Variety is the spice of online learning

These five elements boost engagement in virtual classes.
By Madhuri Bandla, CPA

As an educator who loves the exchange of energy in a live class, I do miss face-to-face teaching. However, I’ve found ways to increase engagement and add a personal flavor to make online classes interesting and interactive. My mantra is “Add some spice.”   

Variety is the spice of not only life but also teaching and learning. Here are some simple ways to add some S-P-I-C-E to a classroom to break the monotony of an online lecture or hybrid class:  

S –Storytelling: Start with a story or a news headline. I find this technique an engaging way to generate interest in a topic and get the brain fired. For example, if I am teaching on the topic of inventory, I love to relive some of my inventory audit experiences. Real-life stories help in wiring the brain to specific concepts. I’ve found that live storytelling engages students far better than playing a recorded video. In the absence of a personal story, a news headline relating to the topic helps in capturing attention. When I taught the topic of cash, I started with a Wall Street Journal article that had specific examples of companies that can thrive in uncertain environments because they have cash reserves they could dip into.

P – Polling: In my opinion, every online class should have polling embedded at different intervals. I poll students on concepts from prior classes to refresh their memory or on recordings that I’ve asked them to listen to. I also poll students about the syllabus to see if they’ve read and understood it.

Polling gives a feel for the pulse of the overall class. It wakes up students who are not engaged enough and gives an opportunity for all to participate online. Most importantly, it gives students a sense of where they stand compared to the rest of the class when the results are shared. As an instructor, I can get instant results about the overall class and can quickly address any major gaps. 

I – Integrating: Integrating synchronous and asynchronous learning to allow for a smooth flow is essential in an online class. Setting expectations is critical. For example, I give students a weekly agenda for online classes that outlines which learning objectives are covered in the live session and which ones will be covered asynchronously, for which they must listen to recordings.

In a live session, I enjoy integrating tools such as iPad mirroring and the whiteboard option in Zoom to give the feel of a real whiteboard in a face-to-face class. I also add graded concept video quizzes, in which students watch videos and answer questions directly afterward, to enhance asynchronous learning. I keep students informed via weekly emails on when they reach certain milestones and/or complete a certain percentage of the overall class, so they can have a sense of their progression relative to the overall learning outcomes of the course.

C – Connecting: I believe developing a sense of community and connection is vital in an online class to prevent feelings of isolation. Tools for connecting one-on-one both during a live class and later are key ingredients for online learning. During a live class, I favor both private chat features and group breakout room options available in Zoom. I’ve found that many students who hesitate to speak up or ask questions in a live class are comfortable doing so in a chat platform via private chat. I use group breakout sessions for both problem-solving and discussion in small groups of three or four, after which I continue the discussion in the main room and ask each group for their answers. I also try to pop into some of the breakout rooms to answer group members’ questions and broadcast messages to all groups when needed. 

Having graded discussion boards online during the week keeps the conversation going. I also use an online scheduling tool for students to block time on my calendar for one-on-one virtual office hours.

E – Examples: Real-life examples are the best “spice” to help students get the flavor of a concept beyond what textbooks present. I give students financial statements from popular companies or brands they identify with, such as Amazon, Starbucks, Nike, Ford, and Disney, and open these up for discussion in an online class. Following my commentary, I ask students to locate key pieces of information from the 10ks and give them a practical feel for browsing real-world financials. 

Not all of the above ideas can be added to every virtual or hybrid classroom. However, using your teaching spice jar to sprinkle them occasionally across different sessions adds some surprise elements and makes learning more enjoyable. 

Madhuri Bandla, CPA, is a senior lecturer in the department of accounting at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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