Engagement in Online Learning

Online learning has many advantages, such as quick access to material and convenience of taking classes at any location (Sun and Rueda, 2012; Simamora, 2020). But online learning presents challenges for student engagement, that is, the types and levels of effort students put into perform well and achieve their goals (Hu & Kuh, 2002; Richardson, Long & Foster, 2004). Students might lose the opportunities to interact, collaborate, and receive feedback from their instructors if they are not physically present in the classroom. But with thoughtful teaching practices, instructors can improve students’ engagement in online learning.

Online engagement strategies

Student-instructor strategies

Research has shown many helpful strategies to maintain students’ engagement in online learning. For instance, students rate regular announcements, email reminders, and grading rubrics as the most beneficial strategies that instructors could incorporate in online classes (Bolliger and Martin, 2018). At Baylor, instructors can use Canvas options scheduling announcements for deadlines for major assignments.

Relatedly, Ryle and Cumming (2007) recommend posting welcome messages and announcements to establish expectations and set the tone for the course, as well as posting discussion topics ahead of time to stimulate interest and provide necessary resources.

Moreover, instructors can encourage student participation and learning by modeling online behaviors and establishing presence by participating in and facilitating online discussions. Instructors can also improve students’ sense of community by providing multiple communication channels, support and encouragement, and timely feedback, as well as by setting course expectations (Martin and Ertzberger, 2018).

Relatedly, previous research has indicated that certain online activities and tools, such as discussion boards, online debates and brainstorming, can potentially facilitate online student self-regulation in the learning process (Kanuka, 2005).

Student-student engagement strategies

A variety of strategies can be used to initiate and support learner-to-learner interaction and engagement. Building interactive introduction activities at the start of a course can improve learners’ engagement. This also increases the learner’s feelings of belonging (Stepich and Ertmer, 2003) and sense of community. For example, students could use online delivery platforms and other technologies to share photos and other personal media artifacts to explain their backgrounds and interests in ways that allow their fellow community of learners to comment and engage in conversations about shared interests and experiences. Research also supports icebreakers and collaborative work as the most beneficial engagement strategy expressed by the learners (Martin and Bolliger, 2018).

Student-content engagement strategies

Many factors can influence students’ engagement with course content. These factors, according to Vrasidas and Mclsaac (1999), are course structure, class size, students’ prior experiences with online courses, and feedback. The strategies for engaging students with the course content include providing structured discussions, assigning realistic scenarios (e.g., case studies, reports, research papers, and presentations), and providing more than one type of media interaction (e.g., text, video, audio, interactive games, and online resources; Su, Bonk, Magjuka, Liu, & Lee, 2005). Moreover, students should be provided with time and opportunities to reflect on course elements (e.g., use of communication tools, and their learning).

Previous research has shown that online activities and tools such as multimedia and discussion boards may increase engagement in online learning. This is salient for students who take online courses for the first time. Educators should identify students who are taking online courses for the first time and provide necessary technical help to increase their engagement and to offer students strategies for increasing their self-regulation in distance education environments. Previous research has also indicated that multimedia increases students’ situational interest ( that is, the “appealing effect of characteristics of an activity or a learning task on students.” Chen et al, 1999 p. 158), number of interactions, participation, and motivation (Guzley, Avanzino & Bor, 2001).

Relatedly, in online learning students can be engaged with the course content through asynchronous classes (wherein students learn at different times) and synchronous classes (wherein students learn at the same time). Examples for the former includes email, screencasts, and Flipgrid videos. Instructors can also benefit from the time-locked modules on Canvas and embedded quizzes in video lectures for asynchronous classes. Examples for the latter entail video conferencing, live chat, and live streamed videos wherein the instructors can use breakout room for students and assign them some discussion activities.

Recommendations to instructors for designing the course content:
  • Design course content so that students are aware of the expectations and can easily navigate the course materials (Donham, Pohan, Menke, & Kranzfelder, 2022).
  • Divide the course content into weekly modules, including an introductory module (or module 0). An introductory module establishes a framework for introducing yourself to your students and explaining why you are so passionate about the discipline and course (Davis, 2018).
  • Post structured online discussion boards. Since discussion boards are commonly used in hybrid learning, such as flipped classrooms, to introduce students to course topics, the key is to make them meaningful, relevant, and instructive so that students see them as essential to the learning process rather than busywork.
  • Align the assignments with course learning outcomes and assessments since they would positively affect the student’s motivation and engagement (Tharayil et al., 2018).
  • Compile time-sensitive communications (e.g., time-released modules) into a weekly announcement sent on the same day each week. This helps the sense of connectedness and have clarity regarding expectations.
  • Do regular “check-ins” at the beginning of class and/or provide a few minutes of silence throughout lectures to help keep students calm and focused on learning (Chick, 2013).
  • Try to understand the students’ unique situations and remove deficit language from course material, such as harsh grading and attendance policies in the syllabus (see Inclusive Teaching).
  • Be available (e.g., Zoom office hours), supportive, and flexible.
  • Incorporate introductory videos and recorded lectures in each module because these provide students with flexibility in their learning (Donham et al., 2022).
  • Begin or expand the use of prerecorded lectures (wherein you can incorporate embedded quizzes on Canvas), which give students more opportunities to pause and rewatch the recording. This would assist students in taking and/or checking the adequacy of their course notes, processing the content more deeply (e.g., elaboration and reflection), and referring to the lecture if something was unclear or confusing. Prerecorded lecture videos can help students reduce cognitive load by allowing them to watch the videos multiple time at their own pace (Esson, 2016).

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Esson JM. (2016). Flipping general and analytical chemistry at a primarily undergraduate institution, p 107–125. In Muzyka JL, Luker CS (ed), The flipped classroom, volume 2: results from practice. ACS Publications,Washington, DC.

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Martin, F., & Ertzberger, J. (2016). Effects of reflection type in the here and now mobile learning environment. British Journal of Educational Technology, 47(5), 932–944.

Richardson, J. T., Long, G. L., & Foster, S. B. (2004). Academic engagement in students with a hearing loss in distance education. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education9(1), 68-85.

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Stepich, D. A., & Ertmer, P. A. (2003). Building community as a critical element of online course design. Educational Technology, 33-43.

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