“Thanks Chatbox, but please don’t ask me to show my face online!”

By Dr. Khan Taufique

To a large extent, student interaction and participation in classrooms varies from culture to culture. This is what I have observed in my experience teaching at different higher education institutes in different countries and cultures over the last 15 years or so.

Obviously, different teaching and learning tools and techniques are used to encourage student participation and interaction in class. Yet, culture has some profound influence on the degree to which students are comfortable and willing to interact in class.

From my observations, students in some cultures are more eager to participate in classroom discussions, whereas in other cultures, they appear to be hesitant, especially when having to talk in front of the class. I do not wish to mention any specific cultures or countries, but that is the reality.

In my experience teaching online during the pandemic over the last year and a half, I have made many interesting observations about student participation and interaction in online classes. While it was quite challenging for everyone at the start of the pandemic, I later observed that students were more participative and interactive in online sessions compared to the previous face-to-face settings. This prompted me to adopt some practices that would make the students more responsive and interactive in classes, especially online ones.

From chatbox to face-to-face

One of the common problems lecturers currently face in the present online learning scenario is the tendency of students to avoid showing their faces online. They would switch off their cameras when attending classes, preferring to participate using the chatbox. Apart from the Internet connectivity issue, the main reason for not showing their faces is usually shyness.

While we cannot force anyone to show their face, I discovered some ways that worked for me. During the first couple of weeks, no student was asked to show their faces, but everyone was asked to upload a profile photo in the online platform and introduce themselves using their microphones. While students introduced themselves to their classmates, having their profile photo on screen also gave some sense of physical presence. This ultimately helped mitigate the initial shyness, and in the following weeks, many of them willingly switched their cameras on when participating in discussions.

Name the student, don’t shame the student

As mentioned earlier, one of the most common and obvious reasons students are hesitant to talk in front of the class is shyness. This is quite natural. When we call someone by name, however, we can establish a personal connection. It also gives them the sense of how important they are to us.

While many of us do call students by name, both in face-to-face and online classes, this is actually quite convenient in online classes as we can easily see their names displayed on the screen. The problem arises when we call particular students and ask them questions. This often triggers hesitation and shyness in the student.

Ideally, students should be addressed by name all the time, but they should not be asked any serious question immediately and be put on the spot. Instead, students should be given some space for them to feel comfortable in their comfort zones in the class, to feel free to talk and interact in their own time. I have practiced this quite extensively in my online classes during this pandemic and found that students were more eager to interact in the class after a while.

Ask an easy-to-answer question and applaud them

I have talked informally with many students on different occasions to find out why many students feel shy to speak in class. One of the common answers is that they fear giving the wrong answers whenever lecturers ask any questions directly. This is very important for any lecturer to recognise.

While asking questions is part of the learning process, this should not be practiced at the cost of active student participation. This is especially important in online mode where active participation of students can be a major challenge.

However, I have observed that asking a relatively easy question that almost everyone can answer and praising a particular student for giving the correct answer tremendously encourages student participation. This does not mean that we should not ask any difficult questions, but we should always be conscious that difficult questions might discourage student participation.

Start with a story, end with an engaging task

Who doesn’t love a good story? Stories have the power to connect people emotionally. Oftentimes, we tend to start our lectures or tutorials with serious academic topics. I think this is not the right way, at least when it comes to engaging with students. Any classroom session, be it online or face-to-face, should start with something that stimulates thought and captures students’ attention.

This is more important in online teaching as students can be easily distracted by other elements or activities available online. It is also important to include some engaging activities online that will require every student to get involved. Such engaging activities need to be relevant to the topic and may include mini case studies, short quizzes, quick exercises and so on.

While every teacher has his or her own teaching philosophy, style, tools and techniques for enhancing student participation and engagement in the classroom, whether face-to-face or online, the above are just some practices that I have found to be very effective to induce and sustain student participation in classes, especially on online platforms.

Dr. Khan Md. Raziuddin Taufique is a senior lecturer in marketing in the Department of Marketing, Faculty of Business, Curtin University Malaysia. His research interests lie in the broad area of green marketing, sustainable consumer behavior, and online consumer behaviour. He has presented his research at international conferences in different countries and published his works in various peer-reviewed journals. His recent research papers have been published in relevant top journals including Journal of Strategic Marketing, Journal of Marketing Communications, Journal of Cleaner Production, Journal of Internet Commerce, International Journal of Consumer Studies, and Sustainability. He is also a member of international review boards for a number of peer-reviewed journals in his areas of interest. Awards Dr. Khan has received include ‘Outstanding Reviewer’ by Elsevier and ‘Research Ratna Award’ by Research under Literal Access in India for his novel contribution to green marketing and sustainable consumer behaviour. He can be contacted by email at khan.taufique@curtin.edu.my.