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Getting Crickets in your Virtual Classroom?

Updated: Aug 5, 2020

How to encourage student engagement through distance learning technology.

This article was published on the Edutopia site - check it out here!

We have all been there – a question is asked to the class and no one responds. Then comes the awkward silence. Students start to turn their eyes to the ceiling or flip through their notebook to avoid eye contact. Eventually someone volunteers an answer, someone is called on, or worse… the teacher moves on without any participation.

Getting your students to participate is hard enough when you are in your classroom.

Getting them to participate in a virtual classroom is a whole different ball game.

The social pressure from uncomfortable eye contact just isn’t the same with a video conference call. In fact, it is impossible with current technology!

Luckily, the technology exists to help provide supplemental strategies to get your students responding – some you may even want to bring back to your classroom once schools open-up again!

Video Chat Polling Feature

Many video chat platforms come with “poll” features where the students see a question pop up on their screen to respond. This is a great feature for a few reasons.

First, it helps you gauge what information your class is comprehending, and which they may need you to review again. If you just spent 5 minutes reviewing a concept and end with “okay, any questions?” what do you usually hear back?


Instead, ask a comprehension question using the poll feature! If only 35% of the class answers it correctly… maybe it is worth spending a little extra time reviewing.

Second, you will essentially have a “grade” for how each student performs throughout the meeting and can make participation points contingent on how well they score. This is very helpful to motivate your students to pay attention!

Check out how to use these features here:

Discussion Break Outs

Polling is great for helping break up concepts in a lecture… but what if your class is discussion-based and you want your students to break out into small groups to work on a shared assignment?

There is technology for that, too! Here’s how it can work:

First, start out with all students on the same call, then with a click of a button split your students up into small groups to work on an assignment using collaborative tools like Google Docs.

They will only be in a call with their groupmates. You, as the host, can hop between all the groups to check-in and facilitate.

Once the time is up, end the breakouts and bring everyone together again. Call on each group to share their work!

Many of the video conference platforms have this impressive feature built-in already. See the list below to learn more about each one!

  • Zoom- You can have up to 50 breakout sessions at once and can hop between them as you’d like. Check out their support page to learn exactly how to set it up for your class!

  • GoToMeeting – This platform has shared documents built-in and will store them for you to review once the meeting ends. More info here!

  • Microsoft Teams is reportedly working on this feature to come out soon. This article will update when that is made available.

This is a great feature to use if you have access to it. Not only does it get students working together on shared assignments, but it also helps students get used to talking to each other through a computer.


Maybe your specific video conference platform does not allow for the polling feature. That is okay! There are alternative tools you can use that your students will love (possibly even better than a built-in polling feature).

Chat Feature

First, you can use the chat feature. Simply ask a question and have your students answer in the chat. This may not be ideal if all students can see the answers of other students, so you will not see an accurate representation of their understanding. However, many video conference platforms have the option of private chat, so only you see the students' answers. But you will have a record of each student’s participation. Here's how to do so for the apps that allow it:

  • Zoom - set chat permissions to "Host Only"

  • GoToMeeting - students choose who sees their message

External Quiz Apps

Second, you can use external quiz tools like Kahoot, Mentimeter, Quizizz! Simply set up the quizzes ahead of time, and prompt your students to go take the quiz during your meeting by sharing the quiz code. Students can then take a few minutes to navigate to the quiz website and answer a question or two before moving on.

Here are links to some student-loved quiz platforms:

Expectations and Accountability

The above tools are great – but now let’s explore how to implement these and set your students up for success!

Clear expectations set the stage for student participation.

Let your students know what “good participation” looks like. Is logging into the call enough to count as participation? That may be all your administrators are looking for, but what does “good” look like according to your standards?

Counting each time a student talks or adds to a discussion can be time-consuming. So let technology work for you!

A great way to measure participation is by requiring a permanent product – this is something your student leaves behind after they leave the call. It can be anything from an answer to an online discussion prompt, their quiz score, a response left in the chat, or the shared product from a group assignment.

Whatever your definition of “good” looks like – be sure it is measurable and achievable. Here are some examples:

  • Be present – log into the call and stay for the duration of class time

  • Comprehension Checks – answer each quiz question that pops up, extra points for 100% correct!

  • Discussion assignment – work with your team to complete the assignment

Final Thoughts

Regardless of which online tool you use, it is clear, we cannot rely on in-person tactics to encourage virtual class participation. Luckily, the tools and tactics in this article can help enhance your online teaching! You may even find yourself bringing these back to your real classroom when schools re-open.

94 views2 comments


Joe Krulder
Joe Krulder
May 05, 2020

This is so well done! Wow.


Kamil Kumar
Kamil Kumar
May 05, 2020

Thanks for adding the links showing how to utilize each resource!

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