Beware the false sense of security that can come with live lesson registers

Beware the false sense of security that can come with live lesson registers

As far as remote learning is concerned, this current national lock down is different to the first in one critical way – many more schools are delivering live, synchronous online lessons to their students. Gavin Williamson has decreed that these are the best way to deliver remote learning. 

How many live lessons are delivered can vary greatly, with some schools doing the entire timetable live, others collapsing year groups into 1 or 2 groups for live lessons and some delivering a few live lessons, supplemented by additional work on whichever online learning platform the school is using (we use Google Classroom).

But one thing this time round remains just as challenging as in the first lockdown: getting an accurate picture of how many of our students are genuinelyactively engaging in the learning. The trouble we have now is that the increase in live lessons, and their accompanying registers, can give some a false sense of security that engagement in learning in this lockdown is significantly higher than it was in the first.

With face-to-face teaching in schools, we know whether a student is present or not because we can physically see them in our classroom. We know whether a student is engaged in the lesson or not, because we can physically see them in our classroom, and we can check their work, question them, use all our wily teacher-ways to engage them. Whether they are actually learning what we are teaching them (i.e. there is a change to their long term memory) is another matter, but again it is something that we can assess, track and monitor with skilful questioning, retrieval practice etc.

In our current situation, all of this is much more difficult. Teachers are not only working incredibly hard adapting lessons for remote learning (whether synchronous or asynchronous), they are also having to keep track as best they can of which students are learning what. This is going to be key when it comes to assessing the impact of the lockdown on students and knowing where to pick up again when we return to schools.

Schools are also supporting as best they can, with support staff (and many teachers too) making regular calls home to check on students’ wellbeing, and to check on why certain students have not turned up to their live lessons that day. These attendance calls are absolutely supporting both teachers and students, and they often reveal issues that students might be having with accessing remote learning, which then enables the school to support the student further (as best they can).

However, my worry is that the current assumption in many places is that if a student is ‘present’ in their live lesson, then they are accessing the remote provision and therefore learning. This misconception could be hiding the real (and lower) levels of engagement in remote learning.

When a student is logged on to their live lessons, they usually have to remain muted (unless asked to unmute by the teacher) and many also have their cameras off (for safeguarding reasons). This means that teachers cannot rely on what they ‘see’ of their students in the live lessons to judge engagement (let alone learning)

Some students have cottoned on to the fact that if they log on to their live lessons, they are not going to get a call home. Great! So I’ll log on, camera off and on mute, and crack on with whatever video game I’m playing at the moment.

Teachers are trying to get around this by doing lots of questioning, with students answering using the chat, or with the teacher using ‘cold call’ or a form of random student selector. The trouble with this is that if you have a group larger than a dozen students,  it is almost impossible to ensure that every child has written an answer in the chat. There just is not the time to check.

‘Cold calling’ or using a random student selector can also slow the flow of the lesson if the student is not actually there, so some teachers may shy away from this as it creates an awkward moment of ‘silence’ in the lesson.

But if we are to ensure students are genuinely engaging in our live lessons, we must not shy away from having high expectations and flagging up when a student is ‘there but not there’.

So how can you easily know?

Here are a few practical ways that could help to check engagement of ALL students in a large group during a live lesson, at the same time as supporting learning:

1. Use a short Google Form to quiz and check for understanding.

Quick quizzing and MCQ are great for checking understanding, but if you have a big group, getting answers in the chat means that many students can ‘hide’ as you don’t have time to check they have all responded.

If instead you prepare in advance a quick google form with your 5-6 questions (this really doesn’t take long), then you can assign this to students (in Google Classroom) at the appropriate time during the lesson, and they can do it there and then – don’t forget to give them a time limit!

You get immediate feedback about who has understood what, and immediate feedback about who is and who is not actively participating in the lesson.

You can do this at the start of your lesson (as a retrieval starter) or after you have explained and modelled a particular concept, or both!

Here is an excellent thread explaining a highly effective use of Google forms to monitor engagement in live lessons:

2. Use a programme such as, Desmos, or another similar tool, to give your students their own whiteboard that they can work on.

You can use it to model to the class, pre-load questions and see each of your students’ work, but they can’t see each other’s. And when students open their own whiteboard, you will be able to see who is and is not engaging in the lesson.

Here is a nice example:

3. You can do something similar with other formats such as Google Slides, Google Docs or Google Jamboard.

You can assign each student their own copy via Google Classroom, or each student can work on their own slide/page of a shared document. Again, this allows you to see very clearly and quickly who is engaging and who is not.

Here are a couple of examples of this:

Just a small caveat here:

If all students are working on their own slide/page in a shared document, they will be able to see each other’s work, and potentially edit another student’s work too – so you need to trust that they won’t do this.

4. Maintain your high expectations of participation in the live lesson. Remind students at the start of the lesson that they will be expected to participate actively, and that if they don’t, they will be removed from the lesson and a call home will follow.

This will mean that using Cold Call or a random student selector will be that much more effective and allow you to check engagement at the same time as checking for understanding.

Here is a good blog on different techniques that can work well to ensure engagement:

5. HoDs and SLT, encourage and support your teachers with number 4.

If you haven’t already, give teachers a mechanism for flagging up students who may be logged on but not there. Make sure that these students also get calls home, and that they are not included in attendance registers (otherwise the registers are inaccurate, and what is the point of them then?)

And, if you haven’t already, give your teachers permission to remove from the live lessons students who are not actively participating despite the teacher’s best efforts to engage them.

Now, although engagement is necessary for learning, it is not the same as learning! In addition to knowing whether students are actually on the other side of their screens or not, we also need to remember that even if they are there and trying to engage, there will likely be far more competition for their attention at home than there is in your classroom: noises, siblings, pets, computer games, their phone notifications pinging…

So even if students appear engaged in your live lesson, they may well struggle to remember much of it, given that ‘memory is the residue of thought” (D. Willingham, “Why don’t students like school?”) If their environment is competing for their attention and the limited, invaluable ‘space’ in their working memory, students will have less cognitive capacity to process and encode the information from your live lesson.

So you need to plan accordingly and expect to cover less content than you normally would in a face to face lesson. Keep it simple, be conscious of cognitive load, plan even more chunked and explicit explanations and even more carefully selected models. And try some of these strategies for quickly identifying who isn’t actually there even if they are logged on – maintain your high expectations.

And to anyone looking at data of ‘how many students are attending live lessons during this lockdown’ remember that attendance to live lessons is different to engagement, which is different to learning. We need to make sure that we look beyond the registers from live lessons when we are examining how well our students have engaged in them.

Teachers are getting better and better at live lessons all the time, many students are genuinely trying to learn with their teachers, but we need to acknowledge and accept that, as a general rule, when it comes to live lessons:  

% attendance > % engaged > % learnt.

We can’t fall into the false sense of security of thinking otherwise.

I have deliberately not talked about other live lesson AfL methods, or asynchronous lessons and learning materials, as I wanted to focus on ways that we can quickly check individual student engagement in the live lesson aspect of remote learning.

And I am sure that there are also many other ways to do this than the ones I’ve presented – these are just a few ideas that I have found most useful and I would be thrilled to receive suggestions of other quick ways that I can check engagement of all students at the same time.


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