Category Archives: 2. Featured Articles

Building Classroom Atmosphere Without the Classroom

The scratch of chairs sliding, the zip of backpacks opening, and the hum of students chatting have been replaced by squares of faces on a computer screen, often inanimate.

Those once routine sounds that marked the moments before class began helped create the learning atmosphere in which students formed bonds with one another or approached their instructor casually. That atmosphere helped set the tone of a class that is difficult to duplicate when teaching remotely.

Still, instructors can build a positive remote classroom atmosphere with a few strategies, outlined below.

Assign “class-adjacent socializing.” One ofthe biggest losses during remote teaching has been the inability of students to connect with one another to create the social bonds that lead to a sense of community in a classroom. A recent post from Inside Higher Ed discussed a way to create informal “class-adjacent socializing” to accomplish this desirable outcome.

The main point of the activity was not for students to discuss class material, but rather for them to get to know one another so that when they didcollaborate online, they felt comfortable doing so. In this series of graded, low-stakes activities, the instructor put students into groups of four and tasked them to talk about anything, class-related or not. Each group had an organizer who received an e-mail with instructions about how to set up the meetings, possible discussion topics, and an explanation of the activity’s purpose. The exercise occurred three times early in the semester. The role of organizer was switched each time, and that individual was responsible for sending the instructor a screenshot of everyone on the videocall with a 100-word summary of what the group discussed.

Have students work in learning pods. Learning pods can be used to conduct peer editing or to facilitate group meetings, discussions, or writing workshops. Depending on the instructor’s preference, students may remain in the same pod for an entire semester for consistency or be in different pods for each group assignment so they meet more classmates. Many apps for group work exist including Slack, Google’s Messages, or Zoom. Zoom’s breakout room feature, for example, allows the host to set up groups beforehand or to assign students to groups at random. Zoom also allows the instructor to “visit” the breakout rooms.

Help students feel part of a learning community. Research has shown that students in online writing classes are more motivated if they feel a sense of belonging to the class. Instructors can foster this feeling first by making sure they have no biases in their own teaching practices.

In addition, instructors may need to adjust their teaching practices to help create an atmosphere in which students feel invested in a class despite being physically separate from classmates. Several strategies work to accomplish this. Many studies have shown that students feel part of a learning community when they can choose topics that interest them either culturally or professionally.

This can be tricky in the business communication classroom, but it is possible to integrate assignments that give students some level of agency. For example, instructors might assign students to work in groups to create a social media campaign for a local non-profit, write a brochure or newsletter for a campus organization, or compose a letter to a firm’s board of directors asking them to reconsider a policy. Such activities help support students’ learning by enhancing their motivation and by giving them a chance to make their voices heard.

Another method to encourage students to take a stake in their learning is to vary the ways they demonstrate what they’ve learned. Of course writing is integral in a business communication classroom, but many genres require the clear, purposeful prose characteristic of writing in professional contexts. Oral presentations accompanied by slide decks can replace a written business report. A speech can be given in lieu of writing a persuasive proposal. A podcast can deliver information. These alternatives to traditional writing assignments may bring in students who might otherwise feel adrift.

Students and instructors alike are looking forward to the day when the sounds of an actual, not virtual, classroom mark the beginning of class. Until then, the above activities provide students with a semblance of the classroom atmosphere to which we long to return, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Dear Students–Please Play Nice on Zoom

by Janet Mizrahi

Dear Students,

I am writing to you because after teaching on Zoom for two terms, I am having a hard time. Like you, I’d prefer if we were in class where we could get to know each other and be less formal. But that is not to be, and I need your help to keep going. I love my job, and I know what I teach is valuable, but it’s getting more and more difficult to deliver captivating and motivating lectures when I can see my students being inattentive. I once had a student “attend” class while she waited in line at In-N-Out Burger, ordered her meal, and then ate it!

It didn’t feel good. It kind of sapped my will to teach.

So I ask you to look at class sessions from my perspective for a moment and consider some Zoom etiquette I’ve listed below.

Attend class in a quiet location. Being in a quiet spot will help you focus on our class and not the household background noise.

Adjust your camera so your face appears.I’m not an actor who is used to performing to a camera or greenscreen. I am a teacher who enjoys engaging with her students. If you use a still image instead of showing your face, I have no idea what you are thinking or even whether you are present. It makes me sad.

Mute your microphone. Background noise is distracting to me as well as to you. Mute your microphone so I won’t hear your roommates, parents, or pets.

Focus on class activities. Pretend you’re me looking at a bunch of squares on a computer screen. Some faces are laughing (are you laughing at me?), some are talking to others, some just disappear for long stretches. Act as if you’re in a real classroom and don’t look at social media feeds, chat with your roommate, or eat a meal. Focus on what you’re in class to learn.

Snack discreetly. If you must eat, be discreet and maintain your focus on what’s happening in class.

Install an unobtrusive virtual background. I would rather not see your messy bedroom, if possible.

Wear clothes. Not just for me, but for you. Wearing PJs doesn’t put you in the frame of mind to learn.

With heartfelt thanks,

Your instructor

Thanks to John Atkinson for his permission to use his drawing, Every virtual meeting.

Promoting Active Learning in Remote Classrooms

Most of us have long incorporated active learning techniques as a way to engage students with course content. In business communication, these strategies may include breaking students into groups to work on short exercises; creating team-based writing assignments; forming discussion groups to consider business-related issues while bolstering social and communication skills; and asking students to reflect upon their learning processes.

However, active learning in remote learning situations may require adjustments. Below are some techniques to help instructors encourage engaged learning during the pandemic.

Minute papers. At the end of class, ask students to answer the questions, What was the most important thing you learned today? and What questions do you have that are still unanswered? This works especially well toward the end of a live Zoom session or on a discussion board. Having students reflect on the day’s activities reinforces what they know and reminds them of what they still need to learn. In addition, if students know they will be expected to write this quick response, they may even pay more attention during the session.

Collaborative notetaking. In groups of two or three, students rotate through the primary notetaking role during class lectures in a Google doc created for that purpose, later sharing the notes among the team or with the entire class. This tactic encourages active listening.

Group work. Group work can be arranged in several ways. Groups of four or five can answer questions the instructor poses about a specific lesson using Zoom breakout rooms or other apps the groups choose themselves. Similarly, instructors can ask students to work individually on a project while in groups, allowing students to connect, chat, or ask questions at the peer level.

Online group work can also be a method for students to develop critical thinking skills. This is particularly relevant to the business communication classroom, where discussing ethics is timely and relevant. (Check out newsworthy topics under the BizComBuzz tab News You Can Use.)

Break up lectures with activities. In either videotaped or live sessions, instructors introduce topics during lectures followed by any of a number of active learning techniques such as the following:

  • Polling using iClicker, Poll Everywhere, or Zoom polling
  • Low-stakes quizzes to help check understanding and reinforce concepts via embedding a quiz in a Panopto video or Kaltura Quizzes
  • Peer learning, especially peer editing with guided questions for a specific assignment to reinforce the importance of editing in either a synchronous or asynchronous class session

Incorporating one or several of these strategies will help your students feel more connected to you and the course material.