Engaging Virtual Students Through The Sense of Hearing & Touch

Irene Somyk
June 27, 2022

Sounds of Silence

How can we use our sense of hearing to enhance learning and the online classroom experience? When asked this question, most will immediately think of sound, but I want to start with the absence of sound - silence. 

We rarely have it in the classroom, and it is golden. Of course there are some expected silences in the classroom: Silences that occur as you wait for someone to respond to a question, or you help students navigate to a section in the material. Silence during these times helps students concentrate on the question or task.  

I propose an intentional moment of silence. By making it a routine in your classroom to call a moment of silence at the beginning of each class, your students can get used to the idea that silence is okay. It is important to let them know that silence is conducive to learning. If they must do something during the moment of silence, they can draw or write, but the point is that this is intentional silent time. It only needs to last a minute or even 30 seconds. Silence gives everyone a chance to ground themselves, so they can focus on the tasks to come. 

Once a moment of silence is established as a routine, the teacher can call one at any time, and invite the students to suggest one as well. You may need to emphasize that this is not about prayer or any certain religion, it is simply taking a moment to settle and clear your mind, which can be hard to do when there is noise and when your mind is distracted by the constant sound in the classroom.


Whether a virtual or in-person classroom, you can have some music playing as students log in and start working on the bell-ringer. Instead of hearing background noise from their classmates before they mute, they hear music. It can simply be some uplifting or soothing instrumental. Students are moving from class to class and background music can help provide a calm, smooth transition to your class. 

Alternatively, you can make it more focused. For example, world Language teachers can start every class with a song in the target language. ELA teachers might find some ‘Grammar Rock’ to review or preview a rule. In my experience, students respond well to hearing music as they log in. While students are working independently, give them some choices of what they’d like to hear in the background. Most students will welcome music and look forward to logging in knowing that there will be uplifting or calming music.

Managing Classroom Sound

For the best experience, use a headset and encourage students to do the same. It makes all the difference in the feeling of connectedness. With headphones, the kids will be much less distracted by the things going on around them and any surrounding noise. They will also be able to hear you clearly. Using headphones also eliminates screechy feedback as the sound loops out and then back into the students’ mics.  

In normal listening, without headphones, our brains filter sounds that are not necessary at the moment. When we are wearing headphones, there is no filter. So control the sound coming into our headphones to minimize distractions and fatigue or irritation caused by overstimulation. 

Tips for managing headphone listening: 

  1. Encourage students to mute themselves as they enter  
  2. Only allow one student to speak at a time
  3. Have students use the ‘raise hand’ icon to get permission to speak
  4. Mute students when necessary
  5. Explicitly set the expectations for who can talk and when

Tone of Voice

Be aware of your voice. Experiment with how different tones of voice affect the classroom. Listen to recordings of yourself. What is the quality of your voice? Is it high or low pitched? Is there a little rasp? Is there anything you would like to change in it to make your voice clearer?  

Be economical with your words. Listen for how often you hesitate or say ‘um’ or ‘let me see’ - not that these are bad in themselves, but reflect on whether you are saying these too much. Listening to myself, I realized that I was saying “So….” much too frequently. We speak so much as teachers that we develop habits of teach-speech. Be mindful of your language to keep vocabulary clear and concise for better understanding.

To improve clarity and efficiency, listen to yourself. See if there are ways you are filling the class with words that may be unnecessary. Find ways to decrease teacher-talk and increase student-talk. Look for times to increase the silence. Play calm, focused music in the background.

These are just a few suggestions that have worked in my classroom. What others have you used?

Sense of Touch in the Online Classroom

Using the senses of sight and hearing in the online classroom is obvious.  But how can we use the sense of touch to enhance learning online?  Keeping in mind that the more our senses are engaged, the better we learn, here are a few tips for bringing the sense of touch into the online learning experience. 

  1. Enable the Annotation feature in Zoom. Students (and teachers) can annotate on anything shared in zoom.  With student annotation enabled, students can type or draw on any shared content or on the whiteboard. Once the annotation is enabled, ask students to circle or highlight target words or key elements on the slide, webpage or whatever you’re sharing.  Annotation gives students a way to participate using their hands rather than the mic or chat. It engages their sense of touch as they write, type or draw and see their work appear on the screen.

How to enable Annotation for students:  

(You must be sharing your screen):  

Please note:  Some devices don’t allow annotation in Zoom.  For those using Chromebooks, a workaround is to install the Android version of Zoom.

  1. Good old-fashioned notebooks!  Have students write things down - yes, by hand!  Don’t expect that they already know when to do so, tell them: “Write this down, it’s important. I’ll give you a minute to write this down. It’s going to be on the test.”  Have them show you their notes using their camera. Some students might offer to type their notes instead but make it a requirement to write them by hand.  Writing notes by hand involves deeper cognitive processing and is definitely preferred if conceptual understanding (rather than rote memorization) is the goal.  It has also been noted that even lists of vocabulary are better memorized when written rather than typed.  Writing by hand also engages the sense of touch in the online classroom.  
  1. Use gestures, move, and encourage students to do so as well.  When the teacher uses gestures in the online classroom, the students feel that the teacher is more engaged with the lesson. This video gives some good examples of simple gestures to use online.   Learning is enhanced when students watch a teacher gesture or when students use gestures themselves. Gestures can be directly related to meaning, or not.  Simply instructing students to move in a certain way - swinging arms or stretching - helps students think and problem-solve.  The online classroom encourages inactivity, but direct instruction to move is a great way to enhance learning by increasing the sense of touch through movement.   

When we engage each of our senses in an integrated way, learning is deeper, retention longer, and there is more complete assimilation of information.  I have only mentioned a few ways to enhance learning through the use of our senses.  Adapt them to fit your students and come up with your own - the possibilities are endless.

Read the first part of the senses series: Sight

about the author
Irene Somyk

Irene Somyk taught World Languages in schools for twenty-five years and online for ten. She and her husband lived in China and Japan for a total of 20 years and now reside in Baltimore, Maryland. She works as a Vice Principal with Proximity Learning guiding virtual teachers.

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