Online Group Class DynamicsJan 09, 2023
A lot can happen in a group class, and they can be a lot to manage at times– even if you’re teaching adults. While the rich interactions, questions, insights, and challenges that arise in group classes can be amazing, they still require some management strategies here and there.
Let’s look at some different ways you can manage specific dynamics in your online group classes!
Group class dynamics to be considerate of:
– Learners could be strangers or co-workers. That could be good or bad, depending on a few factors. First, if your learners are co-workers, they might feel more comfortable working together in class and potentially making mistakes in front of each other. On the flip side, you might find that you have some office rivals in class together! If your learners don’t know each other outside of class, that could make some learners feel bold enough to go out on a limb and really experiment in class, which is great! Alternatively, they might feel even more uncomfortable in class. Spending time getting to know each other early on, providing chances for learners to work together toward a goal, and encouraging them to encourage each other are important steps to facilitate the learners’ opening up in class.
-Level can affect class participation. What might feel like a classroom full of crickets to you could be a really rewarding class experience for A1 learners! Remember that teacher wait time will need to vary for different levels, and at lower levels, it’s going to take more of your class time. That can make it feel like a slow-moving class on your end, but what’s going on inside your learners’ minds throughout the lesson could be a very different story!
You should anticipate different levels of participation across different groups. Learners at the very low end of A1 are likely to speak up less frequently in class than your B1 learners are, and that’s ok! The important thing is to understand that just because your B1 learners speak more freely and can participate in a class-wide discussion, for example, doesn’t mean that your A1 learners are checked out. They just have different needs and challenges, and that will change as their learning progresses.
-A safe learning environment is essential. It’s important to build rapport with learners from day 1, between you and each learner as well as on a learner-to-learner basis. Creating these relationships and a safe learning environment are the foundational actions to take in order to ensure great participation levels throughout the course.
What we’re essentially asking adult learners to do is to make mistakes aloud, in front of other people, at a skill they’ve mastered from a very young age! We’ve all been walking around and communicating confidently for decades and now we’ve got to start from scratch in a new language– it’s humbling, no? The trick to helping adult learners feel comfortable in this situation, where errors are golden opportunities to learn, is to put them at ease and create an environment where errors are necessary, celebrated, and turned into new knowledge. Getting those errors to happen aloud is step 1, and the road to that is rapport.
Now on to two of the trickiest aspects of group classes: Managing several learners at once, and managing gaps in knowledge and levels within the same group.
Challenge: There are a lot of people in my online group class.
Whether you’re teaching a group of 8 or 25, it can be tricky to keep everyone involved and engaged in class– especially when your class is online! Everyone’s already sitting at their computer, and the temptation to check emails, wrap up something from work, check social media, or look at other distractions is ever-present!
It’s going to take some strategizing on your part to keep everyone plugged in throughout the lesson. Consider some of the following approaches:
-Implement Creative turn-taking
Imagine that you call on learners in the same order for most activities in class. Learners catch on to those details quickly, and you may find they spend more time preparing to read a paragraph aloud or answer a question based on where they anticipate they’ll be called on. Why is that less than ideal? Well, if you’re busy working on what you’re going to say two minutes from now, you’re not actively engaged in the class! Whether the learner uses that checked-out time to prepare to take their turn or to check their email between turn-taking, that’s not where we want their brains to be. Try some of the following strategies to mix things up when it comes to taking turns:
1. Use a browser extension to roll a die. Each person should be assigned a number (works great for classes of 2-6 people). When you roll the die, the person who is assigned to that number must respond to the prompt or question. For Google Chrome users, here’s a great dice thrower to try out!
2. Randomly select a learner to answer a question or respond to a prompt– but here’s the catch: tell them to answer correctly OR incorrectly, whichever they want. Then, call on another learner at random and ask them to share if they think learner A’s answer is right or wrong, and why. Establish the correct answer and repeat.
3. When an activity in class requires asking and answering questions, ask a learner to read/create a question, and then have that learner select who will answer. After the answering learner shares their answer, they’ll now become the asker and repeat the process. This allows for learners to determine some of the order of turn-taking works, and lowers your TTT in class!
-Use on-the-spot extension activities
Depending on the size of your class and the specific activity you’re working on, you might find that your group gets to the end of an activity without having had many turns to answer or speak for everyone in class. When you find yourself in that situation, turn to an extension activity to create some valuable speaking opportunities for learners that didn’t get called on during the original activity. How are you supposed to come up with an extension activity on the spot? Don’t worry! We’ve got lots of extensions woven into our lessons so that you can have a solid introduction to how they work. Soon, it’ll feel like second nature to resort to these when necessary.
