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How to Increase Student Engagement for Effective Distance Learning

Increase your student engagement during distance learning with strategies and tools.

Were you Zoom Bombed this past school year? Was your student engagement so low you felt you were teaching a ZOOMBIE class? Or did you feel trapped in an episode of Zoomboomafo as your students paraded their pets in front of the camera?

Disinterested girl sitting looking at her laptop.

You weren’t alone! I felt the same frustration! Many teachers felt the effectiveness of distance learning was hampered because of low student engagement. But does increasing student engagement online look similar to engaging students in the physical classroom? The short answer is yes and no.

Keep reading to find out how to receive some ready-made Google Slides templates for building classroom community to increase your student engagement!

How Should We Teach to Engage Students?

Keeping students’ attention is difficult, no matter where or how. If you were in a physical classroom, you would design lessons so students pay attention and participate. So how does that transfer to a virtual classroom?

Some of the methods we use in a physical classroom are adaptable to a virtual classroom. When designing your lessons, here are some strategies to consider for student engagement. These suggestions are for synchronous or teaching in a live session.

Student engagement as girl looks excitedly at tablet lesson.
  1. Lessons need to be shorter and focused.
    • One way to do this is to use the 10:2 rule. What is that? For 10 minutes (or less if you have young students) the teacher presents or talks, then give the students 2 minutes to process. However, I would start with 5:2 instead. Teach or talk for 5 minutes instead of 10 until you can work up the class to 10 minutes.
    • In a physical classroom, you do the 2-minute processing through a turn and talk or pair share. But in a virtual classroom, it is not usually an option. So instead, during the 2 minutes of processing time, have students draw or write a word or sentence on a paper or whiteboard of what you presented. Then have them hold it up to share on the screen.
    • If you have older students, consider using a JamBoard or Padlet (more info in TOOLS) to have students process their thinking.
    • So in a 20 or 30-minute lesson, you would stop 2 to 3 times for students to process the information. If does not increase student engagement, then decrease teacher talk until you find the right combination.
    • If your state follows the Common Core State Standards, Achieve the Core has produced a document showing how to focus on the most critical standards for English Language Arts and Math. It is found HERE.
Teacher teaching online while student views on computer.
  1. Try to teach lessons in smaller groups.
    • If possible, divide your students into smaller groups for online teaching. A group size of 6 – 8 students is ideal. It allows for more interaction, feedback, and teacher observation.
    • You don’t have to meet with each of these smaller groups every day, but you can set up a rotation schedule to meet with them at least 2 – 3 times a week.
    • Try different student groupings to see what works best: homogeneous, heterogeneous, interest-based, tech-savviness, etc.
    • If you are required or need to do whole group lessons, try reserving those times for lessons with less cognitive load, while smaller group lessons can have more cognitively demanding content.
    • In a smaller group, the group can share a Google Slides Presentation with each one assigned a slide number. On their slide, they can show thinking or respond to prompts.
  2. Add elements of interactivity to your lessons.
    • Creating interactivity during an online lesson is as important as the physical classroom. Do you use hand signals or cards for students to respond? They can show those hand signals or cards on-screen as well. They can also respond by typing in the chat window. Even young kids can use emojis!
    • Provide feedback through sounds! Many apps (i.e., Soundboard) play sound effects. Hold up your phone to the mic and play a sound. Or even use kazoo or some other sound-making instrument.
    • Use Nearpod for interactivity with your PowerPoints, Google Slides, PDFs, YouTube videos, and video files. There is a FREE and PAID version. Nearpod can add audio responses, simulations, polling, gamified activities, and so much more! (It’s fantastic!).
    • Use an online whiteboard to have students interact with your lesson (see TOOLS).
    • Use Kahoot to make learning engaging and fun. Incorporate Kahoot into existing PowerPoints or Google Slides. There is a basic FREE plan, but paid plans as well.
Increase student engagement during distance learning by making it fun.
  1. Make sure students use the Side-by-Side viewing option in Zoom.
    • Student engagement drops off if students don’t know where to focus on their screen.
    • Using side-by-side as you share a screen with your students, the video window of you as the presenter will minimize to the side.
    • That way, they can see the screen (more significant part or focus part) and you (smaller window) at the same time. Here are the directions from ZOOM on how to do this.
  2. If possible, use a document camera in your online lessons.
    • Document cameras allow for quicker transitions, so students stay engaged.
    • It is much easier to demonstrate a skill or procedure using a document camera than trying to do it virtually on a screen.
    • To share your document camera from Zoom, select Share Screen, then Advanced and then Content from 2nd Camera.
    • You can also switch from the bottom toolbar with the video camera icon (select a different camera) or use the keyboard shortcut.

