Class Participation on Zoom

Kasey Corra '22, Co Assistant Editor-in-Chief

Online learning: an introvert’s dream and an extrovert’s nightmare. Or is it? Before the craziness of the coronavirus turned our world upside down, most classes included a measure of class participation. The louder girls spoke out frequently, side conversations flourished, and quieter students tried to survive class presentations and speak at least once in those dreaded seminar circles. Now, quarantine and Zoom classes present a different set of challenges for all personalities.

Online Classes and Participation: What Changes? 

Obviously, even interactive platforms as complex as Zoom can’t perfectly mimic a classroom setting. Live interaction with classmates over Zoom allows students to connect and energize each other instead of a system that lacks any sort of educational screen time. However, without physically being in school, it’s difficult to find the motivation to stay focused or ask the teacher to clarify a concept. Math and Science teacher Mrs. Baker said: “I think it’s harder to engage when we’re not in the same room — people are more comfortable at their houses, or maybe they’re more self conscious because everything’s kind of out in the open.”

The first challenge of online class is exactly that: it’s online. Technical difficulties and Zoom gadgets limit side comments and overall class participation. “It’s way easier not to participate than to participate. You have to unmute and make sure everyone can hear you and be tuned into each class to make a comment. Even for people like me who talk a lot in class, it’s easier to feel the compulsion to slide by and tune out,” said Emma Barry ‘22. Students agree that it’s much more difficult to make the effort to engage in conversation during classes. 

At the beginning of online learning, the private chat box took the place of physical class distractions. Students could communicate with each other during the class without the teacher knowing. When teachers began to get the hang of Zoom, however, these private chats were the first to go. “Usually in school I get in trouble for my side conversations; I can’t do that in Zoom because I’m muted. The private chat got squashed, and that was really the only way to communicate with my friends during Zoom classes,” said Cecilia Ashenuga ‘24. For some, a lack of side conversation provides opportunity to learn better; for others, it presents a larger challenge. 

Many students have noted that the differences in online learning are most obvious during the humanities classes. Discussions about historical events or last night’s reading are much harder to navigate. Notorious extrovert Anna Hvidsten ‘23 commented: “When we were still in school, I liked to ask verification questions to make sure I totally understand… Now when I answer a question, it becomes way more formal in Zoom because it’s ‘your moment’ to talk in class. You have to make sure you’re not talking over anyone.”

For quieter girls, on the other hand, the screen may make it easier to participate in class discussions. One introverted student said: “For me, the screen is a barrier between people — there’s no eye contact with teachers and students, so they assume you’ll call out if you have a question, which is a lot easier since I’m quiet. In math and science, it’s easier to participate because I’m comfortable calling out. But in the humanities and discussions, there’s less room for smaller observations.”

While discussion classes can be frustrating to finesse, regular lectures leave students antsy and distracted. Often, teachers will explain a concept while students stay muted, unless they have a question. “When everyone’s muted, you can only hear the teacher. It becomes like a lecture, and it’s so easy to tune out,” Cecilia ‘24 said. For someone entirely motivated and disciplined, this format of teaching is ideal. However, girls who used to participate actively in class find these lectures impossible. Emma ‘22 agreed: “When I’m in a physical classroom, I know what I need to do. Homework is still the same, but lectures and classwork are hard to listen to over a platform that’s not super interactive.”

Dealing with Distraction

Although side comments and off-topic discussions are limited on Zoom, paying attention does not get any easier. The distractions found in a physical classroom are replaced with little brothers, random urges to reorganize our rooms, or our phones, which are often just an arm’s length away. Families large and small are struggling to stay focused. “My brothers are constantly running around outside my window. It’s kind of impossible to not watch them instead of doing classwork,” said Hana Shinzawa ‘24. Doing work in the same spot all day to avoid interaction with noisy siblings can leave girls restless, especially when they’re used to moving constantly throughout the day. 

Some girls appreciate the focused atmosphere. “In [online] class, I’m definitely less distracted — I know I have to focus on class through the screen. When I’m in the classroom, it’s easier to get distracted by my own head,” one student reflected. For girls who are easily distracted, Zoom classes can be a nightmare. “I feel like in Zoom class I’m probably more distracted. You can see everyone and what’s going on in the background on the screen and that’s kind of mesmerizing,” Anna ‘23 said. Students have the entire Internet at their fingertips, and there is a constant temptation to check emails or play the dinosaur game on Google.

 Aside from the unique distractions of online school, all of the usual reasons to tune out still stand. Emma ‘22 sums it up perfectly: “It’s harder to be engaged, so it’s easier to focus on dumb things instead of school. Do I really need another red pen? No. Do I really need to learn chemistry? Yes. But it’s really hard to listen to the teacher during the class and easier to just tune out when I’m staring at a screen and focus on the fact that this is my last red pen.” 

Ways to Improve

Different forms of seemingly unending distraction have not gone unnoticed by teachers and administration. “People are definitely participating less. I have to cold call on people!” said Mrs. Baker. But have no fear! Students and teachers are constantly crafting ingenious ways to help other girls focus and stay motivated in school. 

Taking advantage of the Enrichment and lunch periods is huge. Get away from your screen, move to a different room, buy those red pens on Amazon. “At the end of the day, it comes down to the fact that your attention span can only grasp things for so long. That’s why it’s really important to go somewhere else during Enrichment. Teachers are working so hard right now, so it’s more on us to stay focused,” said Emma ‘22. 

To improve participation and make sure students are paying attention, many teachers are implementing Zoom’s breakout rooms into their daily classes. Breakout rooms create mini Zoom sessions within the larger class Zoom call so that students can solve problems or debate an issue in a smaller group setting. “The breakout rooms are great. They’re just smaller group discussions, and I’m much more comfortable talking when it’s only a few of us,” an anonymous student said. The groups eliminate the insecurity of a “spotlight” when asking a question in the regular class and facilitate a much smoother discussion. 

Teachers are also tracking participation much more carefully now than they would otherwise. Latin Teacher Mrs. Demirjian notes which students volunteer to answer questions and calls on the girls who have stayed quiet. Students who are aware that the teacher traces their engagement are much more likely to pay attention. Similarly, many teachers use popsicle sticks to keep girls on their toes. “Not knowing when I’m going to be called on definitely forces me to focus during the whole class,” said Cecilia ‘24.

There will always be the urge to text a friend during class or turn Latin class into just the  background noise of an epic dance battle with a sibling. Whether extroverted or introverted, being a motivated and active participant in online class requires a huge amount of self control. My advice? Remind yourself of what you hope to get out of your Montrose education and use those goals to drive your focus, no matter how difficult it may be.

Kasey Corra ’22, Co Assistant Editor-in-Chief