Five Ways to Engage Students in an Online Learning Environment

Student with headphones smiles and waves to computer screen while drinking coffee

Picture a classroom and this image might appear: neat rows, faces turned to the teacher, students listening intently to every word of instruction; however, this is not usually the case and it’s especially not the case during the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, many instructors are faced with navigating to a format in which tiny boxes showing a face, picture, or letter represent each student in the classroom. In an age of effervescent change in technology, it can be difficult for educators to keep up with the variety of ways to engage students in the online classroom. An additional consideration is engaging students with disabilities, which can provide an extra level of difficulty for effective instruction in online environments. However, research documents the importance of teacher-directed prompts that provide students with frequent opportunities to respond (e.g. Lewis et al., 2004; Sutherland & Wehby, 2001).  In fact, it is recommended that the rate of prompts provided to students should be approximately 3.5 per minute (e.g. Stichter et al., 2009). It is not disputed that teacher questioning also allows for observation of student performance; therefore, it is essential that these facets continue to be embedded in online learning environments.  

The classroom, whether it be face-to-face or virtual, is a dynamic place exploding with activities and new ideas. The way that educators vary the format of instruction through engagement strategies is critical. Keeping students with disabilities engaged through fun and interactive content promotes opportunities for increased learning and social engagement for all. Additionally, interactive activities support learning for students with disabilities by increasing their motivation to learn and allowing them to connect to content and utilize higher-level thinking strategies. Most importantly, an active approach to increase engagement during instruction benefits all students. Teachers should incorporate a variety of methods for students to interact with the material being taught, including opportunities to participate individually, as well as within small and large groups.  Grouping students in these formats can be easy to achieve in an online format. For example, if a teacher plans to ask their students questions during instruction, it is encouraged that during each questioning series the teacher selects a different format (i.e., individual, small group, or large group) to encourage and increase engagement. There are also multiple websites and technological components that can be added to daily instruction or can be provided as supplemental learning activities. Below are five easy to implement strategies that educators can utilize in an online format that provide effective and inclusive formats for engaging all students. 

Five interactive online engagement ideas

1. Animated response

Sites such as Voki, PowToon, and StoryBird are examples of online platforms that allow students to respond to content in an interactive manner through the creation of a voice-over character, cartoon, or creative story-telling. Formats such as these can be used for individual student responses with content being taught across subject areas and then shared with the teacher or classmates.

2. Cooperative learning

Cooperative learning is a collaboration that can occur when different group members have varying levels of contributed work. Cooperative learning requires that all group members have specific, designated tasks to complete, and without each group member’s contribution the work is incomplete. There are several strategies that can be used to ensure the work is collaborative which includes strategies such as think/pair/share, jigsaw, and flexible grouping. Examples of platforms that can support these strategies include Edublogs , Weebly for education, Zoom breakout rooms, or a shared Google document.  It is important for teachers to ensure students know the expectations of the assignment, how to access the specific technological platform, and what the expected end result should be.

3. Organizational outlets

All students benefit from organizing their learning, however, when students become familiar with the content being taught, independent work to reinforce those concepts can help all students further retain the information. Graphic organizers assist students in conceptualizing and chunking out the material being learned and helps maintain a clear focus of what needs to be dissected from the information. provides access to hundreds of free and printable graphic organizer templates. is another free online tool in which students can create visually attractive graphic organizers that can match any content. Additionally, students can use speech-to-text to produce the information in a more expedient fashion so that their thoughts get on paper immediately, whether it be on a Smartphone or computer. Sources such as Microsoft, Google, and EndNote are excellent organizational platforms to assist students in keeping track of their work all in one place.  Lastly, in an online learning environment keeping track of assignments is of utmost importance.  Google Drive and Box are two examples of storage repositories that students can use to store and organize their class materials.

4. Movement

Another, often overlooked, method for engaging students is to get them moving. It can be difficult for students with disabilities to remain stationary during class, but by intentionally incorporating movement into instruction, engagement can become more achievable. Four corners learning is one strategy that can encourage student movement. In four corners learning the students transition from one activity to the next with different levels of grouping. For example, students may begin class in a small, collaborative group then transition to the big group, then back to the small, collaborative group and finally end at an individual workstation. In an online learning format this can be achieved by asking students to stand or sit depending on which group they are currently engaging with. For example, as students transition to activity one, they stand. Then at activity two, they sit. This would continue until students had completed all activities. Creative ways that teachers can accomplish this in an online environment would be through the incorporation of a GoNoodle activity, or simply having the teacher walk students through movements together with their directive during a transition.

5. Interactive lessons

Teachers can also embed interactive learning opportunities for students in PowerPoints through the PearDeck add-on for Google Slides or NearPod where students can interact with learning content through questions, surveys, or specific student responses. Both PearDeck and NearPod are also a quick and easy way for instructors to conduct an informal assessment as to whether or not their students understand the material, as each mode captures student responses.

Maintaining student engagement is no small feat in the face-to-face learning format. However, by applying some of the same traditional methods for engagement that incorporates the use of free and readily-available technology, engagement in an online learning environment is achievable. Although the workload for educators has undeniably increased as a result of the pandemic, engaging our students remains important in this brave new world of education. The strategies described above can assist current educators in surmounting the age-old issue of engaging all students during instruction. 

Maria B. Peterson-Ahmad, PhD, is a visiting associate professor of special education at Texas Woman’s University.  Dr. Peterson-Ahmad’s research interests surround bridging the gap between general and special education through enhancing and improving teacher preparation experiences, particularly through high leverage practices.  Additionally, she is interested in training pre-service teacher candidates how to become increasingly fluent in individualizing interventions for students with learning disabilities, through instructional coaching and simulated learning experiences. 

Randa G. Keeley, PhD, is an assistant professor at Texas Woman’s University with a research concentration in classroom interventions that promote inclusive learning environments for students with special educational needs and disabilities. Her research interests include the application of quantitative and qualitative measures to analyze the effects of inclusive practices, culturally responsive teaching, and co-teaching as they relate to the teacher and student. 


Lewis, T.J., Hudson, S., Richter, M., & Johnson, N. (2004). Scientifically supported practices in emotional and behavioral disorders: A proposed approach and brief review of current practices. Behavioral Disorders, 29(3), 247-259.

Stichter, J., Randolph, J.K., Kay, D. & Gage, N. (2009). The use of structural analysis to develop antecedent-based interventions for students with autism.  Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39(6), 883-896.

Sutherland, K.S., & Wehby, J.H., (2001). The effect of self-evaluation on teaching behavior in classrooms for students with emotional and behavioral disorders. Journal of Special Education, 35(3), 2-8