at a classmate, raise an eyebrow in disagreement, crinkle a forehead while answering a complex question -- there is a good reason why it’s called body language. Even though Zoom is ‘real-time’ transmission is delayed, so the physical cues we are socialized to expect may be entirely missed.


Eye contact is also challenging because it is hard to stare directly at the camera when speaking (especially if you’re sharing your screen). Not to mention how exhausting it is to sustain a gaze in fear of being considered rude, or because it is required, all while working through new information.


What can we do?


  • Cold call. It can be risky in traditional classrooms because many students become embarrassed and nervous as all eyes fixate upon them. Virtual classes alleviate some of that stress because even though students can see each other, distance is still real. Cold calls can be especially effective if you fluctuate between a camera on/camera off policy. Throw out nerf balls that can accomplish engagement and accountability. Make it a class routine instead of the otherworldly, anyone, anyone.

  • Get them to write. Note-taking improves learning and engagement. It's instinctual in physical classrooms, but not yet with Zoom. Remind students to take notes during direct instruction. Provide verbal prompts (okay, write this down), repeat the information, speak slow and deliberate to induce concentration beyond the screen.

  • Let them fidget, but not tune out. Allow students to engage in soothing activities during the lesson provided they are not distracting. For example, I have a student who crochets during our Zoom classes but she is completely engaged, participates fully, and asks excellent questions. Some students with ADHD may use fidget devices or fold paper, which means their eyes may not always be locked on the screen. Of course many activities are inappropriate for Zoom (Ouija boards, cooking spaghetti), so in the absence of innocuous fidgets, ask students to write down questions as the lesson progresses. Circle back and randomly ask for a few shares.

Issue #5: Motivation


What motivates people to learn? Self-determination is one theory frequently cited in education. Optimal conditions are produced when students are intrinsically motivated (learning for learning, not a grade). But usually it’s mixed with extrinsic motivators (it's interesting, but I have to pass this class). Intangibles such as class rapport and dynamic instructors energize students. But how does that work in remote classes? How can we transport the intangibles to Zoom?


Over the past decade, studies have applied motivational theories to distance learning isolating unique attributes. As expected, successful distance learning requires a balance of intrinsic and extrinsic factors. However, in contrast to traditional classrooms, the instructor plays an even stronger role in cultivating intrinsic motivation. That’s a tall order for any remote instructor. But there is an easier way.


An abundance of research has also demonstrated that intrinsic motivation transpires in computer-mediated courses when students derive social interactions with peers. This is a challenge in fully online courses because asynchronous discussions can feel like Facebook without any faces. This is not so in remote courses--there are real people in a semblance of real-time. Therefore, it is possible to harness social engagement to further motivation.


What can we do?


  • Morning meetings. Early childhood educators are especially skilled in reinforcing positive social interactions. They use circle time or morning meetings to foster friendship and social etiquette. Why not apply this to big kids and adults in remote classes? When time permits, commence virtual sessions with fun talk. Ask a couple of students to share what they did over the weekend, at work, at home, etc. Get a one-two punch by joining in--become a student during these light conversations. A little goes a long way!

  • Build rapport. This usually happens organically in physical classrooms, but with deliberate planning it can be achieved remotely. Get to know your students, use their names frequently, encourage students to respond to each other by name, and use humor to create a positive atmosphere. Use tidbits acquired during fun talk to build relationships.

  • Create camaraderie outside the classroom. There are different ways to achieve this but a weekly newsletter/announcement forum that features student achievements and highlights from the week can do the trick. Instructors consistently provide updates and reminders so perhaps personalize them to some extent. Housekeeping can be social!

  • Use breakout rooms. It’s a highly effective strategy which can accomplish numerous objectives from assessment to peer mentoring, especially for high-need students. Even if you do not assign formal learning communities, splitting some sessions into small groups can give students a chance to get to know each other.


These are just a few suggestions. Any meaningful breaks from Zooming out can lead to improved engagement and motivation. Part III coming soon!


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