While we aim for our classes to be active and alive with student engagement and participation, we are all faced with some passive students who, without some encouragement, do little. In our more familiar modes of teaching, identifying and encouraging initially passive students is more straight forward, however many of us ask, what actions do we take when a student is silent and invisible in a Zoom session? In this article, we identify some of the common reasons for not having video input in Zoom meetings, which we will refer to as “Zoom ghosting”, and strategies to mitigate it.

Why does it occur?

For some of us the first thing that will come to mind when students have no video input in Zoom meetings is that students are engaging in off task activities. Completing other university work is one of the more common reasons, and the spike in reported Zoom ghosting in the later stages of the teaching session when more assignments are due is a reflection of this issue. Off task activities can also be non-study related including surfing the internet, checking social networking sites and even doing other things around the house. We’ve had reports of tutors finishing their Zoom classes and watching all students leave the session and a few student remaining, suggesting these students are logging in and then leaving their device unattended. Ticking the attendance box seems the key concern for these students, however this is inconsistent with the interactive nature of our subjects entirely. There are also reports that some students record Zoom sessions using screen capture software for later reference, providing another reason why they login, but are less interested in participating at the time of class delivery.

Another possible reason for Zoom ghosting and students not participating in zoom class activities is students lacking confidence to engage in classes delivered in an unfamiliar environment. A video call requires them to work harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions and tone of the voice which can be relatively low fidelity online and therefore requires higher levels of concentration than that of a face-to-face interaction. There are no doubt many isolated students, some who have had only one week of face-to-face classes at university this year. They’ve had almost no chance to develop any peer networks and accordingly their transition to university has been all the more difficult.

We also have international students who may be more familiar with instructor centered approaches to learning, rather than the interactivity we encourage in our classes. Participating in class is both a new and sometime stressful experience for these students, and Zoom provides them with the cover they sometimes seek to avoid such engagement.

A third reason students may be Zoom ghosting relates to financial hardship and/or connection issues at home. Some of our students rely extensively on UTS IT infrastructure for their studies and do not have access to a computer at home. We also have students in regional and rural areas that do not have access to reliable internet and are dialing into Zoom sessions, which provides them with audio access only. Some students may not have a home study environment where they feel comfortable for others to view via webcam.

What’s the problem?

Individual academics will need to make an assessment as to how problematic this issue is on a more holistic level. Based on my discussions with teaching staff this issue varies widely. Lecturers teaching large numbers of students and where there are high proportions of international students are more likely to face low levels of online interaction. Perhaps the most concerning aspect of this issue centers on break out rooms where instructors are unable to check in on student engagement in all break rooms in large classes. Large subjects with many breakout rooms appear a hot bed for students not engaging without a teacher’s presence. Discussions with students indicates that in some cases most of the break out rooms in large subjects are silent, with no conversation of any kind. This is of course greatly disappointing for the students who are prepared and want to engage

What can be done?

Just like the reasons and drivers of this issue vary, so do the solutions. Some solutions that academic staff are using to address the issue include the following:

Create a welcoming atmosphere:

Ask students to turn on their webcams at the start of class and say hello. Some academic have even opened Zoom sessions before the scheduled commencement time to give students the opportunity to network and chat prior to the class commencing. While there are some students who plan to engage in off task activities, for many students lack of participation is a function of feeling initially nervous or uncomfortable about participating. Asking students to introduce themselves and giving them the opportunity to chat with others can help break the ice.

Establish expectations:

Let students know that they should switch on their webcams and be ready to contribute. Explain that their interaction and contribution is a key component of the subject and how they will learn. Students who do not switch on their webcam can be noted and contacted to check what is preventing their use of the webcam and reiterating the importance of engaging in real time in the session.

Students failing to respond to such communication and discussion in sessions, have been removed from Zoom sessions as the continued practice can set a precedent. As mentioned above some students do not have the internet access, financial resources or study environment to run Zoom sessions, so exceptions need to be made.

Consistent break out room groups:

Assign students to the same break out room so they can get to know a few students studying the subject and communicate with these students consistently in class, perhaps even engaging with each other between classes. Students will feel less anxious about participating if they know some peers in their group and may also feel responsible to their peers to engage and prepare before class.

Check in regularly:

Regular contact between teaching staff and tutorial groups encourages participation and enables students to communicate any issues such as ghosting so that staff can follow up.

Assigning responsibilities:

Assign individual students responsibility to engagement in break out rooms across the session, such as informing group members what they need to do and/or report back on once they exit break out rooms and come back to main class. These responsibilities could involve sharing breakout room ideas with the whole class or entering responses via the subjects LMS, Google Docs or Microsoft Teams. Such practice gives students a sense of accountability and reason to consistently attend and participate in class.

Financial support:

Students who are unable to access Zoom sessions at home due to financial hardship are encouraged to apply for financial support through the UTS COVID-19 Student Support Package. Through this package students can seek support relating to digital access including computer hardware/device, software and internet access.

Any other ideas?

If you have further ideas on how to address Zoom ghosting, please let us know in the comments box below.


Thank you to Kathy Egea, Simone Faulkner, the First and Further Year Experience coordinators and community, UTS Business School and IML colleagues, and students for their insight, ideas and suggestions reflected in this post.

  • Very relevant and timely thoughts, thanks James. A few years ago I found myself really struggling when students were quiet in workshops; I took it personally as something I wasn’t doing right. Then, after some research, I found that silence doesn’t stop learning happening for people; it’s just invisible to our eye. In fact, silence can enhance learning for a lot of people who need time to think things through and make their own connections. That stopped me dead in my tracks and caused me to rethink my assumptions. Clearly silence in Breakout rooms is a different issue, so thanks for the tips.

  • A really great article James. I have found that as the weeks go by, less students are turning their cameras on. The students that consistently participate weekly are the ones that generally have their cameras on. I find that turning a camera on within a class meeting somewhat resembles herd behaviour. My 1:30pm class has many enthusiastic engaged students and because so many of them have their cameras turned on from the get go, other students that just join follow and turn their cameras on. My 9am class has only a handful of students who have their cameras turned on. I put it down to the fact that perhaps they have just woken up, probably still in their PJs and may not feel like they are appropriately dressed. As the day goes by, more students in my different classes turn their cameras on. I have implemented some of the techniques you mentioned such as checking on my students regularly, setting expectations. I also put effort in making the content easy to follow and as interesting as possible by sharing some of my own experiences working in the accounting field and most importantly, coming across as friendly and approachable. In my opinion, given that I teach the same content for each class using consistent techniques, I am finding that a class that has majority of motivated well-engaged students is certainly a driving force in reducing levels of Zoom ghosting.

  • This is such a great and timely article James. I have been observing leaders running Zoom study sessions and one thing I have done is ask them, in the breakout rooms, why they haven’t turned their cameras on. One student said: “Nobody was doing it, so I didn’t either.” so I think it’s important to also ask them and know that some will not turn it on on the basis that nobody is. A type of peer pressure I guess.

    I ran a two hour online training last week and by the end of it, most of my participants had turned on their cameras, through my constant encouragement and friendliness. So I think also making sure that we are not coming down in a negative way will help.

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