Increasing Student Engagement During Synchronous Online Classes

Computer screen with creative gears on screen

Online learning—sometimes referred to as “distance learning” or “e-learning”—nowadays refers to any form of education delivered via the Internet. In the pre-Covid era, online earned a mixed reputation for several reasons. Criticisms leveled at online courses included:

  • inequitable access to technology,
  • online courses were text-heavy,
  • students were offered minimal opportunities to respond,
  • and online courses provided minimal opportunities for students and faculty to engage and build community.

Online and onsite courses differ in the level of interaction between students and instructors. As a result, educators are constantly looking for ways to engage students online and enhance learning techniques. Online classes can present barriers to traditional student engagement and learning, amplified by the actual distance between the learners, their peers, and the instructor.

Online learning delivers content in two ways:

  • Asynchronous content can be accessed by students at any time, 24/7. Asynchronous content typically consists of videos, graphics, readings, slide decks, discussion boards, discussion boards, and third-party apps.
  • Synchronous content must be accessed at a specified time. In online programs that offer live classes, the live classes are synchronous content. Live classes are typically recorded so students can watch them later.

Students who desire to learn online sometimes require flexible class schedules and may be attracted to asynchronous classes over synchronous. However, neither synchronous nor asynchronous courses are without pain points, for instance, with checks of understanding and descriptive feedback. Additionally, instructors have to proactively avoid students feeling isolated and not feeling a part of the learning community.

Student engagement is a broad construct that encourages contact between students and faculty—questions on student course evaluations often solicit information about learner engagement. Engagement also includes a meaningful connection between the student and the course content. Consequently, to realize greater student satisfaction and more profound learner outcomes, instructors are motivated to make their courses as engaging as possible. Moreover, student engagement involves several elements, including active and cooperative learning. Instructors are often encouraged and, in some cases, mandated to provide prompt descriptive feedback and communicate high expectations while recognizing and respecting learner diversity. They are guided by Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning (CRTL) principles and Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

When UDL and learner-centered teaching and learning paradigms are prioritized in course development, the instructor is no longer solely focused on pushing foundational knowledge. Rather than prioritizing new content, the instructor incorporates new learning and social, emotional connections.

For example, concerned about the lack of interaction between students and the material during face-to-face lectures, an instructor provided additional engagement by introducing community-based service-learning requirements and collaborative work.

Another instructor was concerned that students appeared disengaged in high-level discussions. Consequently, the instructor provided students opportunities to engage with the material through action and expression by giving extra credit for student-submitted handwritten notes in the form of graphic organizers. In addition, the instructor included videos, student presentations, and simulations to provide multiple means of representing course content and information processing.

Frequent and purposeful interaction between students and instructors helps increase the online educational experience quality and improve student outcomes and satisfaction. In the absence of face-to-face interactions, instructors can do more than adamantly require students to turn on their cameras. Instructors should try a different approach that increases motivation in classroom activities and assignments—shifting the role of the instructor in synchronous classrooms to a moderator and centering student’s voice. Furthermore, the instructor can take advantage of technology’s ubiquitous nature to help students create emotional connections to the content wherever and whenever they want.

The following are a few strategies instructors can use to increase student engagement during synchronous online classes.

Beginning of the class

Building relationships with a joining question

  • What is filling your bucket today? What is emptying it?
  • What is inspiring your life these days?
  • What have you been reading/listening to/viewing lately?
  • What made you smile today?
  • How did you use yesterday’s learning?
  • What is one interesting fact about you?
  • Have there been changes in how you are feeling?
  • Are you open to sharing roses or thorns from the previous week?

Provide students with ample participation cues

  • If you have a question or contribution, write it in the chat.
  • Please come off mute to share your response.
  • Give me a thumbs up when you are ready for the next step.
  • Give me a green check if you are ready to move to the next step.
  • Raise your hand when you are ready to share, and I will call on you.
  • Show me with a fist to five…
  • If your camera is off, please respond in chat.

Structure breakout rooms

  • Cue participants with language such as, “Open the digital tool by clicking the link in the chat.”
  • Assign roles (Speaker, Notetaker, Time Manager). POGIL is an acronym for Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning. It is a student-centered, group-learning instructional strategy and philosophy developed through research on how students learn best. The POGIL method helps instructors effectively assign roles and deliver engaging learning sessions.
  • Let participants know how to ask for help in breakout rooms and allow participants to return to the main room at any time.

Checks for understanding

Assign straightforward tasks and do not forget to use protocols

  • Four Corners: Tell students that there are four stances they can take: strongly agree, agree, strongly disagree, and disagree. Give students time to think and make a choice. Students type their stance into the chat. Place students into breakout rooms based on their chosen stance (intermixing different stances).
  • Meet in the Middle: This activity will illustrate all the different ways people in the group are similar or agree on certain things. With all of the students in the main meeting room, select one speaker and encourage listeners to turn their cameras off. When listeners find common ground with the speaker’s point of view, they turn on their cameras and join the conversation.
  • Mindful Minute: When using conference applications such as Zoom, Teams, Blackboard, and Connect, exhaustion is real. Mindful minute is a quick and straightforward tool, literally bringing change to your emotional state and cleaning your mental palette in one minute. Extend with periodic breaks
  • Review and Respond: These check-ins allow you to ask clarifying questions, build on students’ ideas, and observe.

Social emotional connections

  • Break up long lecture sessions with water breaks or stretch breaks.
  • Before jumping into teaching take time out for social emotional check ins and self-assessments.

Neria Sebastien, EdD, is an assistant professor of special education in the college of education at Seattle University. He has a doctoral degree in educational leadership from Concordia University. He also earned a master’s in special education from Fordham University and an undergraduate degree in elementary education from the City University of New York’s Brooklyn College. Neria also served as an adjunct instructor of educational technology at Moreland University.