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Virtual School – The Challenge of Keeping Students Engaged

 It comes as no surprise that one of the most challenging issues that our coaches have helped teachers with has to do with keeping students engaged while in a virtual classroom setting. We have found that many teachers feel that both the level of overall engagement as well as the duration of student engagement were below, and in some cases well below, normal classroom standards.

The coaches went to their toolkits and research sets and came up with suggestions for enhancing student engagement in virtual school or blended school situations. Here are four of our top suggestions to help keep the attention of students in your classrooms:


Pacing and Clumping

Just like training for distance running, you have to build up your stamina, and a great way to do that with students is pacing and clumping.Pacing and clumping can be used to first establish a “learning cycle” that involves learning work or practice followed by a review of what had been done or what had been learned. In most cases, especially with younger students, the cycle will be very short, and the learnings identified would be five or less. Once all students are comfortable with the learning cycle and can identify what they learned, teachers can gradually increase both the duration and the content expectations until the students stay engaged through the debriefing at the end of the lesson. When asked to review this idea, one teacher said, “My students meet in Zoom groups at the end of the lesson and this would be a chance for them to pair/share or do a groupthink.” She also felt that she would start doing this in the regular classroom when students can safely return to in-person classes.


Red Flags and Refocusing

Red flags and refocusing are related strategies that involve “alerts” that tell student something important is about to happen. Many teachers instinctively do things to “reengage students” but never tell the students what they’re doing and what’s supposed to happen. One of our partner school teachers tried this by literally waving a red flag. By the second day, all the students were in tune to the flag waving, and immediately got ready to attend and acquire something they knew was going to be important. The important thing to remember, for red flags and refocusing to be effective, the students have to know what the cue (or flag) is, what they are supposed to do in direct response to it, and it must be almost second nature to the students to react. In order to effectively implement red flag and refocusing tactics, teachers should practice the method with students, and the students must understand and accept the significance of the strategy. Increase buy-in on the students’ part by giving them a chance to talk about how these tactics can be used more effectively for their own learning, thus giving partial ownership of the process to the classroom.



Instead of telling students how they are doing, let them think introspectively about their performance. Asking students to rate their engagement can help build a perception of what “good working” is. A simple chart at the end of the lesson can give the student an opportunity to rate self.

How hard did I work today?

  • I worked hard the whole time.

  • I worked hard most of the time, but I completed my work.

  • I worked hard some of the time, but I didn’t complete all the work.

  • I didn’t work hard or try very much.

  • I really didn’t do much at all.



Formative Feedback

Once students have learned to realistically and effectively self-check, formative feedback can be a very powerful tool. Having an adult, a mature sibling, or even a teacher observe and rate the student’s performance and overall engagement provides a comparative rating for a student’s self-check assessment. This allows you, as the teacher, to “shape” the student’s perception of his/her work.

The shaping element of this activity is important. To be an effective and independent learner, the student must become aware of, and learn to control, their engagement in learning work. A simple observation checklist can give a teacher an opportunity to help shape the student’s perception of good work. This gives students a great visual representation of their overall performance, and lets them see not only where they did exceptional work, but also where they can focus attention on improvement.

Additionally, if the student felt they didn’t work hard at all and the teacher can review the work that they actually did and point out some places where their work was adequate or almost adequate, they can encourage the student and set a goal for trying to reach the next level in the next lesson.

Lesson Activity Student Engagement
Activity one

Highly engaged | Moderately engaged | Inadequately engaged | Off task

Activity two

Highly engaged | Moderately engaged | Inadequately engaged | Off task
Activity three Highly engaged | Moderately engaged | Inadequately engaged | Off task


We have to keep in mind that for students to become proficient, independent learners, as well as competent, independent performers, they have to have a full understanding of what “good” work looks like. They must recognize when they are not working to their potential and how their output improves as they boost their understanding of the importance of their own engagement.

To bring it back around, academic endurance is somewhat akin to athletic endurance. The athlete or the student doesn’t just develop endurance, competence, or confidence just by doing what they’ve always done. To reach and then raise their potential, they must practice in order to build their competence, do exercises to build their endurance, and they have to be coached or shaped to build the capacity and reach “optimum” performance.

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