Five Tips to Creating a More Engaging Online Course for Adult Learners

Group of students wave to one another over online discussion chat

As society has evolved, so too has education. To meet the changing needs of our world, an explosion of online education has focused on adult learning. Adult education covers a wide range of topics, as many adult learners strive to improve their lives through professional development or changing careers (Mace and Bacon 2019).  For career fields that require hands-on work and interactions with clients, for example, online education presents a unique challenge for educating adult learners. Therefore, to reach these students, understanding appropriate educational models in an online format is essential (Diep et al. 2019). As society changes to include more online learning opportunities, the field of education must stay abreast of these shifts and use these strategies to provide the best education possible for new and longtime professionals. When teaching courses online, consider applying evidence-based strategies to improve engagement, satisfaction, and comprehension for your students of all ages. The following five tips have been developed from research geared toward pivoting live classes into effective online or blended learning courses.

Tip #1: Choose assignments that create a connection among the students

Research indicates that a social connection among students, as well as between students and their instructor, remains essential for engagement, even when the course is being hosted online (Arghode, Brieger and McLean 2017, Yarbrough 2018, Diep et al. 2019). A focus on application requires students to thoughtfully and respectfully think through, describe, and then discuss specific topics, while requiring that they support their opinions with research.

How can you implement it?

­Discussion Forums: Your learning management system may support discussion forums, but if it doesn’t, these can be created using a shared document or other free online discussion platforms.

­Question of the Week: Using the online class forum (from the suggestion above), craft a weekly question to help apply the concepts for that week’s lessons (e.g., “How would you modify the X exercise for someone who is experiencing X pain?”).

­Social Media: Ask students to host private or public videos on social media and invite other classmates to attend and give feedback.

­Be Available: Provide “office hours” regularly via video conferencing, so students can “pop in” and ask a question or hang out with their classmates. This time can also be used to facilitate a virtual study group where students are working together and you, as the instructor, are there to offer support, clarification, and guidance.

Tip #2: Create different modes of learning for different learning styles

Providing a variety of learning methods can help students retain information better and find more enjoyment in their coursework (Klement 2014, Keogh, Gowthorp and McLean 2017, Alsaadat 2018). This will lead to a more engaged class and an improved experience for everyone involved.

How can you implement it?

­Get Creative: When working with students who are kinesthetic and/or visual learners, encourage them to study the material by drawing their own pictures or schematics of difficult concepts. A sample assignment could ask students to sketch out their own “muscle man” and label the primary muscle groups.

­Collaborate: Auditory and verbal learners will benefit from a study group environment where they can ask and answer questions with their peers. Facilitate the formation of this study group by asking interested students to submit their contact information into a shared doc. Then, email the group to ensure they connect for the first time and let them take it from there.

Tip #3: Allow for problem-based learning

Including problem-based learning, scenarios, or case-study examples has been shown to improve comprehension (Decelle 2016, Hagen and Park 2016). By providing opportunities for problem-based learning, you will help your students prepare for their future professional roles.

How can you implement it?

Choose Your Own Adventure: Assign each student (or better yet, allow them to create) a “client” whom they work with for the duration of the course. Maybe it’s a fictional character or perhaps it’s another classmate who fits a demographic they are looking forward to working with in the future. Throughout the duration of the course, create assignments that correspond to the client profiles that the students have constructed. In addition, periodically introduce a new element to the scenario that will challenge students to modify their approach (e.g., “Your client just called to tell you that they were diagnosed with X. What are your next steps?” or, “Your client fell and broke their foot. How does your exercise programming change?”).

Tip #4: Use blended learning to ensure maximal interaction and engagement

Blended learning—a curriculum that includes both synchronous and asynchronous course work—can save time and allows for a positive and engaging learning environment. This method of teaching works whether you are meeting in-person or online (Gagnon et al. 2013, Rasheed, Kamsim and Abdullah 2019).

How can you implement it?

­Think Ahead: Blended learning can be implemented by assigning reading and project pre-work before the class meets. During class time, students should be prepared to discuss their project work and/or questions from reading assignments. Using the break-out room functionality available in many video conferencing systems allows you to break the class into small discussion groups to practice applied skills like cueing, demonstrations, and coaching skills.

­Join Forces: Consider using group discussions or questions to kick off your time together. This ensures that students are motivated to complete the pre-work and creates an engaging online environment. If your system allows, you could assign a pop quiz and then ask students to work through the quiz or scenario together in small groups.

Tip #5: Allow for autonomy and self-directedness

Research shows that adult learners crave the ability to make their own decisions and forge their own path in their education (Murad et al. 2010, Arghode, Brieger and McLean 2017). This requires you to provide options throughout the course.

How can you implement it?

­Student Becomes the Teacher: Allow students to select a topic to briefly teach to a small class group or to the whole class (e.g., John might really enjoy anatomy, so he chooses to present the muscle names to the class using a mnemonic device he created).

­Keep the Future in Mind: Assign a final project that gives options to choose from, or you may wish to allow students to create their own assignments, thereby instilling a sense of ownership. The assignment should align with their future role, which will help increase their enjoyment and future application of learning (e.g., “Design an exercise program for your ideal client in the setting in which you see yourself working in the future”).

Online instruction provides an opportunity for growth and exploration in how you conduct your course. Be creative and intentional, and be willing to learn as you transition to teaching online. Consider how you will take the passion and excitement you express when teaching in a classroom and translate that experience into a virtual setting. By implementing these evidence-based practices, you can engage and inspire your students from anywhere in the world!

Jacqueline Crockford, MS, is the senior product manager at the American Council on Exercise (ACE). Currently a doctoral candidate at the California University of Pennsylvania, Crockford’s research focus includes adult online educational strategies, specifically for those hands-on professions such as personal trainers. She has been an active professional in the fitness industry for nearly 20 years, transitioning to education in 2009. As a spokesperson and educator for ACE, Jacque has been featured in several publications, including LA Times, New York Post, Health, USA Triathlon, SHAPE and Women’s Health.


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