Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Engage your students when teaching online

student with laptop

As we head into a new academic year with many institutions relying on online course delivery, instructors are confronted with the need to find new ways to engage their students. We’ve rounded up the best advice from our Lockdown Lectures series this summer, where textbook authors took to Facebook Live to answer your questions and share their advice on teaching during the pandemic. 

Add variety with concise and interesting videos

Many authors reported that they were using asynchronous video lectures but recommended that these should be much shorter than a typical lecture – around ten minutes. Their experiences tally with a study of online educational videos which showed that median viewer engagement time was only six minutes. The study also recommended that educational videos intersperse an instructor’s talking head with slides, as visual variety helps to engage the viewers’ attention.

Use online resources

One of the big challenges in converting a face-to-face course to something that works online is finding and developing material that works for remote teaching. It can be a lot of work, but there’s often no need to re-invent the wheel. Many textbooks now come with free online resources including lecture slides, digital downloads of figures and tables, test banks, further reading lists, activity sheets and more, so make sure that you are making full use of the material available to you. It can also be interesting for students to explore materials that aren’t tied to  a particular textbook. For example several authors shared links to useful websites for their subject area – historian Kris Lane recommended the podcasts produced by HistoryHub.ie, whilst linguist Asya Pereltsvaig recommended videos by the YouTubers NativLang, The Ling Space and Tom Scott.

Connect students to each other

When students aren’t going to class and meeting each other in person, it’s important to take extra steps to foster conversation and connections between students. A popular option is to use discussion board assignments to encourage students to debate key questions with each other. Megan Smith, co-author of Key Questions in Second Language Acquisition, recommended starting the course with some full-class video calls where the students would take part in introduction and ice-breaker activities. Some video-call platforms include break-out room functionality, allowing instructors to split the students into smaller groups for discussions or role play activities before bringing them back in to report back to the whole class. To keep break-out room activities on track, the authors of International Management Behavior suggested having a Google Doc that the different groups can make notes on simultaneously. Other ideas included creating private Facebook groups or WhatsApp groups for students to communicate with each other, share insights and discuss ideas.

Build connections with your students

Jose Bermudez, author of Cognitive Science, teaches an online Logic course where all the course material is delivered asynchronously. Instead of spending time presenting course material, he makes a point of being available to students through email and video calls to talk through any questions or difficulties they have. Asya Pereltsvaig, who teaches a synchronous course, recommended encouraging students to turn on their web cameras and to use the comments box during class to ask questions.

Create an empowered class

As many of us have discovered, it can be challenging to maintain engagement during extended periods of remote working and learning. One way to help students is to give them a sense of empowerment in their learning. As an example, a lot of instructors have found that the nature of online learning means that some topics get cut or moved to later courses. To help keep students motivated, Matthew Restall asked his students to vote on which topic to drop from the syllabus. By including the students in the decision, he created a more engaged class. Another way to empower students, noted by Jose Bermudez, is to share a detailed study guide that clearly lays out and links to all the course content and assignments that the student will need to engage with. Megan Smith talks to her students about anti-fragility, the idea that some things get stronger when put under stress, as a way to encourage students who find the course material challenging to adopt a growth mind-set.

What do you do?

We hope you find this advice helpful. Let us know in the comments what you’ve been doing to keep your students engaged! If you’re interested, full videos from our Lockdown Lectures, from textbook authors across a variety of subjects, are available on YouTube here.

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