Eight Ways to Avoid Crickets

Josh Fost
March 16, 2020

This article was originally published by Joshua Frost.

If you are accustomed to in-person teaching, a sudden switch to a fully-online format can be disorienting and exhausting. You're not alone! The good news is that fully-online teaching can be great, even better than in-person teaching. For example: If you do it right, there is no back row to sleep in. Also, rearranging chairs takes precisely zero time. And all these students staring at their laptops or phones? They’d be looking right at you.

Here are eight specific tips for making your online course great, maximizing student learning and avoiding awkward silences ("crickets" chirping). I'll assume that your platform is synchronous. If it supports multiple video streams, great, but the suggestions below don't require it.

  1. Embrace active learning. If this is a new environment for you, it may be new for your students as well. Take the opportunity to reset expectations, and make students the center of the class instead of you. The one who works is the one who learns, so think of yourself primarily as a facilitator rather than a source of information. You probably shouldn't be lecturing anyway, but an online synchronous lecture is truly pointless. If you must disseminate information, just record your lecture in advance and set up an asynchronous discussion board to address questions.
  2. Use discrete activities and learning goals. Write down 2-3 concrete learning goals for each session and design one activity for each learning goal. (E.g. "By the end of this session, students should be able to explain why the constancy of the speed of light entails time dilation.") Share the learning goals with students at the top of class and revisit them at the end to see if the session was successful, address lingering confusions, or capture and share take-home messages. If you hear silence, it means you have not nailed that objective.
  3. Provide focused activity instructions. For each activity, articulate a clear task for your students. Trust me: You really do not want to speak for fifteen minutes—watching a video of yourself or your slide deck—only to see an empty chat window while you plead, "Any questions? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?" Instead, engage your students in effortful, focused work. E.g., "In the passage provided, document as many fallacies or indications of cognitive bias as you can. Highlight the relevant passage and explain how it demonstrates the fallacy or bias. Hint: there are at least six."
  4. Use breakout groups. Groups of 2-5 allow everyone to contribute, at least in principle. Consider asking each group to document their work in pre-made online shared documents, one per group. Keep multiple tabs open to monitor progress and even communicate synchronously via chat. Tools to consider: Zoom, GoToMeeting, and Minerva Forum.
  5. Use web-based worksheets. Use web-based survey tools as worksheets that students complete over the course of each class session. Some such tools provide real-time dashboards. Caution: Online environments often make cheating easier, so consider making these low- or zero-stakes (i.e., no grade, so minimal reason to cheat). Tools to consider: Google Docs, Microsoft Forms, and Minerva Forum.
  6. Create deep questions and problems. The most flexible problems and questions—and therefore those that work best when given to breakout groups that may be only lightly supervised—can be answered at different levels, depending on the student’s understanding (e.g., “How does this example illustrate framing effects?”—a student may provide a straightforward “textbook” answer, or may explain a sophisticated or nuanced aspect of the example that demonstrates a deeper grasp of the concept). Also consider a "mastery centrifuge," i.e., a series of questions that begins easy but becomes more difficult, allowing students to progress as far as their understanding allows.
  7. Use engagement tasks. If students will be listening to you or to classmates, give them something specific to do while listening. For example, "Watch for an application of idea X" or "Think of specific ways that the presenter's plan could go wrong." Always cold call at least some of those listeners afterward to keep them socially accountable in future sessions. There is nothing that keeps a student as attentive as the sheer fear of being embarrassed in front of their peers.
  8. Use polls. Simple (yes/no) polls that last ~10 seconds allow for the smoothest flow; multiple choice can also work; free-response text polls usually result in staggered completion times that kill momentum. Use poll answers adaptively to meet students where they are: Questions with right answers (e.g. "Could this have been caused by glaciation?") allow you to determine if you can move on or not, while open-ended questions (e.g. "Did you find Dr. Rosling's presentation persuasive?") can set up peer debates, fishbowl discussions, or breakouts. Tools to consider: Poll Everywhere, Slido, and Minerva Forum.

If you want to try any of these tips but are unsure how, contact me at jfost+nocrickets@minerva.kgi.edu.

Joshua Fost, Ph.D. is Vice Provost and Managing Director of High School Innovation at Minerva. He has a diverse academic background centering on the intersections between science, philosophy, technology, and education, and is currently leading development of the Minerva Baccalaureate program for high schools. Dr. Fost earned a Ph.D. in psychology and neuroscience from Princeton University, and a B.A. in neuroscience and philosophy from Bowdoin College.

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