How can I increase student engagement?

The following recommendations have been shared by NIU faculty and staff as highly recommended practices for promoting increased engagement in online courses.

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1. Set Expectations and Model Engagement

Reach out to students prior to the start of the course

Welcome students to your online course environment in ways that support them and let them know that you are committed to their continued success. Consider sending an email to students 1-2 weeks before the start of the semester to introduce yourself and to pass along any information they will need to be successful, including things like if/when there will be scheduled synchronous class meetings, info on the course textbook or any other materials they may need for the course, when the course will become available in Blackboard, etc. Consider also reaching out a few times before the course starts to include students who are just joining or checking in themselves. It also helps to post an announcement and send an email in case students only check in to one system.

Clearly identify assignment due dates

Provide a clear schedule of the activity and assignment due dates for your course. This could be accomplished in multiple ways, ranging from including a matrix with activity due dates in the course syllabus, creating a course quick guide with listing of due dates by week/unit/module, and/or using due dates in Blackboard activities and assignments so that they are listed in students’ Blackboard course calendar and activity stream.

Make the course available early in Blackboard

Welcome your students to the course and open the course early to give them time to explore and become familiar with the course navigation. Send an announcement out to let students know the course is available.

Set office hours and share them early

Set specific times for office hours to allow students to ask questions and to connect with you periodically throughout the course. If you have a TA, encourage them to also host office hours and to do periodic outreach to students in the course to keep them engaged.

Post expectations and course policies in the syllabus and in the online course

Let your student know what is expected of them and how they can meet those expectations. It’s important to add these to your syllabus, but students will appreciate being reminded of the expectation within the course. Consider adding discussion etiquette guidelines to discussion forums or being specific about attendance requirements before a virtual class meeting.


2. Build Engagement and Motivation with Course Content and Activities

Provide students with a variety of content

Open Educational Resources and other forms of readily available media can help by providing a broader perspective. Textbooks, journal articles, multi-media and interactive learning objects are just some of types of content you can provide your students.

Create a short introduction to each module

One of the most important aspects—if not the most important aspect—of any student’s learning is you, the instructor. Short introductions to content and course activities from you the instructor can draw attention to important concepts and provide purpose and clarity.

Provide clear guidance for completing course activities and gaining deeper understanding of course content

Active learning strategies help students to think critically and to make connections with content and course activities. Take the next step beyond posting assigned readings or static instructional presentations and really be present in your online course, helping them focus their attention on what is most important. It is essential for students to have specific guidance on how the course materials align with the objectives of the course. Today’s university students come from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences. These students may need additional guidance and may need to put a face and voice to the instructor. Instructor presence and intentional engagement are critical to the success of an online student. Share your perspectives through microlectures to synthesize key concepts in the course materials, create a weekly introduction to just-in-time due dates and important course activities, and challenge students to improve their work with timely feedback. Find more tips for managing your online presence.

Send out homework due date reminders for each assignment

Use Blackboard announcements, email or Teams. Students appreciate these reminders and it helps them stay on track.

Encourage your students to ask questions

Use opportunities like office hours and breakout groups (on Zoom, Teams, or Collaborate, for example) to encourage discussion among peers. Also, utilize discussion forums to solicit questions from your students. All students can benefit from a question asked from one student.

Allow students to share reflections on their learning

Metacognition is a strong motivator in student learning. Ask students to write out their course goals or to keep a course journal.

Support students’ ability to explore, edit and create

The creative skills of students can be a great asset. If appropriate, offer student choice in how they complete an assessment or ask them to find their own content which fits your parameters.


3. Initiate Interaction and Create Faculty Presence

Post information about yourself

Let your students know about some of your professional and personal interests. You can create a short instruction with text, images, links to your webpage, or a video.

Develop a communication plan

Let your students know the best method to communicate with you and how soon you will get back to them. You can use emails, texts, Teams, or any other communication channel. Set-up regular Announcements and remind students to ask questions through a discussion forum or to you directly. Be sure your announcements are also set to be emailed to students and try to be concise and informative. 

Provide frequent and interactive feedback on student work

Allow students to track their progress and improve their work through timely grading and constructive feedback. If possible, grade papers within one week of students submitting assignments. Longer than that, students begin for forget what they have turned in.

Host virtual office hours

Make yourself available to students and be creative. Virtual office hours are excellent opportunities to talk to them in real time. Consider starting your office hour with an icebreaker activity.

Use Teams to facilitate one-on-one text chats with students

This helps students get quick answers to their questions and reduces their anxiety about the course.

