Six ways to wake up sleepy students

Have you ever taught a class at 8am or right after lunchtime? Have you ever caught your students falling asleep or obviously zoning out? Do you just want to increase student engagement? Student disengagement happens. Some of our students may be in classes from the early morning until the early evening. Several of them hold jobs and / or have a lot of extra curricular activities. If they are taking classes online, they may not know how to cope with the cognitive load (‘Zoom fatigue’) from back-to-back online synchronous sessions.

Here are six specific tips for addressing this issue head-on:

  • Free Write: If you notice that students are starting to drift off, you might want to think about changing up the pace of the class. Try integrating a free write: a brief writing break where students can pose a question, make an observation, or simply write down what they’re thinking. Giving students some important reflection time and an active task can recharge their energy.
  • Think-Pair-Share: In a think-pair-share, students reflect silently (or write) about a question, share their response with a nearby peer, and then share what they’ve discussed with the whole class or with a larger group. (For an online class, use breakout rooms and/or or Google Docs for the ‘pair’ part.)
  • 100 words or less: Try integrating a creative way to test if students are paying attention. A fun, low-stakes summary exercise, like getting students to write a summary of the lecture in exactly 100 words, can give you a window into their participation.
  • Work with not against: If students are sleepy, don’t necessarily try to do a 180 on that by forcing them into some very active activity. A quiet reflection activity can help to change the energy in the room.
  • Get anonymous feedback: Acknowledge, in a non-accusatory way, that you’re sensing some boredom or confusion. Then invite students to anonymously submit some feedback (via Google Doc, or just writing it down and sharing). Be prepared to allow changes. If it is a lunch time class and they are all hungry, make clear you will allow eating during class time, for example.
  • Alternatives to traditional readings: Rather than assigning the same type of text for every class discussion, consider mixing it up by occasionally assigning videos. Make them find their own reading on the topic. Give them several options to choose from, and make them responsible for only one text.


To keep students engaged in an online class, it helps to create classroom community. Here’s how to start.

Students are dealing with a lot, as we all are. Some grounding techniques mentioned here can be tweaked for an online class environment.

Synchronous online class sessions through video-conferencing can be draining. Consider tweaking some of the tips listed here for your class.

Credits: Original post by Lindsey Albracht, Christina Nadler, and the students in the Macaulay Honors Program at Queens College; updated and remixed by Hamad Sindhi

Featured image from The Pattern Library.

Last updated: July 6th, 2020.