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Problems of Practice

How do I ensure students are engaged with each other and the content in a hybrid and/or remote learning environment?

Key Takeaways

In order to successfully engage students in a hybrid and/or remote learning environment, educators must provide:

  • Clear and consistent directions, expectations, and places to look for resources and support to ensure everyone is on the same page
  • Opportunities for ownership and choice in their learning experience
  • Structures to engage non-verbally to build safety and confidence when participating
  • The chance to participate in effective small-group discussions around both academic and non-academic content to build meaningful relationships with their peers
  • Time to move throughout the day to engage their bodies and minds
Student waving at laptop to woman on video call

What is the problem?

Teachers consistently report that actively and continually engaging students during remote and hybrid learning is a key challenge. Students may struggle to be physically and mentally present for a multitude of reasons, including managing distractions at home, facing issues of trauma, dealing with technology challenges, lacking clarity of expectations, and more. How can we support students to better engage meaningfully in ways that meet their personal and learning needs to ensure school, whether virtual or in-person, is a place of rigorous learning, personal safety, and social community once again?

Why is it important?

Student engagement – behavioral, cognitive, and emotional participation, investment, commitment during learning – is positively associated with a variety of educational outcomes, including academic achievement. The Learning Accelerator has published a review and synthesis of the academic literature about learning in online and distance environments. Key takeaways on student engagement in remote and hybrid settings from this research include:

  • Students’ participation, motivation, and engagement may differ based on a number of factors, including culture, gender, and age; teachers should explicitly state and model expectations as well as offer multiple, culturally-relevant means of engagement.
  • Online learning environments often require significantly more self-direction on the part of the learner; lesson designers and facilitators must ensure all content and engagement features are consistently organized, equitably accessible, and clearly understood.
  • Engagement in remote and online learning is supported by relationships, a sense of social presence amongst the teacher and class, and meaningful personalization to support perceptions of relevance and agency.

How: Solution

Student engagement has become a key challenge as educators and school systems work to get students to attend, participate, and demonstrate mastery within hybrid and remote learning environments. This guide offers a set of concrete, common practices and related strategies captured from educators working in classrooms from across the country.

In this guide, we use an expansive concept of engagement, and we define engagement as students being present, active, and connected to the learning experience. This concept of engagement could be illustrated in a variety of ways, including:

  • Presence in class sessions
  • Participation in discussions and socialization
  • Completion of work and learning tasks
  • Collaborating with peers (synchronously and asynchronously)
  • Sharing thoughts and input
  • Reaching out to educators or peers for additional support

Keep in mind that turning video on is not necessarily a direct measure of engagement! Focusing on visual evidence (e.g., a student’s expressions on camera) is a natural inclination for most educators because it is the closest proxy for face-to-face learning. This guide instead explores ways students can engage meaningfully – with and without their camera – since many students may struggle with sharing a visual of their home life or with being distracted and self-conscious, prompted by looking at themselves on screen all day. (Let’s be honest, even adults struggle with this!)

Each of the practices below offer specific ways to build the structures, opportunities, and systems students need to engage across a variety of physical and virtual spaces – including moving from remote settings to in-person ones and back again.

While exploring this guide and the strategies highlighted, ask yourself:

  • Which of my students are not engaging and why?
  • Which of these strategies and ideas would support those students most meaningfully and why?
  • How might I already be using some of these strategies, and how might I improve them through the ideas and examples offered?
  • What new practices or strategies can I try tomorrow? Next week? Next month?


Be clear and consistent

Clues for engagement expectations are fairly evident inside of in-person instructional environments. As soon as you enter a classroom, students typically see an agenda on the wall, along with an objective for the day, labeled materials around the room, and posted resources throughout. When students are lost, they typically know where to go for support. These practices are just as important in remote and hybrid learning environments, but strategies for implementing them might look different.

As you design your remote and in-person classroom, clarity and consistency are key. Building clear structures that help students understand expectations, what needs to get done, and how to engage as they move back and forth between learning modes ensures true engagement – rather than just attendance. This becomes even more important if students lose internet access, join a lesson late, or miss a day; it is vital that these students know where to go and when to ensure they don’t miss learning time. Clarity, consistency, and structure can also provide stability to students who have seen their schooling and lives disrupted by a pandemic.


