Female student working diligently on a math assignment on her macbook air due to good online classroom management

Online Classroom Management: Five Tips for Making the Shift

Do your students follow directions flawlessly? Are they highly motivated, effective collaborators? If so, you don’t need to worry about the challenges of online classroom management.

For the rest of us, student behavior can be a significant concern. It may even be even our number one concern. It’s hard enough to manage disruptions when our students are in the same room. How can we maintain order and create a supportive learning environment when we can’t even see them?

Online classroom management isn’t impossible. In some ways, online classroom management is easier than managing a live classroom. But it does require a different approach than traditional classroom management.

The key is to be pragmatic. Have the courage to manage what we can. The serenity to accept what we can’t. And the wisdom to know the difference. 

Online Classroom Management and Motivation

When teaching online, we must learn to do without many of the classroom management strategies we’ve become accustomed to. No stern glances. No flicking lights on and off. No detentions.

The first step is to forget about all the things we can’t do online. Instead, think about what is possible. And take advantage of the opportunities that online instruction presents.

To teach effectively online, we need to see ourselves as leaders, rather than managers. Traditional classroom management focuses on getting students to follow directions en masse. ‘Everyone in their seats. All eyes on me. I’m waiting for silence.’

There’s nothing wrong with asking students to follow directions. It’s common sense. You can’t teach a room full of students who are running around and shouting. The problem is that it’s easy to overuse these management strategies.

Students need to understand the reasons behind our directions. And they need to feel that they have a voice in creating classroom norms. Demanding compliance without buy-in reduces intrinsic motivation (our internal desire to do well). And the more we rely on extrinsic motivators (rewards and punishments), the more we erode students’ intrinsic motivation.

Every veteran educator has experienced the diminishing impact of classroom management tricks. They work well at the beginning of the year, but by January you need newer and better tricks to keep students orderly and attentive.

Unless, of course, you’ve focused on creating buy-in from day one. That’s the idea behind PRESTO: start with extrinsic motivators, but build trust and ownership before your students become desensitized to the tricks.

Five Tips for Effective Online Classroom Management

When teaching online, we need to make the transition to student ownership much more quickly. We don’t have the power to send students to the office or take away recess. And if we’re unable to motivate our students, they may not even show up for class. Or they’ll tune in just to tune out.

This doesn’t mean that online learning is a free-for-all. Online classroom management is a delicate balance. We need to set the tone for what the new normal will look like. But at the same time, we need to be flexible.

Understand that students are willing participants. Respond to their needs and interests. Change things up when they get bored or frustrated.

These five tips will help you avoid some of the most common sources of frustration when teaching online, and ensure you get the most from your students.

1. Test the Technology Beforehand

Nothing will derail your online lesson faster than fumbling with the your slideshow or your video conference.

It’s tempting to try out every new app that comes along. But the most effective online teachers don’t get distracted by the shiniest new app. They focus on learning a few tools really well.

If you’re teaching real-time (synchronous) lessons, you’ll need a conferencing app. But you’ll also want a learning management system (LMS) for assigning work and providing feedback. Other ‘nice-to-haves’ are a presentation program, collaborative documents, and a personalized learning platform.

Here are some best in class tools in each category.

the right online learning tools can support effective online classroom management

The most important is your video conferencing app, followed by your presentation app. Make sure you know how to mute a student. And if you’re planning to use breakout rooms, try them beforehand with colleagues. It’s tricky to transition everyone into their breakout rooms and bring them back at the same time. I learned to be extra careful about muting myself while changing rooms. Otherwise, students hear a jumble of everyone talking, or even loud, painful feedback.

I like Google Meet because it integrates with other Google tools. It’s also user friendly, and it’s free if your school has a Google for Edu account. Meet has fewer features than Zoom, but Google is catching up, with plans to launch more features designed to support online classroom management.

For presentations, I like using Google Slides with the PearDeck extension, to make my presentations more interactive.

Classroom Resources and Professional Learning


2. Involve Students in Establishing Norms

Are you worried about students showing up in their pajamas? Some teachers are very concerned about online dress codes. Others couldn’t care less. You’ll want to set norms that make you feel comfortable, while also creating the best environment for learning.

