Student Engagement Strategies that Work Online

Let’s explore the online student engagement strategies proving to create meaningful online learning experiences.

happy female student on laptop

Internet technologies and mobile devices continue to make a significant impact on how students approach their education today. Think about it…All of us, from anywhere, at any time, can choose to take an online course, with little worry about missing lectures or assignments due to scheduling conflicts, caretaking responsibilities, employment obligations, or other personal commitments. That’s a far cry from the physical seat time required by institutions to earn a degree even just 10 years ago. From traditional college-age students to adult learners, doctoral students, and lifelong learners, people are increasingly accessing online tools to earn those degrees, learn new skills, or complete continuing education. The challenge now is ensuring online courses are just as effective as in-person ones. Here, we’re sharing the online student engagement strategies proving to create meaningful online learning experiences.

Make Interaction the Backbone of the Course

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. And we know from the research, creating social presence and community online is important for fostering emotional connection — elements key to improving engagement. And students who are highly engaged and actively participate are more motivated and 1.5 times more likely to complete a degree

Instructor-to-Student Interaction

Sustained interactions between students and instructors are the cornerstone of effective online learning. Like in-person classroom learning, regular and substantive interaction — that is, frequent, consistent, and meaningful interaction — in the form of discussion, collaboration, feedback, and other learning activities impact a student’s engagement in the course. The instructor may interact with students on different course-related discussion forums, periodic live and recorded lecture sessions, chat or messaging within the course, instructor podcasts or videos, and other learning activities.

In addition, instructors should provide students with written, voice, video, or image annotation and feedback on all student coursework. Students participate in the learning process by contributing to online discussions, requesting and sharing course materials, and sending course-related questions to the instructor through participation in Q&A forums, polls, chats, or other means of communication. Just the same, students have sustained and ongoing opportunities to interact with the instructor throughout the term to develop a community of inquiry and learning.

Student-to-Student Interaction

Social interaction in online learning allows students to share their ideas, collaborate with classmates, and form bonds with each other. Online courses should include student-led online discussions, which typically motivate deeper understanding as well as yield interesting personal applications of course concepts and theories. Encourage students to also share struggles or triumphs with the coursework on discussion boards to obtain feedback, suggestions, or praise from fellow classmates.

Assigning group work online can also create opportunities for students to interact with each other. The instructional technology is available to give students the virtual space to meet, collaborate, and grow online. Students plan, complete, and share their academic and even personal journey through the coursework within the online classroom. This collaboration with others prepares students for an integral part of life after graduating—networking.

Be Inclusive & Accessible

Whether it be student-to-student or student-to-instructor, recognize that everyone learns in different ways. Social interaction maintained through online learning is one of the most effective ways students can thrive and prepare themselves for future opportunities. Be sure the technology you use to drive your online course is fully accessible, so you’re not limiting certain students.

The most effective online tools align with the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework, giving all students an equal opportunity to succeed. This approach to teaching and learning offers flexibility in the ways students access material and demonstrate what they know. Also keep in mind, students should be able to access their online courses from smartphones or mobile devices, using tools like polls, chats, Q&A, and discussion boards so those juggling multiple obligations have the same abilities to participate.

Finally, while it may be impossible to support every student’s unique needs, it’s important to consider the diversity of learning styles among your online students. With tools that allow students to create and share rich multimedia, such as video and annotation, images, GIFs, and audio, instructors can appeal to a broader range of learning styles. This creates a wider runway for students to interact with others in the course and demonstrate what they are learning.

Double Down on Dynamic Course Discussions

Further, studies indicate that participation in discussion forums is related to better course outcomes in both traditional and online courses. In a recent pilot 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 & Scaffolding Discussions

One approach 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.

In addition to being more inclusive of how students learn, other tips for engaging students online include scaffolding complexity into ongoing discussions. In How to Foster Critical Thinking and Student Engagement in Online Discussions, instructors from Texas Tech University talk about the approach in terms of crafting discussion questions. They use lower-level but still open-ended questions early on in the course that don’t tap into analysis, synthesis, or higher-level thinking too soon in order to help students become comfortable with the content. It also helps them participate while they’re learning their way around the course for those first few weeks, understanding the new topics and the content they’re learning, and starting to build confidence in the way they engage in the discussion.

