Texas Tech University

Keeping Your Online Students Engaged

By Holley Baker, Instructional Designer
 Courtney Line, M.Ed., Instructional Designer
 Stephanie Rincon, M.Ed., Instructional Designer

Barriers to Instructor Engagement

If you feel overwhelmed when designing an engaging online class, you are not alone. It is a lot of work! You have to adapt a face-to-face class to one where you may never even see your students. On top of that, you must organize lectures, learning activities, grade centers, and more. Luckily, you can find help in a variety of places. There are seasoned instructors in your college that can show you what works in their online classes. You can attend a professional development workshop, read informative articles like this one, or you can also work with an Instructional Designer at Worldwide eLearning. Here at Texas Tech University, we are dedicated to helping our faculty members create engaging online classes for students around the world. This article will outline some of the barriers to engagement you and your students face in online instruction. At the end of the article, you will also find some links to resources to help you design an online that is engaging for both you and your students.

Overcoming Administrative Barriers

Administrative barriers are typically easy to spot. Your inbox will soon be filled with questions from your students asking how to submit an assignment, when their project is due, how to download Proctorio, where to find the textbook publisher's online lessons, when they can see their exam grades and countless other questions. In an online class, students often report difficulties with new technology and navigating their online classes. The best way to engage your students, and reduce your daily emails, is to orient your student to the virtual classroom. Think of this as the “first day of class” speech that you give your new students each semester. You tell them what to expect from the class, where to find you, and the resources they will need to be successful in your class.

You typically answer all these questions in your syllabus, but it is helpful to unpack your syllabus into a “Getting Started” section in an online class. This brief overview can include your course schedule, grading policies, class description, and a brief introduction to the first assignments that are due. This section does not have to be as exhaustive as your syllabus, but it can give your students highlights of what to expect in your class. To determine what needs to go into your “Getting Started” section, ask yourself which areas of the class did your previous students struggle with? Get ahead of those issues by addressing them with your new students early on.

These administrative barriers are important to address because you want your students to focus on the class content rather than searching for assignment descriptions or publisher resources. Anticipating technology issues or grading questions can help you redirect your online students' attention and lay the foundation for an engaging class. Whether you prefer to write instructions or record weekly videos, choose a format that is comfortable for you. If you are engaged in the class you are designing, your students will be too.

Overcoming Motivational Barriers

There are many factors to motivational barriers for instructors and students ranging from other responsibilities, time management issues, as well as a genuine lack or struggle to maintain interest. However, there are ways to move past these and other motivational barriers to design and teach an engaging course.

Learning Styles

Students learn, engage, and stay motivated in a variety of ways, and multiple learning styles are a major factor in a student's involvement in a course. So how can we design a course that addresses students' multiple learning styles? How do we move beyond chapter readings and PowerPoints? By using diverse tools and teaching methods that support diverse learning styles. Examples of ways to include diverse methods would be:

  • Module introduction videos. Introduction videos help students understand your expectations, which does impact motivation.
  • Content-specific videos/visuals/audio (digital storytelling). This can be done and implemented in a variety of ways. One option is digital storytelling, which gives instructors an opportunity to genuinely engage with their students. Storytelling allows instructors to share their experiences with the content with their students in creative and motivating ways.
  • Virtual study/discussion groups. Groups can be a wonderful opportunity for students to create their own motivation to move forward by learning and building bonds with others in the course.
  • Low-stakes quizzes or checkpoints. These low-stakes checkpoints give students a chance to self-assess their progress in the course, which can build motivation to continue their progress in the course.

A helpful tip to keep in mind as you consider any of these methods is to remember that the method you implement needs to support your content. You should never use a tool that does not work with your course, because it will only create more motivational barriers for everyone.

Chunk Your Content

Another method to consider for improving motivation would be chunking content. This design method helps to support student motivation by giving students an opportunity to view smaller more specific sections of content at a time, which will further the learning development of core concepts of the course. You could design chunking elements in your course by implementing:

  • Module folders with agenda or calendar timelines. This will give students a better understanding of how you have chunked the content of the course.
  • Overview guides. Giving students overview guides will highlight an outline for content that students will need to focus on for the module.
  • Mini-lessons. These smaller lessons will let students explore and further their understanding of a difficult topic.
  • Group projects. Designing group projects in a chunking format will support students as they work in groups to complete a project, and this is especially true when projects have more than one or two steps or involve real-world problems.

