Implementing online classes during the pandemic was so new and different that many teachers struggled alone in their first classes. To make matters worse, most universities in Japan suspended the hiring of teaching assistants. This academic year provides a second chance for instructors with newly-appointed TAs to teach a first class online, the way they should have. This issue’s Teaching Assistance suggests four basic teaching tips for those who will continue to teach online or hybrid classes. A recent graduate from Arizona State University, the author informs readers how in-person language class techniques can be successfully re-harnessed to create interactive Zoom sessions.
We have all been there. The clock strikes, you take one last sip of coffee and click the microphone and camera icons. You say “good morning” to a grid of black squares and get crickets in return.
Though it is a truly lonely feeling, you are not alone at all. Student non-participation in the age of COVID-19 is widespread in the English language teaching (ELT) community. This was a huge problem for my colleagues and me, who teach English as a foreign language (EFL), because what we are transmitting to students is a skill and not just a body of knowledge (Serrano, 2011). Also, skills require more practice than study.
For years, there have been maxims in the ELT community about boosting student language production; sayings like “be a guide on the side, not a sage on a stage” are commonplace. Research by Turan and Akdag-Cimen (2019) backs this up too, with active learning approaches to EFL generally being considered more effective than traditional lecture-style classes. I think most teachers aim for the kind of student-centered, production-focused classes that these sayings are meant to create. But for many of us, that goal became markedly harder to meet when teaching online became the new normal in 2020.
Because this pandemic basically took everyone by surprise, most of us were fumbling in the dark when teaching online was first thrust upon us. This meant that while many teachers were struggling to figure out how to get along in this brave new world, they failed to uphold that core principle of EFL dogma: get the students talking.
The biggest factor in promoting student production, in my opinion, is crafting a class atmosphere that is conducive to participation—which is extremely hard to do in a virtual classroom. Nevertheless, through trial and error, I have found some very good ways of doing just that. Some methods depend heavily on factors like class size and student level; however there are a few general things that I have applied broadly and seen success with. I have used the following four basic techniques in traditional classes, and some of them may even seem trite, but I think they are worth reiterating for online classes.
Let Your Expectations Be Known
When online lessons first started, all of my students had their cameras off, and participation was low. Frustrated by talking to black squares, at the beginning of the next class I simply asked the students to turn on their cameras. Immediately about three-quarters of the students did so and—at risk of confounding correlation and causation—participation went way up from there. So, from the first class I recommend letting the students know exactly what you expect of them in terms of visual and verbal participation. You might be surprised by the result. This could also be paired with an actual incentive for production by adding a participation category to the grading rubric of your syllabus if you don’t already do such a thing. Simply giving a reason to actively participate actually does motivate a fair number of students.
Create an Avenue of Regular Communication
When my school began offering online classes, I had no access to students outside of class time, and the reverse was true as well. This not only caused some problems in the class (students neither asked for help nor clarification), but it also resulted in a diminished sense of the “class” as well. For both the students and me, it felt like we were just showing up for these 90-minute sessions that did not seem to cohere in any real way. One fix was to collect student email addresses via a Google Form and to give them my email as well. I try to have regular communication about assignments, and students know that they can ask me about classwork anytime. Similarly, if you are not already doing so, consider using a platform to anchor your class—something like a shared class Google Drive, Google Classroom, or Moodle. It goes a long way to making students feel like they are part of a class outside of your 90 minutes with them. The results for me have been great in terms of both communication and class atmosphere.
Use Breakout Rooms Wisely
Breakout rooms are a regular feature of online classrooms. As the meeting host, the teacher can choose to split participants into separate sessions. However, it is important to use them wisely. For me, this means two things. Firstly, once you know your students, you should build your breakout rooms around their individual personalities and abilities. For each class, I have a list of the strongest students that I never put together and the weakest students that I never put together. When I make breakout rooms, I quickly put one strong student and one weak student into each room as the core participants and then fill the rooms out with other students. Secondly, I do not use breakout rooms for every small exercise. Getting the students in and out of breakout rooms takes up time and interrupts the flow of the lesson. While I think they are an invaluable tool, I only use them when I expect actual production or cooperation.
Assigning students to perform classroom roles works really well for me. During group work in breakout rooms, assign one student to be the leader of their room. They are responsible for making sure their group does their work and does it well. This can be extrapolated onto a classroom level too. If you have a somewhat large assignment or activity, each group can be made responsible for a certain section of it. This motivates students, as the entire class is depending on their contribution. Finally, if you are doing something together as a class, consider having the students choose who will answer. You can call on the first student to answer number one, but then they choose who will answer number two, and so forth. This seems to take a bit of the dread out of being called on and also promotes a sense of playful familiarity.
I have used an iteration of each of the above techniques in my in-person classes for several years, but when suddenly faced with teaching via Zoom, I quickly forgot about them. I was preoccupied with imagining just what teaching online would even look like. My hope is that readers who still have not quite found their groove can put these techniques to use. There are a lot of useful strategies I have stumbled onto over the past few months, but the ones I have listed are easy to implement and have—in my experience—a huge effect on how my classes play out. Above all, though, if you want your students to feel comfortable, just remember to be kind and open-minded. And do not be afraid to look foolish and keep things light.
Serrano, R. (2011). The Time Factor in EFL Classroom Practice. Language Learning, 61(1), 117–145. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9922.2010.00591.x
Turan, Z., & Akdag-Cimen, B. (2019). Flipped classroom in English language teaching: A systematic review. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 33(5-6), 590–606. https://doi.org/10.1080/09588221.2019.1584117