With the epidemic of COVID-19, these are challenging times to teach undergraduate and graduate students through an online format. Many faculty are still learning how to adapt traditional, in classroom instruction to online. Part of that learning may be about how to engage students in class. Engagement may also be more difficult in courses with high enrollment. Can students be engaged in the topics of aging and gerontology using Zoom?
From my experience teaching adult development and gging courses online for about 15 years, I have continuously sought out ways to improve student engagement with the topic as well as with in-person instruction. First, I learned the basics of trying to close the “distance” in distance learning by building a sense of community and relationship with the students as best as I could over the computer. These basics include practicing to look at the camera when speaking (and not my slides) as if I am looking at the students in person. While to you as the instructor, it may not feel like you are connecting with the students (because you are staring at the camera), the students are more likely to feel like you are looking at them. This would help them feel more connected to you.
Another tip is to have a rule that the students must have their video camera on during the Zoom class. If possible, have a second monitor: one screen to see your slides and another screen to see the students in your class. This works better with smaller class sizes than with larger ones. But by seeing the students (even if not all of them are simultaneously on the screen), you will feel more connected to them.
Another tip is to open the Zoom meeting before and sometimes after class to talk informally with students. During these informal talks, I have talked to them about their reactions to the class, encouraged them to ask me questions from the lecture or readings, solicited class feedback on what do differently for the next session, asked them how the lecture can apply to them professionally (if they want to work with older adults) and/or personally. When asked about how it relates to them personally, the students typically talk about themselves and their families (especially parents who are aging or older adults). These conversations help build relationships with your students (DeBrock, Scagnoli, & Taghaboni-Dutta, 2020). By building a better sense of connection between you and your students outside of class and showing that you value them as individuals, they may be more willing to engage and participate during the Zoom class sessions (Benshoff & Gibbons, 2011; Perry, & Edwards, 2005).
One advantage of using Zoom to lecture versus lecturing in-person is that the students’ names are given on the screen. Therefore, you have help in remembering the names of your students. Thus, another basic tip to engage the students is to call the students by their names to answer questions during class and to consistently do this throughout the semester or quarter. Let them know that you will do this in the syllabus and on the first day of class. This gives the students the expectation to pay attention as they may be called on to answer a question, whether they raise their hand via the zoom feature or not.
With larger classes, it is harder to engage students on an online platform. With Zoom, there are two easy features you can use to engage students in these larger classes. First, there is feature called breakout room. For instance, on the first day of class, on the first slide, I ask students what their definition of aging is. For three minutes, I randomly put them into breakout rooms of about three to four students. I give them access to a google document where each group can type their answers simultaneously on the document (as a note, I save this google document, and ask them to do the same activity on the last day of class to see if their definition and attitude towards aging has changed). For more information about breakout rooms, check out the Zoom support webpage.
Another Zoom feature that is good for any size class engagement is polling. I usually do anonymous polling to see if the students are learning the difficult concepts and to generate opinions in a safe environment. Some questions that I use in polling include: “Do you think personality changes in adulthood and late adulthood?”; “Are there aging biases in the work place?”; “Do we personally have aging biases about XXXX?”; and “Do these biases affect how we work with older adults?”. By adding at least one polling question in each class, you are engaging the students in the content of that lecture. For more information about polling, please check out the Zoom support webpage.
These tips require practice and purposeful planning. Varying the activities in class may also make them more effective. With different activities built into the zoom class (versus only lecturing in class with no engagement), the students will be actively engaged with you and the lecture material in a meaningful way (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000; DeBrock, Scagnoli, & Taghaboni-Dutta, 2020). Your extra efforts will be worth it to both you and the students by improving the learning and teaching experience for the aging and gerontology courses that are taught on Zoom.
Benshoff, J. M., & Gibbons, M. M. (2011). Bringing life to e-learning: Incorporating a synchronous approach to online teaching in counselor education. The Professional Counselor: Research and Practice,1, 21–28. Retrieved from http://tpcjournal.nbcc.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Benshoff.pdf
Bransford, J., Brown, A., & Cocking, R. (Eds.). 2000. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, D.C: National Academies Press.
DeBrock, L., Scagnoli, N., & Taghaboni-Dutta, F. (2020). The human element in online learning. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/03/18/how-make-online-learning-more-intimate-and-engaging-students-opinion
Edwards, M., & Perry, B. (2005). Exemplary online educators: Creating a community of inquiry. Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education, 6(2), 46-54. doi: 10.4018/978-1-60566-828-4.ch006
About the author
Rowena Gomez, PhD, is professor and outgoing director of clinical training in psychology in the clinical psychology PhD program at Palo Alto University. Her research and clinical background is in aging and neuropsychology. She has applied these areas to the study of affective disorders, in particular depression. She is also interested in the diagnosis and treatment of dementia, and older adults’ ability to cope with age-related changes.