Building Student Engagement in Online Courses

Despite all the high-tech communication technologies available to online instructors today — discussion boards, email, IM, wikis, podcasts, blogs, vlogs, etc. — every once in awhile Dr. B. Jean Mandernach likes to use a tool that was invented way back in 1876. The telephone.

Just a quick call to a student to see how things are going, even if it’s only a message on his or her answering machine, goes a long way in creating a more personalized learning environment.

“Students need to feel like they know their instructor and that you’re interested in how they’re doing,” says Mandernach, noting that these random calls make such a favorable impression on students that they always comment on it in their course evaluations.

Student engagement is important in any class, but it takes on greater significance in the online learning environment where students are not only isolated from their instructor and fellow students, but must be disciplined enough to ward off distractions and other commitments that compete for their time.
In the March 26th online seminar, Increasing Cognitive Engagement in the Online Classroom, Mandernach, an associate professor psychology and online learning at Park University, discussed the unique challenges of student engagement in the online classroom, and shared some of her proven strategies for keeping students actively engaged in the learning process throughout the entire course.

According to Mandernach, an online course promotes optimal student cognitive engagement if it:

  1. integrates active learning environments with authentic learning tasks;
  2. fosters a personal connection with the class (teacher-student as well as student-student); and
  3. facilitates the process of learning in an online environment.

One of the first steps in facilitating a successful online learning experience for students is to manage expectations. At the start of each course, Mandernach asks her students to write down what they expect from her. She, in turn, responds with answers to whether these expectations are on target, and also explains what she expects from her students. Not only does this set the tone for the course and prevent misunderstandings, but since she began doing it her online course retention has increased 10 percent.