Keep reading to find out how to receive some ready-made Google Slides templates for building classroom community to increase your student engagement!

How does Structure Increase Student Engagement?

In a physical classroom, we have routines, schedules, and procedures for doing almost anything and everything. Need to use the bathroom, we have a procedure. Does the pencil need sharpening? There’s a procedure for that. But what happens when students won’t mute?

Girl and boy sticking out tongue at tablet during distance learning.

When you provide structure and routine, you lower anxiety and worry because students know what to expect and how to interact. Many times we think students are misbehaving or being disruptive when, in fact, they didn’t understand the procedure or rule. Being punished for not understanding decreases student engagement. So for that kid that won’t mute, have a structure in place for dealing with that.

Here are some strategies to provide structure to increase student engagement.

  1. Have a daily schedule.
    • The schedule should outline for students and parents the time frames for synchronous or asynchronous learning.
    • This way, students and parents can prepare to log on when you’re teaching live, especially if students are young and will need help getting to the meeting.
    • Provide students with the link to the live teaching through email, Google Classroom, or other learning management system. The more ways you provide the links, the better.
    • If possible, keep the same links for the same students or group organized for the students on a Google Doc or clickable PDF for easy click and launch.
  2. Have a set of norms for online etiquette.
    • Navigating a digital world is much different from being in a physical classroom. What rules do you want your students to follow while they are online with you? Make a list now!
    • Consider having norms even for appearing on the screen: be dressed in school clothes (NO PJs); have a wall behind you; no virtual backgrounds; the camera stays on at all times; no eating during live sessions; no pets during live sessions; wear earbuds if you can’t hear or it’s a noisy room
    • the first week of school should include lessons on digital citizenship
Student engagement for logging on and logging off as little girl waves goodbye during meeting on laptop.
  1. Have a procedure for logging on and off.
    • When students log on, the camera should be on, but the sound muted. Unmute only to speak or when the teacher says.
    • Let students know that the first few minutes are for getting everyone into the room and taking attendance (if required). After that, they could be considered tardy (as per your district guidelines).
    • Consider using a waiting room (Zoom feature) if you’re having unwanted “guests.” With the waiting room feature, you can hold students in a waiting room until you can verify they belong in your session. You can also send students back to the waiting room if they become disruptive.
    • Have a procedure for logging off so you don’t have kids leave the meeting on their own or leave prematurely (you wouldn’t allow that in a physical classroom!).
  2. Build breaks into your schedule.
    • It is tiring for you and the students to be sitting for too long during live teaching sessions, which leads to less student engagement.
    • Have periodic brain breaks or stretch breaks or even a bathroom break.
    • Give the option for students to stand as long as they are visible on the screen.
    • Schedule short P.E. breaks in between sessions. Give your students links to Go Noodle or other similar YouTube videos to do at home between live sessions, so they come back refreshed and ready to participate.
  3. Establish office hours and a procedure for contacting you.
    • As you would in the classroom, how will students ask for and get help in a distance learning situation?
    • Provide a consistent way for students (or parents) to contact you.
    • Some students might feel more comfortable engaging with you one on one or might be embarrassed to share in a live session. Being available during office hours for a one-on-one conference is another way to build student engagement for those shy or reluctant students.

Keep reading to find out how to receive some ready-made Google Slides templates for building classroom community to increase your student engagement!

Building Community to Increase Student Engagement

If students (and parents) can’t trust you, believe you’re credible, or doubt your teaching abilities, then low student engagement will occur. But when you build a relationship with students (and parents) showing that you care, are interested, and can provide a nurturing environment for learning student engagement skyrockets.

Use shouts out to increase student engagement.

But how do we build a community of learners to get kids excited about learning? How do we build a community of learners in which students WANT to show up and participate? Here’s how.

