Remote learning: how to engage students

While blended learning has always been part of any curriculum that includes homework, learning that takes place completely remotely has been something teachers and students (and their families) have had to quickly adjust to since early 2020.

With remote learning having obvious and insurmountable differences from class-based learning for which teachers are trained, it can be difficult to know the best ways to keep students focused and engaged with their learning. But it can be achieved – here are our 13 top tips.

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In one-to-one contact time

1. Make individual contact

Regular (at least weekly) one-to-one contact with a known teacher ensures students continue to feel a cared-about and valued part of the school community. It also enables you to identify and quickly act on any concerns.

2. Empathise with the students 

When you speak to your students individually, start by asking how they are. However successful your school’s remote learning strategy is overall, individuals may be struggling with difficulties such as sharing a device, internet connectivity, finding a quiet and comfortable place to study or fitting in around a family schedule – quite apart from any challenges with their actual learning. Make sure they know you understand and acknowledge any obstacles and can aim to support them through any challenges in their circumstances before you discuss any learning.

3. Help create a daily structure

As far as possible, the remote learning timetable should replicate the timetable students would experience at school. One-to-one catch ups should be scheduled for a designated time so students can plan their day effectively around them.

4. Praise and encourage

Learning pace and progress are highest when students are emotionally committed to their work – and without the physical presence of you or their peers to motivate them, students’ intrinsic motivation is more important than ever (read more about motivation in our article).

Encourage them to see their physical independence as empowering – a chance to take ownership of their learning and feel pride in their achievements.

5. Encourage flexibility and ownership

While online lessons obviously have to take place within a set timetable, you could encourage students to take ownership of their subsequent tasks either by allowing them to choose which assignment they take on or setting them a longer research project with a longer lead time. If they feel they can shape and own their learning they are likely to feel more engaged, and self-directed learning is a skill that will help them in the next stage of their education.

Online lessons

6. Simplify your teaching

Don’t make things more stressful for everyone than they need to be. Make what you teach, how you teach it and how you evaluate your students’ learning as simple as possible. Identify the core concepts from your curriculum and the skills your students need to master, then chunk them up into bite-sized activities with a clear objective.

7. Plan online activities with participation in mind

Teachers and students alike are used to being in a physical environment together, where it’s relatively easy to participate. Online, however, it’s harder to read cues and know the best time to speak – potentially leaving some reluctant to do so. One way to overcome this is to build lessons that have participation as a central component, allowing everyone the chance to contribute at a set time. This also has the knock-on benefit of enabling you to check all students’ levels of engagement and understanding and adjust your approach accordingly, ensuring no one gets left behind.

A BDA approach – referencing what you want students to be able to do Before online lessons, During and After – is one way to achieve this. For example, you could set students questions to answer independently before a lesson, then as a starting point for the lesson ask them to share these responses, and then set some follow-up work relating to the responses.

8. Use small groups/breakout rooms

Even with participation strategies, some students may still find it intimidating to contribute in an online session with a whole class – whether because they’re naturally introverted or lack confidence in the subject or task. To overcome this, you could start a lesson with the whole cohort but then split it into a physical classroom. Encouraging students to interact with each other and in smaller groups will ensure all students participate in the lesson (and help combat individual feelings of isolation) as well as helping you identify any students who are struggling.

9. Ask for feedback

It’s harder to read the engagement and understanding on your students’ faces online than in the classroom. To get feedback on whether they’re grasping what you’re teaching, you could use instant messaging tech such as Google Chat for them to give real-time feedback, such as Y or N or even an emoji or a thumbs up or thumbs down. As there’s peer anonymity this is more successful than a physical classroom in giving a “safe space” for stating that they don’t understand a concept. You can then immediately adjust your teaching to recap concepts that many are struggling with, and use individual feedback to follow up on a personal basis afterwards if needed.

10. Include social online activities

Remember that as well as being physically isolated from you, students will also be isolated from their peers. To keep up a feeling of being an actual class, rather than just a group of individuals, you could start some lessons with a group activity that even the shiest feels comfortable joining in. For younger children this could be submitting jokes to be told to the whole class, or older children could submit a selection of true and false facts for you to collate into a presentation and which they then read out to their class, who each then submit “true” or “false” to each question. You could even award a nominal prize as an incentive. An activity such as this each week will help to combat feelings of isolation.

11. Embrace edtech

Edtech tools pair educational methodology with technology and are perfectly suited to remote and blended learning. As well as saving you marking time, tools such as Bedrock Vocabulary – a ten-year literacy and vocabulary curriculum for learners in Years 3-13 with thousands of activities – help to engage and motivate students as they:

allow students to learn independently of both teachers and parents

teach as students interact – ensuring learning is tailored to individuals’ ability and pace

provide instant motivational feedback

allow parents to monitor usage and progress too via a linked account

In addition, good edtech tools benefit teachers by saving them manual marking time and giving them a real-time dashboard of both individual and cohort usage and progress. You should use your dashboard data to support planning, by using it to identify areas of learning that would benefit from being brought into your remote lessons.

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12. Assign off-screen projects

Not all students enjoy being in front of a screen all day. Design diverse activities – these could range from acting out a play or making a short film with their family or drawing or sketching. Having the opportunity to express creativity is a fantastic emotional outlet, especially in uncertain times.

13. Communicate with families

Families’ engagement is a critical factor in the successful completion of remote learning of children of all ages, just as it is with homework. Communicate with parents through your established channels and view them as critical allies in motivating and engaging their children. Distribute codes for any edtech tools that have parent accounts (with Bedrock all student accounts have the ability to link a parent account at no cost, enabling the parent to see the child’s usage and progress data via email and dashboard just as their teacher does – teachers can also see which parents have yet to set up their accounts and target these parents accordingly).

Offer any other support they may benefit from (for example, parents of younger learners may find a separate sheet with answers on useful for maths lessons). If you’re unsure, ask them what support they would need! You may like to send them our articles Parents’ school closure survival guide, How to encourage your child to learn independently and 21 fun ways to improve your child’s vocabulary.

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