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5 Ways to Improve Students’ Engagement in Online Classes

5 ideas to make your online classes more engaging

Effective online teaching often requires more planning and more effort than in-person teaching. It calls for strict discipline and a lot of energy, and if not managed well it can easily turn into ‘Zoom Classroom Fatigue’.

Our challenge this fall is clear, we need to reimagine our syllabus and pedagogy and deliver more engaging, interactive, and flexible classes.

While engaging students online can be more challenging, the learning experience can be as good or even better than in the traditional physical classroom. Teaching online need not be painful, even if we didn’t grow as digital natives.

Here are some simple and straightforward ideas to make your online courses more engaging and meaningful.


1. Create a connection with your students

It’s not because you’re behind the screen that you have to forget about the human element. Physical distance should not mean social distancing. The emotional component in a class is the key to engage your students. This is especially true in online environments.

Both students and professors need interaction to build trust and create meaningful discussions. So start creating this connection as soon as you kick off your lecture.

Use storytelling and visuals to talk about yourself. Give the students the opportunity to know you better by asking questions about your career, your research, and your teaching methods.

Ask students to introduce themselves to the class and use fun ice-breakers to encourage teamwork and build trust.

Dedicate the first five minutes of your class to ask your students how they feel, what are their expectations and learning goals, what are the difficulties they are facing. These will make participants more at ease and keen to interact.

Try to call students by their names and remember details about them to make them feel unique and listened to. Use personal and professional stories throughout the lessons to create a fun, safe, and effective learning environment.


2. Create a sense of community

“Online communities are quickly becoming a critical part of the digital strategy for many organizations as a platform to establish ongoing conversations, trust relationships, and meaningful engagement with customers, employees, partners, and suppliers.”

– International Data Corporation (IDC)

The feeling of belonging is a strong driver of engagement. We all need to be part of something. That makes us feel unique and seen. The community plays a central role in making meaning.

According to the Social Learning Theory, learning occurs in a social context when the learner observes and then models a behavior. Knowledge is created through peer-to-peer communication, debate, critical thinking, and the development of leadership skills.

Building a sense of community for your classes helps learners become accountable for their own learning goals and outcomes. They are more likely to work together to achieve those goals and take ownership of their learning process. IT encourages peer learning, trust, and teamwork.

Skills that are too difficult for the learner to master on their own can be mastered effectively through interaction with a more knowledgeable person.

To create a sense of community in your classroom, whether online or offline, there are three key elements to consider:

  • The content needs to be relevant and engaging. It should provide opportunities for learners to connect and collaborate in task and assignments. The learning material should motivate participation in discussion groups, both during and after class, rewarding meaningful contributions.
  • Connection opportunities for learners. You should provide a space for learners to connect inside and outside the (virtual) classroom. Encourage participation in discussion forums linked to lectures, seminars, webinars, or other learning events. Organize mentoring programs pairing more experienced learners with younger participants so they share their experience and provide guidance.
  • Make space for collaboration. Make teamwork an integral part of the learning experience. Use group projects for assessing knowledge, skills, and learning outcomes. Group work challenges students to solve problems, share experiences, and knowledge to achieve a common goal.

3. Identify and support struggling students

Struggling students are more likely to disengage and drop out of courses. And during the current crisis, many students are struggling. Some are even encountering issues that go beyond the academic context. They might suffer from the loss of a close one to the pandemic, or battling mental health conditions. Many students suffer from attention deficit, hyperactive disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, and other forms of attention and learning disorders. Other students just suffer from anxiety, stress, and fear of judgment and evaluation.

Empathy in teaching has never been more important. Check-in on your students regularly. Reach out to them or send out alerts promptly when you see they are falling behind. Make yourself available during office hours to provide one-to-one tutoring or just having a quick checkup. Encourage students to reach out to you when they feel lost or when struggling with the learning material, technology, schedules, or other non-academic needs. Be more flexible over deadlines, provide different assessment alternatives, and give timely feedback.

4. Keep the conversation going

Remember that most of the learning happens outside the classroom. Make sure to keep the conversation going even after the lecture.

Backchannel discussions are a great way for learners to have an on-topic conversation during and after the lecture. It is an effective way to keep your students engaged during an online session and continue the conversation afterward.

Use forums, chats, Facebook groups, or live Q&A. This not only strengthens learners’ engagement but also encourages peer-learning. Reward students for participating in the discussions by both asking and answering questions.

5. Mix it up

To keep your students’ attention and enhance the learning experience, mix things up. The current situation is probably the best opportunity for us, educators, to change the way we approach student assessment of knowledge and learning outcomes.

There are plenty of fun and meaningful activities that promote active learning. Instead of sticking with traditional quizzes and slide presentations, be more flexible and provide a wider range of activities to develop and assess students’ knowledge and skills.

Ask students to take part in Socratic seminars, record and edit explanatory videos, write blog posts, or play simulations. Giving them a plethora of activities increases their chances of actually learning the subject and their commitment to the class.


Bottom Line

The key to success relies on proper planning, in advance preparation, and access to the right tools.

Whether synchronously or asynchronously, with proper planning we can replicate remotely almost all activities and experiences we would do in a physical classroom.

Effective online learning relies mainly on empathy. If we want to provide better online classes we should not forget about the human component.

“No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” — Theodore Roosevelt


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