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Student Engagement

How to ‘Read’ Students During Remote Learning

When your students aren’t engaging in online settings, try slowing down and using some of these questions to empower their voices and see what they’re learning.

January 29, 2021
Teacher conducts class remotely while in her classroom
Viktorcvetkovic / iStock

“Hello, is anyone out there?”

I can’t tell. Some students are on Zoom but have their cameras turned off. Some haven’t come to class since the first week. Some never came at all. Some use chat but have yet to say a word. Some turn in all their work. Some turn in just 50 percent.

How can I connect with my students when they feel like ghosts?

When you teach in person, there are any number of ways to detect student engagement, collect student data, and build our awareness of the student experience. As teachers, we gather qualitative data from walking around the room, peeking over students’ shoulders, reading their body language, listening to their conversations... but now teaching can feel like being trapped in a video game or a TV show.

Engaging students who are remote (both literally and figuratively) is never easy, but it becomes easier when you shine a light on the qualitative data we do have from remote learning.

By “data,” I don’t mean what you are probably thinking—grades, test scores, and attendance, all of which are useful in telling us what a problem is. In the context of hearing and seeing students when teaching online, I mean data that sheds light on students’ experience and empowers their voices. This qualitative data allows us to uncover learning in what students say, write, share, and do.

Qualitative data points tell us why a problem exists—and it is the why that helps us ask questions, stay curious, and build our awareness as educators of what our students need to thrive. By engaging our students and creating space to listen to them, we are not only building our own awareness, which is essential to equity, but creating a learning environment that is student centered.

Here are some ways to gather the data that answers our why questions during distance and when we return to the classroom.

Student Conversations and Interviews

Whether on Zoom, through a phone call home, or even a chat or text message, pausing to listen can go a long way because it builds our awareness as educators of the student experience, and it shows students that we value their voices and experiences.

When educators make listening to students routine, they begin to hold themselves accountable to keeping their assumptions in check and their students’ experience and expertise of their own learning at the center, which is essential to equity.

To get started having a student conversation or interview about learning, invite the student by sharing the purpose of the conversation. This can sound like the following: “I am working on improving my teaching [or school] and want to be the best teacher [or leader] for you. Would you mind helping me understand your experience better?”

After sharing the purpose of your conversation with a student, you might ask some questions like these:

  • Tell me about a time when you ____ (activity related to a goal). What made that easy/challenging for you? Why?
  • What usually happens for you during ____ (activity related to goal)?
  • What do we do in class that best helps you with ____ (activity related to goal)?
  • What would success feel like for you with ____ (activity related to goal)?
  • What would it sound like—and look like—for you as a student to feel successful?

I recommend framing these conversations as partnerships. When you invite students to engage as a partner vested in the success of their own learning, not only does it allow you—teachers and leaders—to better understand the learning experience, but you build stronger relationships with students when they see themselves playing a role in designing their learning experience.

Audio or Video Recording of a Class Activity

There is so much to learn from watching an experience. If your school, district, and students allow and consent to it, record a Zoom class or breakout room and then take an observational approach. Look for the data—the facial expressions, the enthusiasm, and the interactions that demonstrate how students engage with you, each other, and the content.

Alternatively, ask your students to submit their work as a video using educational software like Loom, Flipgrid, or Screencastify. Can they explain to you their process of solving a math problem, writing an essay, or performing an experiment? When watching these videos, consider taking on a perspective of someone else. Perspective taking is an equity strategy that builds empathy for diverse experiences and builds our awareness of our own blind spots and biases.

Too often, when asked, “How did class go?” we respond with sweeping statements such as “It was bad,” “It was all right,” or “At least we have tomorrow.” But by watching a recording as data, alone or with a colleague and coach, we can move beyond generalizations and zero in on details that can tell us so much about student learning. For example, in a recent debrief with a teacher about her Zoom class, she first told me that everything had gone wrong. However, in watching just five minutes of the recording together, taking on the perspective of an observer, she noticed expressions of her students’ learning: They were appreciating each other in the chat, they answered her questions using Zoom emojis, and one student who the previous week had not participated not only wrote in the chat but clarified another student’s misunderstanding.

Questions to consider:

  • What student strengths are you noticing? What can you see and hear students doing?
  • What are you seeing that is surprising? What questions does this raise for you?
  • What would you like to see students do that they are not doing yet? Why is this important to you?
  • As you reflect, what are your next steps as an educator based on this evidence of student learning?

Students’ Written Reflections and Surveys

Student reflections on their learning experiences are powerful, especially when your students know you will read them and take their feedback seriously. Consider sharing their reflections with their classmates and being intentional and explicit with students about how they shift your practice to support student engagement in their learning.

Most important, make sure the reflections provide opportunities for students to share their stories and engage authentically because stories are evidence of student learning, too, and should not be dismissed regardless of the student.

Remember, a commitment to equity is a commitment to keeping all diverse student voices and experiences at the center. Also, questions with scales (1–5) are great for illustrating larger trends and patterns and can be answered quickly, but they don’t get at the why, which is essential to really hear our students. Here are some questions to consider asking your students:

  • I wish my teacher knew…
  • Describe a success you have had during distance learning.
  • Describe a ____ (activity related to goal) that was challenging or frustrating.
  • Describe why ____ (activity related to goal) worked or didn’t work for you.
  • If you had a magic wand, what is something you would change/do related to learning/school?

It is easy to push ahead with our lessons and objectives, especially in this unique time when the pressure is on and we feel isolated from students. We have to look for and read signals that are in addition to—and often entirely different from—those we’re accustomed to in a classroom, as well as create new ways to hear from and engage with students. Nonetheless, it is our job to find ways to listen and pay close attention to potentially new forms of qualitative data in our practice. If equity is about raising awareness, then asking yourself how you listen to your students is core to equity. 

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