Creating Student-Centered Virtual Classrooms



Strategies to facilitate engaging, impactful, and relevant online classes

Education endures even when school buildings close. Classrooms across the world feel the impacts of COVID-19 as students and teachers face the challenge of creating community and facilitating learning virtually. In the wake of this global pandemic, educators search for ways to create student-centered learning environments characterized by engagement and motivation. To foster a virtual classroom culture of student-led collaboration and creative problem-solving, teachers must identify and leverage:

  1. the right data,  

  2. the right questions or tasks, 

  3. the right student groups,  

  4. and the right tools.

The right data 

When planning a virtual class in which students are in charge of learning, teachers need data that empowers them to respond to students’ needs. A few simple steps can lead teachers to uncover the right data: To ascertain students’ prior knowledge and experiences, teachers review previous class assignments and administer pre-assessments via email or platform messaging tools to identify strengths and areas of growth. To determine students’ goals and learning needs, teachers integrate formative assessments into virtual classes to responsively tailor activities and discussions. If students have significant prior knowledge and understanding of the standard or topic covered in class, synchronous learning should focus on leveraging student understanding to engage in critical analysis and creative application in collaboration with peers. Conversely, if students need additional support or clarification based on their performance on previous activities, synchronous learning can provide space for clarifying misunderstanding and reinforcing concepts or skills through small-group instruction. All of these sources of data allow educators to tailor a live, online learning experience that is individually meaningful to each student regardless of background, need, or ability levels. 

The right questions or tasks  

Key to the success of any student-centered virtual classroom are the questions and tasks teachers prepare. The difference between a successful virtual class and one that falls flat, in my experience as an educator of K-12 and adult learners online, has been a direct result of the quality of tasks or questions that deepen analysis, probe for misunderstanding, and leverage student backgrounds. Highly effective virtual instruction strives to create a learning environment that is responsive, engaging, and relevant rather than prescriptive, dull, and unhelpful. A helpful resource when designing collaborative tasks for the virtual classroom is Bloom’s Taxonomy which provides guidelines on higher-order thinking including application, analysis, evaluation or design, and synthesis or creation. 

Lower-Order Thinking

  • What are similes and metaphors?

  • What are the steps to finding the derivative of a function?

  • What is the amount of sugar you would need if you doubled this recipe?

Higher-Order Thinking

  • How do metaphors and similes impact writing and communication? What is the effect on audiences?

  • If you were managing a company, how might you use the derivative to solve the problems of optimization? (Consider profit maximization, cost minimization, output, and revenue maximization)

  • How can we use fractions and percentages to evaluate the health benefits of this recipe given the amount of sugar, fats, carbohydrates, and ingredients used to make it?

The right groups 

Given appropriate student data and quality questions or tasks to drive instruction, the next step in planning engaging student-centered virtual classes is to create flexible student groups. Student groups are ever-changing homogeneous and heterogeneous configurations in order to promote collaboration and cooperative learning. Homogeneous student groups are effective for remediation, specific skill practice, and small-group instruction. Heterogeneous groups are effective for project-based learning, collaborative problem solving, and peer support. Providing a wide variety of diverse grouping opportunities in which students can work with others of different backgrounds and experiences promotes an authentic and relevant learning experience where students develop interpersonal skills for college and career. Groups range in size from two to four in order to create adequate space for student voice and participation.

The right tools 

Finally, teachers are tasked with finding the right tools to support students in their work during both synchronous and asynchronous online learning. At Moreland University, teacher candidates join weekly virtual classes in Zoom meetings where breakout rooms, whiteboards, and the chat space serve as tools to create knowledge and understanding from shared experiences and unique perspectives. Similarly, educators in the K-12 virtual environment are facilitators of learning who promote student interaction and critical thinking. Some tools teachers around the world integrate regularly are Google Suite, Kahoot, SeaSaw, and Nearpod to facilitate learning. Importantly, activities in the virtual classroom must be collaborative, providing multiple opportunities for students to create community. Avoid showing videos, sharing lengthy articles in class, and lecturing with a slideshow. (Rather than showing videos during class, try sending videos in advance integrated with questions using EdPuzzle!)

The fastest way to bore students and decrease the overall effectiveness of class time is for teachers to act as the “sage on the stage” who disseminate knowledge and information. Rather, teachers must choose technology tools that promote collaboration, contribution, and creativity in a classroom where they are the “guide on the side.” (To learn more about shifting from sage to guide, check out this article!)

So what? 

Ultimately, none of these strategies or considerations are unique to the virtual learning environment. Creating engaging and student-centered online classrooms and virtual learning interactions requires teachers to consider this question: What roles and responsibilities do teachers and students have in developing, facilitating, and monitoring a student-centered classroom regardless of where learning takes place? Forward-thinking educators must develop best practices native to the virtual classroom through trial and error and ongoing student feedback. Teachers should make learning messy by trying new tools and implementing new collaborative strategies to get students actively involved in the creation of knowledge and the negotiation of meaning! Importantly, teachers respond to students’ needs and motivations in every way possible.

The ability to create and facilitate student-centered virtual classes is vital for the contemporary learning experience. What COVID-19 has uncovered, especially for educators who previously resisted the evolution of education in the digital age, is the power of technological tools and the internet to enable students to lead their own education from wherever learning might take place. I predict that teachers will wisely use the days and weeks ahead to become proficient in innovative and technology-enhanced teaching and learning practices including blended learning, the flipped classroom, and even project-based learning. Though students and teachers may be slowly returning to the physical classrooms left empty to slow the spread of this terrible virus, they can never go back to the days of analogue learning and teacher-centered classrooms.

Joseph A. Pearson, M.Ed.

Joseph A. Pearson, M.S.Ed.
Professional Development Officer, Moreland University

Additional Reading