Managing Student Engagement and Other Similar Challenges

Course: United States History

Department: History

Institution: Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin (NDCL)

Instructor: Patrick Basista

Number & Level of Students Enrolled: 28 sophomores

Digital Tools/Technologies Used: Blackboard Collaborate, Blackboard Blog Posts, Blackboard Discussion Boards, FlipGrid, Google Slides, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Forms, YouTube,

Author Bio: Patrick Basista, Social Studies teacher at Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin, is a graduate of Cleveland State University and an avid proponent of Stanford History Education Group’s Historical Thinking Skills. Aided by the features found in Blackboard, he challenged himself to provide history instruction that supplied up-to-date feedback to his students on their assignments and learning. Here, he details some of his challenges and successes in this unique period of online teaching and learning.

Managing Student Engagement and Other Similar Challenges

When Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin (NDCL) began our period of online teaching and learning, our principal challenged us as educators to “let go of what we prefer” when creating an online experience for our students. One of the education practices I prefer is walking around my classroom as students analyze historical sources and assessing their analysis on-the-fly. I believe that a proficient educator offering students thought-provoking and analytical questions encourages learning by modeling appropriate question techniques while challenging students in an independent or group learning environment. Clearly, my educational approach would need to change. As a result, I vowed to create learning experiences that allowed students to continue practicing  their historical thinking skills, concise and direct instructions, and highlighted student choice. This case study details my general approach to online teaching and learning, one lesson that encapsulated my teaching and learning goals, my general approach to online teaching and learning, as well as areas of growth in my instruction.

Generally, the actual structure of my class remained unchanged. In my class, students spend a significant amount of time analyzing sources and forming historically relevant conclusions. However, I realized without the motivation inherent in a face to face classroom, I need to differentiate how students would receive classroom content and how they would show mastery of historical topics. Luckily, NDCL mandates one “Blended Learning” day for each subject per school year, so both myself and my students had basic knowledge of how to provide online lessons using Blackboard and other features highlighted in this case study. What changed was the intentional use of each feature to help guide instruction over many days of online learning. For instance, I utilized Microsoft Forms surveys throughout the course to gather input about what methods students preferred and what they found most helpful to their learning. Students preferred options for learning such as audio and visual or reading for content learning. For completion of assignments students largely preferred to work at their own pace. Microsoft Forms includes a “branching” function that can be used to provide answer keys tailored to certain responses. I found that students liked this format because Microsoft Forms could easily be embedded in a Blackboard Module to create an aesthetic and easily accessible learning tool.

Figure 1: Options box for Microsoft Forms. Notice “add branching” option
Figure 2: Branching menu

As far as classroom practices, for differentiation of content (the specific items students study), I alternated between textbook reading, carefully curated YouTube videos ranging from overview instructional videos to primary sources, documentaries (most notably Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War), online primary and secondary source readings, and audio clips from oral history interviews found on When assessing student learning, they demonstrated learning of classroom content and mastery of historical thinking skills in a variety of activities. Some days, students completed guided question sheets, while others ranged from responding to each on Blackboard blog posts, creating FlipGrid video responses, short essays, quizzes, and historical interpretation activities.

One example of a lesson with a historical interpretation activity was a lesson comparing the viewpoints of Vietnam War soldiers and Vietnam War protesters. This lesson exposed students to these viewpoints using text and audio-visual sources. After reviewing a brief PowerPoint highlighting the main ideas behind the experiences of Vietnam Veterans and their anti-war counterparts, students dived right into sources. To guide them in their analysis I listed some thought-provoking questions and students documented the main ideas of each side and similarities between each side in a Venn Diagram. Each side’s repository of sources included a handful of mandatory sources and two options picked from four to five additional sources. This was one instance of encouraging student choice, and the other was their choice for their assessment of learning. For their assignment to demonstrate learning students wrote a historically accurate letter written by a Vietnam soldier serving in Vietnam to an anti-war protester or from an anti-war protester to a Vietnam soldier. A well-done letter exhibited proper understanding of the historical context during this time period, portrayed emotion, and contained 4-6 themes/main ideas that represented the thought patterns of each side. Students responded very positively to this assignment, and I believe that their ability to choose many of the learning components made it more engaging and meaningful.  

Overview of class procedures

Overall, I instructed this class almost entirely asynchronously. This posed some benefits and challenges. The primary benefit was that students could work at their own pace. Most instruction included watching videos, recording short lectures, or posting PowerPoints. Our school instituted that classwork should be completed by 11:59PM, and that any homework is due at 11:59PM before the next class (NDCL works on a rotating block schedule with distinct Blue and Gold day class schedules). Our sophomores became fairly overwhelmed with their other classes’ work, so instructing students asynchronously allowed them time to interact with my classwork and give their homework a valiant attempt.

To combat the pitfalls of this approach, I challenged myself to provide feedback to all work via text on Blackboard, email, or recorded video. In a way, this was a lot of work, but my students’ grades reflect the successes of this proactive approach. Nearly all of my students showed improvements in their GPA during this period of online teaching and learning. I found myself carefully wording my instructions and narrowing them down to bullet points or numbered lists as opposed to a paragraph. I chose this approach because students and staff already spent a large portion of our day answering and writing emails – at times I remember spending entire afternoons sifting through emails. While questions are a vital part of education, equipping students with enough confidence and concise instruction helps fast forward their learning and avoids frustration. For all projects or larger assignments, I routinely uploaded video instructions complete with screenshares of me pointing directly at the assignment document for extra clarity. Additionally, any assignment that allowed students to demonstrate learning of skills or content (ranging from a short paragraph to a large project) included a rubric – this was another way to provide detailed instructions and it allowed me to grade assignments faster.  


Although at times difficult to navigate, Blackboard does provide an array of online learning experiences to differentiate the instruction and assessment of student’s learning. For further opportunities of remote learning, I will use more of these features to include opportunities for student collaboration. For instance, FlipGrid, which can be easily embedded into Blackboard, has a feature that allows users to respond to a friend’s video with a video of their own. Generally, I am wary about assigning any sort of group project regardless of the learning situation because of the allure of cheating or freeloading, but for some of the low-stakes assignments it would be appropriate for students to respond to each other on a visually collaborative environment. I also would provide space for peer review (although this would have been challenging because it is a skill we did not practice during the school year) because I wish there was more discussion distinguishing the feedback students received and how they interpreted and used that feedback.


Overall, as I reflect on the semester, I have both optimism and unanswered questions about remote learning. Because the NDCL community was familiar with online teaching and learning I was not entirely apprehensive about this new transition. However, challenges like maintaining student attention and decreasing unnecessary busy-work for myself and my students did arise. Thankfully, my teaching approach adapted to include clear and concise directions with rubrics for all assignments big and small. My students demonstrated that asynchronous learning could be very effective. Although, this does not mean that teachers are not valuable – it is the educator who sets his students up for success with asynchronous learning and I believe with the proper approach and guided directions students will learn well. Hopefully, as Ohio schools start to re-open in the fall, I plan on continuing my guiding instructional role now having a more rounded understanding of how my students learn and perform at their best.

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