How to Keep Kids Engaged Without Requiring “Cameras On”

by Leticia M. Trower

In the face-to-face classroom, with students up close and personal, question-and-answer is just one of the many, many ways teachers assess student engagement and understanding. Teachers can also look at students’ facial expressions, body language, or posture; listen to their hmms and mm-hmms; watch the pace of their work; or notice how they look at each other (are they silently asking a peer what’s going on?). For the thousands of teachers teaching virtually this fall, though, many of these quick comprehension checks — which have become second nature — are no longer available. How can teachers assess student engagement and comprehension via computer screens?
One answer has been to require students to keep their cameras on throughout an online lesson. However, we already know that teacher actions that control students’ behavior have a detrimental effect on student motivation (Reeve, 2009). Instead, let’s look at ways that teachers can check in on student engagement and comprehension while simultaneously increasing motivation and engagement! Here are some ideas for how to engage and check in on students with cameras off:

  • Ask a quick and easy check-in question from time to time, and direct students to respond in the chat to let you know they’re still listening. This could be something as simple as “If you’re still there, type your favorite kind of fruit into the chat,” or a quick comprehension question like “If you’re listening, use the chat box to tell me one of the five themes of geography I just talked about.”
  • Building relationships with students takes time. Instead of responding to a student who turns off their camera by just asking them to turn it back on, make a note and check in with them later to ask why they turned it off. Chances are, even if it wasn’t a big deal, the fact that you cared enough to notice and follow up will bolster your relationship with that student – and will also make them more likely to keep their camera on in the future. (Of course, if there is a bigger issue at hand, checking in with the student will definitely turn out to have been the right move!)
  • Make time in front of the camera a positive experience. For example, ask students to turn their cameras on for fun games. One teacher I know does a “brain break,” in which students have one minute to find a certain type of object and show it to the camera. The rules are that they have to leave the room they’re in to find it, and it has to belong to a category the teacher chooses, such as “something round” or “something pink.” This quick activity gets students up and moving, provides an opportunity for them to share something about themselves, and best of all it’s fun!

Reeve, J. (2009). Why Teachers Adopt a Controlling Motivating Style Toward Students and How They Can Become More Autonomy Supportive. Educational Psychologist, 44(3), 159–175.