5 Simple Methods to Keep Students Engaged Throughout the Term

Free workshop for professors, TA's, instructional designers on the research behind keeping students engaged throughout the term.
January 4, 2022

Join us for our free workshop to learn about research-backed methods to keep your students responsive and engaged with the learning material throughout the term. Especially in remote or hybrid classes, it's easy for students to lose interest and become passive listeners. We take you through five tried and true methods that instructors have used to turn their students into active creators in the classroom.

From utilizing backchannels to flipped classroom-style think tanks, there is something for everyone to learn about keeping your classroom modern and upgrading your teaching styles. The best part is that these tips will actually save you time in the end by creating a community in your classroom for students to ask and answer each other's questions.

Workshop Recording

Video Transcript

Kavitta  00:09

Hey, everyone, thank you for waiting a few minutes just wanted to let everyone get in. But thank you all so much for joining us for our workshop today. My name is Kavitta Ghai, I am the co founder and CEO of Nectir. Here at Nectir, we develop communication technology for higher education classrooms and campuses. But today, we're not going to talk about Nectir. And we're actually going to talk about the research that we've gathered from instructors who are using Nectir at their campuses, and how they've used technology like ours to keep their students engaged. So just to give you an idea, you are in the right place if you're here for the five methods to keep students engaged throughout the term.

Kavitta  00:52

So we're going to talk first about what student engagement even is and why it's important. And I know that we all know what student engagement is. But I specifically want to talk about why this was so important to me and why I've dedicated my life to building student engagement technology. Nectir started four years ago, while my co founder and I were actually still students at UC Santa Barbara. And it was born out of this frustration of me really feeling like I just couldn't fit into the campus, I didn't feel like I had what it took to get through my classes. And to come from a 2000 person high school to a 27,000 person campus just felt like too much for me to do. And I really felt called to drop out of college like so many other first generation students do. 

Kavitta  01:42

But where I really had that opinion of education change, and where I felt like okay, I found it, I found my groove, I can stay here I have what I need, was actually in a class that I took the summer between my sophomore and junior year with a grad student instructor. And it was the first time that I truly understood the meaning of student engagement, and how powerful it can be to a student's learning career at college or high school or wherever they might be. So what happened in that class was when I walked in, on the first day, Spencer sat us all down. And he wrote one thing on the board. And it was a link to a Slack workspace. And if you're not familiar with what slack is, it's a back channel, which is essentially just a chat room, he had created a chat room that sat right inside of our LMS, we use Moodle, you might be using Canvas. And he told us that it was a space where we were going to communicate with each other, not necessarily with him or the TA, but where the students were going to communicate with each other. He said, Look, there's 150 of you, but there's only one of me and one of your TA, it doesn't matter if we're up for 24 hours a day, we are not going to get back to your questions in the time that you want us to. And I know it's going to stress you out. So he told us that before we even think about raising our hand in class, sending him an email or showing up to office hours, our first line of action should be to jump into our class chat and ask the question to each other. He told us that I guarantee that one of the 149 people around you is going to have an answer for you much faster than I will. And it'll probably make a lot more sense coming from them. He took it even a step further and told us that if someone answered a question really well in our class chat, which clearly meant that they understood the material, he would actually give them extra credit for it. So it then became a participation incentive. 

Kavitta  03:38

Now what Spencer did was took time off of his and his TAs plate so that they weren't answering the same question a dozen times in their inbox, and rather put it on us to find the value that we needed in the classroom. But even deeper than that, what was really important that he did was he incentivized us to build a community around the material that we were learning. And that's really where the magic happened. Within a week that 150 Person class felt like a 15 person class. And it was the first time in my educational experience that I no longer had the stress of what am I going to do if I don't know something? I knew that whatever the issue was that I ran into, I now had a place a resource, but I could access that anytime of the day on my own volition where I could get that question answered for me. And it resulted in me getting the highest grade that I've gotten in college. But on top of that, I actually stayed in school because of the friends that I made in that class because of the knowledge that I took away from that. And because I knew that there was no way for me to access the resources that I needed in my classes by simply turning to the people around me. It sounds easy, but it was something that I didn't realize until one of my instructors gave me the permission to do so and