  1. Give Shout Outs daily to your students.
    • In our physical classrooms, we highlight positive behaviors of students, students showing great effort, and special days such as birthdays or lost a tooth or some other significant event. We need to do the same in a virtual setting.
    • You can schedule these 30 seconds to 1-minute Shout Outs during the day so that at the end of the week, you have recognized at least every student one time—schedule Shout Outs into your Morning Meetings or as part of an SEL lesson.
    • Use a template made in Google Slides or PowerPoint to create these Shout Outs. Google Slides and PowerPoint can be shared on the screen to show the Shout Outs. But did you also know that Google Slides and PowerPoint allow you to save any slide as a JPEG? Yes! Export or download the slide as a JPEG and email it to the student or parents. Use them also to create a Memory Book for the year.
    • If you’re into Digital Stickers, those too can be used for Shout Outs.
    • You may have timid students or some who do not like to be in the spotlight. In that case, you can use Screencastify (it’s FREE) and record a quick one or 2-minute video giving a personalized and private Shout Out to the student. It can be emailed to the student or put into a Google Slide and shared with the student.
Boy pointing to 2 choices for the activity Would You Rather.
  1. Highlight a Student with a “Guess Who” class building activity.
    • If you are accustomed to doing Star Student of the Week or something similar, you can continue this tradition in a virtual setting.
    • Email parents a Google Form (or an email) requesting some interesting information about their child for a Guess Who activity. They can also include baby pictures or a family picture.
    • Using a template made in Google Slides or PowerPoint, create a Guess Who profile of the student using the information and pictures parents have sent you. Use emojis to block out the faces, so the student is not easily recognizable. Students will have fun guessing who their classmate is!
    • For older students, you can have students give each other Shout Outs during a live session or through a short video (Screencastify or Flipgrid).
  2. What students miss the most about school is interacting with their friends to have fun. Bring fun to them!
    • Post Would You Rather questions for students to discuss. Here’s a list of 200 questions you could ask. Students can respond orally, or you can create a JamBoard or Padlet to have kids respond.
    • Scavenger hunts! Come up with a list of appropriate items students need to find from their house. Say or present a slide with “Find something ________ .” Give students 30 – 45 seconds. Do several a day as brain breaks or for fun.
    • Fact or Fiction! A derivation of the 3 Truths and 1 Lie activity, give students three facts and one false fact about a particular topic (can be the current topic of study). Students have to figure out which is the wrong fact. Play this as a review activity for any topic.
    • Trivia! Who doesn’t like playing a trivia game? National Geographic for Kids has a Quizzes page to use for an online trivia game format.
    • Conduct a fun poll! Create a survey or poll in several ways. Create a Google Form and put the link in the chatbox for students to answer quickly. Zoom has an option to create a poll. Use the FREE website Or choose from this list of 17 Survey and Polls Creation Tools for Teachers.
  3. Have a Virtual Spirit Week!
    • Pick a theme for the week that can be related to a topic of study or something trendy (emojis, dances, slang, etc.).
    • Coordinate the Spirit Week among your grade level colleagues or the entire school.
    • When students seem to be losing interest or not participating as you would want, crank out a spirit chant!
  4. Sign up for my newsletter and receive the Student Engagement Google Slides Templates for FREE!
    • The Google Slides Template has slides for Shout Outs, “Guess Who,” Would you Rather…, and Fact or Fiction. Sign up now!
Google Slides Templates to increase student engagement

Tools for Increasing Student Engagement

I have either used or highly recommend the following websites, Add-ons, or Apps for using with students to keep them actively engaged.

  • and the Add-on for Google Slides (FREE and PAID) – add interactivity to your presentations. Works with PowerPoint and now videos!
  • (FREE and PAID) – gamify your lesson with this website resource.
  • (FREE and PAID) – an intuitive collaboration tool.
  • (FREE) – online whiteboard tool for teachers.
  • (FREE and PAID) – create a virtual classroom with timers, student picker, dice, work symbols, stopwatch, and more.
  • – (FREE) collaboration whiteboard.
  • virtual math manipulatives (FREE) – in my post on how to teach a math lesson online, I showed how to use virtual manipulatives

Sign up below to receive the ready-made Google Slides templates for building classroom community to increase your student engagement! The templates include a Bonus Scavenger Hunt!

Don’t forget to engage parents and families as well! Learn strategies for increasing parent engagement during distance learning in this timely post.

How to you keep students engaged during distance learning? What has worked for you?

How to Increase Student Engagement for Effective Distance Learning
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