Squirrel! Tips for Keeping Distracted Students Engaged in the Online Classroom

by Katie Wedemeyer-Strombel, PhD, Kaplan Teacher Manager: In-Person Tutoring, Graduate & Law School Admissions Consulting | April 16, 2020

As a recent graduate of the 23rd grade, I have spent over 22.5 years in classrooms daydreaming, tapping my leg, forgetting deadlines, managing time poorly, and feeling lost in lectures when I’d accidentally tuned out or become distracted by some/any unknown stimulus. It wasn’t until the last month of my graduate education that I learned that I had an attention deficit disorder. Through my many years as a student, and over 10 years now as an educator in formal and informal in-person and online education, I have found strategies that help keep distracted students (like me) engaged in online classrooms. With our classrooms going virtual, I wanted to share these strategies with other educators, and while these come from my personal experiences, they are also grounded in accessibility pedagogy.

1. Keep the lessons as interactive as possible, and be explicit about what kinds of interactions you expect for each activity

At the beginning of each session encourage students to tune-in and participate via a “Check In” with the class

Ask questions such as, “What did you do for fun yesterday?” or “What kinds of self-care activities are you planning for the weekend?”

It is best to ask questions that have no wrong/right answers and those which allow the students to answer in chat, show a prop (e.g. a soccer ball), or answer on microphone (depending on class size). This starts the class with an easy, engaging activity that provides positive feedback for participation.

Be explicit about when and how you want students to participate 

Keeping online lessons interactive and engaging is important for all students, but distracted students may not be able to read the social cues as to when they can participate/speak up and when they should not in a virtual classroom. Having this explicitly stated before activities can be helpful. 

For example, you can say if this is a “listen and take notes activity”, or a “thumbs up activity” where they can utilize thumbs up, down or sideways to indicate their level of understanding.

2. Use visual aids to help keep students attention on the screen and the task at hand

If students are working on an asynchronous assignment, have a timer easily visible on the screen so that they can see how much time remains on the task at hand

This helps with student time management and creates a visual deadline that can add additional motivation.

During timed assignments, periodically come off mute to announce time remaining

This is particularly important for students who may be working in another tab/window and cannot see the visual timer.

Use annotation tools and active participation tools to create a dynamic screen

However, sometimes less is more, so be conscious of cognitive load. Tools should only serve to compliment your lesson plan, not distract from the information with too many bells and whistles and “Wow… something shiny.” Practice using these tools yourself and with your students as they definitely take some getting used to.

While closed captioning is generally not recommended for students due to cognitive overload, you may find that some students attend better to turning off the audio and “watching” the closed captioning instead.  If your learning platform supports live captioning this may be worth recommending for certain students.

3. Maintain structure as much as possible, and make it easy for students to find and refer to written rules, expectations, and deadlines

Post assignments with clear due dates and times in one, easy to find, place so that students can refer back to them as needed

With the ability to turn in assignments at any time in a virtual classroom, adding in specific times to the due dates can help quell any worry of deadline misunderstandings. For example, instead of saying, “Due by Friday, April 10”, say, “Due by 5:00pm EST* Friday, April 10”.

* Pro tip: Don't forget to specify the time zone of the deadline if you are teaching a class where students may be logging in from other parts of the country or the world.

Before, or at the start of class, share an outline of the session’s activities

Your agenda doesn’t have to be fancy, and can even be written on a piece of paper held up to the screen. This kind of structure helps students know what to expect, how to anticipate transitions, and be able to recognize how far along in the lesson they are.

4. Sometimes, it’s best to allow students to work with some minor distractions, to help avoid larger disruptive distractions

Encourage students to focus by disconnecting from other distractions

Recommend that students wear headphones to help drown out the other background noise that may be happening in their new learning environment. It is also important to remind them to turn off all other electronics and make the video session full screen on their computer/tablet so they're not tempted by the internet and other icons at the bottom of their screen.

Acknowledge a healthy dose of distraction

Much like in an in-person classroom, some students may need to stand or stretch during a lesson, tap a pencil, etc. In the online environment students may need similar types of distractions in their own learning space to help them focus―as long as it’s not disrupting classes as a whole. 

In the at home online learning environment, this may look like petting a cat sitting on their lap, doodling on their scratch paper instead of looking at the screen during a presentation, chewing gum, or even practicing a quick sun salutation. 

5. Just because classes are all online, doesn’t mean all note taking and assignments need to be on a screen

Encourage students to take notes on paper if they find it difficult to type and listen

Some students may benefit from taking notes by hand. Whether due to typing speed, lack of formatting flexibility, or having documents and the class video up on the screen, it may be beneficial to encourage students to try writing while listening. Additionally, you can suggest using different colors for different topics as they take notes. This can also add a small distraction (changing colored pen/pencil) while not taking them too far away from their assignment. 

When feasible, allow students to complete assignments by hand instead of online

Certain students will appreciate the option to print paper copies of assignments as well as the opportunity to complete tasks by hand. They can submit their work by scanning documents or uploading photos to email or shared drives. 

For some students, it’s easier to focus on the assignment when it’s the only thing in front of them, and on paper they can organize their thoughts in whichever way works best for them (e.g. color coding, outlining, scratching things out, etc).

In Conclusion

As a fellow educator, I hope that you find these strategies helpful and are able to integrate some of them into your online classrooms. As a lifelong distracted student, thank you for taking the time and effort to help students, like me, be successful. You have a positive impact on your students’ lives, and you are doing your best - that’s all that we can ask of each other. Best of luck as you continue to adapt during this dynamic time!

Download "Tips for Keeping Distracted Students Engaged in the Online Classroom" for steps you can take today to foster communication and community with your students.

For more educator resources to use in the digital classroom, read more articles on our blog.

Katie has been with Kaplan since 2017 and has worked as a teacher manager, project coordinator, pre-college tutor, and on content development teams, including the 2018 Kaplan Way Award winning “Aztec” project. She holds a PhD in Environmental Science; she studied sea turtle conservation and stakeholder engagement, and is a trusted voice for greater integrity in graduate education. She has 10 years of experience creating, teaching and facilitating education programs at universities, zoos and enjoys applying these skills here at Kaplan.

See more posts by Katie Wedemeyer-Strombel, PhD, Kaplan Teacher Manager: In-Person Tutoring, Graduate & Law School Admissions Consulting