Involve Students in Decisions about Improving Participation

The 2021/2022 school year has begun! While I am excited about the upcoming adventure, I am not excited about starting another year online. On the plus side I have learned a lot about online instruction since first shifting over to Zoom in March of 2020, especially the importance of building a strong classroom community. With that in mind, one of the first things I did this year was to have a conversation with my students about Zoom behavior norms, focusing on the question “What can we do to have an amazing learning adventure together on Zoom?”

During our discussion, two themes emerged: participating in class and the use of cameras. Here’s what the students had to say:

Participating in Class

The first comments that were shared centered around the concept of kindness. Students were unanimously adamant about the need for creating a safe space for sharing ideas without mockery or judgement. We immediately agreed to treat all comments in our discussions with respect. However, when in doubt about an idea or how others might react, students felt that posting their thoughts privately on the Zoom chat was a safe option. 

Next, we talked about some of the reasons why students hesitate to participate in discussions. The students shared some of the areas of anxiety that often limited their engagement. They talked about being afraid of being judged, the fear of making a mistake, and about discussing a topic they were unfamiliar with. We felt that the judgement/mistake concerns had been addressed in our above decisions about showing respect and using the private Zoom chat. But what about discussing new topics or practicing new skills? What was the best way to handle these sources of anxiety? One of my students suggested that it would be helpful if I modelled new skills or provided examples when presenting new concepts. These steps would provide students with a deeper understanding and, as a result, stimulate more confidence during discussions. This idea warmed my heart – I regularly make modelling and showing examples part of my instructional strategies. But, I was never certain if students appreciated them or understood the importance of these efforts. When modelling behaviors in a live classroom, I’ve often experienced students getting off-topic and being distracted. It was gratifying to learn that some students saw the value of modeling and exemplars. I immediately (and strongly) agreed to this suggestion. 

Camera Use  

The camera on/camera off debate has been raging since schools went online in 2020. I have had many discussions with colleagues and have walked away frustrated at our inability to come to any kind of unified consensus. I wanted to hear what the students had to say about this issue. After all, regardless of what we teachers decided, students would be more likely to cooperate when they were part of the decision-making process. 

I was surprised when most of the students stated that Zooming with their cameras on created the most effective learning environment. So, what were the obstacles that prevented this from happening regularly?

Self-Conscious on Camera

First, students shared their anxiety about seeing themselves on screen. Some students were concerned about their appearance – that others would be judging them. This was very interesting to me because this reflected the results of a camera-usage survey conducted on students at Cornell University back in January of this year. When asked why they didn’t turn their cameras on during class, the majority of respondents (41%) stated that they “were concerned about their appearance”. I shared this study with my students, showing them the Cornell student responses. I wanted my middle schoolers to know that they were not alone in their feelings – other students around the world (even those at the university level) shared this concern. 

Once again, it was a student who came up with a solution to this dilemma. One of my students suggested we try using Zoom’s Hide Self View feature when in class. This feature displays the images of all the Zoom participants except one’s self. In this way, students could focus on their learning and not on their own appearance. 

Zoom Fatigue

Other students blamed Zoom fatigue for their lack of camera usage. They felt exhausted after hours and hours of looking at the Zoom screen and at their teachers. Again, a student stepped up with a solution. This student floated the idea of making camera use optional during the last class of each day. I wholeheartedly agreed with this idea. I have one day in my schedule where I see four classes in a row – four straight hours of being on camera. My students have such four-hour ordeals every day. This idea was a real no-brainer to support.

Distracting Situations

Another concern students brought to light was the need to turn off cameras during certain situations. For instance, since our school Zoom day was four hours straight (with only brief breaks between classes) students regularly had to slip away from class to go to the toilet or eat a snack. Some students were interrupted when a family member entered their learning space. In these instances, students felt it was appropriate to turn their cameras off so as to not become a distraction to their peers. We quickly agreed with this proposal.

Other Engagement Tools

The final idea that came up in our camera use discussion was centered around engagement. Many students felt that being on camera, while important, was not necessarily critical to their learning. They felt that as long as they were demonstrating their learning in other ways, they should be able to turn their cameras off. I chimed in here as I had similar feelings base on my experience from last year. I had many students who were shy about using their cameras, but regularly showed that they were engaged and participating fully in our class activities and discussions. These students would ask questions when they needed clarification, post comments and responses in our Zoom chats, upload videos on our Flipgrids, and complete and submit our daily formative work. My concern was those students who did none of the above – for those students, having the camera on was not an option as they were showing me absolutely no evidence of their learning. Here, we came to a general agreement that they needed to demonstrate engagement in our classes and that camera use would be optional as long as they were demonstrating their participation.

I am so glad I took the time to have this important conversation with my students. I am especially grateful for their insights and ideas. By including students in the decision-making process concerning how our Zoom classes would play out this year, my hope is more buy-in and a greater sense of ownership in our learning. 

The success of this process has inspired me to take it to the next level – involving students in the assessment process. Based on what they came up with in terms of participation, I can’t wait to see how the next step together goes!

Ed X!

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