As teachers around the country work to engage students remotely, they’re continually on the lookout for ways to improve the online experience. It’s a learning process for many, but fortunately, some instructors have been engaging students online for some time and have tips and advice to share to help teachers improve their Zoom virtual classroom experiences. Here we take a look at “6 Ways to Improve Your Zoom Virtual Classroom.”

Man video conferencing with dog

1. Make it Personal

Even when teachers and students are in different places, it’s possible—and highly advised—to make personal connections. Lisa McGrath, a national board certified teacher with Teacher to Teacher says that, at the outset, it is important to make meaningful connections to build relationships with students. Initially, that might involve introducing yourself and sharing some personal information like your favorite books, movies, your pets, etc. It’s important, she says, to be personable—and work to keep things fun.

Because online connections are, by their very nature, less “personal,” everything you can do to build more personality into your online interactions can help improve the experience for students.

Dennis Yim, director of live, online courses, for Kaplan recommends getting to your virtual class about 15 minutes before it’s scheduled to start and using the time to chat casually with students. “What room are you learning in?” is a great icebreaker, he says. “Put up a slide or a poll. You’ll gather useful insights about your students’ prior knowledge and engagement level.”

Make sure that students are prepared to engage as well. Establish guidelines up front requiring students, for instance, to have their video cameras on. Consider whether it’s necessary to establish criteria, or guidelines, for attire and the type of personal space it’s appropriate to share with the classroom.

2. Avoid Trying to Make a 1:1 Shift from In Class to Online

While online learning can certainly offer significant benefit to both students and instructors, it requires thinking differently about how to deliver information and engage students.

McGrath advises against simply trying to convert classes from in-person to remote with the exact same material, processes and interactions. “Do not expect to replicate your face-to-face instructional program online,” she cautions. Instead, she says, “concentrate your unit designs on your core standards.” Think about how your course objectives can bests be met in the online environment.

“Think outside the box and be creative,” McGrath recommends. Use your interests and talents to engage students.”

Animated teacher conducting class online

3. Think Like a Movie Producer

Teachers using a Zoom virtual classroom can boost engagement—and learning outcomes—by thinking of themselves as film producers, suggests Deanna Hurn, founder and executive director of Miracle Math Academic Coaching Center. “Rather than just presenting coursework, teachers need to put on a production,” she says. Hurn coaches tutors in doing just that—training them on lighting, camera angles, voice inflection, facial expressions, etc. Her techniques lead to real results—the achievement levels of her students rose 10%, per month, between the time tutoring went online in March until August 2020.

In preparing lesson plans think carefully about the flow of the lesson. Seek to find a good balance between lecture, individual and small group interaction, supplementary materials like video clips, etc. Expecting students to sit for long periods of time just listening to a lecture doesn’t work well in the classroom, or online.

4. Break Things Up in Your Zoom Virtual Classroom

James Boatwright, is CEO of Code Galaxy, an online provider of coding classes and camps for kids ages 7-14.  “One of the best tips for teachers who are having to teach remotely is to encourage students to learn independently. You don’t need to sit with them all day. Offer some guidance for an assignment, then give them a certain amount of time to go work on it on their own. This works better for older kids, but for any age it is a good idea to get a break from the screen – for the teacher as well!

Child playing with origami fish

5. Think of Ways to Gamify the Classroom Experience

Nicole Hamilton is head of mathematics at Dwight Global Online School. She recommends gamifying the online education experience. “A little friendly competition helps students bond with each other and with their teachers, even in virtual classes,” she says. “I like to tap into people’s competitive spirit in fun, fresh ways.” She suggests activities like themed trivia, bingo, board games—”anything to get students invested enough that they don’t get distracted by the internet and, instead, engage with their peers and with the content I’m teaching,” While Hamilton teaches at the K-12 level, gamification can be applied in higher education as well.

6. Use the Zoom Classroom Features Available to You!

Zoom and Class for Zoom offer a wide range of features that can enhance the online learning experience.

Benjamin Shank, CEO of the American Higher Education Alliance (AHEA) recommends that instructors take full advantage of the Zoom classroom features available to them. “By using video, whiteboards, discussion boards, polling questions and general Q&A, you meet a variety of learning styles and interaction styles, helping to keep your students better engaged,” he says.

Yim agrees: “Ask students to respond early and often. Use every tech tool you have: chat, polls, raise hands, even literal thumbs up on camera. Ask frequently for responses and you’ll keep your students on their toes.”

Online learning is likely to continue to be part of the learning experience for students at all levels for some time. Investing time in considering ways to make your Zoom virtual classroom as appealing as possible will pay off for your students, and for you.