The catch is that you probably don’t know what norms to set. None of us do, yet. Rather than following someone’s online list of norms, engage students in the process. This should be the focus of one of your first online lessons. Here’s a simple 3-part structure for such a lesson:

  1. Explain to students the importance of setting class norms, and that you would value their input
  2. Send students to breakout groups to make their own list of norms
  3. Return to whole group meeting to compare lists, and create a “final” list. (Of course, you may need to update it later)

If students have a say in creating the rules, they will be more likely to follow them. I often find that students come up with many of the rules I’d have come up with anyway. In fact, they’ll point out some issues you wouldn’t have expected.

You may want to give them guiding questions for their conversations. What is appropriate dress for online meetings? When and how should we ask questions? Will we use hand signals?

In addition to meeting norms, establish norms for collaborative documents. I’ve found that most Google Drive arguments start when one student erases something another has written. So we established the rule that you can only comment on someone else’s writing, unless they’ve given you permission to edit/erase.

Be aware that norms will evolve. Having a “norms” check-in every Monday can provide structure to each week of online learning.

3. Emphasize Engagement

In a traditional classroom, engagement is a “nice to have.” We would like to engage our students. But if it’s a choice between engagement and order, or engagement and standards, engagement loses out.

When teaching online, the priorities flip. If we can’t engage our students, they may stop showing up. And if they stop showing up, we may never get them back.

Students working online have access to endless sources of information. They don’t need a teacher to explain something for 45 minutes. Keep whole-group sessions short, no longer than 10 or 20 minutes. Use this time to prepare students for a hands-on activity. More on how to plan engaging online lessons here.

Let students know that you’re there for them, make a few announcements, and send them off to complete their activities. Students learn more through activities and problem-solving than they do by absorbing information.

This is true even in an in-person classroom. But it’s especially true during online learning. If we can engage our students in our lessons, online classroom management almost takes care of itself.

4. Create Connections with Small-Group Sessions

Students, like all of us, are starved for personal connections right now. Whole class meetings can help create a sense of normalcy. But it’s hard to have meaningful online conversations with 30 people.

Make sure to schedule some time with small groups of students. They don’t even need to be lessons per se. Get to know your students. Encourage them, and listen to their frustrations about learning online. Maybe even share your own (with a positive spin).

If you have a homeroom, make sure to have a 1-on-1 session with each student at least once a month.  Students will need extra encouragement during these difficult times. And they will need to set their own goals to stay motivated. Have them write down their online learning goals, and have them reflect on their progress throughout the process. When shifting ownership to students, they also need room to fail. If a student misses a deadline, our instinct is to step in and take back control. Instead, try to avoid judgment. 

If you’re not comfortable chatting with students privately, include their parents. You might also consider providing weekly office hours, where students and parents can drop in to ask questions. 

Just don’t turn the online experience into a correspondence course. Students need human connection now more than ever.  The human element will make your students more motivated. And their motivation will reduce disruptive behavior during whole group lessons.

5. Start Slowly

The shift to online learning has been extremely sudden. But we can’t expect to continue instruction at our usual pace. We’ll all need some time to adjust.

Realize that the first week or two are going to be focused on the process of online learning. Students will need to adjust to the new normal and learn all the new programs we’re introducing.

I’ve talked to many teachers who say the biggest mistake they made was assigning too much work. If you start at full speed, it will get messy. Students will get overwhelmed. And by the time you figure things out, some will have already checked-out.

First, focus on making sure the online learning experience is fun and easy. Be supportive. You can always pick up the pace once you and your students are comfortable learning online.

Eventually, you may find that your students can learn as quickly online as they can in a live classroom. Many students actually cover more content when learning from home.  

Getting Started with Online Classroom Management

You may be thinking that this list bears little similarity to the classroom management that you’re used to. And that’s no accident.

The way to get the most out of our students when teaching remotely is to take a step back. Let them have fun. Let them make mistakes. Make them feel ok, no matter how much work they are getting done.

It will take some students longer than others to adjust. But we will get better results with a supportive and understanding approach than by trying to force things. And ultimately, we have very little power in an online classroom.

So rather than worry about the students we can’t control, take the opportunity to shift control. It may seem counterintuitive, but taking a step back gives students the chance to take a step forward.

Be open to the possibility that our students will learn more responsibility, develop social-emotional skills, and master more content than they would in a live classroom.

Consider the following as you prepare to teach online:

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About the Author

Jeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an educational consultant specializing in student-centered learning practicesJeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an education consultant specializing in student-centered learning. His 3-Bridges Design for Learning helps schools explore innovative practices within traditional settings. He enjoys helping educators embrace inquiry-based and personalized approaches to instruction. You can connect with him via Twitter @EdTechJeff



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