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Teaching Tips

Building and Maintaining Student Engagement in an Online Environment

by Kelly Birky | May 19, 2020

How do my students engage with the material? How do my students engage with their classmates? How do my students engage with me?

As you think about how to build and maintain student engagement in an online course, you must begin by asking yourself the following guiding questions for learning engagement:

  1. How do my students engage with the material?
  2. How do my students engage with their classmates?
  3. How do my students engage with me?

After consideration of those three questions, you can begin to think about how you can do the following:

  • Emphasize the value and importance of everyone in the course community. Provide multiple opportunities for Student to Student, Student to Content, and Student to Instructor activities in-class and online.
  • Keep students active in-class and online. This is critically important and includes more than just listening to lectures and taking tests. Ask yourself what students will be doing when they’re in the classroom and online?
  • Provide group and individual activities that require students to analyze ideas and issues, express themselves in meaningful ways, compare their experiences with others, and reflect on their achievements.
  • Establish a routine for communicating with students, especially online. Use multiple channels of communication and encourage students to use them too. Tools and technologies used effectively can provide a lifeline for students who might feel lost or disconnected

Specific ways to keep your students engaged in your online course:

  • Be Present in Your Course

Instructors are the natural focal point for the direction of the course and community bonding. Communicating with your students and monitoring their interactions can provide them with assurances that they are on the right track. Use the tools of communication available online to make your presence known (e.g., weekly videos, email announcements, discussion boards, and virtual office hours).

  • Use Active Learning

Students learn best when they interact with the content and each other to apply their new knowledge and make connections to what they already know. Consider the best platforms where these meaningful interactions are supported by the technology and build in opportunities for reflecting on the learning activity.    

  • Give Timely Feedback

Practice by itself, doesn’t make perfect. However, practice with timely and targeted feedback provides students with the information they need to self-regulate their learning (i.e., plan, monitor, and evaluate). Feedback can be provided individually by commenting directly to students about their work. It can also be given generally by sending emails or posting in discussion boards about common errors or misconceptions. Automated quizzes can also be structured to provide timely feedback to students immediately after their responses.

  • Create a Safe & Welcoming Environment

The welcoming environment of your face-to-face course can translate to your online course. People get to know one another by introducing themselves, engaging in small talk before class begins, and feeling comfortable enough to express themselves when they want to. Set expectations for communications from the beginning and include students in these discussions on netiquette. Build-in opportunities for expression and ensure that everyone is respected.  

  • Promote Self-Regulation of Learning

Students learn more than just the content of their courses; they also learn how to learn more efficiently. We should explicitly inform them how to regulate their learning through cycles of planning, monitoring, and evaluation. We can implicitly demonstrate this by modeling these behaviors and structuring our courses to promote self-regulated learning opportunities.

  • Design Discussion Posts to Invite Active Learning

When we ask students to answer a discussion prompt and respond to their peers’, we are asking them to engage in a meaningful back and forth conversation. These asynchronous discussions often don’t work well because we haven’t set clear expectations or built-in opportunities for reflection. In addition to responding to their peers, ask students to compare responses, and make connections to what they are learning. 

While there are many excellent resources and courses available that emphasize course design, you may want to check out the Open Educational Resource designed for post-secondary instructors and teaching assistants, created by the University of Waterloo. It is specifically focused on online course delivery and facilitation skills and exploring online facilitation through the lens of student engagement.