Kavitta  05:00

That is how the idea of Nectir was born, I decided to go out and create communication technology that was specifically built for the classroom, something that I had never seen before. So that it was easy for instructors to use fit in with the technology that we were already using, like Canvas or Moodle. And students found it intuitive. It felt like the social media that we were already using, but instead more like social education. And so that sort of just gives you an overview of why it's so important to me, and why I think it is absolutely crucial to have in the classroom, not only because you are getting your students to actually be engaged with the material in a way that leads to higher order thinking, but also because it can actually result in students retaining being retained by not only your class, but the campus itself. Studies show that if a student drops out of a single class, they're actually 60% more likely to drop out of college itself. So if you can keep students in your class, you can actually keep them in college more likely than they would in any other way.

Kavitta  06:09

So today, we're gonna focus on back channels. So back channel is a back channel is a conversation that takes place alongside an activity or event. And the reason I'm going to focus on this for student engagement today is because this is what research has shown is one of the most potent ways to keep your students engaged throughout the term. There's a lot of different ways to keep students engaged in individual classes or with a student activity. But a back channel ensures that your students are staying engaged with the material throughout the quarter or this semester. So all five of the methods that we talked about today are going to revolve around using some sort of back channel in your class. And chances are you already have some sort of technology like this in your LMS. So you might have the canvas chat or the Moodle forums, which work for back channels. But you might want to think about implementing something like Nectir, Slack discord, or group me alongside that. And I know that that can be scary at first to think about introducing new technologies. But in reality, if used correctly, it can take hours off of your plate every week and actually make yours and your TAs life a lot easier. So we'll go through how throughout this presentation.

Kavitta  07:23

So back channels act as the virtual lifeline of your classroom, whether you are online hybrid or in person, back channels exist to sort of supplement your class 24/7. So even once your students leave the physical classroom, the back channel is still always there for them to go access the material of the classroom or each other. And I know that sounds a little bit scary, what if my students are just chatting all day long, and I'm getting all those notifications. The best part about backchannels is that you really want this to be a space where your students are asking and answering each other's question. This doesn't necessarily have to add any work to your plate. So your and your TA can moderate those spaces as often as you like. But typically, the behavior that we see with students is that when the back channel is created by the instructor, the instructor doesn't actually necessarily have to be there for students to use it correctly. They simply know this is the designated space that I've been given to communicate about the class, I'm going to use that appropriately because it sits with the rest of my technology. So if it sits right inside of your Canvas page, students now this is just for school, I'm just going to use it that way. So I know it can be scary at first. But don't worry too much about your students using it for things outside of the classroom. They're gonna go outside of the classroom to talk about those kinds of things, because they know that that's not the designated space to do it in your back channel.

Kavitta  08:55

So when you use any sort of communication technology in your classroom, you're looking for two major outcomes through that virtual student engagement. One is self regulated learning, which basically means that your students take their own learning in their own hands. So your students, as I'm sure you know, are already going to go to Google and YouTube to you know, get some extra supplemental learning, maybe find someone else who can teach them a certain topic that they might be stuck on. That is self regulated learning. But what's tough about that, as you're not able to see what exactly they're looking at what resources they're using, and whether those are actually correct or not. When you have self regulated learning happening inside of your designated back channel, and students are asking and answering each other's questions, sharing resources with each other, you can actually take a peek into that self regulated learning that your students are doing and make sure that they're on the right track. 

Kavitta  09:55

More importantly than this, what's great about it is rather than doing that self regulated learning alone. They're now doing it with others. And every time they send a message or answer someone else's question, you lead to peer learning, which essentially allows them to reinforce their own knowledge by teaching someone else in the class. So this is great, because every time a student does that, it builds community between your students in the class. And eventually, over time, once they build a community around the material, students are going to feel really, really comfortable teaching each other. And it's going to feel exciting to come to the class, because you actually know the people around you, you now have a stake in their learning, and they have one in yours. And it's a very powerful outcome that happens when students feel connected to each other around the same material that they're all learning.