-Facilitate peer feedback
Having built rapport between yourself and the learners, and among the learners themselves, you’ve got the option to involve learners in the feedback process. Here are two ways you might go about introducing learner feedback into your classroom dynamics:
Invite other learners to offer assistance in the error correction process before you provide the correction yourself (Pro-tip: Elicit self-correction first when you notice an important error. Then ask if any other learners in the class can make the correction if the learner who made the error doesn’t know what the correction is Finally, resort to providing it yourself as a last resort. Be aware that you may need to reinforce respectful behavior based on the personalities of the learners in your class. You may also encourage learners to select a learner to help them complete an activity when necessary, instead of leaving it to an open forum of their classmates.
In an approach that requires more facilitation from you, but offers much more rewarding and enriching interactions in class, try assigning different feedback roles for learners in class when you have an activity that requires one learner to speak at length at a time. Remember that any time you have learners taking turns to speak, each person is only speaking for that set amount of time and then they are silent, and potentially disengaged, for that same amount of time multiplied by the number of participants.
So imagine this scenario: It’s time for learners to respond to a discussion question or speaking prompt using the lesson’s target language, BUT you have 8 learners and each of them needs to take a turn, with the others quietly listening. That is the perfect opportunity for learners to check out and disengage from class.
You’re ready for this, though. You assign everyone rotating feedback roles, which requires the non-speakers to provide feedback on pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary use, etc. after each person speaks. You might be blown away at the type of details they pick up on when it comes to others’ strengths and areas for improvement, or the questions that they bring up. You’ll also be pleasantly surprised with the level of active participation throughout the activity. An important note: this will extend your activity time a decent amount, but it will keep all learners engaged and using or interacting with English, which is technically what we’re aiming for anyway! Additionally, the first two or three times you do this activity might take more facilitation from you in the beginning. After your learners have completed this type of task a few times, it should become faster and easier to implement in the future. Consider that upfront facilitation time to be an investment in a new classroom routine!
-Create instances of direct peer interaction
What we really want for our learners is to enter into whatever English-speaking context they’re faced with and communicate effectively and confidently there, without having us hovering over their shoulders. A great way to move our learners closer to that level of proficiency and confidence is to create more instances of direct peer interaction. Why?
Well, when they use English at work or during their travels, they’ll be interacting with native and non-native speakers. Some of those non-native speakers might be speakers with different L1s (and different accents, fossilized errors, or other speech features). The native speakers they encounter are not likely to be EFL teachers. That’s quite the challenge, no? We can use the language classroom as a lab where learners can experiment with others in what works, what gets their point across, where they need to fill vocabulary gaps, and shake off the nerves that accompany the act of L2 speaking. So how can you pack more peer interaction into your group classes? Try some of these ideas:
1. Use the famous Think Pair Share strategy with breakout rooms OR individual messages between partners using the chat function (these options will depend on the VC platform you use for class).
2. At the end of each lesson, ask for a learner to volunteer to lead a review of this lesson’s context in the next class– keep it to 3-5 minutes to not overwhelm the learner. They can prepare a game, a true/false activity, a diagram, or anything else that they think will be useful to complete this review.
3. When working with discussion questions, send learners in pairs or groups of 3 to breakout rooms to answer a specific question. Tell them they have three minutes to prepare. Then, bring them back and ask them to describe what they think about the topic/question. Randomly reassign them to new pairs/groups and repeat with another question or prompt. At the end of your breakout room rounds, ask learners to take some time to share with the class what ideas or responses they thought were interesting, funny, unique, etc. If your VC platform doesn’t include the breakout rooms feature, you can try facilitating this with private messages among groups within your VC platform, OR you can have them use another platform (whatsapp or discord), or a Google Jamboard for typing.
When it comes to teaching a medium-to-large size group online, it’ll be up to you to try out different strategies to keep learners engaged in the class and making sure that everyone has multiple opportunities to participate and get feedback. Now let’s look at another common challenge and how it can be addressed in online group classes.
Challenge: There is a gap between my lowest-level learner and my highest-level learner in the same class.
Here’s the deal: You might be teaching a mixed-level group class where some learners are A2 and some are B1. That can be tricky! But you might find yourself teaching a group of all A2 learners. And the real secret is that every group is a mixed-level group in one way or another! Every adult learner comes to the table with a different set of background knowledge, which automatically means that your learners aren’t all on exactly the same page as you get started. Now factor in previous studies, personality and willingness to participate, travel experience, interest in studying outside of class, etc., and you’re going to see quickly that every group is a mixed bag, and every group as a “most advanced” and “least advanced”, even within the same official level they’re categorized within.
If you work at a school or institute, hopefully your learners have been grouped into somewhat-similar levels. However, that’s not always the case, and if you’re creating our own groups, the challenge of teaching mixed-levels might just be a necessity as a freelance professional.
So how can you address the different needs of learners in a group class?
