Keeping students interested and curious when they are learning is a challenging task under “normal” in-person class situations. So engaging them when they participate in a virtual classroom can be daunting. When students are present, providing opportunities for non-contingent interactions can be as easy as greeting them by name as they enter and showing an interest with informal conversation. 

During this unprecedented time, students have already had an abbreviated school year. Millions have not entered a classroom for several semesters. And if they aren’t motivated to participate in a class, some simply disappear.  One research non-profit assessment group, NWEA, noted that at least one in four students had disappeared, and they don’t know why.  Furthermore, those  who were present for the assessment scored 5 to 10 percentage points lower in math.  This is a troubling barometer of student disengagement and learning loss. Teachers need to find creative ways to get in touch with these students and re-engage them in learning.

Some motivated teachers have found inventive ways to connect with their students personally. For example, one teacher, who had already tried calling and e-mailing lost students without success, decided to video her lessons and send them.   The video messages were personalized. She made sure to state the student’s name and let them know how much she missed them.   The students’ reactions were positive, and some started working on the online assignments immediately and others responded by email. She noted that she had an 85% success rate in re-engaging her once-lost students.  

Taking a few moments to interact with students as they enter the virtual classroom is the first step to establishing a  positive atmosphere for the lesson. One technique for motivating students to be active participants, the ARCS model, highlights the importance of attention, relevance, confidence, and satisfaction in stimulating learners and maintaining their focus during learning activities. Teachers can apply recommended strategies,such as surprise, humor, and storytelling to interest the students in any environment. For example, a few simple suggestions include changing the classroom background, entering text of a lesson upside-down, or sharing a personal story. Another technique, which may be especially relevant in middle school classrooms, is the assignment and sharing of “identity webs” (Ahmed, 2019).  These are graphic tools that can help students to not only make connections with text, but also with groups, nations, and historical figures.

Moreover, sharing power in the classroom can can occur in any setting and promote student engagement.  Instead of the lesson being teacher-centered, teachers can encourage students with replies to their inquiries that promote student thinking.  The teacher’s feedback can engender critical thinking.  Responses such as,  “I never thought of that, or “I’m not sure, let’s find out” can promote interest and engagement as well as critical thinking.  The areas of the brain that are active when people confront new ideas or face creative challenges also light up when they take calculated risks. The interplay of ideas becomes a crucial part of learning, so acceptance of divergent ideas is essential.  For when students feel accepted and empowered, they understand that mistakes are learning opportunities.  Cognitive science suggests that errors are part of the fundamental machinery of learning.  Mistakes help the brain to reconcile contradictory ideas. Training students to rethink their approach to errors includes changing their vocabulary from the absolute.  Angela Duckworth, author of Grit, recently said, We have to learn to replace the thought ‘I’m stupid’ with another thought, which is ‘I’m learning,’”  Thus, with some thought, planning, and action, teachers may be able to find their lost students and then adapt their lessons to maximize student engagement strategies in their virtual classrooms.