Kavitta  10:49

When students don't have to stress about finding help, they're able to focus just on learning. And for me, personally, this was the most salient part of having a back channel in my class, I realized very quickly that I have this anxiety going into any class that I took where I felt like, I don't know what I don't know. And it feels very scary, especially for freshmen and transfer students, because they sort of don't really know what they're meant to expect in that class. And if they run into a problem that's really difficult at two in the morning, let's say the night before the midterm, where are they meant to turn to? What is great about having these back channels that exist throughout the term outside of you know, the normal classroom hours, is that your students know, even if they have an actual problem or not, that there is a resource, a place where they can go get that problem solved, or ask someone and share at least that problem with the people around them. And so it takes off that anxiety right from the start, you no longer think about, what am I going to do if blank happens. And it allows you to focus all of your time and attention just on learning, and even more. So you now have a reason to really understand the material. In order to participate in that community and be helpful to your peers, you have to understand what's happening in the classroom. So it's almost like a double incentive from both ends, your students feel secure in learning. And so they're able to do with no inhibitions. But they also feel incentivized to really understand the material so that they can participate in the community.

Kavitta  12:30

Now, I know there's a lot of classroom communication tools out there, and most of them are actually not built for education itself. Things like Slack and Discord and Microsoft Teams are great because it has all the technological features that you need. But these can take sometimes up to an hour and a half to set up before the quarter. So when you're looking for back channels, and classroom communication tools, something that you really want to be looking for something that is built for you and your students, because it's going to be a lot easier to set up. Specifically, you're looking for tools that have something called an LTI integration, which sounds really tough, but it's basically what an LTI integration means is that communication tool or education tool sits directly inside of whatever you're already using. So if you're using Canvas or Moodle, that tool will integrate directly with it. So that you don't actually have to onboard your students, these tools will typically create your channel for you, and add your students into it. And it takes a ton off of your plate. And Nectir does that. So if you're looking for a tool that can eliminate that onboarding, we're definitely here to help you with that.

Kavitta  13:41

So the whole point, essentially, of introducing student engagement tools in the classroom is to take your students from just being passive listeners to being active creators of their own education, it's really going to transform their experience and make them feel like they have an active part in adding value to their own education in your classroom. It's very easy to say, you know, you get out of it, what you put into it. But a lot of times students don't really know how to put effort into the class to get something out of it outside of just doing the homework and studying for the exams. When you give them this sort of free flowing open space, it opens their mind up to what else can I do with this material to really learn it. And when they engage with it and start talking about it and use critical thinking skills to analyze and answer each other's questions. That's when you're gonna get that deeper level of learning, since in order to talk about it, they're gonna have to really understand it. And that's where the active creation of education really comes into play. 

Kavitta  14:46

So now we're going to go through the five methods that we have seen instructors use in their backchannels that has worked flawlessly with keeping their students engaged throughout the term. They're gonna sound simple, but what's really important is remembering that what might be, you know, a no brainer to you to a freshman or transfer any one of your students, it's not the same to them, they don't necessarily know exactly how to get the most out of their education. And sometimes they need you to do that really simple thing to give them the permission to go get what they need out of it. And the first thing before we even jump into the nitty gritty is to actually create a space where your students feel welcome to interact with both you and the material. And this is really important because like I said, it might sound like a no brainer to you, you know, you give your students the space and you say, here's where you can get whatever you need out of it. But like I said, you don't know what you don't know. So from a student perspective, I can tell you that even when my instructors did give me tools to use, I sometimes wouldn't use them simply because I didn't know what I was allowed to do and what I was not allowed to do. So it was intimidating to jump in, because I again wasn't sure if I was going to ask a stupid question or sound dumb in front of my peers. And that's a very, very real fear that keeps students from participating. So the way to get your students to feel comfortable and not intimidating, not intimidated with chatting with each other and with you, is to let them know from day one exactly how you expect them to use the channel that they're in. It can be a message that's as simple as Hi, this is your Nectir channel for the class, I want you to use this space to ask and answer each other's questions and share resources about the material. This is your space to get what you need out of the classroom. If you have a question that you can't ask here, you can direct message me on Nectir or send me an email. That way students know right from the start exactly how they're meant to use it. And if they do run into a deeper problem, what they're supposed to do next. Again, it's all about alleviating that anxiety right from the start so that students feel comfortable. And the more comfortable they feel, the more engaged they're going to be with the material throughout the term.

