Are you asking yourself how to engage students in online learning? If student participation, group collaboration, and discussion board activity in your online courses are disappointing, you’re not alone. Teaching online is hard, and engaging students who have never met you or each other in person is even harder. The institutions finding success are relying on these tried and true learner-to-content, learner-to-learner, and learner-to-instructor student engagement strategies to empower faculty and boost student participation.
In this article, we explore the research-backed approaches for building positive online learning environments. From different ways of enabling communication to leveraging tools right within your learning management system, these strategies put your students front and center — and will get them excited about their own learning.
Online Learning’s Most Important Engagement Strategies
Online Learning’s Most Valuable Engagement Tactics
Content presented in a variety of formats, especially video
Class-wide & small group discussions
Multimedia for assignment submission
Clear communication & chat options
Based on the study: Engagement Matters: Student Perceptions on the Importance of Engagement Strategies in the Online Learning Environment (Online Learning Journal)
The Rise of Online Learning in Higher Education Post 2020
Being physically present in a classroom isn’t the only learning option anymore — not with the rise of new technologies, at least. Coupled with cultural shifts and demands for more accessible education, online learning’s popularity only continues to grow, especially as research shows little to no significant difference in performance between online and traditional classroom students. With an increasing number of students finding the traditional classroom modality restrictive, inflexible, and impractical, many colleges and universities are keeping pace by offering distance learning courses and programs in ways that mirror the effectiveness of in-person classrooms.
In fact, this 2022 Wiley Education Services report found that 77% of learners said they decided on the online modality before any other factor, such as school or program. To understand this growing preference better, researchers asked students how likely they would be to attend an on-campus program if their preferred program wasn’t available online. A surprisingly low 37% said they’d enroll in the campus-based program, down from 56% just five years ago. The message: distance options — even for those courses and programs not traditionally conducive to teaching online — mitigate the risk of decreasing enrollment.
So while some disciplines are harder to facilitate online, when you have the right tools and strategies in place, you can create a learning environment that supports student success. And as numbers in online courses continue to grow, it’s important to design online learning experiences that mirror the quality and rigor of the on-campus classroom.
Inclusion: Identify Inclusive Ways to Spur Student Engagement
Student engagement is a measure of a student’s level of interaction with others, plus the quantity of involvement in and quality of effort directed toward activities that lead to persistence and completion.
While every college and university defines student engagement slightly differently, and benchmarks evolve over time, one of the key factors to consider when defining what meaningful engagement looks like at your institution is: Involvement & Activity.
To motivate students to engage in course content and focus on the activities that will help them be successful in the course, encourage your faculty to implement inclusive learning approaches to online course instruction.
Use a variety of content delivery mechanisms for online teaching
Encourage faculty to use open educational resources and other forms of readily available media. Textbooks, journal articles, podcasts, simulations, case studies, video, multimedia, and interactive learning objects are just some of the ways you can deliver concepts to students. When you offer instructional content in a variety of ways, you’re going to be able to reach a broader set of students whose abilities and learning styles all vary.
This also means faculty training should be considered. In a survey on faculty confidence in online learning, instructors who say they feel successful in their online teaching leveraged a mix of institutional resources and peer support for help. More than 75% said they receive aid from instructional technology staff members and peer-to-peer forums, while about two-thirds cited teaching and learning centers and instructional designers.
Instructional designers and LMS administrators can get ahead of the curve by working with faculty before they begin teaching online courses to ensure they’re ready to employ a wide variety of tools and content types in their courses.
Support students’ ability to explore, create & express
Just as important as the instructor’s use of media, be sure to encourage students to submit assignments and make contributions using a variety of multimedia options, from pictures and video to text and audio snippets. Offering students a choice in how they complete an
assignment or asking them to find their own content in a way that fits your parameters gives students a broader range of expression and supports a more inclusive classroom.
Online learning experiences require more oversight. Active learning strategies help students to think critically and make connections with content and course activities. It’s also essential to give online students specific guidance on how the course materials align with the objectives of the course. Encourage faculty to take the next step beyond posting assigned readings and become intentional when it comes to guidance.
Consider having instructors share perspectives through recorded video microlectures to synthesize key concepts in the course materials and provide friendly reminders around expectations. Build in due date reminders for important assignments, and make sure a syllabus and online rubric tied to the course’s learning outcomes are highly visible to online students.
In addition, use milestones, or multiple due dates, for certain course activities. Milestones intentionally guide students through a series of interactions designed to practice one-on-one and small-group collaboration — and are especially important for reinforcing significant or relevant concepts. The more often students interact within the course, with the material and each other, the more likely they are to engage. Milestones ensure that the participation is both regular throughout the course and more substantial. Think about how many times students login right before a deadline to make a post, and the contribution is less than stellar! Milestones ensure students take time to compose thoughtful contributions.
