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Keeping Your Students Engaged in the Virtual Classroom

By Jerie Blintt
 | Jan 29, 2021
Girl at laptop

During the current times of social distancing caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, distance learning has become more commonplace. As such, educational institutions, teachers, and other entities in the industry have been doing their best to transition classes online.

However, it’s no secret that it’s harder to pay attention to a computer screen than to in-person lectures. There are plenty of distractors that can cause students to lose focus. Educators need innovative approaches that can keep students engaged until the day ends.

Use live media

Presentations that contain only blocks of texts are boring. To keep students’ attention on the screen, Dustin York, an associate professor for Maryville University’s online bachelors program, uses trailers, animations, music, polls, and other forms of media to make his classes feel more dynamic. In an article on University Business about creating meaningful online engagement, York says that this encourages his students to pay attention, keeping them engaged. Those who teach English and literacy can insert videos that can help their students visualize how to enunciate words.

Encourage students to chat

Virtual meetings can become chaotic when everyone’s microphone is unmuted, which is why putting students on mute is all but required during most online classes. But this doesn’t mean that students shouldn’t express their opinions or ask questions. That’s why the chat box is there.

In their Literacy Now post “Engaging in Reading, Authoring, and Community Through Virtual Literacy-Casts", Devery Ward and colleagues touch on how they leveraged chat features by encouraging students to drop ideas in the chat. During the lecture, the teacher can then read students’ names and their thoughts aloud to pull the students into the discussion. This demonstrates to students that they’re not just a passive listener and further builds a sense of engagement that’s unique to virtual classrooms.

Conduct breakout sessions

Of course, listening to lectures for hours on end can be tedious or feel overwhelming. “Students may find it more difficult to participate or think out loud in this environment,” says Jennifer Brown, a K–12 education strategist for tech solutions provider CDW. A breakout session is one way to cut the monotony, but you want to make sure that your students are being productive rather than just taking a break. To this end, Brown emphasizes the importance of assigning clear tasks for students to accomplish. You can also use collaborative organizer tools such as Pear Deck and Jamboard to facilitate the discussions.

Play games

You already have technology as the platform for your lectures. Use the medium to the fullest by having students engage with their learning through online games. Have you ever heard of Quizlet? It’s an online, customizable flashcard platform, which can work well with vocabulary and spelling lessons.

There's also Kahoot!—a learning platform that can be used to create multiple-choice quizzes. Students can access your quizzes via a web browser or the Kahoot! app. It's good for testing your students' knowledge on any literacy topic, from grammar to vocabulary.

Show them how their skills apply in the real world

Online learning can sometimes feel too detached from reality, which is another reason why it can be difficult for students to stay engaged during classes. To get past this, include real-world problems and scenarios that pull back the virtual veil and show your students how the skills they learn online can be applied outside of a class.

A good example of this happening at a higher education level is how modern nursing degree programs, many of which are being conducted online, are combining virtual teaching with practical training. The classes under Maryville University’s online RN to BSN program include intensive online coursework on practical clinical and primary care skills. Accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education, the program uses Maryville’s advanced user-friendly digital learning platforms to teach hands-on skills that lay the foundations for professional competence in a variety of healthcare settings. This includes hospitals, nursing homes, community services, home healthcare settings, and more.

When students can experience how the skills they learn online can apply outside of the classroom, they’re not only more engaged but also more prepped for the real world. Although not every educator has access to the advanced learning platforms used by top online universities, today’s online learning and remote working tools and platforms can simulate real-world scenarios for authentic learning and content creation experiences.


Keeping students’ attention in such a distracting environment can be challenging but not impossible. Work with the students in your virtual classroom to see which of these online learning tips work best for them and for you.

Jerie Blintt is an avid reader who is passionate about bringing technology and literature to the forefront of every classroom. When she's not writing about the latest innovations, you'll likely find her meditating in her local park.

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