September 16th, 2013

Keeping Students Engaged in the Online Classroom


As an online instructor, I can fulfill the minimum requirements of the university regarding interacting with students, or I can create a learning environment that facilitates student engagement in the classroom. Students enroll in online classes because of the need for scheduling flexibility, work-life-school balance, costs, and convenience. Although online learning holds many advantages, the potential drawbacks revolve around the lack of personal interaction between the instructor and student, as well as the student-to-student contact. Keeping students engaged in the course is a vital function of an effective instructor.

A resource within the online classroom that is helpful is the student activity timer. By reviewing the amount of time each student is engaged in the various component of the course, I can quickly view who is spending the necessary time to be successful. As a quantitative researcher, I decided to test the significance of the relationship between student grades and time spent in the classroom. By using student activity (time in the course) as the independent variable and final grades as the dependent variable, I was able to test the potential correlation. My goal was to determine if final grades correlated with time spent in the course, or in other words, were final grades dependent on student activity. I conducted the statistical procedures of Pearson Product Moment correlation and linear regression. The findings of both procedures indicated a statistically significant relationship at the 95% confidence level between student activity and final grades. In simple language, students that spent above average time in the classroom tended to earn above average final grades. Students that spent below average time in the course usually earn below average grades.

What are the implications of the findings? Does the existence of a correlation imply causation? No. If students simply spend more time clicking through the online course, will their grades magically go up? Once again, the answer is obviously no. I believe the keys are instilling within students a sense of urgency, motivation, and desire to excel through our creative use of our time, technology, and resources. Students typically lead busy lives. We must strive to capture their attention for the duration of the course. I have read numerous student introductions, never finding one that states, “I am a full-time student with no other life duties or responsibilities.”

So, how do we keep students engaged in quality learning while operating within the challenges of physical separation in time and distance?

Get to know your students. Make posting a detailed student introduction mandatory, and then personally respond to each student. Learn to recognize key words or phrases that indicate a disability, hardship, or potential problem. Start out by creating a comfortable, safe learning environment. Avoid intimidating the students from the outset of the class. In other words, lose the harshness and negative instructions. Lay out the ground rules, but do so in a manner that does not cause many students to cringe at the thought of needing to contact you.

Know the classroom mechanics of an online course. Student frustrations rise when they have difficulty navigating the course and the instructor cannot answer simple questions regarding the processes required to respond or submit an assignment.

Be accessible and respond to student inquiries in a timely manner. Have an established and well-publicized timeframe for responding to student inquiries. At many schools, it’s 24 hours during the week and 48 hours on weekends. Make it easy for students to locate your email address and telephone number within the learning management system (LMS). Oftentimes a five-minute call can alleviate a multitude of student frustrations and fears, and is actually a lot quicker than a back-and-forth email discussion.

Go beyond the university requirement of posting a brief, weekly announcement. Check up on your students. Know which students are falling behind and reach out with a short e-mail, reminding them of an impending deadline or assignment requirement, and include an offer of assistance.

Provide substantive feedback and positive critique. Although students might require corrective criticism, we can always provide encouraging comments.

Inject some fun into the classroom. Put a face to your introduction with a fun photo or video clip. Move beyond posting mundane content. Lighten up! We are not drill sergeants. Learn the value of adding a bit of humor. The Internet is a valuable source for free animated graphics, cool photos, and course related, yet motivating links and videos. Better yet, learn to embed your own video content.

Can we keep all students engaged in the classroom? Past evidence tells us no. We’ve all had students who are perfectly happy to do the minimum amount required to get a passing grade. Is that a reason to forgo any efforts to increase student engagement? Absolutely not! As instructors, we have a duty to teach. Teaching in the online environment requires us to go beyond posting a lecture or an assignment. Build within your students a sense of anticipation. Give students a reason to be engaged by making sure you are fully engaged in their success.

Dr. Ronald C. Jones, president, Ronald C. Jones, Inc. and associate faculty, Ashford University.

  • Prof. Vazquez Jr.

    This is all good! ideas and strategies for retention, nevertheless, the "Time" factor, do you get more compensation when you are doing all these things for your on-line students? You know what I am talking about!

