Students’ anxiety levels are running high. For many, the traditional classroom served as an outlet for communication, community and camaraderie. In the online learning environment, students don’t have the luxury of turning to peers or instructors in person to engage in meaningful conversations. Having given up so much of their academic and social freedom that came with on-campus learning, students have been hit especially hard.

When we think of a college campus, a typical lecture hall may come to mind. But for many, colleges were so much more than just that. Seventy-six percent of students miss the study spaces that their campus provided and 28 percent miss student housing and food services. Students are also deprived of engaging, in-person conversations. Eighty-five percent miss in-person interactions with faculty and 78 percent find remote learning to be unengaging.

Ultimately, many students feel that remote learning has drained the excitement, fulfillment and motivation they felt in class. While most instructors employ virtual classroom technology to stream lectures, host discussions and collect homework assignments, community is an equally important piece of the academic puzzle. No matter what the fall semester looks like—blended, fully online or in-person—keeping students satisfied starts with strengthening connections.

Here’s how Top Hat can help you create and maintain connections with students in a virtual classroom.

1. Keep your real-time lectures rich in participation

Why it’s important
Participation has gained new meaning with the shift to remote learning. With in-person learning, you could gauge by a show of hands who understood your course material. In an online environment, opportunities for participation, interspersed throughout your lecture, can help bridge the gap. Engagement in your classroom may start with icebreakers and diagnostic assessments at the beginning of your course. From here, you may wish to introduce more collaborative activities such as case studies and debates to ensure students have ample opportunity to put theory into practice. Based on individual needs, consider rewarding students for attendance to your synchronous class.

Put it into practice with Top Hat
Top Hat touts new virtual classroom capabilities—arriving Fall 2020—which can help maintain participation and connectivity. Recreate the close-knit feel of your lecture or lab with video streaming built directly into the Top Hat platform—no need to run Zoom or Google Hangouts. A live chat feature and moderation tools are also available, all in one spot. You can present your slides simultaneously and have the live chat feature running the entire time, ensuring everyone is on the same page before you proceed to the next round of content. Through the live chat, students can raise their hands to seek clarification, communicate with peers and interact with content via text and emojis. Students can also upvote specific threads, providing an indication of where you may want to focus your efforts moving forward. Over 14 question types, including click on target and multiple choice, engage students in interactive ways. Incentives such as points for participation and correctness can also help them see value in contributing.

Click here to watch the recording of our webinar introducing Top Hat Pro, our new suite of features, designed to help educators engage their students, wherever learning takes place.

2. Make sure all students feel like a part of the class

Why it’s important
Academics aren’t the only issues students face: concerns around housing and access to meals, along with mental and physical well being are also top of mind. Empathetic teaching practices such as shortening lecture modules to provide students with succinct takeaways, and making those lectures available for students to review on their own are essential. Empowering students starts with respecting their individual needs and circumstances. Conversations should extend beyond the dedicated time slot for your course. You may also wish to take on the role of a ‘community manager,’ setting aside a period of time to answer students’ questions. Circulating an FAQ sheet can also help ease students’ anxiety and concerns about the structure or content of your course.

Put it into practice with Top Hat
Top Hat values the idea allowing learning to happen when it’s most convenient to you and your students. Interactive and robust lecture recordings using Top Hat’s own software can replicate an in-class feel even after the class ends. These recordings capture your slideshow and a video of you presenting the material, as well as participation and discussions. Everything appears in one place and students are invited to review the material at a time that suits them. To extend your online presence, you may wish to host virtual office hours where students can discuss what’s on their minds. You can make these discussions anonymous so that students feel comfortable voicing their opinions.

3. Let actionable insights improve the learning experience

Why it’s important
For students, one of the most unsettling feelings is not knowing how they performed on an assignment. With so much of the world in flux, frequent, thoughtful feedback is a must-have. Ensure you stay on top of student progress by leveraging insights from assessments to guide your course delivery. Frequent, low-stakes testing is an effective way to maintain structure in your online course while still providing students with opportunities to show what they know. As an instructor, recurring assessments should provide you with actionable insights on which students are at risk. You can then harness this data to offer support to struggling students to help them get back on track. Even if they can’t turn to you for help in person, your students will appreciate your commitment to their success by checking in with them early and often.

Put it into practice with Top Hat
Top Hat’s gradebook helps ensure students reach their full potential. All student assessment data, including the results of formative and summative assessments, as well as attendance and participation figures, are compiled in one place, allowing you to seamlessly track how students perform in your course through up-to-the-minute, holistic insights. A weekly course report indicates correctness scores per question and flags low-performing students, inviting you to email them to offer support. In the fall, you’ll be able to grade assignments by individual students rather than by question. Linda Young, Professor of Biological Sciences at Ohio Northern University, uses Top Hat’s gradebook in her 30-person microbiology course—a class designed for pre-meds preparing to enter a clinical lab setting in the hospital. “The gradebook let me know who was struggling and I could email them and offer support. It was also a chance to segue into asking how they’re doing and if everything’s okay. I think students appreciate some of that personal contact.”

4. Create an accessible virtual classroom

Why it’s important
An accessible learning experience can be the make or break for students. Accessibility in higher education means all students are granted equal opportunity to access learning materials. This should be top of mind for you in planning your course delivery. It is no longer realistic to expect that all students have access to online materials outside of the traditional classroom, and when they do, 28 percent of students report difficulty using these tools. Accessibility and flexibility also go hand in hand: giving students freedom as to how and where learning takes place can reduce barriers associated with higher ed. Forming an accessible course starts with being proactive while considering how all students can benefit from your teaching model. “Many of my students were working a hospital shift when they otherwise would have had class. Flexibility was really important to them,” Young says, on her choice to proactively extend assignment due dates.

Put it into practice with Top Hat
Top Hat helps you create and distribute accessible course materials. In Top Hat, active learning takes place from anywhere. Students are able to dial into lecture via phone and lecture transcriptions provide an alternative to recorded lectures. Students can further leverage their mobile devices to complete in-app readings and assignments. For students with a full plate of responsibilities, simple study sessions or checkpoints administered through Top Hat’s livestream functionality can reinforce camaraderie and comfort in times of uncertainty. “A lot of the time, I think students would join study sessions not because they had questions, but because they just wanted to see each other and me and be able to connect with one another,” Young recalls.

Ensure you have informative, sensitive conversations with students to support their mental wellbeing. Top Hat’s new free resource, COVID-19 and Wellness, developed by Lindsey Nanney, Interim Associate Director and Program Coordinator at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, can help you in the process. Learn more here.

Learn how Top Hat’s new array of features can help you put empathy at the forefront of your curriculum and course delivery.

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