For example, at Southern Arkansas University Tech, milestones are used in an online speech course, where students are required to write a narrative outline & speech and submit it for peer critique. Through prompted milestones, students provide at least 3 comments on a number of students’ speeches. When implemented this way, SAU Tech saw the number of comments per speech increase by 50% and the quality of feedback drastically improve — leading to better opportunities for learning and engagement.
Like SAU Tech, West Virginia University experienced an increase in organic interaction among students in their online discussions when they expanded the ways in which students could express themselves.
“Students were submitting written responses, creating snippets of audio, making and sending videos, annotating others videos, as well as launching or responding to polls right from within our discussion boards. We got excited about easy-to-use tools that help instructors and students better engage with content and each other. It’s why we’re seeing so much more interaction,” said Beth Bailey, instructional designer at WVU.
When you’re more inclusive of how students learn, you’ll see improvement in the quality of responses. “The options for how and in what medium to respond is allowing students to express themselves in their own ways, moving us from transactional to more meaningful exchanges,” shared Rick Bebout, technology specialist at WVU.
Today’s online students come from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences — many of which have competing priorities and additional responsibilities outside of coursework. Instructor presence, intentional guidance, and an inclusive approach will be critical to their success.
Communication: Help Instructors Cultivate Classroom Community & Connection
Like many aspects of teaching, helping students develop a sense of belonging and community can impact learning in both face-to-face and online courses, but attending to these dimensions in an online course takes intentional planning. Instructors teaching online must take steps to connect with their students via digital channels and compensate for the loss of natural face-to-face cues and communication in order to create a strong sense of classroom community online.
When students feel they belong to a class community, they are more likely to be motivated to complete class work, feel safe enough to contribute to discussions, and be open to feedback that can help them improve. Many factors influence students’ sense of belonging and community, including student-faculty & student-student interactions, how expectations are communicated, how accessible course materials and technologies are, and the range of perspectives represented in course materials.
Enable Communication for Faculty
Use channels that make students feel seen and heard. That sense of isolation students experience when not attending in-person classes can be mitigated if instructors have avenues for communication. Through one-on-one communication with the instructor or other students, small-group or break-out discussions, polls, or Q&A, instructors can actively engage with students in the course. It might be as simple as reacting and responding to students’ posts or tagging particular students for inputs.
Let’s face it. No one likes feeling like they’re posting into an internet abyss, and this is one way to help students feel connected — like there’s someone on the receiving end of their posts. And when they do, you might be surprised how much better the posts get!
In the end, it’s no different than the classroom experience. As with face-to-face interactions, instructors need to find ways to help students develop connections between each other and with them in order to build community.
Leverage video to create classroom community
One of the most important aspects—if not the most important aspect—of any student’s learning is the instructor. Think back to the courses that made the most impact on you…chances are you remember more about that instructor and how they made you feel than anything else.
Encourage instructors to use video and images to share more about themselves, so that they are modeling this practice. When instructors can establish an open, positive tone from the outset by sharing photos, video announcements, or links to news articles that capture their interest, they will increase the likelihood of students being just as open and engaging in the same ways — all of which builds a classroom sense of community.
When you consider that many of today’s students say they learn by doing, and 80% of today’s teens use YouTube and video to learn something new or improve skills that will help them prepare for the future, it’s a no brainer that incorporating video will better engage students. Plus, consider the impact of short weekly video introductions from faculty on upcoming content and course activities.
Your instructors will draw attention to important concepts and provide the continued guidance and clarity that keeps students on track. When there isn’t an opportunity for in-person interaction, being deliberate about creating those opportunities in an online environment will create a stronger sense of connection. And as an added bonus, the more intentional you are about creating interactions with and among students, you’ll satisfy RSI, or regular and substantive interaction requirements.
Heighten students’ sense of social presence…Invite students to answer fun background questions about themselves in discussion boards and have them introduce themselves to each other, so they’ll feel more comfortable interacting, collaborating, and asking questions throughout the course.
Vibrant, multimedia grid-like discussion boards in Harmonize help students create presence.
Interaction: Foster a Safe Learning Environment for Student Discussion
Interaction and collaboration in online learning requires trust. Some students are naturally shy; others fully introverted; and most need to know class discussions are a safe space to feel comfortable contributing. The sense of isolation that online learning creates for students can also translate into less engagement — especially if students don’t have the opportunity to meet one another or the instructor in person. So fostering a space for students to create social presence, interact, and practice leadership is important for building engagement in online discussions.