Kavitta  17:09

The next point is to let your students actually tell you what they need through the q&a. So a lot of times within these backchannels, we encourage instructors to actually take a step back and let your students use this space to ask and answer each other's questions because it reinforces their knowledge, but also gives them a chance to build community amongst each other. And so what's great about this is you sort of have a live gauge into your the mind of your students throughout the entire term, you can sort of tap into these back channels to see how your students feel about the material that they're learning the midterm, that they just took the essay that you just designed. And what I mean by this is, when you give a lecture, I would recommend afterwards, just taking a peek at your back channel, and seeing what the conversation looks like. If students are saying things like, Hey, what are you guys doing after class? Does anyone want to go grab a, grab some lunch and talk about you know, the lecture, then you kind of know, okay, there's not too much stress, people probably understood what was going on. If instead you look at the back channel after a lecture and you see your students asking a ton of clarifying questions, you'll know from those questions, which part of the lecture was not as salient as you hoped for it to be. And so what this does is it gives you an idea of this is the specific part of the topic that they didn't understand. Let me now reiterate it in the next lecture, or send a resource directly to the channel, right there. And then to clarify that question and get students on the right page. So it's a great way to outside of doing polls and surveys, get a gauge of your students throughout the term anytime you want.

Kavitta  18:59

Now, I know with student engagement outside of even using a back channel will often see a lull happen in conversation. And this can happen actually with students in the physical classroom even showing up to lecture. And that lull, the little drop in engagement typically happens after a midterm or an assignment is due, and students are a little bit burnt out. So you know the lecture right after a midterm, I'm sure you've seen less students show up to that one. And the reason being is simply just that they are burnt out. And so you're gonna see this in your back channel as well because like I said, the back channel is a direct reflection of how your students are feeling throughout the term. So when you see that lull happen back channels are great because you can use them to reinvigorate your students. And the best way to do that is to jump in yourself and add a casual conversation starter. I really recommend having this casual conversation starter be something not related to the material at all. So if right after midterms, you see that your students are a little bit stressed a little bit out of it. And they're not chatting as much jump into the channel and say something like, Hey, I just watched the new Spider Man movie. Has anyone else seen it? What did you think of it? It gives your students the idea that they can jump back into the community without actually having to talk about just the material itself. When you think about any sort of functioning community, you know, that even though they typically relate to a certain topic, and that's what they the community is centered around, there's obviously going to be conversation outside of that topic. So you want your classroom community to be the same way. That's really how students are going to feel the most comfortable. And it's a very easy way to bring them back into the conversation when that lull happens.

Kavitta  20:50

The next point is to share resources in that back channels so that your students aren't going out and finding them on their own. Like I said earlier, I'm sure we all know that students are always going to Google and YouTube to look up supplemental resources for the material that you're teaching them. Now, that's great. But you run into the issue of students potentially finding information that is not correct or not relevant to what they're learning what the second part of that problem is telling you from a student perspective. When you provide those resources as links right next to the actual learning material that they are mandatory supposed to go through, the supplemental resources start to look like homework, it starts to look exactly like those mandatory readings, I have to go through this, it's no longer a resource. To me, it's more work. When you have the backchannel the sort of the more casual space to talk to your students, and you send them a YouTube video and article, a resource in that back channel, it now looks like it's part of just casual help that they're getting alongside the lecture material. So having that separation of where you're putting homework assignments, and where you're giving them more casual resources, and help really helps your students with actually opening up those links. And going through the material, I promise that you're much more likely to get your students to open up those supplemental resources when they're in the back channel and not sitting right next to their mandatory learning.

