How to Get Your Students to Participate in Virtual Classrooms

by Jonathan Schneider, Director of Academics, Manhattan Prep | March 19, 2020
How to Get Your Students to Participate in Virtual Classrooms

There are a lot of ways to get your students to participate in an online class. The key is to understand what tools they have access to - and to get them comfortable using those tools immediately. If students have the ability to get on camera, get them on camera right away. If they can participate by voice or by chat, get them doing that right away. As humans, we pick up on social norms pretty quickly. (The same is true in person!) Set the right tone at the start, and the rest of the class will feel easier.

Getting Everyone On Camera

I remember one of my first classes on Zoom, in mid-2018. I really struggled to get students to turn on their cameras. Halfway through the class, about ⅓ of the students were still off-cam. When they spoke, it felt odd. Everyone else clearly felt a little unsettled by it. I vowed to change that in my next class. 

The thing is, it’s actually pretty easy to get everyone on camera―you just have to do it right away as students are first joining the class. When a student joins a class for the first time, they immediately absorb the social cues around them. If everyone else is on camera, they turn on their camera much more easily. I’ve found that if I get the first five people into the room to turn on their camera, pre-class, the rest goes smoothly.

I often have to ask virtual students to turn on their cameras (if that feature is available) a few times at the beginning of class. My normal mantra: 

“Hi Eric! Hi Anastasia! Welcome! I’d love for you to turn on your camera. You should see an icon in the lower right to do that. Please click it now … Great! I generally recommend that everyone leave their camera on and their microphone off by default. Of course it’s totally in your control, so turn off the camera whenever you want, but leave it on most of the time.”

If it’s the first session of a course, I spend the first 5 to 10 minutes talking students through the process and allowing them to get used to being on camera. Once that’s done, the class starts to feel more human.


To transition the culture of your in-person class to the online classroom, start your virtual classes with an icebreaker activity. I often ask questions about pop culture or something that everyone can relate to such as, “What did everyone binge watch over the weekend?” When you give each person brief speaking time, this not only gets people used to speaking up, but it also allows people to get used to hearing other voices through their computers.

If you think it will play well with your group, you might even consider a deeper question such as “What’s something that makes you nervous about taking a class like this?” Just make sure you deliver that with a warm, empathetic tone, as the whole point is to make sure people start to feel comfortable. They’ll hear how many other people are sharing anxieties that they also feel, and this creates bonding.

Monitoring Non-Verbal Communication

If available, using a second video monitor will allow you to keep your presentation on one screen, and your students on another. I really like that I can devote a large portion of one screen to just my students’ faces. This opens up all the good-old-fashioned non-verbal communication that humans are good at. I can see when students are confused. I can ask them to poll in with a thumbs up/ thumbs down. It starts to feel … like a “real class.”

Track Student Engagement

Another trick I use―and this works just as well in person as it does online―is to track how often I’ve called on each student. I’m not high-tech with this. I just have a list of my students’ names on paper in front of me. When I call on someone, I mark a dot next to their name. I check that list throughout class and try to have at least one dot next to each person’s name by the end of class. 

This is important because otherwise some students end up dominating while others become passive observers. It also keeps students paying attention throughout the class when they know that they will each be called on at some point during the lecture.

What Works In-Person Usually Works Online Too

There are of course a lot of other ways to create classroom culture (group work, pair work, etc.), but what you’ll find is that these are basically the same tools that you’d use for an in-person class. Once you crack through the awkwardness that people feel online, and once you give people a feeling of control over the tools and how to be on camera, you’ll probably find that a lot of those things come back to you automatically. The skills you’ve learned as an in-person teacher carry over to the online classroom quite well.

Creating an Action Plan for Student Engagement

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Jonathan is an analytical and strategic thinker with a passion for helping people learn new things. He’s had over 40 jobs, but he’s found that teaching is one he’s never gotten bored of, because it’s impossible to truly master. His day job these days is overseeing the hiring, training, scheduling, and management of about 100 teachers at Manhattan Prep, a test prep boutique offering courses and tutoring for the GMAT, GRE, LSAT, SAT, and ACT. He’s moved around a lot but currently lives in North Carolina.

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