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November 3, 2021

Engaging Students in the Hybrid Classroom

On September 9, 2021, Alexandra Sedlovskaya, Associate director at the Christensen Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard Business School, presented a webinar entitled The Hybrid Classroom: How to Engage Students to Promote Individual and Collective Learning. Her strategies for participant-centered learning in a hybrid teaching context are presented below, organized according to course flow.

The Hybrid Classroom

The concept of the hybrid classroom as used in this webinar involves students:

  • Attending in person
  • Joining remotely (synchronously)
  • Watching class recordings on demand (asynchronously)

For Alexandra Sedlovskaya, being able to join in different ways allows bringing together a diversity of participants and increasing accessibility and inclusivity. Students can also learn from their different experiences and perspectives.

In order for students to fully take advantage of these characteristics of the hybrid classroom, teachers can implement a number of strategies to engage them. As a result, students will recognize themselves not only as individual learners, but also as active members of the class learning community.

Strategies for Student Engagement

Prior to course start

Reach out to students with a welcome message. To emphasize the active role students can take up within the course, welcome them using we/our pronouns, and end on a call to action. Ask them to tell you about:

  • Their background
  • Their interest in the course (even if you are teaching a required course!)
  • Their objectives for the session

Asking them to reply to your message not only allows you to learn more about your students, but also signals that you care. Maybe most importantly, asking students to reflect on these questions already primes them for active participation rather than passive reception of information, which is often associated with remote learning.

Responding with a short but personalized note is an important time commitment but starts building reciprocal rather than one-way connections with students. Research indicates this has a positive impact on classroom management throughout the session.

Studying student backgrounds and names allows you to value students as important members of the course community. Research has shown that students participate more actively when the teacher knows their name.

First day of class

The first day of class should be a special day for students because it is the start of a new learning experience. The way in which a teacher frames this matters a lot.
Welcoming students to a hybrid course should recognize the diversity of learning contexts:

  • Address students in the classroom but also remote students.
  • Establish common references, for example by mentioning the weather, or referring to current events.
  • Acknowledge the fact that some students are watching a recording, e.g. by diversifying the expressions you use (good morning, good afternoon or good evening).
  • Use non-verbal language to connect with all students; e.g., establish eye contact not only with the students in the classroom but also take the time to look directly into the camera. Experiments have shown that remote students sit up straighter and pay more attention when the teacher regularly establishes eye contact through the camera.

Setting norms and expectations is especially important in the hybrid context. What is the point of “coming together” (whether synchronously or asynchronously) as part of the learning process?

Being transparent about shared frustrations, especially with regard to technology use in the hybrid classroom, yields students opportunities to develop and show creativity and leadership as they collaboratively troubleshoot any challenges or problems that may arise.

Finally, be clear on aspirations with regard to inclusive practices, recognizing that not everyone has the same means of interacting with peers, slides, etc. while also emphasizing that no one should be reduced to the role of a passive observer:

  • Calling upon students joining remotely from the very first class clearly expresses the teacher’s desire to set up dialogues across physical spaces.
  • Asking remote students to indicate whether they can clearly see content on the board, hear their peers in the classroom, or understand the information presented, signals that you have not forgotten about anyone, and that all students are equally important.
  • Giving different instructions for students in class, joining remotely, or watching a recording keeps activities relevant for everyone.
  • Inviting the latter group of students to pause the recording and self-reflect or take notes can be an alternative to classroom discussions and ensures that all students are actively engaged.
  • Providing different means of asking questions outside of the physical classroom not only benefits students taking the class asynchronously, but also those students who are shy or process information at a different pace.
  • Aligning chat-based communication with classroom-based communication may be challenging, and chat transcripts may not be available in the class recording.

Setting clear expectations about the use of different tools and their functions is paramount to avoid confusion and create a harmonious learning environment for everyone.

Outside of class

In a physical classroom, interactions immediately before and after class tend to occur organically, as students have their own conversations, and may approach you with questions while you are setting up or packing up. In the hybrid classroom, these types of conversations require more planning:

  • Allow remote students to join breakout rooms before the official class start time to mimic side conversations between students.
  • Take up student questions as a group, encouraging remote students to participate in the discussion. This also makes it possible for students watching the class recording to have a trace of the exchange. Studies show that the majority of students watch these exchanges attentively. You can also encourage them to share their own reflections and insights asynchronously.

Asynchronous assignments, e.g. on (video) discussion boards, erase boundaries, since all students engage with the activity when and where suits them best. Asking students to also respond to messages of peers creates an ongoing sense of community.

Connecting with classmates outside of the classroom may be challenging, especially when some students have never physically met. Optional, informal group sessions allow students to discuss course content and ask questions (for example, about assignments) while getting to know others in the class group. This is especially beneficial if students need to complete team assignments.

Just like class sessions, office hours should be accessible to everyone in the format that works best for them. This can easily be achieved by connecting to an online platform during your on-campus office hours. It is also a good idea to plan availability a few days after the class in question, to also give students watching the recording the chance to ask their questions before the following class session.

Conclusion

Engaging students in the physical classroom can be as simple as asking questions that spark students’ intellectual curiosity and creating an environment in which they can collectively pursue that curiosity. However, as illustrated by Alexandra Sedlovskaya, a number of strategies that are particularly relevant in hybrid learning contexts require some more careful planning on the teacher’s part. Which tips and tricks do you have to share? Post them in the comments below!

About the author

Andy Van Drom

Andy Van Drom has been teaching linguistics and English as a second language since 2005, first at Université Laval and then, since 2012, at Cégep Limoilou. After completing doctoral studies in linguistics, he is now working part-time on a master’s degree in college peadagogy with Performa. Andy has published 4 textbooks with Pearson ERPI and has developed several open educational resources in digital format. His great interest in technopedagogical tools and active learning led him to work with Profweb in 2017, a mandate that continues, as of 2021, within Eductive. His desire to innovate in pedagogy through digital technology has earned him an AQPC Honorable Mention and the EF Excellence Award in Language Teaching.

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