Kavitta  22:24

Now, the last point is one that I actually learned from Nectir instructors who are using Nectir in their classroom. And this is what they told me they started using it for I had no idea that this was what it was gonna eventually be used for. But this has led to some of the highest level of engagement that we've seen across any campus that uses Nectir. And it is to employ Nectir or any back channel in your classroom to do a flipped classroom style. Now, I know that flipped classroom styles can be difficult because it takes a ton of work to set up. And a lot of times it feels like it's just more work on the instructor, especially if you have or at a research institution or you are teaching multiple classes, flipped classroom styles can sometimes feel impossible to pull off. But what's great about having a back channel is it sort of solves the entire issue of the in person part of it for you. And what I mean by this is you can use your back channel to host the entire conversation in a physical classroom. So you can actually do this flipped classroom style virtually hybrid or in person using a back channel. But what you're going to do is have your students do the lecture or the reading material before they show up just like they would in any flipped classroom style. And then when they come into the actual class time, rather than having students raise their hand one by one and, you know, share their opinion about the material or start engaging with it. You're going to use your backchannel to do that instead. So asking a question out loud your entire class thing. So we all did this learning material. Let me know what you guys thought about this. And then telling them to answer that in the back channel itself does two things. One, it eliminates the turn taking issue. So students no longer have to raise their hand one by one and wait for someone else to talk, and then share their opinion afterwards. This gives every student the same platform so that they're all able to share their ideas and it feels equal to them. The second part of this is you actually get participation from the entire class. Typically, when you do flipped classroom style, and you have students chat out loud in the classroom, you're going to notice that you're gonna get the same 15 or so students that talk every single time. And there is going to be the same kids that sit in the back that are a little bit more shy, that don't feel comfortable jumping into the conversation as much as other students do. And so when you have these synchronous or asynchronous back channels that exist in the classroom, that is completely eliminated. There's an even playing field and now those shy students who sit in the back, have a way to participate as well. 

Kavitta  25:06

Now, what's great for you and what saves you the time is that you can actually go to these backchannels after the class is done, and assign participation points based on the responses that your students had. So rather than having to, you know, have your TA write down right there in front of you who raise their hand who had the best comment, you can go back on your own time and read through this repository of messages that your students sent, and see based on those messages, who really understood the material who is really participating, and be able to sit there and give them points based on that really easily. So it saves you time, it's a really easy way to have sort of a flipped classroom style structured for you. And it gives your students an even playing field to participate when that conversation time does come up. So like I said, this is my favorite way to use back channels. And I really recommend trying it at least once to see how great it is to really pull your students into the conversation. And more importantly, make sure that they've done the learning material to the best of their ability, because you can't participate unless you know what you're talking about.

Kavitta  26:14

So just to give you an overview of what back channels are able to do outside of just q&a. And this is specifically focusing on Nectir. But a lot of back channels do these things. It's really great for sending quick reminders, especially because back channels like Nectir function on mobile phones as well. So you want to go to where your students already are, they're typically on their phone all day long. So if you want to send them a reminder, it's probably better to do it through that back channel than it is through email. And on top of that, rather than sending the same email to every single one of your students, you say it in one place, and everybody sees it makes it a lot easier to do. The next point of backchannels that is really great for students is that they become repositories of information over time. So by the time the midterm or the final comes, they can actually use that back channel to study the class itself. And they can typically search within Nectir by keyword. So if you have an extra channel and a student goes in right before the midterm and searches up, you know, homework four, they'll see all of the messages from homework four and be able to study right from that back channel itself. You can also send any type of attachment. So if you want to send your assignments here, or the syllabus, you can do so. And you can pin important messages. So you can pin that syllabus so that you make sure that students don't email you and ask you for over and over and over. It's always right there for them to be able to grab whenever they need.

Kavitta  27:38

Now my favorite quote that sort of encompasses everything that we talked about today and why back channels are so important, so crucial to maintaining student engagement is that when one teachers to learn, and I experienced this firsthand in such a salient way that it made me dedicate my life to building back channels and increasing student engagement, so that students can have the same experience that I did, where I truly felt like I was part of a learning community that I had never experienced before. And it was salient enough to keep me in college. So I'm sure that there's something from this that you can pull and bring into your classroom. But if you're interested in actually using Nectir itself, go ahead and send us a message right on our website through our contact form. And mention the code workshop that you were here today. And we will set up Nectir for you for free for a full semester in your classes. But you can try it out. No strings attached. If you don't like it after that you're free to stop using it. But if you are interested in checking out a back channel that is specifically made for education, I think we have a great one and we'd be really happy to set it up for you and get it started and make sure that you're getting the most out of your class with your students, whether that's hybrid, remote or in person. So thank you all so much for attending and being here with us today. We have another one next month if you like these workshops and you want to keep coming back to them, I'd really appreciate it!

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