Moving Forward: Teaching in Uncertain Times

Community Blog on online, hybrid, and F2F teaching during the pandemic

Spring has sprung: Or, How to Compete with Sunshine and Fresh Air

Let’s be honest with ourselves about the second half of spring semester. Under normal circumstances, it’s difficult to keep students (and maybe even ourselves) on task and in the zone after spring break. The flowers are blooming, the birds are singing, and no one wants to be stuck inside. Just like everything else during Covid, this spring will present some extra challenges to engagement. After a year of quarantine, lockdowns and virtual learning, we all finally have something to look forward to! Starting today, vaccines will be available for everyone over 16 in Georgia, and spring-time optimism abounds.

Given all the distractions this spring is likely to bring, I thought it would be a good time for us to revisit some of the course-design strategies we covered in the MOT to maximize the chance for student engagement. Here are some tips for creating materials that keep students focused:


Tip 1: Keep it Brief

As you prepare videos, power points, and synchronous lectures for your online course, or materials for your in-person course, keep the 15-20 minute rule in mind. It’s not a perfect rule, but many educators and psychologists have argued that 15-20 minutes is about the maximum time that students can engage before their attention starts to wane. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you have to limit your classes to 15 minutes, but it is helpful to switch gears after that timeframe. Remember to incorporate breakout sessions or opportunities for discussion and brief, individual writing to give them a chance to refocus. If you’re creating video lectures for your course, break up the videos into segments, each focusing on a component of the larger lecture. Breaking up your lectures can give you a break as well.


Tip 2: Keep it Clean

I can always find another 10 videos or articles or memes that I think my students should see. There is SO much good information easily available that it’s tempting to link to it all. What’s one more optional link, right? The problem with that thinking is that students, especially novice students, struggle to prioritize information. When we add too many resources, whether they be graphics, videos, articles, or lecture notes, students experience cognitive overload and tend to shut down altogether. Keep your modules uncluttered and make sure that you only add materials that are important to your goal for this portion of the lesson. Keeping your modules clean helps them focus on what really matters and increases engagement.


Tip 3: Keep it Simple

I’ve seen many power point presentations where the speaker reads large amounts of text printed on the slide verbatim. An former colleague of mine used to call it “Power Point Karaoke.” The idea behind this practice (I assume) is that the presenter feels the need to reinforce the words in the power point by speaking them aloud. Sometimes that’s helpful, especially in instances where you want students to remember key ideas or definitions, but mostly, reading power point slides aloud is just distracting. In this case, the presentation leads to cognitive overload because humans can focus on words and images, but struggle when trying to focus on written words and spoken words at the same time, especially when you throw in a graphic of some sort. If you are presenting in class or on an asynchronous video and you include large chunks of text alongside graphics and then speak over that, students are going to tend to focus on the visual rather than the auditory input. You might have experienced this yourself in a conference presentation. The speaker puts a big chunk of text on the screen and then adlibs over it. Most audience members are going to automatically be drawn to the large chunk of text and tune out the speaker so that they can read what’s on the screen. When you design your lectures, consider using spoken words or printed words, but not both. If you really need a large chunk of text on your power point, then give the viewers time to read it, and then speak over it. Otherwise, your viewers will end up missing information and losing focus. If you use text along spoken words, use brief “touchstone” ideas and key words.


Tip 4: Keep it Lively

In-person and virtual learning have both been difficult this year, and we all deserve a break. Rather than focusing on getting the information to them, try to keep the focus on letting them find the information for themselves. Incorporate games and impromptu group activities (at a distance). Give them a challenge that allows them to use the internet to find the best answer quickly or even encourages them to share connections between their lives outside of school and the topic at hand. Have them work together to generate lists of ways the information is used in the everyday world, or even how it’s not. Ask your collogues what fun activities they’ve incorporated in their classes.


We’re moving into a really optimistic time. We still have a long way to go, but as you begin the second half of spring semester, please try to keep your patience if your students start to drift away from learning just a bit. We’ve all been distracted all year, and now that we finally have a bit of good news coming our way, we all deserve a bit of a break. Enjoy the sunshine, and making it through the rest of the semester.

jenniferhall • March 24, 2021

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