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6 Student Engagement Strategies Proven to Increase Participation Online

With these six student engagement strategies, you’ll be able to employ an effective mix of synchronous and asynchronous activities that have proven to boost student engagement and drive better retention.

happy female student on laptop

Whether it’s juggling multiple responsibilities, difficulty managing time, the lack of face-time with instructors, or the sense of isolation online learners may experience, students who participate in online education tend to struggle more than those in face-to-face courses. Unsurprisingly, online courses often have a 10-20 percent lower retention rate than traditional courses. As institutions continue to expand their online course offerings, there’s an opportunity to develop more dynamic and engaging online learning environments. With these six student engagement strategies, you’ll be able to employ an effective mix of synchronous and asynchronous activities that have proven to boost student engagement and drive better retention.

Student Engagement Strategy 1: Build Avenues for Communication

Because instruction is delivered asynchronously, and material can be accessed by students at any time, online courses are typically built with one-way, transactional communication in mind. While this creates convenience and flexibility for online learners, it also has the potential to create an isolating experience for students.

Of all the student engagement strategies, this one is fairly obvious. 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, chats 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.

You can also use polls and Q&A, to ask students where more focus is needed and what else you can do to create a positive learning environment.

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 or messages.

See How…Don’t take our word for it! Using this tip for engaging students online helped Meridian Community College experience a 4x increase in student participation and a 56% increase in student engagement.

Student Engagement Strategy 2: Create Dynamic Course Discussions

Research indicates that participation in discussion forums is related to better course outcomes in both traditional and online courses. That’s great news, but the problem is that most online discussions rely on the LMS as a standard way for students to interact in discussions. These forums are typically text-based and can be challenging to extract deep engagement from students. They are also difficult for instructors to track and assess student participation.

That said, in a recent pilot study conducted by WGU Labs, the College Innovation Network (CIN) found strong promise for increased course engagement and improved learning outcomes at Piedmont Community College, when different online discussion tools were used both in the classroom and asynchronously. These tools allowed instructors to pull on a broader set of discussion techniques to increase student participation.

Emotion-based, Multimedia & Student-facilitated Discussions

One of those levers is emotion-based or real-world prompts. To illustrate course concepts or materials, instructors can use prompts that reference current events and social justice issues to solicit response from students.

This gives all students the chance to articulate their opinions, understand competing perspectives, and compose thoughtful responses — including those who tend to be naturally shy or need to see and feel the discussions are a safe space before sharing their thoughts. To signal course discussions as safe spaces, first enable anonymous posts when identity is not important. Students are more likely to participate, and it’s a way to help students discuss difficult topics as well as figure out how to resolve conflict.

When anonymous posting isn’t ideal, you can encourage student participation when you use different mediums of response. Instead of those long, text-heavy threads seen in the LMS, consider how much more interesting and engaging discussions will become when you introduce multimedia options. With video, image, annotation, audio snippets & captioning, and text, you allow for a wider range of responses and empower students to express themselves in the ways they’re most comfortable.

See How…The University of Michigan built a socially inclusive learning community for its blended learning offerings by incorporating multimedia into discussions and an effective mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning activities.

In addition to being more inclusive of how students learn, other tips for engaging students online include using student-facilitated discussions to encourage interactivity in online courses. This technique encourages more interactions and prepares students to be knowledge-producers and actively engages them in the learning process through exploratory discussion with their peers.

Studies even show that peer-led discussions enhance community and entice other students to participate, while also being beneficial for learning outcomes — generating innovative ideas, motivating students, 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.

Vibrant, multimedia grid-like discussion boards in Harmonize. Vibrant, multimedia grid-like discussion boards in Harmonize.

Student Engagement Strategy 3: Guide Online Collaboration

In an online learning environment, it can be challenging to facilitate group or student-to-student collaboration without the right kinds of tools. Yet, the benefits of doing so far outweigh the challenges.

During collaboration, students receive attention from their peers, which has shown to increase a student’s level of engagement and participation in the learning process. In fact, in a meta-analysis of 1,000+ empirical studies, peer-assisted methods outperformed traditional methods, with small-group collaboration increasing students’ ability to transfer their learning to new contexts. To implement this student engagement strategy, here are some effective ways to guide students in collaborating with one another online.

Peer Reviews, Small Groups & Milestones

Southern Arkansas University Tech, which experienced an 80 percent improvement in online student participation, uses the learner-centered strategy of peer reviews, and couples it with opportunities for students to provide feedback and also work 1-on-1 and in small breakout groups with each other through virtual chat portals.

See How…For example, in an online speech course, students are required to write a narrative speech and submit it for peer critique. Through prompts set by milestones or multiple due dates, students provide at least three posted comments on a certain number of students’ speeches. As an ongoing activity, students strengthen their evaluative skills, practice articulating constructive feedback, and become receptive to feedback.

“The feedback students were providing was at least 10 times better, and the number of comments per speech more than doubled when set milestones for them. We also found that anonymous posts elicited more constructive feedback, which is helping our students better iterate their work before final submissions and grades,” said SAU Tech instructional designer Traci Rushing.

This sets clear expectations for students and guides them through collaborative learning activities — keeping them on track and engaged with one another, while simultaneously working to create a stronger sense of community as they work together.

Students at SAU Tech also participate in small-group collaboration projects. That collaboration is powered through chat portals. The key here is familiarity.

“It looks and feels like text messaging — a familiar medium of communication for students. However, rather than taking the students out of the course to mobile texting, we use tools that are connected to the course in order to keep students engaged with the relevant material.”

With the right tools, instructors can more easily incorporate a wider range of collaborative activities, including facilitating discussions by section or groups, breaking students out into groups by topic, and supporting student-led discussions. This approach encourages more student-to-student communication and continues to honor the asynchronous communication needs of most online learners.

