Tips from My Students (on learning in Zoom)

Students were the main reason for my positive teaching experiences in Zoom in Winter Term. They were open, hard-working, and willing to be engaged. These first-year students prepared for each class meeting, wrote thoughtful reflections on our topics, and took steps to help create a supportive learning community.

In the fall, I’d heard reports from faculty who were disappointed, especially those who were teaching online or in hybrid mode. Starting around mid-semester, they said, engagement declined dramatically. Students were participating a lot less. They were opting not to attend class in person even when healthy. Many of those attending online had turned their cameras off, and some of them had simply signed into class but disappeared and stopped listening.

My own fantastic students in an upper level fall seminar had always kept their cameras on, and they consistently participated in class in a high-quality manner, but they admitted that during the pandemic they experienced more problems than they’d ever had in staying motivated.

Therefore, I really wanted to get off to a good start during Winter Term, and for the first-year students and me to have a shared understanding of expectations for positive class participation. I was hoping to establish norms that were reasonable ones. By reasonable, I mean both practical for and respectful of students, and where possible, based on evidence about effective learning.

I also thought buy-in would be more likely if we could build norms in part from the experiences and ideas of the students themselves.

So before the term even began, I asked students to respond to a survey telling me about themselves, their experiences in history courses, what positive things (attitudes, experiences, knowledge) they were bringing to the course, and concerns they had. Their responses helped me begin to get to know the students as individuals, follow up regarding concerns, and consider how to frame and design exercises and assignments.  

I also asked them what recommendations they had for their classmates about how to stay engaged in Zoom. Below I will share their most frequent responses to that question, which fell into a couple categories.

First things First

A lot of their responses indicated that during fall semester they’d regularly been attending class from bed. It’s not impossible to think while in bed, of course, but they admitted it didn’t work for them. Here are a few pieces of advice they shared with one another:

  • “Get out of bed and actually try to be tuned in best as possible. Don’t fall back asleep.”
  • “Get out of bed before class starts and don’t roll out of bed two minutes beforehand.”
  • “When a class is online it can be difficult to stay motivated, but I find sitting upright and not being in the comfort of my bed helps me.”
  • “Get out of bed and ready for the day as if it was an in person class.”

Good Spaces for Learning

Students went further and recommended that their colleagues find a good space – whether that was in their room or somewhere else on campus.

  • “Choose your location wisely…a space that has the least amount of distractions.”
  • “Put yourself in a good spot for class. Find a spot and go there every day.”
  • “Ensure you are in a space dedicated to schoolwork (aka a desk or library, not your bed or public social space).”
  • “When I turned off my phone and used one of the study rooms in my residence hall, I was able to focus.”

Minimizing Distractions

As the last comment indicated, students realized that they themselves could take actions to minimize the chances they would be distracted.

  • “Make sure that your phone or devices are silenced to any other notifications that aren’t emergency or school related.”
  • “Put away the phone! It is difficult to feel engaged with distractions …and I know my phone is a big one for me.”
  • “Keep your phone on the other side of the room, keep the zoom on full screen so you won’t be distracted.”

Cameras On

Although some faculty have expressed concern that asking students to have their cameras on may be not always be reasonable, these students made clear that they thought having their cameras on much of the time was a good idea.

  • “I think that the best thing to do is keep your camera on because it holds you more accountable, and it doesn’t allow you to get distracted by things as much because everyone can see you.”
  • “Try and keep camera on as much as possible to encourage yourself to stay focused.”
  • “It’s helpful to keep your camera on … to stay focused!”
  • “Keep your camera on otherwise it’s easier to get distracted.”

I’m sensitive to the fact that asking students to have their cameras on may feel intrusive. Doing so could be seen as a non-inclusive request, especially if we assume that all students have technological capabilities that they might not have. I was fortunate that my students all had working cameras or places on campus where they could use one. I also recognize that some students might have good reasons not to have their cameras on. For instructors, it can be difficult to determine what are “acceptable” reasons as opposed to students just not wanting to engage. (In our face-to-face classes, students may not want to engage, but many of us ask them to do so anyway.)

I’m not sure if my approach was fair, but I first checked in about students’ tech capacity, provided step-by-step instructions on how to connect, offered resources (e.g. borrowing laptops, using a lab) and options for those who had difficulties with cameras. I asked students to contact me if they wanted to explain their reasons for not being on camera, and then we strategized together (e.g., if they didn’t want their room or dressing roommate to be seen, they could use a static background.) Because another problem is Zoom fatigue, I think it’s my responsibility as an instructor to consider when it is important for students to have their cameras on – for purposes of learning activities and community – and when it wasn’t. I tried to have some moments during each class meeting when cameras could be off.

Engage

I’m not sure exactly what I’d call the last category of student recommendations, perhaps “encourage yourself to be engaged” or perhaps even “try to be a good student.”

  • “Take detailed notes and participate frequently.”
  • “Try and participate as much as possible and ask questions!”
  • “Try your best to join in a discussion, although sometimes difficult. …When unsure of how to add to a discussion I was taking notes on what others were saying, not only to ensure that I remember the multiple ideas and thoughts on a certain topic, but also ensure that I may not begin to nod off or lose focus.”
  • “I think you just need to make sure that when class starts you are fully attentive and ready to learn from the professor.”

Conclusion

I thought my students offered sound advice to one another. Hearing their survey responses confirmed their aspirations for focus and engagement. They also helped me feel more confident about my expectations, which to some degree we co-created. We got off to a good start, and our resulting norm was broad-based, high-quality, and thoughtful participation.

Thanks for reading. Here are a few articles that got me thinking about camera use:

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