Active Learning Opportunities

Lastly, another method that could be used to improve motivational barriers would be active learning opportunities. Another way to think of designing active learning would be gamification, which creates opportunities for high levels of interest and engagement for students. Active learning can be seen in a variety of ways.

  • Real-world Projects – This method is a wonderful way to include real-world applications of content, making it a valuable learning experience.
  • MediaSite, PlayPosit, and Feedback Fruits Tools – All these tools provide an opportunity to create interactive videos, visuals, audio, and documents that require students to stay engaged throughout their learning. These tools are also built into Blackboard, which will make it easier to implement into your course.
  • Online Publisher Content – Another opportunity would be to include any interactive online publisher content that comes included with a textbook that applies to the learning objectives and goals of your course.

Active learning opportunities give students a unique way to learn and experience the content, which influences student motivation.

Overcoming Social Barriers

Being in an online classroom, the students often feel like they are on a deserted island. It is our job as professors to make sure that they not only can communicate with us but with their classmates as well. Creating an online environment that is suited to fostering student interaction will greatly help. Social barriers for students begin and end with the professor. If you create a firm foundation of communication from the beginning, then you will be able to keep that flow throughout the entire course.

There are many ways to continue your communication throughout the course but below are a few that we feel are more important.

  • Weekly Video Announcements/Updates – These can be as formal or as casual as you'd like them to be. My favorite way for this to be done is recording from your cell phone casually walking through campus or sitting on your front porch. This helps the students relate to you a little better and helps them see you are actually human and not just a face behind a screen. You can certainly keep it professional if that is what is best for you and your course.
  • Virtual Study Sessions – These are a beneficial tool to use for big tests, projects, or even high-stakes assignments. Create a virtual class meetup with whoever wants to show up and the professor. This gives the students a chance to bounce ideas off each other, ask and answer questions and relieve any stress they might be having.
  • Mandatory 1-on-1 Meetings – These are a very important part of asynchronous online learning. This is a way to keep the students on track and involved in the course. They don't have to be long or full of information, but just a quick check-in to make sure everything is going well. This allows the students to be able to voice their concerns and allows the professors to be able to encourage them or help spur them along.
  • Timely and Relevant Feedback – We need to keep in mind that it is still important to keep providing feedback that is relevant and on time. This is the same for discussion boards and blogs. You want to make sure that the students know that you are involved in and paying attention to what is going on in there and not allow them to think that they are just doing busywork.

Not only do you want to make sure that students have good communication with you as the professor, but you also need to make sure that students have a great community with each other as well. Having camaraderie with each other will help them feel more like they are part of the class and not part of a deserted island. We want to make sure that we create projects and tasks that encourage social interaction.

  • Group Work – Assigning group projects, presentations, and assignments can often be worrisome to some professors. While there is always the worry that one person will be stuck doing all the work, there are ways to mitigate those issues. The benefits of group work truly make them worth the effort. Groups help students learn to work with others and be able to communicate with each other better! They help prepare students for going into the workforce and having to make plans and meet deadlines so that others can in turn get their parts done. They don't have to be boring! You can use the groups tool to allow students to meet up and record presentations in Collaborate Ultra (or zoom) that the teacher can turn around and share in the class. If you aren't doing presentations you can create a grading rubric for each group member to grade their peers, this helps encourage everyone to put the effort in and allows for those that aren't putting in the work to be graded appropriately.
  • Peer Reviews – Peer reviews are a great way to get the students involved and positively influence the learning process and motivation of students. Feedback Fruits has a fantastic tool that facilitates peer learning and will guide students through giving feedback to their peers in a structured manner, allowing for learning and process efficiency to be optimized. Students can post their assignment/project into the Peer Review, they are then assigned another student's assignment to review. They review the assignment using given criteria and give written feedback. The process of comparison between their work and their peers creates the opportunity to identify gaps between their current performance, expected performance, and their desired performance.
  • Social Media – While this seems like a far reach for in-course student engagement, it is a great way to create a community among the students. They can use this to discuss concerns or questions they may have, but they can also use it beyond the course. They can keep in communication with each other once the course is over and can even use it as a networking tool further down the road.

Next Steps

These are just a few suggestions for keeping students engaged. If you would like to explore these methods and tools more in-depth view our website for more information. If you would like to schedule a one-on-one appointment, please email: elearning.id@ttu.edu.