Milestones or multiple due dates in Harmonize set expectations and guide students through a series of interactions. Milestones or multiple due dates in Harmonize set expectations and guide students through a series of interactions.

Student Engagement Strategy 4: Meet Students Where They Are

This leads us to a critical component of improving student engagement in online learning — how to create a strong sense of connection and community. The key is to keep it social. In fact, students increasingly want their instructors to incorporate and use social media as a part of their learning — not surprising when you consider today’s college-age student spends about three to four hours each day on social media. And this generation engages best with bite-sized pieces of information, preferably through video as the medium of choice.

So any technology an institution employs to facilitate online courses should foster social connection and be easy to use. Tools with a user experience that mimic familiar life experiences have the highest usability — think features like tagging, multimedia, notifications, and grid-like social media interfaces. If a student or instructor logs in and can connect the screen they’re viewing to something they are familiar with in their personal lives, they are likely to explore it more deeply.

Tools that provide a social media-like experience, with content creation, sharing, and reaction capabilities — make it both recognizable and easy to use, which lead to increased student participation and engagement.

See How…Using authentic collaboration, Eastern Florida State College Online is one institution that takes advantage of this approach to motivate students.

“Like social media, we use instructor-student tagging in our discussions. The mention lets a student know I’m there and that I will respond with feedback. It’s a way to get students’ attention and demonstrate that their contributions are valued. Our students feel like someone’s really there for them,” notes Andrew Lieb, Collegewide Chair at EFSC.

Brown University also experienced increased student participation by incorporating social elements. James Foley, Director for Digital Learning & Design, says, “We elevated our course discussion experiences for students. With features that keep students engaged, we used a tool that made it flexible for all users and had the kind of built-in social engagement that increases student participation.”

Based on the way students interact today, a social-based approach can help students in an online course feel better connected to each other even if they’ve never met. This student engagement strategy creates a sense of community that doesn’t rely on a physical space, and it fosters a level of comfort that encourages today’s students — many of whom are already digital natives — to engage with one another and instructors online.

Student Engagement Strategy 5: Use Student Engagement Insights

Of all the student engagement strategies, this one has a huge impact! Just imagine what it could look like if you were able to implement all of these tips right from one application. When you have a single suite of tools that integrate with your LMS and allow you to build more engaging online courses, you’ll end up having something so much more powerful: the right kind of information.

To increase student engagement online, it’s important to be able to track that engagement. Traditionally, it’s been hard to know which students are engaged and which are not. And sometimes, by the time an instructor gets a good sense, that student has dropped off entirely. That doesn’t have to be the case anymore.

With analytics built into your online discussion, communication, and collaboration tools, you’re able to quickly understand how students are progressing toward goals. You can see who, how, and when students are participating in courses. You can see which students need more attention and which topics worked best. Serving as an early-warning system, these kinds of student engagement insights can help instructors trigger customized outreach to specific students — promptly and proactively re-engaging them in discussion and working to get them back on track. It’s an easy but effective way to help instructors improve engagement and retention in their courses.

See How…With an easy-to-read dashboard, instructors at Southside Virginia Community College had new visibility into how students were progressing toward goals: which students were actively participating and which students were less active or had dropped off in engagement. From these insights, instructors triggered email and chat outreach to specific students who were struggling.

Now with a way to quantify student-to-student, student-to-instructor, and student-to-content engagement over time, Southside Virginia Community College can proactively respond to current RSI guidelines and demonstrate the quality of their courses as standards continue to evolve.

Harmonize's Engagement Insights serves as an early-warning system, so instructors can trigger customized outreach to potentially struggling students. Harmonize's Engagement Insights serves as an early-warning system, so instructors can trigger customized outreach to potentially struggling students.

Student Engagement Strategy 6: Create a Seamless Tech Experience

We mentioned this earlier, but the last of the student engagement strategies focuses on technology. To bring online classes closer in feel to the on-campus experience, putting community and connection front and center, it’s important that all of your tools are integrated with one another and the LMS. This will:

✓Make it easier to have lively discussions around relevant and challenging topics

✓Meet students where they are by being inclusive of different learning styles

✓Create multiple avenues for interaction using polls, Q&A, chat, video, discussion boards

✓ Facilitate frequent collaboration through peer reviews, 1:1 or group work, and milestones

✓ Provide the insights needed to track those at risk of disengaging from your course

See How…Fayetteville State University found a solution to seamlessly integrate with existing course technologies, including its LMS, Canvas, and plagiarism detection tool, Turnitin. Unlike previous solutions the institution used, Harmonize integrated easily and fully with both Canvas and Turnitin.

With Single Sign-On as well as integrated auto-grading and plagiarism detection, instructors could now use a discussion & collaboration tool purposefully designed to increase engagement in their courses, while saving time and eliminating the many manual tasks often associated with using disparate systems. Simple setup, less clicks, and a more cohesive experience with course technologies for both students and instructors have helped increase adoption across disciplines and drive student satisfaction ratings. In fact, 9 out of 10 of instructors said they would recommend using Harmonize to their peers.

When you foster a social learning environment where students are seen and heard and provide easy ways to interact with their instructor and peers, you’ll see student engagement soar. And having access to the right tools to power these activities is just as important as any other engagement strategy.

To do all of this, some institutions rely on a variety of disconnected tools — chat tools, video and polling tools, discussion forums, and other collaboration tools — that aren’t fully integrated with the LMS, creating additional barriers for instructors and making it more difficult to create a cohesive learning experience for students.

Harmonize is a suite of easy-to-use discussion and collaboration tools that integrate seamlessly with your LMS to facilitate a more engaging, socially connected online learning experience. It’s everything an instructor needs to increase student engagement online and promote inclusive learning, while saving time and eliminating manual tasks.

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