So we’re done reading. As usual, I took the time to scaffold the reading, making frequent pauses to ask questions to help my students process the reading. Today, we’re reading Who Was Rosa Parks, a reader for English learners. We’re working virtually, on Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, our consecrated distance learning platform. As usual, the students’ microphones are muted unless they need to ask a question, answer one, or make a relevant comment. Happy that we’ve done a good preliminary job of parsing up the reading, I proceed to the next step, which is summarizing the whole chapter, some five pages peppered up with illustrative drawings. So my question to the class: “What are some of the most important points of this chapter?” Silence. I repeat the questions after about 15 seconds. Dead silence. I rephrase the questions after another 15 seconds. Still silence. I decide to wait a little longer…
As educators, we know that language learners have a longer processing time, especially if the question or task they have to complete requires deep thinking. I have learned, when teaching a mixed class of native English speakers and English learners, to provide ample time for the language learners in the class to jot down their ideas before beginning the discussion. Just how much is enough time is any teacher’s guess. The circumstances may vary, so the processing time should be allotted according to the students’ backgrounds, and who, better than their teacher, knows how much time is appropriate? In general, my students would start responding or raising their hands to participate within ten seconds of my asking a questions. Well, that’s when they feel confident that they have the right answer. So in general, I am observant of the processing time. But an extended silent period can raise a red flag!
Now, let me say here that in general, my students’ cameras are off because of obvious technological issues. Some students don’t have access to a camera or have to choose between appearing on video and accessing the others functionalities of their devices, especially if they are using a cell phone. Also, the more videos are activated, the more chance there is that the system will begin to falter at some point. Maybe the audio might become affected, voices might become tinny, and the system might need to be refreshed. Such a situation might take several minutes before the platform has reloaded. So I am okay with videos off. Periodically, some students will turn on their videos, and that is perfect, too.
The reason why I mention the videos is that I have no idea what the students are doing in their bedrooms, dining rooms, or living-rooms, or whichever part of their apartment or house they have decided to turn into their circumstantial classroom. So when you ask a question about a selection or chapter that you have just parsed up with the participation of some students, and the silence on the students’ end lasts more than thirty seconds, there is cause for concern. Did they get it? Are they getting it? Are they really sitting in from of their computers or tablets or whatever devices they are using to log in to the virtual classroom, or are they slacking off? How motivated are they to make the best of this learning opportunity?
Michelle D. Miller’s book on how to teach effectively with technology can be a must read if you can relate to my situation. In it, the author delves into the psychology of learning both online and in a face-to-face setting. In essence, she speaks to the importance of motivation, especially in these times, where most of us, educators, are confined to our homes, distance-teaching students who might lack the ability to self-motivate. Miller stresses the importance of selling our curricula. In other words, the students need to understand the real-life implications of what they are learning or are expected to learn in class. She also suggests the use of an approach similar to the one used by electronic game designers, that is, the ability for the learners to retake say, a quiz several times until they have received a satisfactory school. The point here is twofold: the learner will have repeated the quiz, which may help retain information. Additionally, a better score or grade is likely to be a good motivating factor for the student who could then pay more attention in class the next time around.
One of the Miller’s suggestions that speaks to me personally, and which has proven to work in the brick-and-mortar classroom is chunking. This approach implies teaching materials in smaller chunks and assessing the students’ learning frequently. So instead of waiting until the end of the week to assess the students on a set of chapters, test them at the end of each chapter. They will remember the information better and longer. With the latitude to repeat a quiz until they have received a score that is to their liking, they are likely, to develop an interest in their learning or, at the very least, to become a little more confident in case their challenge was in this area.
In an online setting, the students need to feel their instructor’s presence. One way to achieve this is through frequent assessments, but assessments are just one way to make your virtual presence felt. Whenever possible, you should interject in group discussion when workin synchronously. If the students are participating in an asynchronous activity, say a discussion board, take the time to show them your interest in the quality of their ideas. Comments on their contributions without being too intrusive. Recast any thoughts or ideas that seem unfocused without deterring the students from further future participation. You do not have to respond to every student’s posts; there just isn’t enough time for that. But by responding to several posts, especially if you make sure that you respond to a different group of students each time, they might begin talking to one another about your comment. If nothing at all, they will become more alert, which might lead them to aim for quality, knowing that you take the discussion board contributions seriously.
So if you’re done reading and the silences start getting too long, hold your students accountable for their learning; quiz them frequently, but allow them to retake a quiz or test until they have received a satisfactory score or grade. Chances are you will become less frustrated, they will build more confidence, and learning will most likely improve.