News - March 19, 2020

Keep students’ attention: go bananas

Luuk Zegers

It is easy to get distracted sitting at your computer. How do you keep the attention of students in these days of online education? ‘We made a deal: if the students asked enough good questions in the first half of the lecture, I would dress up like a banana for the second.’

‘I knew there was going to be a big disruption in education because of the coronavirus outbreak,’ says Jessica Duncan, assistant professor of Rural Sociology. ‘On Friday afternoon it was confirmed that all education should move to the internet, which meant that we only had a few days to prepare the switch to online only.’

So the first thing Duncan did was to develop a strategy to share with her students. ‘Some of them were quite anxious—not only about the virus, but also about their education. So I made sure that I gave them as much information as I could. We also created a WhatsApp group for easy communication.’

Keep their attention
Second, the education team got together to test the online education tools. ‘We experimented over the weekend and a little bit on Monday. We realized it was a lot to ask of students, to sit through long pre-recorded lectures.  I know from my own experience that when I watch a lecture on YouTube, after a couple of minutes I am opening another browser. Most people are like this. So I knew I could not just talk my students through my slides for the entire lecture.’

All I can do is provide a clear structure, good education, and a smile

Duncan wanted to get the students involved. ‘Some students are nervous about raising their hands in class. The same goes for the virtual classroom: everyone sees what you write. So to motivate students to participate, we made a deal: if they asked enough good questions in the first half of the lecture, I would dress up like a banana for the second half of the lecture. Not because I like to dress up like a banana—although it was quite fun—but because it is an incentive for students to use the chat function.’

The approach works. ‘The students were motivated to participate, so I had to put on my banana suit for the second half of the lecture. They probably thought it was silly, but sometimes we need something silly. Everything is so serious right now, and rightly so, but sometimes we need a laugh.’
Nonetheless, the move to teaching entirely online remains challenging, says Duncan. ‘This Thursday we will try out online discussion groups. Students turn on their microphone and webcam and have a sort of mini classroom discussion, only online. We hope that it helps to keep the students motivated. I am also testing out office hours, only now via Skype.’

Education with a smile
Duncan’s education team has also started recording short knowledge clips about the concepts and theories in the lectures. ‘I make them myself; PowerPoint has a tool for creating a voiceover for slides and making videos. Short clips of about three to five minutes are a good study tool. If we do a good job on this, we can use them again next year. That is really nice, actually!’
‘All in all, my approach is to try to give quality education and recognize that students feel a lot of anxiety right now. The situation is extraordinary. What is going to happen? All I can do is try to provide a clear structure, good education, and a smile.’

Jessica Duncan working from home. ‘Do you remember that interview with the man whose kids walk into the room behind him? That could happen. And that is okay: I think students are super-forgiving. They recognize that things are not going to be perfect. And it will probably be more fun than just looking at me.’