5 Steps to Stay Focused When Teaching Online

by Rae Ringel, Brian Tarallo, and Lauren Green


t’s only noon; you’re halfway through teaching your third virtual class of the day, and you just can’t take it anymore. Even with the air conditioning on full blast and slurping down your third cup of coffee, you can’t stare at the screen any longer. You feel increasingly distracted, increasingly frustrated, and you’re not even sure why. Worse yet, you know your students are feeling the same way. In your gut, you know there has to be a better way to keep focused and energized.

In-person classes and meetings are challenging enough; after all, there’s a reason why Patrick Lencioni’s book Death by Meeting was such a hit. Then came COVID-19 and everything moved online, presenting a familiar yet even greater challenge for educators: how can I ensure my classes are efficient and engaging in a virtual setting?

The good news is that, right now, as we think ahead to upcoming semesters, we have the opportunity to change how we approach and design virtual classrooms. With a few simple shifts, we can make virtual classrooms more efficient, productive, engaging, and collaborative, all while ensuring our sanity and focus as educators. It may surprise you that we can turn to the nearby (likely closed) gym for tips on how to optimize online teaching—and make it more enjoyable.

High-Intensity Interval Training: Not Just for the Gym

Maximizing results in a minimal amount of time is a mantra echoed in the fitness world with a concept known as high-intensity interval training, or HIIT. According to Medical News Today, HIIT is an exercise that involves short bursts of challenging activity followed by rest or lower-intensity exercise. Studies have found that even a short HIIT workout, done a few times a week, maximizes health outcomes including reduced body fat, improved cardiovascular and metabolic health, and improved mental health.

Imagine yourself in a workout class. The sweat is pouring from your face and arms as you push yourself to do just one more sit-up. You hear the voice in your head telling you that you just can’t do anymore.

Tell yourself you can do this! There is no magic pill, yells the instructor. You surprise yourself by completing two more sit-ups. Your heart rate slows as you sip water, wipe down your station, walk to the treadmill, and give the instructor a beleaguered thumbs-up.

While many gyms are quickly adopting this trending technique, the idea of maximizing results by balancing intervals of performance and rest is grounded in the basic theory of human well-being. In The Power of Full Engagement, authors Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz talk about energy as a resource, a currency for performance. Loehr and Schwartz make the case that it is maximizing energy, not time, that will give you the edge you need to perform and renew.

If balancing rest and movement supports healthier bodies, it can also help our mental focus and attention. Short intervals of a complex work or learning task followed by periodic breaks ensure that when we re-engage, we are cognitively ready to give our best effort to our work.

5 Steps to Make Virtual Classes More Productive

So how can educators apply the benefits of HIIT to their virtual classes? It’s a five-step process.

Step 1: Get into the Right Mental Zone

Virtual classes are different from in-person ones, but that doesn’t mean they have to be worse. Embracing a positive mindset is the first and most important step in changing how you approach virtual classes.

For your students, you need to be a supportive coach. A positive outlook has a long-term impact on achieving learning goals. Reward students with a virtual high-five. Invite classmates to offer each other appreciative feedback.

And for yourself, adjust your mindset about how much you can do in a class session. To be realistic, cut your expected outcomes and productivity goals by half. If you have four desired outcomes to achieve in an in-person class, plan to accomplish one or two virtually. In other words, retain the outcomes and activities that are most critical, so that you have the leanest, most essential program.

Step 2: Hold Concise, Purposeful Class Sessions

In a HIIT program, you might target arm strength on Monday and cardio and core on Tuesday. This ensures that you can work out consistently, building habits for success and not burning out any single muscle group. Apply this to your virtual teaching approach. Avoid squeezing a whole week’s worth of activity into one day. Remember that each activity takes longer online, while the attention span of your students shortens.

You would never spend a whole workout watching your coach demonstrate the exercises. Participation—not presentations or lectures—is the most important part of a class session. Presentations are a one-way delivery, the equivalent of watching a YouTube video or the evening news. Reserve class time for participatory work that requires collaborative discussion.

For long lectures, consider sending out a pre-recorded video or podcast. This enables students to engage with the content when they are ready to listen attentively. Then, when you do get together online, you can use your time discussing or working through the material.

You might also consider creating a reverse classroom, where each small group learns a different part of the lesson and teaches it back to the entire class. In other words, think of your large class as several small group modules, and give students as much time as possible to get their hands (metaphorically) on the content.

Step 3: Regulate Activity in Short-Burst Intervals

Approach the design of your class session the same way you would design a HIIT program, in short-burst intervals like the ones shown in the figure below. Avoid presentations that run longer than 10 or 15 minutes before you have students engage in some way. Even a light activity, such as asking questions via the online platform’s chat function or taking a quick poll, is enough to hold focus.

HIIT Interval chart

A sample model for a 90-minute class session, inspired by interval training

Favor small-group work and experiential learning whenever possible. If you have an hour of class time, think of ways to break it up into intervals of presentation, participation, reflection, and individual silent work and study, with the educator on hand to answer any questions that arise.

Vary the activities you use to deliver content. Avoid too much frontal teaching or “talking heads.” Mix it up with engaging videos and breakout groups. Experiment with using an online shared workspace, such as a Google document or a MURAL board.

You could splice up a long lecture into 15- to 20-minute chunks. Deliver a small chunk of content, then put the students into virtual breakout groups to discuss what they learned.

Don’t forget to build in time to towel off and grab a sip of water. Ninety minutes is as long as a group can go without a break. A five- to 10-minute break every hour is recommended.

Step 4: Set the Group Up for Success

No one wants to do a workout they dread. Design your sessions to be ones people want to attend. Just as it takes time to transition from one workout circuit to the next, build in extra time for people to connect before diving into the next activity. Especially right now, people crave social connection. Build in five or 10 minutes for socializing in breakout sessions, if you can.

And just like there is no one-size-fits-all workout, each person has different needs, attention spans, and energy for participation in an online class. Small-group breakouts give extroverts the space to talk through their ideas. Time for individual reflection gives introverts the space to think through what they would like to say.

Step 5: Safety First—Warm Up, Cool Down, and Transition

To work out without injury, we must warm up, know our equipment, cool down, and stretch. To lead a virtual class without “injury,” we must also take a few steps to ensure the well being of the class. This could mean incorporating agreements or ground rules up front to provide a safe space for collaboration. A few important agreements for virtual classes include the following:

  • Be present and eliminate distractions

  • Mute yourself when you’re not speaking

  • Use chat and virtual hand-raising when you want to speak

The term “ice breaker” is often accompanied by eye rolls. Think of an ice breaker as a warm up, something that you do to help a group get ready for the hard work. You don’t run without walking first. You don’t lift weights without stretching first. A virtual ice breaker not only gets the group connected and ready to work, but also gives everyone a chance to play with the technology before beginning a session. Build in energizers (see sidebar) before each large content piece, as a way of warming up and maintaining a steady burn.

Cooling down is just as important as warming up. In working with students online, this means three things:

  1. Summarize the learning objectives. Today, we learned about what led to the Great Depression.

  2. Clarify any remaining questions. Are there any parts of today’s lesson that were unclear?

  3. Announce the next topic and any upcoming assignments or examinations. Next time, we’ll look at what led to World War II, and your essay on life during the Great Depression is due Tuesday at 3 p.m. EST.

Teaching and Learning at Our Best

With the world in a constant state of uncertainty, it is hard to find things we can control. How we spend and share time in class is something that can be shaped. Applying the HIIT formula to virtual classes is one way of finding our balance, focusing, and performing at our best with the tools and resources we have.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *