Grace Touch

How to teach and learn in changing times

By Viki Rife with Dr. Christy Hill

      For many of us, learning took on a very different feel in 2020. Whether it’s children going to school virtually or a different way to do a women’s Bible study, technology has taken over our lives. Some of the changes provide challenges to some of the key principles of how people process information. For example, the connection between teacher and student is a key component of learning theory. How do we connect well when we can’t see each other fully, read each other’s body language, or offer a reassuring touch of encouragement? How do we keep our attention on a computer screen for hours at a time? Such questions are a concern for teachers and learners alike.

     We asked Dr. Christy Hill for some tips to maximize our ability to learn and to help others, including our children, learn in this new season. She serves as Professor of Spiritual Formation and Women's Ministry at Grace College and Seminary. Her Ph. D. is in Educational Studies. Here are some of her insights for teachers and students:

Tips for teachers:

  1. Be intentional about helping people know you see them as a whole person, not just a head on a screen. For example, when I meet with my mentor group online, each of them in their own room, I might ask, “What do you have on you or in your room that says something about who you are?” Their answers give me a better picture of who they are as individuals.
  2. Find other ways to develop informal connections with the group outside of the structured time. If possible, let them know you will open the online meeting 15 or 20 minutes before actual start time for students to connect with each other and the teacher. Stay 15 minutes after, if possible, for more healthy interaction. 
  3. Use breakout rooms. Breaking the class up into smaller groups to discuss some specific questions or brainstorm a presentation of their own will help students enjoy more intimate, ongoing connection with other people. 
  4. Use the chat feature. Some students don’t like being the center of attention but will post answers or questions in the chat. Take time to read the chat and include the information to contribute to the learning experience.  
  5. Seek creative ways to connect students with the topic. One Bible study leader sent pictures ahead of time for the students to print out and cut apart. One of the learning activities involved asking a question and having the participants hold up the picture that best answered the question. Picking up the picture and seeing what others were holding up made the learning platform seem more three-dimensional. Another leader had students print out the passage and have different colors of pens handy to underline or circle words that fit a certain criteria. It helped students think and engage with the passage. You might also pull up a blank document and type as students offer input. If you are using a presentation such as PowerPoint, use lots of graphics and pictures to help make the abstract concepts more concrete. 
  6. Learn from others. Participate in online groups you are not leading so you can see how others lead and glean ideas for what to do or not do. 

Tips for students (and those helping them learn from home):

  1. Set aside a quiet place where you can focus. If possible, have a desk or table where you only focus on learning. When you go there, your brain will soon associate it with engaging with the learning experience. If you don’t have a private place, at least try to have a partition where you won’t be distracted by the movements of others.
  2. Make the teacher the primary focus. Enlarging the picture helps. Try to see the instructor as close to life-size as possible.  
  3. Compensate for the long screen time with presence. Parents, especially, need to realize how much their children need personal interaction and active listening. Give them the gift of your presence and engagement as much as possible during breaks and after classes. It is very important for their sense of well-being and will reduce their stress over having to learn virtually.  
  4. Recognize feelings of isolation and be proactive. Find ways to interact with others. Parents can arrange occasional gatherings with a friend or two from school or church to help the student feel more engaged with humanity. A parent could also create social interaction over an online format, which would help a student laugh, be silly, or play a game with a friend if full isolation protocols need to be followed.

Tips for hybrid classes: Some schools and churches are using a hybrid method with some people present and others online at the same time. If you are teaching such a group, here are a few additional things to keep in mind:

  1. Make sure you have adequate audio arrangements. The students online won’t be able to hear the input from the students in the room unless there’s a microphone, preferably one that runs through your system. It helps to have one microphone for the teacher and one to pass around the room, or use a multidirectional mic if the group in the room is small.
  2. Look up from the screen. This is especially true if you’re focusing on the presentation you’re sharing. Students in the room need to be acknowledged and seen, too. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback from participants on how you can better engage. 
  3. Arrange for tech support. If you can have someone else run the technology, it’s easier to just focus on the students in the room and online. 

     Whether you’re a teacher or a student, be honest with yourself and acknowledge that it can be intimidating. Don’t underestimate the emotional wear and tear it takes on your being. When you feel tired, remember that others are struggling too, and give them and yourself grace to do what is needed to refresh yourself.

     Keep in mind that if there isn’t engagement, there won’t be learning. Don’t give up—your efforts will pay off!

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