An older businessman screams at a laptop with fisted hands

If a teacher speaks online and the students aren’t focused, did the teacher say anything?  

We’re all part of the multi-point, multi-channel, multi-screen COVID-connected world now. Many students have confessed to me that they use group chats and a second screen while taking a live, online course. I hadn’t the courage to ask if I was the first or second screen.

Even when we do have the attention of students, on most platforms, a teacher’s face will occupy roughly 2×2 inches of screen space.

How can we possibly have a successful lesson under such conditions?

By creating engagement through delivery and content.

1. Transform your teaching tools for online clarity

The very first step toward successful online teaching is having the proper equipment to connect with students. A close second is arranging the tools to communicate during the lesson.

Prepare a PowerPoint or Keynote slide deck with text, diagrams, and other visuals so that students can see what you are talking about. Good news: often, complex slides are more welcome online than they are projected in a classroom.

Especially in the first class, use the slides to give detailed instructions for discussions and activities:

1. I am going to split you into groups.
2. Then I will give you a problem to work on.
3. Take notes or a photo of your solution.
4. Then I will ask you to share your solution with the class.

This clarity will save time and reduce confusion.

For extra notes—more likely than not, you will need some—include a blank slide. Avoid holding a piece of paper up to the camera, no matter what’s on it. Not only will it be hard to read, but it’ll break the spell of technology.

2. Enlist the chat box as your TA

While it may seem like there is more lost than gained when a class leaves the classroom, certain online tools can enhance the learning experience.

One of the best is the chat box.

To get a quick view of how a class is approaching a question, have students use the chat box to type comments or answers. If you’re worried about group think, ask everyone to type up their answer, but hold off posting until a signal is given.

Despite these benefits, beware of the runaway chat. Typos can quickly digress into jokes, friends might share asides about the weather, Google links can lead down the internet rabbit hole…

And you become background noise.

Keep the chat for discussions that you start. Brief comments and emoticons are fine, but don’t let the chat pull focus unless you want it to.

3. Inject some drama!

We have to be more expressive online. If we gesture, those gestures have to be within that 2×2-inch box. If we smile, we have to SMILE.

Avoid hysterics, but be expressive.

Your voice is your online highlighter – stretch out syllables, put spaces between words, and raise and lower your pitch and volume. Use your voice to punctate what you are saying. When you come to the end of a key point, land on it with your voice:

“Therefore. Never. Leave. MONEY on the TABLE.”

When explaining something that is often overlooked, come closer to the camera for a stage whisper:

“This is the secret of turning lead into gold…”

All of this will help to emphasize what is in your slides, even when you are simply providing exposition or summarization.

4. Embrace the sound of silence

Speak with efficiency. Avoid broken sentences, word repetition, or ums and errs. Get away with backward sentence construction, only Yoda can. The rest of us need smooth syntax, fewer words, and meaningful silences.

In fact, one of the most powerful ways we can use our voice is to not use it. The absence of sound can be deafening. It makes words seem bigger. A pause makes the audience listen for what comes next. A constant flow of words – even if the tone and volume vary – can be mind numbing.

Create space for others to fill.

Responses will rarely be instant. Even without video lag, participants need time. I have seen many professors ask a question and then, with no response after just a few seconds, quickly move onto another question. When that, too, fails to get a quick response, it is rephrased and then followed by other questions. Soon the live, interactive class becomes a monologue ramble.

Don’t fall into this trap. Ask your question, and then STOP.


Give it at least a five-second pause. This will seem like an eternity, but will register as almost nothing from the participants’ side. You may even need to wait longer if the group is new to the format, culturally trained to primarily listen, or unsure of how to respond due to a language barrier.

The silence will dare you to speak.

Don’t do it.

5. Implement the warm call

The wall of the laptop screens must be broken through.

Just like in the classroom, the best way to get students to participate is to call on them. Don’t wait for a raised hand. Traditionally, this is known as the cold call, a dreaded form of academic soul crushing in which the professor bellows at an unsuspecting student. But as professionals of the modern world, let’s instead use the warm call: an invitation to join the conversation.

Sometimes, especially after a warm call, a quiet student may begin to ramble. Help them to stop. My favorite phrase is simply: “Hold on.” You could also just put up a hand to rein them in. Don’t let students talk and talk until they run out of breath. It will sap everyone else’s will to continue.

Teaching online might initially be lonely. But the thing is, students might feel the same way. They may even feel a bit foolish for attempting the course. Sometimes the most important thing a teacher can do is tell a student that they can succeed, and give them the time and space to do so.