Research shows that during traditional lectures, the average student can stay focused for a maximum of 10 to 20 minutes. Since attending online lectures is even more intensive for students, their attention spans will be even shorter (de Bruijn et al., 2020; Lagerstrom et al., 2015). It is therefore crucial to think about ways to keep students focused during virtual lessons.

In this ECHO Tip, we discuss five activating applications that can be incorporated easily into online lectures, for both large and small student groups. We focus on increasing the effectiveness of synchronous online lectures or tutorials, with live communication between the lecturer and the students. 

  • Working with buzz groups

This technique consists of splitting up the large group of students into small groups of two to four students, who will then discuss the subject at hand for a few minutes. Meanwhile, the lecturer can visit some or all of the subgroups and listen in, or even join the discussion. After these breakout group discussions, it's important to address the entire group once again and have a plenary discussion of the results.

Some possible applications:

  • Activate the students' prior knowledge by having them review previously covered material in breakout groups at the start of the lecture, on the basis of a few short questions.
  • Have the students actively process new material by linking previously acquired knowledge to the new material in breakout groups.
  • Present a simple problem or an exercise to be solved by the students in breakout groups.
  • Have the students discuss a brief case that requires them to apply previously covered material.
  • At the end of the breakout session, ask the students to come up with three key words with regard to the learning content covered in the lecture.
  • You can also allow the students to think about a problem individually for a few minutes before they form breakout groups ('Think-Pair-Share').
  • Organising a discussion

In some programme components, debating skills are practised and assessed. These skills can also be covered in online lectures. Even when debate skills are not explicitly included as an objective for the course, a short discussion during the lecture can help the students regain their focus on the lesson and on the learning content.

Some possible applications:

  • You can present the students with a social point of view, an ethical dilemma, a medical diagnosis, a possible solution to a mathematical problem, a translation... By digital show of hands, or via their status, the students then indicate whether they are for (agree) or against (disagree). Next, you can give the floor to a few students who are for and a few who are against, stimulating interaction between them.
  • Have them prepare a debate by explaining their views in a video to be recorded beforehand. The students then take turns sharing their videos in the digital environment, after which a discussion takes place.
  • You can have those in favour and those against develop their arguments in subgroups before the plenary debate.
  • You can also organise a role-play where half of the students argue in favour of a given statement and the other half argue against it. Pair them up so that one student is for and one student is against. They then have to try to convince each other of their views with reasoned arguments. You can give the students some preparation time beforehand to come up with arguments.
  • Brainstorming with the students

In a traditional lecture, you can write students’ ideas on a blackboard, whiteboard or flip chart. Most online environments also have a sort of 'whiteboard' that both the lecturer and the students can write on, depending on how the permissions are set.

Some possible applications:

  • At the start of the online lecture, you can take a few minutes to review the subject matter by having students write down a formula or the solution to an exercise on the whiteboard.  This can be done after they have studied part of the subject matter independently.
  • During the lecture, you can introduce a new concept by having students brainstorm on the whiteboard first. For instance, you can ask them to write down key words that can be linked to that concept.
  • You can allow students to structure the learning content themselves by asking them to draw a mind map on the whiteboard together, or in subgroups.
  • When solving an exercise, you can record students' ideas in a shared file, e.g. on a slide that already contains parts of the solution.
  • At the end of the lesson, you can ask the students to generate a word cloud with all the key concepts covered in the lecture. This can be done by means of a web-based 'Audience Response System' such as Poll Everywhere. You can share this word cloud at the start of the next lecture as an introduction.
  • Quizzes

Organising online quizzes is a way to involve students actively. Not only do these quizzes provide variety during lectures, they can also give you more insight into each student's initial situation, involvement and progress. Make sure to take enough time during the lecture to review the different answers and to highlight and explain the correct answer.

Some possible applications:

  • You can incorporate some questions into your lecture using a tool like Poll Everywhere (see ECHO Tip 29). You can also have the students come up with questions and answers beforehand, and incorporate these into your lecture.
  • At the start of the lecture, you can ask a few questions to gauge the students' prior knowledge. You can use a survey tool such as Microsoft Forms and tailor your lesson to the results of the survey.
  • After introducing a section of the learning content, you can present the students with a number of statements during the lecture and have them respond via the poll function (‘Polling’ in Blackboard Collaborate Ultra).
  • Either during the lesson or at the end, as a recap, you can ask the students some simple yes-or-no or multiple-choice questions to check their grasp of the learning content. These questions can be answered by digital show of hands ('Correct'), or by using the Agree/Disagree buttons in Blackboard Collaborate Ultra
  • Encouraging students to ask questions

With distance learning, students tend to be more reluctant to ask questions, as there are more obstacles to overcome. So in some cases, it will be important to encourage students repeatedly to ask written and/or oral questions during your online lecture. 

Some possible applications:

  • You can encourage oral questions by interspersing your lecture with Q&A moments, indicating that 'there will probably be some questions by now'.
  • You can appoint one of the students to be the moderator of the chat box. Over the course of your lecture, you can ask them to check whether there are any questions, which you can then answer. The downside of this, however, is that the moderator may be too preoccupied with the chat box to follow the lecture. In that case, it's best to arrange for a recording of the online lecture.
  • If you have an assistant, they can answer the questions in the chat box while you teach the lecture.
  • At the start of the lecture, you can share an online brainstorming application (e.g. Padlet) with the students in the chat box, so they can write down their questions there. During the break, you can look at these questions, structure them if necessary and answer them after the break.
  • You can also group the questions together and organise a virtual Q&A session after the lecture.