  • Pegg

    None of us do! Do we sleep better when at the end of the day, we feel good about a student success tidbit today? Likely. But it does not increase our pensionable earnings.

  • James

    A three credit course (online or not) should require about 9 hours of work a week for the student as well as for the instructor. The suggestions made here shouldn't take longer than that.

  • Jeff

    As a person who has taught fully online courses at the secondary level I have been appalled by the lack of time or effort put in by post-secondary schools and professors in their online courses. As a general rule, I can count on a less engaged faculty, a monotonous layout in the LMS, and a poorly constructed, non-engaging presentation of material within the LMS. It is no wonder that there is poor engagement from students when the majority of online courses at the post-secondary level are so poorly executed by the Universities that run them. Indeed, my initial surmising of online education by Universities is that they assume it to be a cash-cow where a face-to-face course can simply be transferred to an electronic database and students will do the work required of them. In essence, online courses are viewed as newer versions of the old time "correspondence" courses of the 70's and 80's.

    For an online course to be effective, the layout of the course must be filled with interesting data and graphics. It must be simple to recognize the contents of each module and most importantly, the instructor must be dedicated to spending hours and hours in direct correspondence with the learners. In essence, an online course will take much more work and effort on the instructors behalf than a face-to-face classroom might take. This is because in an online education setting, the classroom never is over. The classroom is 24/7 for the entire semester. Instructors who are not willing nor able to work tirelessly on behalf of their students need not apply. Universities who are not willing nor able to compensate their instructors for the hours spent engaging learners need not put their courses online. In both cases the instructor and university do a disservice to the learner and essentially commit fraud in charging the learner for the "opportunity" to learn in an online setting.

    Universities must dedicate themselves to working tirelessly online and providing learners with instructors that are diligent in communicating with their learners. Anything less is dishonoring of the educational process.

  • Adegboyega

    What do you do when you have been following all this steps but students still do not respond?

    • Laura S

      Just as in the classroom, some students are bound to fail no matter what we do (and some will pass no matter what we don't do). And, since many distance learning students take these courses because they are so busy they have no other option, we will end up having more failure in online courses than in the classroom. We can, however, attempt to reduce this rate. My college (one of the largest community college systems in the nation) has a large, well established staff to support both online students and faculty (so, maybe there is something your college should be doing). When my attempts to contact a non-responsive student fail, I can turn them over to the student support staff who will also try to connect with the non-responsive student. We also have stated drop and withdraw deadlines. If students fail to progress with their work to a certain minimum expectation by one of these specified drop/withdraw dates, we administratively withdraw them from the course. This does get recorded as a non-success but it may also send the student a message that "you are not cut out for distance learning" so that they may think twice the next time they consider taking such a course.
      If we follow all these steps and still have non-responsive students, do not feel bad. If you have done all you could within reason, the student's failure to thrive is not always your fault. Know when to absolve yourself of guilt and responsibility and move on to focus your efforts on the students for whom it will make a difference!

  • Jeff


    Sometimes there are things outside of your control. In those cases you have to allow the students to live with their own choices.

    I have found that lack of engagement stems from a number of key areas.

    1) Outside family issues are overwhelming the learner and keeping them from engaging.
    2) Poorly written curriculum that leaves the learner confused.
    3) The learner needs remedial skills that s/he did not receive in their earlier educational experience.

    If we as educators are able to identify areas such as the above, we then need to find out if the educational institution has the social resources and assistance mechanisms to help the learner. As I mentioned in my first post…it takes a LOT of work to be an effective educator in an online environment. We have to wear multiple hats and go beyond discussions on the given topic in the class. We also play the role of front line social workers who work to identify social problems with our learners and connect them to resources that may help them.

    • Doris

      You made excellent points about initiatives instructors can use to help students taking online classes. As you point out, often facilitators must use many different strategies and resource referrals to help students succeed.

  • CaioBella

    As an online instructor, I am frequently "blamed" for students that are not attending, not engaging, not turning anything in. Thanks so much for confirming my suspicions that this happens in many places not just our school as we are led to believe by administration. I sincerely appreciate the advice to concentrate on the students that we can make a difference for.

    Is anyone else professionally evaluated by passing rate or engagement rate? Quite frankly, I am dumbfounded as to why teachers would be evaluated by factors mostly out of our control.

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