GIFT – Great Ideas For Teaching: Online Class Meets Hollywood Squares

Dr. Valerie Peterson

There is a lot of value in being able to see your students’ faces during distance learning. However, as we all know, we can’t force them to be on camera. 

This issue led our very own Grand Valley State University Communication Studies professor, Dr. Valerie Peterson, to experiment and arrive at a helpful strategy called ‘mini-classes’ to encourage students to participate and, in many cases, TURN ON THEIR CAMERAS!

We sat down with Dr. Peterson to learn more.

What is the problem?

“You have only one or two students turning on their cameras (Blackboard Collaborate) – or, you have many students with cameras on, but they all act like wallflowers (Zoom),” said Peterson. “Also, on Blackboard Collaborate, there is the ‘only-four-students-visible-at-a-time’ situation, which means students don’t like getting stuck having to keep their cameras on so as not to embarrass the teacher (after they’ve become visible and/or spoken). They also don’t like feeling bad about turning off their camera after the interaction (and leaving the teacher ‘behind’).”

The solution: 

1 – Break up your class into groups of four students. Call them ‘mini-classes’ or ‘pods’ – or whatever name fits your style. Let students know that these groups are not meant to work together; they are simply being used to arrange the class. 

2 – Assign each mini-class to a different day of class (mini-class one on the first day, say Monday; mini-class two on the second day, say Wednesday, etc.). In a 28 person class, that would be seven groups of four students, or seven consecutive days of class – each with a different mini-class. During the first class where you use this method, mini-class one would be ‘on deck’ to have their cameras on and microphones on or at the ready. Students in mini-classes two – seven are encouraged to participate but could also lurk. 

3 – Mini-class gives you four faces you can see to help you gauge how the bulk of students are reacting. It also offers students a day when they should be braced for interaction with you and be ready to share their faces/voices with the class (and perhaps even be especially familiar with the material). 

4 – This method helps democratize classes where only one or two students regularly speak and helps lurkers, some who have helpful observations that might otherwise go unsaid, come out of the shadows. It could be used for one ‘cycle’ in a class, or it could be used for multiple cycles or across the entire course, but you’d need to explain it first, so the soonest you could use it would be after the first day of class once students understand the expectations. 

5 – I don’t grade this or give this extra credit. I explain it as a compromise – one day of focused participation (for which they can be prepared) in exchange for other days when others will be more ‘on the spot.’ I do try to make sure students have the same number of times they’re asked to appear so that all students are asked to share in the responsibilities of participation equally. 

6 – Mini-class can also be used to schedule speeches or other staggered assignments – especially if you allow students to, when needed, adjust their due dates by trading places with someone in a different mini-class (whose work is due at a different time). Another plus is the added interest provided by a rotating group of new classmates about whom students get to know a bit more via their in-class interactions.  

We hope this sit down with Dr. Peterson helps other professors and faculty thwart class participation issues. If you have any questions regarding Dr. Peterson’s method, please feel free to reach out to her via email.