Here are some strategies used by various educators to ensure their students are on the same page:


Offer opportunities for ownership and choice

As with in-person learning, supporting students to take ownership of their learning through choice can help build buy-in and a sense of that they are a part of the process. Now more than ever, students need to not only have the opportunity to take ownership but also feel like they have some power over one aspect of their lives.

Give students choices about how they participate and engage with the content. These choices can be as big as picking how they demonstrate mastery and as small as choosing the reward they receive when they achieve a goal. When designing opportunities for ownership and choice, make sure your students are both prepared with the skills to make “good choices” that match their learning needs and the choices are developmentally appropriate (e.g., elementary students’ choices around how they show mastery will look different then middle and high school students’ options).


Here are some strategies used by various educators to ensure their students are offered ownership and choice around their learning – whether in-person, remote, or somewhere in between.


Create structures that allow students to engage non-verbally

Although some of these strategies can be used in person (e.g., Total Language Response, sign language), when thinking about non-verbal engagement within the remote and hybrid world, we are mainly focusing on synchronous learning on a video platform (e.g., Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams). In remote settings, it is important to offer choices to students around how to engage, and including non-verbal examples can enhance the experience. Many students may deal with noise in their homes, may be uncertain about how to appropriately engage, may get nervous speaking in front of the whole class, or may have to navigate technical issues (e.g., microphone, camera troubles). Allowing students to respond, share, and participate in non-verbal ways enables them to engage more often and with much less risk. Non-verbal engagement can happen in a full-class setting through hand gestures to show agreement, in small groups through written activities like Google Jamboard, or through nonverbal checks for understanding throughout a lesson. By building in these opportunities, educators expand their understanding of engagement and how students can stay engaged in a way that they feel supported and comfortable.


Below are some strategies we’ve seen educators use to support non-verbal engagement.


Ensure effective small-group collaboration

Offering time, space, and the opportunity for students to collaborate with each other is instrumental to building a strong classroom culture and engagement (both with the content and with each other). However, remote and hybrid collaboration must be done strategically. Simply putting students in a small group does not mean they will engage effectively, especially when working with students who might be learning through different modalities (e.g., some attend in person, some attend virtually).

Set clear expectations, create roles for students, and offer several opportunities for practice. Many educators mentioned that they started small groups with topics that had nothing to do with their content (e.g., funny sentence prompts like “What is one food you would never eat?” or another team-building activity); this way, students could practice small-group norms, expectations, roles, and more aspects of collaboration – without the added stress of content. It also gave students a fun break from “learning” and the opportunity to get to know each other better. Little did the students know they were building key skills needed for future learning!


Here are some strategies to ensure students collaborate effectively with their peers whether in person, remote, or somewhere in between.


Build in movement throughout the day

Creating intentional time for movement throughout the day is even more important now with remote and hybrid learning. Students are being asked to stay in one place for an extended time – a challenging task even for adults! Educators need to make sure they are building in breaks and ways to stay active throughout learning time.

One way to do this is to incorporate physical activities into learning tasks (e.g., acting out a scene in a play, spelling while doing jumping jacks, or even a quick game of content-based charades).

Another time to build in movement is during breaks. The hard part is that simply telling students to take a movement break doesn’t always ensure they do something active. (Think about the many times you have had a break during a video call, how many times did you actually get up and move around? Did you actually use that time to do other things on your device?) Educators need to be intentional and offer choices and activities to students when setting up time for brain and body breaks. This could be as simple as offering a break choice board that includes getting water, interacting with a pet, running to the door and back, or doing ten jumping jacks. By encouraging students to pick one active exercise, educators can help ensure students actually take the break they so desperately need.

Take it further

To learn more about effective ways to design a remote learning experience for your students, explore this Problems of Practice series. This three-part series for teachers and leaders offers concrete steps on how practitioners can design and implement effective remote teaching and learning.