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How to Get Students’ Attention: Maintaining Interest in the Digital Classroom

June 3, 2021

Every teacher strives to create a learning environment that motivates and excites students. The question for many educators is how to accomplish that in the digital classroom, where holding students’ interest, identifying distracted students, and bringing those distracted students back on board can pose unique challenges. Fortunately, educators can learn how to get students’ attention by applying student-centered strategies adapted for virtual classrooms.

The Challenges of Transitioning to Online Learning

Transitioning to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic has not come without its obstacles. Both teachers and students are confronting difficulties that call for thoughtful solutions. Whether addressing issues related to time management, motivation, or the lack of in-person interaction, many educators find themselves in unfamiliar territory as they try to navigate new ways to meet their students’ needs.

Traditional classrooms offer more predictable environments with fewer distractions than virtual ones. Within the four walls of a physical classroom, teachers regulate what’s on the walls, what’s on students’ desks, where students sit, who enters, and who leaves. This makes it easier for teachers to create spaces that are most conducive to learning and can best hold students’ attention.

In contrast, consider the experience of a fourth grader trying to learn multistep division while sitting at a kitchen table as her older brother raids the fridge, the sound of the TV streams in from the next room, and notifications on her cell phone keep popping up. Clearly, students learning remotely can encounter distractions and disruptions that will affect their attention levels.

Additionally, in virtual classrooms teachers cannot observe their students in the same way, which may affect how accountable and alert students perceive they need to be. This can further diminish their levels of attention.

Tips for Keeping Students’ Attention

To counter the challenges of online learning environments, educators can deploy key strategies to catch and maintain student attention. Students can easily lose interest and become bored when they don’t have an active role, so teachers should always consider ways to keep students out of passive positions. Digital learning offers many ways for teachers to keep their classrooms student centered.

Incorporate Class Discussions and Other Interactive Learning Opportunities

Classroom discussions help students take ownership of their learning. Not only do these verbal exchanges allow students to explore and process information more fully, they also offer the chance to cocreate knowledge with their peers. Several technologies exist that can energize online classroom discussions and boost student participation.


Great discussions often start with evocative questions. Many video chat programs allow group leaders to pose questions that appear on participants’ screens. These questions can measure opinion or assess comprehension. Teachers can use these polling features strategically to spark conversations or get immediate feedback on student learning and interest.

Breakout Rooms

Smaller groups can make it easier for every student to participate, and teachers may find it useful to split up their online classrooms into breakout rooms for discussions. Breakout rooms are essentially mini virtual conference rooms where smaller groups of students can collaborate in a discussion or on a group assignment. The teacher can enter these rooms to observe or support students through their work.

Some video conferencing platforms offer shared documents that students can create together, and teachers can access when the session ends. Teachers may ask students to go to breakout rooms for a designated amount of time before returning to a whole class discussion. They can also invite representatives from each breakout room to share two salient points made in their smaller groups as a way of reuniting the class and its discussion.

Emphasize Accountability

Figuring out how to get students’ attention in the digital classroom involves assessing ways to hold students accountable for learning. Human nature makes students more likely to stay engaged if they know their teachers have specific expectations regarding participation and engagement.

As such, educators need to clearly communicate what participation looks like in a virtual classroom by laying out clear and measurable goals. For example, teachers may create guidelines that require students to make a certain number of written or oral contributions each class.

When assigning work or activities teachers should communicate:

  • The time frame students have to complete the work or activity
  • What the students should produce, explained in specific terms (for example, each group should produce a list of five examples of foreshadowing in a story)
  • The method by which students will be held accountable (for example, each student must share their work on the platform for all to see)

Teachers can take advantage of various tools such as quiz applications that help them track student learning and keep students focused during online lessons. Many of these tools are free, such as Quizizz, while others have both free versions and paid plans with more features that allow for personalization and advanced reporting options, such as Kahoot. Teachers can assign quizzes at key points throughout a lesson to keep students motivated and to learn valuable information about lesson pacing, which students need additional help, and which students need accelerated work.

Leverage Innovative Digital Tools

Innovative digital tools can energize online classrooms and boost student engagement. They also offer unique ways to hold students accountable for their learning. Teachers can create exciting interactive infographics and presentations, build assessments, provide feedback, and create interactive virtual activities. Consider the following tools:


This cloud-based platform allows students to get feedback from their teachers and classmates on everything from math to art. Students upload images of their assignments, and teachers or peer editors can point directly to where they want to comment and offer feedback. Students can respond to these comments and ask questions.

Explain Everything

Explain Everything offers a virtual platform where students and teachers can interact in real time. Using an interactive whiteboard, participants can drag and drop items, write notes, and copy material.


This digital learning tool gamifies learning. Students respond to questions at their own pace in a game show fashion, learning new material or reviewing and practicing material they’ve already learned.


Animoto allows both students and teachers to create educational videos. The program lets users add text, create photo slideshows, stitch together several videos, and include images to deliver exciting presentations.


Glogster is a library of teacher-created “glogs,” multimedia posters that combine images, text, and video. Teachers can build their own glogs or access more than 40,000 glogs on a range of subjects.


Wakelet is a content curation platform that helps teachers organize captivating online content. Users can easily embed YouTube videos, podcasts, music, articles, or original content into a collection that students can access across many devices. Wakelet allows teachers to share resources, build online portfolios, and share digital stories.

Motivate Your Students in Any Type of Classroom

As today’s educators work hard to adapt to digital classrooms, they are learning how to get students’ attention using innovative strategies. Explore how American University’s online Master of Arts in Teaching program equips teachers with the expertise needed to keep students engaged in any type of classroom.