Identify students who may be struggling or disengaged, and then act

Students who are missing due dates, struggling with concepts or not actively participating may need a nudge to restart their motivation. Send personal “how’s it going” messages to check-in with students and/or setup a time where the two of you can meet online to discuss the class (i.e. office hours as indicated above. This is also a great outreach opportunity for TAs in your course.

Allow for flexibility and leniency

Let your students know your expectations and course policies but consider opportunities for extensions and alternative assessments.


4. Foster Interaction between Students and Create a Learning Community

Encourage critical and reflective discussion

Students can interact with each other through discussion forums, blogs or other collaboration tools. Find more tips for planning and facilitating quality online discussions.

Use team projects

Working on a team is a sought after 21st century skill. A carefully constructed team project can provide an atmosphere of diversity of thought while driving critical thinking skills.

  • Make sure the responsibilities are delineated to ensure success for all group members.
  • Also, be clear about how the group will be graded, the standards for participation, and repercussions for students not meeting standards for participation.
  • If possible, have groups schedule short virtual meetings with the instructor so that the instructor can stay abreast of group progress and the group can actively resolve issues.

Set up help teams

Students can be great resources for each other, and study groups are possible in an online space.

Launch breakout rooms during synchronous sessions

Many web-conferencing systems feature the ability to move students into small online rooms or groups (examples: Zoom, Teams, or Collaborate). Breakout rooms allow students to work in small groups, dive deeper into a compelling topic or compare or contrast a topic from multiple points of view. One way to structure the breakout group discussion is to have students write three quotations from the reading onto note cards. On the front of the card is the quotation. On the back of the card the student writes why the quotation is meaningful to them. Then use the note cards as a means to structure the discussion in the breakout rooms.

Connect course content to campus activities, workshops, events, etc.

Where possible, incorporate events offered through the NIU Calendar, your department or other areas across campus or in the community into your syllabus, especially if the content aligns with the subject area. Encourage students to participate and reflect on their experiences and to connect with one another along the way.

Propose the use of social media to create peer connections

Students may already be connecting through electronic platforms. You can set up course hashtags or course rooms that students can use to connect, share materials or just exchange ideas.


5. Create an Inclusive Environment

Get to know your students

Provide your students with opportunities to tell you a little bit about themselves, hobbies, personal experiences, learning motives, etc. Ask them their preferred name and pronoun.

Highlight students’ individual experiences

Celebrate your students and their successes. If your students pass a milestone, make an achievement or push through a barrier share it with the class or send a personal message of congratulations.

Recognize the different life experiences of your students

Not all students have the same access or experience with digital technologies. Be flexible and adaptable to students’ efficacy to engage in learning activities. Many students will have children at home while they are online in a sychronous class. Acknowledge the children in a favorable light and move on. The student will know that you acknowledge their circumstance and that you are providing them leeway and support to participate in the synchronous class.

Check your assumptions

Remember that every student has a unique story. Before making any assumptions, reach out to students in your classes. Try to get to know them and understand whether there are circumstances that may be challenging their ability to be successful.

Be conscious of accessibility concerns

Be sure you are providing information using accessible formats or connect with the staff in the Disability Resource Center if you have questions or concerns.


References and Further Reading

Cundell, A. & Sheepy, E. (2018). Student perceptions of the most effective and engaging online learning activities in a blended graduate seminar: Online Learning, 22(3), 87-102. https://doi.org/10.24059/olj.v22i3.1467

Darby, F. & Lang, J. (2019). Small teaching online: Applying learning science to online classes. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

DeBrock, L., Scagnoli, N. & Taghaboni-Dutta, F. (2020, March 18). The human element in online learning. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/03/18/how-make-online-learning-more-intimate-and-engaging-students-opinion

Dixon, M.D. (2012). Creating effective student engagement in online courses: What do students find engaging? Journal of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 10(2), 1-13. https://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/josotl/article/view/1744

Farid, A. (2014). Student online readiness assessment tools: A systematic review approach. The Electronic Journal of eLearning, 12(4), 375-382. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1035667

Hartwell, C.J. (2017). Engaging students in a synchronous distance setting: Asking online questions. Journal of Empowering Teaching Excellence, 1(1), 38-47. https://doi.org/10.15142/T3405G

Hew, K.F. (2018). Unpacking the strategies of ten highly rated MOOCs: Implications for engaging students in large online courses. Teachers College Record, 120(1), 1-40. https://www.tcrecord.org/Content.asp?ContentId=22013


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Flexible Teaching guides were developed by Duke Learning Innovation and adapted for NIU by the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. They are shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


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