Increase Communication in Your Classroom


One of the best predictors of student achievement in a class is the communication skills of the teacher. It is well-documented that in the course of a day, a teacher plays a myriad of roles from guide, counselor, facilitator, actor, administrator, manager, etc… All of these diverse but connected rolls require excellent communication skills.

Personally, I don’t believe any of us have attained all there is to know about communication. There are simple tweaks that we can make to our instruction that make a big difference, like asking a student to repeat and explain directions to check for understanding, as well as larger tools that can help streamline communication so that it is easier for everyone involved.

What, Where, When?

Putting a large, public calendar up in your classroom can have a good effect once students get used to using it. The key is to make sure that there is useful information on it. Deadlines, events, homework, etc… Anything that is important can be added to the calendar. It helps to diffuse the information more effectively and allows the students to check it at their own pace. It also transfers some of the onus for being responsible for the information from the teacher and puts it on the students.

What if the calendar could be public to more than just your students though? Wouldn’t it be helpful if students, parents, administrators, and fellow educators could see the calendar as well? Transparency is important to our profession. It can allow parents to better support the teacher and help the students because they will know what is going on and when things are due. Administrators can better support the teachers for the same reason. It becomes easier for teachers to align their curricula and teach in a cross-curricular fashion when they know what their students are learning in their other classes.

Google Calendar is one method to make a publicly visible calendar. While it is not the only method, it is definitely worth consideration for several reasons. First, you can customize access. You can share the whole calendar or specific events. Second, you can invite collaborators to add events to a calendar. Third, one account can have several calendars, so you can keep different calendars for different classes. Fourth, Google lets you embed the calendar so it can be viewed in your class website if you have one. I use Google calendars for the library, for school events, and for school sports. Here is an example.

Support During Assignments

When students are working either in groups or independently, we need to move into a more supportive, guiding role. It is difficult to support students when we don’t know where they are in an assignment or how they are doing. During class, it is effective to be constantly moving around and checking on students’ progress. Sometimes, students need more help, whether in or out of school. There is a tool that can let us see exactly what they are doing and offer suggestions to help.

Google Docs is a collaborative office/productivity suite. It has a word processor, a spreadsheet editor (with form functionality), a PowerPoint-like presentation creator, and a simple drawing application. The main advantage of Google Docs is not in the power of the productivity applications themselves, but rather in how seamless collaboration can become.

With any document created in Google Docs, you can invite collaborators and viewers. Viewers can see the document and collaborators can edit it. In the word processor, Google just added real-time functionality so you can even see what students are writing as they type. In the spreadsheet editor and presentation creator, there is a lag of only a few seconds between a student writing something and you seeing it.

If you require that the students invite you as a collaborator, you can monitor their progress at any time. You can also make suggestions or comments to help the student. Furthermore, the student doesn’t have to worry about turning it in; when they are done, you already have access to it.

What Are They Thinking?

The better we know are students, the more effective we can be in supporting them.  I find that giving surveys/questionnaires to students and asking for honest feedback can be very helpful, whether it is about teaching strategies or gauging for understanding.

The first tool I use is Google Forms, part of Google Docs. This is best for asynchronous surveys or when you want more in-depth feedback. You can create a multitude of types of questions, including ones that call for a written response from the student.  The results are automatically graphed, when possible, and organized into a spreadsheet for you.

The second tool I use is a student response system. If cell phones were not banned in my district, I would use Poll Everywhere, a free website that lets students respond to multiple choice questions via text message. My school actually uses the CPS response system; another option is Turning Point.  Both CPS and Turning Point are quite expensive. They use a custom “clicker” or remote that students can use to respond with. Students are often engaged instantly. In my experience, they love using the response system. It can be used as a survey or a formative assessment. You can get graphs of how well the class understands a concept after each concept; after the activity, you can look at reports on how each student did individually on each question. The response systems are wonderful because they give you immediately usable data while simultaneously making the class more fun and interactive for your students.

Tie It All Together

Several different types of tools have been presented. I feel that it is absolutely imperative today that every teacher have a class website, an online presence of some kind. The best solution for me is to use a course management system, like Moodle. I have written extensively in the past (including a 100+ page paper) on how a learning management system can be used to improve classroom communication. Really, though, every teacher can benefit from having an online home for their student. A great, free, easy to use one is Edublogs. I have put together a series of tutorials on Edublogs as well that may be of use.

This is by no means a dissertation on exactly how you should communicate with your students. These are some tools that have helped me over the last few years. What tools have helped you? Please let me know in the comments.

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