Preventing Zoombies

As the end of the semester approaches, I’m noticing fewer students signing into my synchronous online classes. I’m also noticing that some students sign in, don’t turn on webcams, and do not respond when asked verbally or in text chat to answer questions. These students log into Zoom and then completely ignore whatever might be happening in class.

How to increase student “presence” in a course? The usual solution — whether face-to-face or online — is to make attendance obligatory and penalize students when they are absent. Early in my teaching career I abandoned this type of policy because I got tired of deciphering students’ claims about “excused” absences. I have no interest in learning about students’ medical or other problems, and I don’t want sick students attending class only to avoid exceeding an allowed number of absences. I believe that legal adults get to set their own priorities and suffer the consequences of their decisions. And students who don’t regularly attend and participate in my classes invariably do poorly grade-wise anyway. That’s their choice.

But that was the pre-Covid era. Given the difficulty students had with the transition to online instruction last spring, there is a chance that the student with mediocre academic performance in the physical classroom is doing terribly as an online student, simply because their time management skills, motivation, and willingness to exert effort weren’t great to begin with.

So I’m starting to experiment with a few techniques that I’m hoping will increase student participation in my synchronous online courses next semester. I believe they will operate as positive reinforcement rather than as a punitive attendance policy.

Technique 1: Summary Survey

This technique is basically a graded “muddiest point” exercise that students don’t know about ahead of time. Last week I announced a survey a few minutes before the end of class that was worth a minimal number of points toward the course grade. The survey asked a single question: “Write a brief paragraph on what you remember as the most important points discussed during class today.” I had already created the survey on the course’s LMS but kept it unpublished until launch. Students had five minutes to complete the survey and earn the points. I can see doing this on an occasional, random basis as an incentive for students to pay attention.

Technique 2: Collaborative Quiz

This peer learning method is also known as the two-stage exam or group quiz. First, each student independently completes an assessment. Next, students are placed in groups to reach a consensus on correct answers for the assessment. Each group then submits its set of answers to the same questions that students answered individually. The individual and group assessment results are given different weights, but both contribute toward a student’s grade.

In an online synchronous course, I can launch pop quizzes for students to complete individually in a manner similar to the summary survey described above. Students can use breakout rooms to discuss their answers in small groups. Each group’s answers can be submitted via the LMS, Google Forms, or some kind of polling software like Sli.do — I haven’t yet decided which platform will allow me to most easily identify students who don’t participate in breakout discussions and thus don’t earn points for correct answers on the group quiz. Any suggestions for how to set this up are welcome.