Safe spaces are environments where students feel the freedom to make mistakes without lasting judgment and where they can engage in critical, honest, civil, and challenging discussions about a variety of topics. As instructors, you want your students to feel comfortable approaching difficult subjects in your classroom and contributing to the conversation — just as they might during an in-person class.
To begin cultivating that safe space, have your faculty use online course technology to host online office hours, virtual lounges, and small breakout groups that encourage discussion among peers. This can bring quiet students back into discussions and reinvigorate their engagement.
Similarly, for certain assignments that require peer reviews or student-to-student feedback, consider giving students the option to respond or contribute that feedback anonymously, when appropriate. When the identity of a student is not important for an assignment, anonymous feedback often becomes more insightful — which goes a long way in helping other students improve their work. And when students see their feedback making an impact, they’re more likely to become comfortable sharing it in all discussion forums.
Leverage online discussion boards to prompt students in timely discussions or solicit questions from your students. Have more outgoing students lead online discussions. Sometimes seeing leadership from their peers encourages those less engaged students to re-engage. In fact, the student-facilitated approach to online discussions encourages better interactivity in online courses by preparing students to be knowledge-producers and actively engaged in the learning process through exploratory discussion.
Studies have shown that such peer-led discussions enhance the sense of community and encourage other students’ participation. Research on students as online discussion facilitators also suggests that this approach is beneficial for learning outcomes — generating innovative ideas, motivating students to participate in the discussion in different ways, and providing a risk-free and relaxed atmosphere for discussion. It empowers students to take ownership of online discussion assignments while developing facilitation and discussion skills, and serves to redefine the instructor’s role from daily discussion manager to facilitation coach.
Consider varying the group size of discussions too. It creates opportunities for more students to lead discussions, and it also helps those students who are more comfortable sharing in small groups. But to create a space that can support these kinds of activities, you have to have the right online tools for student engagement.
For example, tools with a user experience that mimic familiar experiences for students often have the highest usability — think features like tagging/mentions, reactions, in-app and email notifications, and social media-like interfaces. If a student or instructor logs in and can connect the screen they’re viewing to something they are familiar with from their personal lives, they’re more likely to engage.
Be sure to use polls and course Q&A to ask your students where more focus is needed and what else you can do to create a positive learning environment for them. And as you design your online course and distance education programs, consider the tools you use and how they impact student engagement. On a final note, keep these key takeaways top of mind when thinking about student engagement.
✅ Remove Barriers: Don’t make things hard to access, hard to follow, or hard to use. Instructors will be inundated with emails from students and spend more of their time there than on actual teaching. Rather, find technology and tools that are intuitive to students. The best employ features and interfaces most people are familiar with and already know how to use — think social media. This is important because most online learners are looking for the quickest way to achieve their goals and expect speed at all points in their online learning experience.
✅ Embrace Collaboration: Online learning can lead to isolation. We also know that as humans, we are social creatures. We need human interaction. And when students are not collaborating with classmates, they miss out on that social element, new perspectives, alternative ways to solve problems, and opportunities to practice providing and receiving feedback. Consider implementing instructional strategies and tools that provide those same kinds of in-person opportunities online. Peer reviews and guided collaborative activities will increase student engagement in online courses.
✅ Eliminate Manual Work: Online learning, like its name implies, should be a technology-enabled process that prevents administrative burden. When you implement digital learning tools to facilitate online courses, you’re going to eliminate the manual, often time-consuming tasks many instructors spend hours on. Use tools that enable easy grading, student participation tracking, and built-in plagiarism and AI-writing detection — all integrated with your LMS — so instructors save time and can focus on what matters most…teaching!
✅ Use Analytics to your Advantage: As they say, we don’t know what we don’t know. But what if you did know? Think of all you could do to engage students! What if you knew which students in your online course were struggling or needed more attention. If you could tell which topics and activities worked best? If you could track the engagement of your students over time? Through obvious features like polls and Q&A, you can get at some of this. But with student engagement insights, you could have clear, easy-to-understand data that helps instructors make better class decisions and also identifies when to reach out to students who may need additional support — all without having to be a data analytics pro!
When you combine these strategies with the right technology, you can successfully spur student participation and create effective learning environments for your online students. You’ll promote a student-centered, active learning environment where students are empowered in their learning. And that’s good news, as institutions look to continue adding distance offerings in order to expand access while boosting enrollment.
If you’re looking to take online student engagement to the next level and get students excited about their online learning, a member of our Harmonize team would love to talk with you.