"How do we keep students engaged?" It's a question modern-day educators have asked themselves for decades. Each teacher spends their career perfecting their personal student engagement strategies, from using games and technology to experimenting with flexible seating and journaling.
But the sudden rise in distance learning has thrown many teachers for a loop. Without in-person lessons, teachers have had to make a hard pivot as they work to increase student engagement in a world plagued by Zoom fatigue, technology failures, slow internet and subpar built-in webcams and microphones. After all, how can we expect students to engage with lessons when they can barely hear their teachers—or their classmates—because of poor audio?
In this article, we'll discuss the basics of student engagement as it pertains to this new world of distance learning. Specifically, we'll talk about how quality audio can transform a student's learning experience, focusing on common issues with online audio, what causes those issues, and how to fix them.
What is student engagement and why is it important?
Student engagement is, as the name suggests, the amount of attention, interest, curiosity, and passion students have during their lessons. Students who are more engaged tend to learn more, perform better, are less bored and are more likely to graduate.
What are the three types of student engagement?
The three recognized types of student engagement are behavioral, emotional and cognitive. The definitions of these, according to the National Association of Independent Schools are as follows.
- Behavioral engagement: focusing on participation in academic, social, and co-curricular activities.
- Emotional engagement: focusing on the extent and nature of positive and negative reactions to teachers, classmates, academics, and school.
- Cognitive engagement: focusing on students’ level of investment in learning
But what does that have to do with audio? For behavioral education, which focuses on participation, poor audio can make it difficult to engage with lessons. After all, how can you be expected to answer questions or participate in any meaningful way if you can’t hear your teacher?
For emotional engagement, how can a teacher gauge positive or negative reactions to lessons if they can’t see or clearly hear their students? And how can students be expected to have positive feelings about their school work if they can barely understand the lessons?
Finally, we have cognitive engagement, which focuses on how invested a student is in their education. As educators, we understand that our students can only be expected to be as invested in their own education as we are. And if we’re not investing in broadcasting clear audio for virtual lessons, how invested can students be?
What are student engagement strategies?
Student engagement strategies are the methods and tactics educators and parents use to drive student interest and engagement. Examples can include gamification of lessons, giving students “brain breaks” and reading the room so you can pivot when students are clearly getting bored.
In an age where virtual learning is increasingly popular, educators are having to refigure their student engagement strategies. After all, what worked in a physical classroom might not be so easy to translate to the virtual classroom.
A few questions we’ve heard from educators about the struggles of acclimating to virtual learning include:
- How can you read the room when you can only see your students’ faces as little boxes on a Zoom screen?
- How do you know how much “think time” to leave before answering your own question?
- How can you be personable and build rapport with your students when you might not have ever met them in person?
While good audio and video isn’t the only answer to those questions, it can help cut you cut through the literal and figurative noise that comes between your lessons and student engagement.
How do you know if students are engaged?
In a physical classroom, it’s easy to look at your students and tell if they’re engaged
- Are they watching you attentively, or are they falling asleep?
- Are they taking notes or passing notes?
- Are they asking you questions about the lesson of the day, or are they asking their friend about their weekend?
When school becomes virtual, those visual cues are largely gone. Instead of passing paper notes or texting in class—both of which are more obvious than students think they are—students can send off messages from their phones and their computers to their friends without tipping you off. Students can turn off their webcams or train their webcams on photos of them, leaving you none the wiser if they decide to not engage in lessons.
With distance learning, there are a few tactics teachers can use:
- Asking for a “thumbs up” to make sure students understand the lesson before moving on
- Asking regular questions to different students
- Start your class with five minutes of conversation to answer questions, talk about current events and more
- Encourage regular one-on-one meetings with students
- Keep a set schedule of 4-5 different types of lessons or activities that you can rotate through regularly to keep lessons fresh and reduce Zoom fatigue
- Focus less on lecturing and more on having a conversation when possible
Blue Yeti Nano USB microphone can help eliminate common audio problems like echo and harsh sounding vocals.
How does audio impact student engagement?
Even with the most cutting-edge virtual student engagement strategies implemented, if your students can’t understand you or can't listen to you without fatigue, they’re not going to engage as well as they would if your audio was crystal clear.
