Instructor-Based Strategies to Improve Student Engagement in an Online Course

Written by: Christie Forgette

Student engagement is crucial to learning in any course, whether it is fully online or mostly in person with some online activities via courseware. 

Traditionally, student engagement has been treated as the responsibility of the student. Faculty often viewed their jobs as "setting the table" and assumed students would "eat if they’re hungry.” 

However, research suggests that courses designed with student engagement in mind can lead to improved learning outcomes and higher success rates. Studies have shown that courses with high engagement levels may be connected with higher academic achievement, increased learner retention, and less student isolation, particularly in the digital space. The effective engagement practices these studies document include promoting active learning, offering opportunities for discussion among students, integrating students’ input, maintaining instructors’ presence and communication, and using mixed-media approaches. 

Discussions about how to design for student engagement are often organized as learner-to-learner, learner-to-content, and learner-to-instructor interactions. A different approach, though, is to consider a series of engagement-building actions that an instructor can take when designing and implementing a course. Framing engagement through this "big ideas" lens can help instructors activate engagement holistically throughout the course.

Set Expectations for the Course 

Sending an email or message before the start of the course is a useful way to set the expectation that the instructor is available and engaged with students' learning. This message should help students prepare for the course, give them advice for being successful, and encourage them to ask any questions.

Detailed, comprehensive syllabi are especially important in online courses. Be sure to include your contact information and availability, provide course communication instructions, and clarify your responsiveness. 

Transparent policies and detailed information help students know, from the start, what is expected of them. Convey clear guidelines and grading expectations for discussion or other participation. Make this information available as soon as possible so students feel prepared to engage with the material.

The digital architecture of an online course may be unfamiliar to some students. Creating an introductory video for students can provide a helpful orientation to the digital learning space and make students more comfortable and confident as they begin to work. 

Build Community and Relationships Online 

Making a space for relationship building in the classroom is just as important as identifying the expectations for the course and the course content. Sharing information about yourself as an instructor and inviting students to share about themselves can encourage students to contribute their goals and perspectives.

As workloads get heavier throughout the semester, it might feel hard to maintain a sense of community. Quick check-ins demonstrate that you value your students and are invested in their learning.

Throughout the course, instructors can also provide opportunities for meaningful interaction through

  • facilitating online discussions,
  • launching breakout rooms during synchronous group sessions,
  • incorporating students’ experiences and knowledge into the learning, and
  • including group exercises or projects. 

Carnegie Mellon’s Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation provides an excellent resource with several strategies for building community. For example, informal ”work time” sessions held over Zoom enable students and instructors to work together on current projects.

Communicate Faculty Presence 

Online presence refers to how instructors interact with students in a digital space, respond to questions and concerns, and make themselves available. Instructors who are an active part of the course, as opposed to “running on autopilot,” can increase student engagement.

The Iowa State University Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching has previously published a succinct list of ways for instructors to foster online presence:

  • Provide an introductory video so that students can virtually meet you.
  • Post images of yourself in the introductory materials.
  • Embed social media sites or feeds like your Twitter name, LinkedIn profile, etc.
  • Share your departmental website to help students understand who you are and what you do.
  • Use video or audio to update students throughout the course.
  • Provide prompt feedback on assignments (text, video, and audio).

Sending regular messages of encouragement, support, and feedback to students throughout the course is another useful way to show students you are an active part of their learning process. 

Use Active Learning Strategies and Encourage Critical Discussion 

Online courses should promote interaction, discussion, and critical thinking. Active learning allows students to engage meaningfully with course content and exchange ideas, questions, and thoughts about their learning.  

For synchronous courses, instructors can use breakout rooms, class polling, and “think-pair-share” activities as effective ways to promote collaboration and discussion. In the study Actively Engaging Students in Asynchronous Online Classes—shared on Missouri Online (an administrative support office for online courses in the University of Missouri system)—researchers recommend using web-based tools to incorporate active learning, including asking students to create online portfolios or use online brainstorming tools such as Padlet.

Carnegie Mellon’s Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation suggests other active learning strategies such as peer review, self-assessment exercises, and concept mapping.  

Make the Course Inclusive and Accessible 

To create an inclusive environment, instructors must respect and affirm diversity. Not all students have the same access or experience with digital technologies, so being flexible is critical to sustaining engagement.  

Additionally, engagement with course materials isn’t possible if they aren’t accessible. For more tips on ensuring accessibility in an online course, A Tutorial for Making Online Learning Accessible to Students with Disabilities, from the University of Washington Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology office, is a helpful outline of assistive technologies and relevant design methodologies.

Ask for Student Feedback and Reflection

The Critical Incident Questionnaire, developed by educational scholar Stephen D. Brookfield, is a widely used strategy for gathering feedback. The questionnaire can be used periodically and has five adaptable questions: 

  • At what moment in the class did you feel most engaged with what was happening?
  • At what moment in the class were you most distanced from what was happening?
  • What action that anyone (teacher or student) took did you find most affirming or helpful?
  • What action that anyone took did you find most puzzling or confusing?
  • What about the class surprised you the most? (This could be about your reactions to what went on, something that someone did, or anything else that occurs.)

Students’ responses may be collected, summarized, and reported back at the next course session.

Directly asking students for feedback throughout the course is a useful strategy for building engagement. Requesting and, when appropriate, implementing their ideas communicates that you value their contributions.

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