In later weeks, you’ll want to vary that and add more in-depth analysis, synthesis, and higher-thinking activities. You’re really getting to see what students truly understand, and they’re also increasing in complexity, so students are learning at a deeper level throughout the course. For example, have multi-part questions where in the first part, they’re answering a lower-level thing, and then the second part is going to be more mid- to higher-level thinking.

This technique encourages more interactions and prepares students to be knowledge-producers and actively engages them in the learning process through exploratory research as well as discussion with peers and the instructor.

For more on how to engage students in online learning, read our post on 10 creative ways to engage students in online discussions.

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

Focus on Facilitating 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. Here are a few effective ways to facilitate student collaboration in online learning, using a simple but high-impact course chat tool.

  1. Set up chat for small groups – One of the great things about using class chat is that it allows you to use multiple chats. Set up small groups of students to work on project assignments and discuss particular topics.
  2. Enable 1:1 peer reviews: Chat allows you to focus one-on-one conversations between students, so you can assign peer review sessions without students ever even meeting in person. In those chats, students can decide how and when they’ll work together.
  3. Create another opportunity for instructors & students to engage: Certain chat tools are directly accessible from the online discussion and other course tools. This means students can easily engage with other members of their class in real time without searching across multiple applications. Plus, presence indicators can allow a student or instructor to quickly scan for other students who may be online to check in or start a conversation.

Aside from collaboration, the ability to keep in touch with classmates also fosters camaraderie between the students, which goes a long way toward creating course community and improving engagement.

Formalize Collaboration through Milestones

Successful online programs employ milestones — or multiple due dates — to keep collaboration and student participation steady. For example, when Southern Arkansas University Tech implemented milestones through an online course, instructors saw an 80 percent improvement in online student participation.

Through prompts set by milestones, students provided at least three posted comments on a certain number of students’ posts and were provided feedback on those comments. As an ongoing activity, students strengthened their evaluative skills, practiced articulating constructive feedback, and became receptive to feedback.

Setting clear expectations for students, milestones can help guide students 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.

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.

Meet Students Where They Are

This leads us to a critical component of improving student engagement in online learning — incorporating familiar social elements. 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 students are digital natives who spend at least 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 — features like tagging, multimedia, notifications, and grid-like social media interfaces. If a student logs in and can connect the screen they’re viewing to something they are familiar with in their personal lives — be it Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, TikTok, Snapchat or any of the 30 other social media platforms — 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. 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 to engage with one another and instructors online.

Use Student Engagement Insights

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

To monitor, increase, and sustain student participation online, it’s important to be able to track 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.

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.

When Considering Online Tools for Student Engagement…

We touched on this earlier, but to bring online classes closer in feel to the on-campus experience, 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

When you foster a social learning environment where students are seen and heard and provide easy ways to interact with their instructor and peers — just as they would in the classroom — 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.

Harmonize offers a full suite of online tools for student engagement that include rich multimedia discussions, Q&A forums, polling, chat, and more — all of which allow students to participate in the ways that work best for them. Using online tools for student engagement increases the quality and quantity of student-to-student, student-to-content, and student-to-instructor interactions, which is proven to increase student retention and contribute to a higher likelihood of student success.

  • Rich Multimedia
  • Video, Image & Document Annotations for interactive feedback
  • Built-in Chat, Polling & Q&A
  • Tagging, Notification & Reactions
  • Streamlined Grading to Save Instructors Time & Focus on Feedback

Some institutions rely on a variety of these tools. The problem is that they are often disconnected; the chat tools, video and polling tools, discussion forums, and other collaboration tools aren’t fully integrated with each other or the LMS, taking students out of the course to use, creating additional barriers for instructors, and making it more difficult to create a cohesive learning experience for students.

Harmonize eliminates those barriers and encourages a more engaging, socially connected online learning experience for students. 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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