We’ve all been in meetings that drag – ones where we are counting down the minutes until we can leave. The same is true for online education: It’s possible to make the most interesting topic drag, but also feasible, with a bit of consideration, to make some of the most technical information interesting. This article explores ways of bringing some energy to the class, with a specific focus on online teaching environments.
Why am I even teaching this material?
Possibly the most important question to ask when presenting is ‘why I am even teaching this’? Unless you have a clear understanding of the purpose of the material it is very difficult to convince others of its importance and gain excitement about it.
Take a step back and consider the role of the content – if the only reason that you are covering it is because it is on a passed-down syllabus that you are now teaching, then it is hard for you to convey the importance to others. Some important points of consideration are:
- Why it is important for the students to know?: What is the core reason that this material is being covered or considered important to include within the course?
- How does it connect, or is different, from other material?: The more connections that you can make and convey, the easier it is for students to position the material within their learnings.
- What are the broader applications of the material?: If we look at a high level, how does the content connect into with broader problems – potentially other material that they will come to cover, or learnings that we can abstract beyond the course content.
The more excited that you can get about the content – the more energy that you can bring to the discussion – the easier it is to convey that excitement, and in turn make others in the class share your enthusiasm.
Mix it up
One of the primary means of bringing energy to an online class is to mix up the flow. If you are just lecturing, or just having group discussion, or any singular activity for a prolonged period, it is likely that it will start to tiring for the students.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that there is only one way of delivering the material – if it is technical, it has to be slides, if it is subjective it has to be discussion – but in reality, there are ways of infusing different activities regardless of the class content. Some possibilities to consider include:
- Min-lecture or summary: Your take about the material important, potentially without slides, so that students are able to divert their full attention to your presentation.
- Slides: Traditional slides, helping to emphasize points, or illustrate diagrams (see our guide for how the adjust the display setting on PowerPoint presentations to best share via Zoom).
- Videos: Short clips to engage the students – particularly valuable if you can connect that material into the class content.
- Breakout rooms: One of the easiest ways of getting some energy into a larger group is to split the students into breakout rooms. This approach may be particularly applicable for classes that involve discussion, ensuring that many students are able to share their opinions within the small group format. Consider different ways of integrating breakout rooms into your class, for example considering size (be it pairs, small, or medium-sized groups), the length of time (short discussions vs. more extended activities), and the nature of any deliverables or activities engaged in during the breakout time.
- Polls: Polls can be an effective way of gaining interaction in the class, illustrating to students how widely shared their opinions or thoughts are.
Identify drops in energy
Do you start your class with excitement, smiling, and engagement, only to find that two hours in that energy has dropped to occasional nodding? While this is annoying (it’s much more fun to be teaching engaged students), it is also useful feedback. If you notice a drop in energy take a step back in think how you can adjust the class. This could involve transitioning to a different activity, or looking to move the conversation on.
Not only does assessing and reflecting on the current energy level within the class help make adjustments on-the-fly, but it can also help with off-line reflection, considering how to adapt the class format for future sessions. Being willing to recognize opportunities for changes is one of the fundamental components of continually refinding class delivery.
One way of getting some engagement is to connect the class material to your own experiences – students love personal stories. For example, when did you realize that this was an important topic? How did it change your way of looking at the material? How do you now approach the world?
Not only does personal anecdotes bring a degree of interest to the class – a story that was not in the text-book – but it also makes the content a lot more memorable. Students are told all the time that the material that they are covering is important, or will be useful, or is something that employers care about – they get it, it is all important. While it is useful to emphasize important things, you are likely just adding another bullet point to a list of a thousand other important things that they have been told. Much more memorable are the anecdotes – the reasons in particular of how this has impacted you. If you think back to your undergraduate or high school studies, likely you can’t remember much of the content, but you may be able to remember the anecdotes, and these may have shaped your interest and ultimately understanding of the material much more than any particular point made.
Thinking of anecdotes should be easy – if you have really considered the why you are teaching the material your personal anecdotes should just flow.
Increasing prior student engagement with the material
Maybe one of the most important ways of increasing in-class participation and general engagement is designing the course to increase the likelihood that students have engaged with the material to be covered or discussed prior to class. The more fundamentals that students have already grasped prior to class, the easier it is to move away from surface-level discussion towards for in-depth discussion.
Incorporating asynchronous exercises, (e.g.,mini assignments completed prior to the class), can go a long way to increasing student preparation for the class. While assigning course readings can help, at least a proportion of students are likely to skip the readings, while exercises, potentially with a credit/non-credit grading incentive, can really help ensure that students are prepared for class discussions.
Incorporating prior asynchronous activities may also help include students that typically avoid participation, with prior thought and consideration potentially increasing their willingness to become actively involved in the class discussion.
View other successful presenters
This is probably one of the best ways of pushing yourself – no matter how effective a presenter you are, there are always things that you can learn from observing others.
While a common concern with viewing others is that you end up poorly-emulating their style, rather than developing your own, this need not be the case. The key thing is not to try and copy or imitate others, but to reflect on their style to understand the subtle ways that they are engaging their audience. One way that may be particularly effective is to reflect on the presenters on Masterclass – we have developed a guide on this. Watching truly inspiring presenters can really help raise aspirations with presenting.
Just like in-person classes, online classes are neither inherently engaging nor inherently dull, it all depends on the way that the class is structured and delivered.
Delivering a class that captures student interest requires careful consideration and refinements. One approach that can be particularly useful when considerating ways of improving your online class is to rewatch your class recordings, identifying opportunities to mix-up the class structure and further engage students in the content.
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