4 Helpful Tips for Creating an Engaging Virtual Inquiry Classroom

Over the past year, we’ve all had to adjust our teaching methods and approaches. Every classroom and circumstance is different, but what has remained similar is the shift to virtual learning. For many, this has meant having to leave the familiarity of their classroom and conduct lessons from home (or another room within their school). As a result, this has meant that you’ve probably had to start fresh to create a virtual learning space, and hoped that it conveyed a similar structure and welcoming feel as your own classroom.

Teachers who value the inquiry learning model have encountered challenges when trying to create an engaging and inquisitive learning space. Personally, I’ve found it challenging to accomplish this while simultaneously dealing with technology and connection hurdles. Below are four ways to create an engaging, virtual inquiry classroom without spending a fortune, and without sacrificing much time.

Creating a shared definition of a successful learner

For learning to continue as it did, students should be reminded about what a successful learner looks like. Taking the time to discuss and create a shared definition of a successful learner is a good way to help keep students accountable and engaged online. Explaining what the teacher’s role and the student’s role in inquiry is helps to establish parameters and answer student questions about expectations.

It is important that teachers take the time to consider what we want “good” learners to do. Allowing students to steer their own learning encourages them to think more deeply, ask questions, and feel more engaged. One of the goals of inquiry learning is to help students see the value in their contributions, and encourage them to take control of their learning so they can be more engaged in the learning process.

When students are engaged with their learning and feel confident in their classroom – physically or digitally – true learning happens. However, a lot of their confidence comes from being able to rely on a process, set of rules, or protocol. Providing this clarity to students helps them to go deeper with their learning. Informing them about what should occur or what to expect from their learning process is important. For example, normalize struggle. Students feel less anxious when they expect to encounter challenges.

Intentionally scaffolding the inquiry process

Scaffolding is an incredibly important process, particularly in virtual learning. Synchronous learning makes scaffolding in real-time simple and manageable for students; they can see exactly what steps to take to work independently. Research has found that in order for virtual learning to be most successful, teachers must interact with their students frequently to provide support and structure. Furthermore, scaffolding provides social interaction within a students’ zone of proximal development; this is the difference between what a learner can do independently and what they can do with guidance. It is referred to as “proximal” because it contains a range of abilities that a student is close to mastering, but needs more guidance to perform independently.

Some scaffolding strategies include monitoring progress, providing feedback, and encouraging independence. They help to promote social interaction such as peer to peer discussions and group collaboration. Inquiry learning strategies that focus on asking questions, providing feedback, and engaging in discussions are also important to the scaffolding process. Debate and peer feedback can also be done in smaller groups using breakout rooms or a similar virtual learning feature.

In addition, taking screenshots of the processes you would like students to follow gives them structure and helps them work through the steps confidently. For example, introducing the idea of independent research may confuse younger students because they don’t know where to begin. Perhaps they don’t know what a browser is, or how to get to a specific website. Maybe they don’t know what search terms are, or how to condense questions in a search bar to find exactly what they’re looking for. Furthermore, turning these screenshots into short videos for students to access is a great way to build a collection of “how-to” videos for students to watch when they get stuck.

Using tools to collaborate virtually

As a result of improved digital communication platforms and learning environments, students have more opportunity than ever to engage in meaningful communication with one another. This makes inquiry learning an excellent option when assigning group projects and collaborative assignments. Students can take advantage of synchronous communication platforms and applications to share ideas, make comments, ask questions, and contribute to a shared goal.

Through collaboration, students are able to experience a higher degree of social interaction, as well as the chance to break up the monotony of everyday virtual lessons. Naturally, students also benefit from interacting with their classmates, building relationships, and gaining soft skills like listening, communicating, and responding. 

In order for collaborative learning to be successful, the learning needs to be thoughtful, meaningful, and accessible to all students. It is important for groups to establish group goals, establish flexible group rules and norms, build trust, and promote healthy communication. Furthermore, students need to build soft skills such as respect, tolerance, giving and receiving feedback, and recognizing inequity. Without the incorporation of those skills, collaborative learning isn’t likely to yield the outcome you’re looking for.

4 Common Problems with Inquiry Learning and How to Solve Them 

On the technology side of collaboration, several websites have compiled the best student collaboration tools to use with virtual learning, so here are some of those:

Design open-ended discovery pathways

To stimulate and encourage the active learning process with students, teachers should create pathways of discovery. To do this, teachers should provide an open-ended, workable problem for students to solve. Utilizing scenario-based learning works wonders in situations like these. 

Solving problems increases student engagement and also increases their motivation to explore new possibilities and new approaches to already-existing problems. Hitting the right balance of keeping students motivated while also challenging them is difficult to achieve, but produces amazing results. This is what Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the concept of “flow”; when there is a balance between a students’ current skills and the level of challenge they face.

Low-floor, high-ceiling activities are great to engage learners of all levels. The challenge should increase as the students solve increasingly difficult problems. If the students’ skills are higher than what is needed for the problem, they become bored. On the other hand, if students do not have the skills with which to solve a problem, frustration ensues.

The concept of “flow” needs to be considered when you design your project. A balance needs to be struck between keeping the challenge open and accessible, and adding in elements that increase the difficulty in small increments to keep students motivated and eager to continue their learning. Teachers who know their students and perform regular assessments are well-equipped to set challenges at the appropriate levels; this ensures that boredom and frustration are both kept at bay.

Other virtual inquiry project ideas:

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