First, make sure you’re using scaffolding in your lessons to help everyone be successful at a task. If you’re working with The TEFL Lab’s curriculum, you’ll know that scaffolding is woven throughout our lessons. However, if you’re working with other lessons you build from scratch or adapt from another curriculum, make sure to take some consideration in your planning time to think of where and how you will provide scaffolding. This may take the form of a verb chart, grammar formulas, vocabulary lists, sentence frames or sentence starters, or other visual cues. The learners who don’t need it won’t use it if it’s on the screen, but the ones that do need it will have it, and this will facilitate their participation.
Second, try incorporating some partner work. You might opt to try and match learners who have similar strengths and weaknesses for partner work. This is likely to have a pretty good outcome in terms of learner comfort and participation, but you might find that they aren’t able to help each other overcome challenges that they both have. Alternatively, you might create pairs of lower and higher-level learners. This pairing can have pros and cons. The pros are that the lower-level learner will likely get some help and maybe have a breakthrough in their understanding of some of the target language. The higher-level learner may enjoy being able to help and essentially “teach” someone else something tricky. On the flip side, the lower-level learner may feel intimidated, and the higher-level learner may not enjoy being paired with someone that can’t communicate at their level. It’s a tricky dynamic and you’ll have to use your best judgement on whether or not to use pair work and specific pairings for different activities. As you get to know your learners in a class, limit these pairings to 3-6 minute activities, and rotate partners often until you get a feel for who works well together.
The third thing to consider is the importance of giving clear instructions. This sounds basic but in reality, giving clear instructions can be tricky at times, and sometimes you’ll only realize that the instructions weren’t clear after the activity has already begun and gone awry! A great way to avoid this is to implement ICQs– Instruction Checking Questions. Make sure your learners are all on the same page about what they’re supposed to do, how they’re supposed to do it, and how long they have to do it. Also consider that examples and modeling (positive modeling of what they SHOULD do and negative modeling of what they SHOULDN’T do) are very helpful in this regard.
Finally, incorporate comprehension checks throughout your lessons. You’ll also find these instances spread throughout The TEFL Lab’s curriculum, but it’s easy enough to create these moments on your own as well. CCQs– Comprehension Checking Questions– are a great formative assessment technique to take the temperature of your class and make sure everyone is on the same page and can continue onto the next task.
Using scaffolding, partner work, clear instructions, and comprehension checks are all essential to making sure everyone in class has what they need to be able to participate. If a learner finds that they DON’T have what they need to participate, it becomes harder and harder for them to stay engaged as the class goes on– imagine if each task or activity gets harder than the last and you didn’t know how to respond to the very first one. You probably wouldn’t be too eager to actively continue that experience for 60 to 90 minutes!
How can you address the needs of the highest-level and lowest-level learners in a class at the same time?
It’s no small feat, we’ll give you that, but it doesn’t take a superhero to get it done. It’s just a matter of making some notes to yourself about who to call on and what to ask at different points of the lesson! Think of your lowest-level learner as the most likely to check out of class due to the frustration of not being confident enough or able to participate. At the same time, consider your highest-level learner as the most likely to check out of class due to boredom or a perceived lack of a challenge. Knowing those two risks, you can take steps to make sure each of these learners has a great class experience.
Tips for engaging the lowest-level learner in a class
-Give this learner some opportunities to answer easier questions (low-hanging fruit) and other easy, low-pressure wins (reading questions or instructions aloud) to boost confidence and promote participation.
-Start the sentence off for them if they’re having trouble with a free production (sentence starters, sentence frames, etc., either on the slide or in the chat function of your VC platform, where they can read it)
-Provide enthusiastic praise for their efforts and their progress– if they feel intimidated, shy, or frustrated, make sure each instance of participation and effort in class is reinforced positively to keep them on task and read to participate further.
-Don’t let them disengage– keep calling their name and including them! There is sometimes a moment (hello Rachel’s 7th grade math class) where you can actually SEE on a learner’s face when they’ve made up their mind to write this experience off as a loss and not invest further attention or effort into it. Don’t let your learners get to that point! Whether you’re asking them yes/no questions, asking them to read instructions aloud, or inviting them to lead the class in pronouncing a vocabulary list, make sure you keep coming back around to them throughout the lesson.
Tips for challenging the highest-level learner in a class
-Provide more focused error correction to challenge them. If you’re working on a grammar point that they’re doing well, get stricter with their pronunciation or ask them to expand their sentence to include more detail! Be advised that the idea here ISN’T to find a mistake at all costs! Instead, it’s to expand your focus on their possible improvements to also include other features that you might not be focused on for this lesson and for all learners. At the same time, you should praise these details as you see them improve.
-Ask follow-up questions to encourage them to speak at length. If you feel that the task has been easy for them, ask for additional details that will elicit additional or more complex target language.
-Ask this learner to “teach” or review information with the class– this provides a new level of analysis for them, as well as a confidence boost. Make sure that you ask them to do this with content you’ve already taught previously so you aren’t setting them up to fail.
-Provide these learners with an activity of a higher scope. Tack on an additional challenge or step to what you’ve asked others in class to do.