Common audio issues, their causes and how to fix them
The good news is that a lot of the most common audio problems have simple solutions. Here are a few that we’re asked about most often.
Ah, the dreaded vocal echo. Hearing your own voice or another voice echo back is distracting—it’s generally awkward at best, and makes audio completely incomprehensible at worst.
The three most common causes of echo during a Zoom call are
- A participant having both telephone and computer audio on
- A participant not using headphones
- Multiple people in the same room using active audio while in class.
For virtual learning, the most likely culprit is a lack of headphones. Both you and your students should try to have quality, over-the-ear headphones during virtual classroom sessions. We recommend over-the-ear because most people find them more comfortable over long periods of time, but any comfortable headphones can prevent echo. Plus, headphones have the bonus benefit of drowning out distracting environmental noise!
When you’re in a physical classroom, you simply close the door to drown out unwanted noise. At home, even if you live alone, distracting room and neighborhood noise is less in your control. From dogs barking to noisy neighbors, if it’s loud enough to distract you, it’s probably distracting to your students.
You can fight room noise easily enough with a quality USB microphone like the Yeti or any other USB microphone that can be used with a cardioid microphone pattern. The cardioid pattern only picks up the audio that the microphone is pointing at, which means it won’t pick up room noise.
Unless you’re an audiophile, you probably don’t think about mid-range frequencies very often. But you hear them a lot, especially if you’re using a microphone that was built into your laptop.
Those little built-in microphones aren’t made with quality components. They’re convenient, but they’re small and try to make up for their lack of substance in a pretty annoying way: by boosting mid-range frequencies.
Audio engineers generally focus on three bands of frequencies. There’s the low band, the middle band, and the high band. Low frequencies are rumbling sounds, high frequencies are things like birds chirping, and mid-frequencies are sounds like horns and the human voice.
Mid-range frequencies are boosted in cheap microphones because they “cut through the mix” or stand out more because human ears are more sensitive to sounds in that range. This gives a little oomph to a poorly-made microphone, but since our ears are sensitive to those sounds, it can feel “harsh” or “brittle” and exhaust listeners.
But what does that mean for your students? It means that your lectures might literally be a pain, if not just generally exhausting to listen to. Even if your lecture and lessons are otherwise engaging, listening to anything with a lot of mid frequencies is going to cause fatigue.
The best way to counteract too many mid frequencies is to ditch the built-in computer microphone and invest in a USB microphone. Quality USB microphones like the Yeti Nano are designed to reproduce sound faithfully, so your voice sounds like you and not a robot stuck in the worst part of the sonic spectrum.
Now that we’ve talked about audio that cuts through the mix too much, let’s talk about audio that doesn’t cut through at all. Yes, we’re talking about muffled audio.
Muffled audio is audio that is somehow quieted, typically caused by something being placed over a microphone that sound can’t pass through. On a microphone that’s built into the computer, it’s not uncommon for someone to place their hand or sleeve over the microphone inadvertently, causing a muffled sound.
Muffled audio is going to make you difficult to understand—it would be like teaching an in-person lecture while you’re dressed like the little brother from A Christmas Story when his mom sends him to school (but hopefully you’d at least be able to put your arms down). It’s a funny visual, but laughter at your expense isn’t necessarily the type of engagement you want from your students.
Whether you’re using a built-in microphone or a USB microphone, make sure nothing is obscuring the path between your voice and the microphone. That means making sure your USB microphone is near you and pointed at you, or that your hand isn’t resting on your laptop’s microphone.
When we talk about distant audio, we’re talking about microphone placement. Improper microphone placement can make you sound faint and far away rather than clear and comprehensible.
Distant audio’s not much better than having muffled sound when it comes to student engagement. In fact, it can be a lot worse. If students have to turn up their volume to counteract your quiet, distant audio, they might have their earbuds blown out when another student with a proper microphone setup answers a question.
The key to fixing distant audio is simple—adjust your microphone placement. Your microphone should generally be 6-12” from your face, angled up toward your mouth.
Want more tips on improving your audio for virtual classrooms? Read our blog post about getting the best possible audio during distance learning.