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How to Increase Student Engagement in Online Learning

Activate, Connect, Discuss: A guide to getting students excited about online learning.

excited female student on laptop

A big part of teaching is engaging students. You know this; your best teachers likely did it for you, and you remember them for it. The question is, how can you do it when you never meet students face-to-face?

Awareness is a good first step. Understanding your online students means seeking to know them better — to connect, to demonstrate interest in who they are and how they learn best, and to identify what you can do to create a supportive online learning environment for them.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), more than seven million students — that’s 36% of all college-level students in the nation — are enrolled in at least one distance education course at degree-granting postsecondary institutions. As numbers in online courses continue to grow, it’s important to design online learning experiences comparable to the on-
campus classroom experience.

What Students Want from Online Learning

According to student evaluations and surveys conducted by American University, the top five things students want from their online learning are:

1. Excellent instruction, which includes a range of class work, teaching strategies, and instructional materials (e.g., books, videos, web resources, collaboration tools, options to speed up the videos, transcripts, and shorter lectures).

2. Smaller courses with eight – ten students. More than twenty was too much.

3. Some traditional classroom–style features for a comparable experience, like at least one virtual office hours session (i.e., live chats) or conversations outside of the class environment (e.g. an email that asks how the student is doing—the personal connection).

4. Good video guidance that includes orientation to the course and time management, along with weekly introductions to the topic, which makes connections across course material.

5. Social learning and connections across the courses, with the instructor, each other, and the content. This is the foundation of a learning community.

If you want to increase student engagement in online learning, you first need to meet their expectations. In this guide, we explore research-backed strategies for building positive learning environments for students in online courses, each through the lens of learner-to-content, learner-to-learner, and learner-to-instructor engagement strategies.

Getting Students Excited About Online Learning

Strategies & Tactics

From different ways of enabling communication in your online courses to leveraging tools right within your learning management system, these strategies put your students front and center — and get them excited about their own learning.

Online Learning’s Most Valuable Engagement Tactics

  • Content presented in a variety of formats, especially video
  • Class-wide & small group discussion
  • Multimedia for assignment submission
  • Clear communication & chat options

Online Learning’s Most Important Engagement Strategies

  • Learner-to-Content
  • Learner-to-Learner
  • Learner-to-Instructor


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.

Part of how you can measure student engagement is by observing how students spend their time. 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 an inclusive approach to online course instruction.

Employ 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 is imperative. 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 approach to learning.

Provide clear guidance for completing course activities and gaining deeper understanding of course content

Provide clear guidance for completing course activities and gaining deeper understanding of course content

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

In addition, use milestones 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 fo rreinforcing 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!

Spotlight Case: Southern Arkansas University Tech

For 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  number of students’ speeches. When implemented this way, SAU Tech saw the number of comments per speech and the quality of feedback drastically improve — leading to better opportunities for learning and engagement.

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 and intentional guidance will be critical to their success.


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 can 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, it’s important for instructors to  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.

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.

Bonus Tip!

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.


Foster a Safe Learning Environment for Student Discussion

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.

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 and mimicking the in-class experience, 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 discussion boards that are a part of your online course 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 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.

Encourage Peer Facilitation

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.

Finally, 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.

Getting Students Excited About Online Learning

Best Practices for Designing an Online Course

Don’t Create 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.

Don’t Shy Away from 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, communication channels, and guided collaborative activities will increase student engagement in online courses.

Don’t Spend Time Doing 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 detection — all integrated with your LMS so instructors never have to leave the system.

Don’t be Afraid of Analytics

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!

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