Student Engagement in the Online Classroom: Eight Quick Tips to Spark Students’ Learning

Students are each in their own computer frame and attempt to high five one another in engaging lecture

Most faculty would agree that having great content without a clear delivery processes is not good.  So, here are a few quick tips/steps to guide, inspire, and spark your creativity about how to engage students in your online courses.

1. Provide lecture outlines

Students come into your online class wanting to know what’s going to happen, and an outline is a helpful, courteous way to inform them.  A course syllabus can include the course objectives, main subject points/ideas or perspectives, reminders of assignments and due dates as well as information about office hours, technical support contact information, and student support services. This can be condensed into a brief outline with clear links that navigate to each section of the syllabus it refers to.  A lecture outline, however, is more than just your abbreviated lecture notes. It’s a way to engage students and provide resources beyond the online classroom experience.  This practice benefits students, faculty, and the institution by facilitating ongoing connections within and beyond time spent on an LMS (learning management system) or virtual class platform. Greater connection can be made by including a link to a two-minute, pre-class video covering that day’s topic, a supplemental video covering aspects of the topic, sample “hmm” questions, and supplemental short reads about the topic, just to name a few.

2. Use pre-course videos and subject matter video constructively

Pre-course videos are an effective way to engage students as they provide a greater sense of ease regarding the subject matter. Log in at least 10 minutes before class and start the supplemental or required video related to the course objective. Then, as students enter class, they are engaged with informative content. Get your students thinking and allow them some time to settle into the learning space. Providing them with a complimentary online experience is a helpful way to tap into this aspect of the “traditional” higher education learning environment. Students may even show up early once they realize that there will be a pre-class video. When possible, locate videos that are created by students who reflect the diversity within your class, speak to the content of the course, and provides a transcript of the video for students who may need this modality to fully participate. Videos, such as TED-X, are great conversational videos that allow students to examine, reflect, and create questions that will be a great introduction to the topic.

3. Lecture in bursts

Any student will tell you that if you are talking to them nonstop for more than 10 minutes, they are not listening.  And since most college professors are not Kevin Hart or Dave Chappelle, it’s best to lecture in bursts.  Break the monotony and provide students with opportunities to interact with each other with a short group activity and then reconvene as a class and report each group’s findings (for example, you can use breakout rooms in your LMS or real-time video platform).

4. Have PowerPoint and other resources ready

Student engagement increases when they have multiple learning tools, such as PowerPoints that provide sketches, critical concepts/terminology, and key questions.  Use the PowerPoint slides as a guide, however, and be selective about when you use them (i.e., not for the majority of the class meeting time, if at all possible—think about the level of your own engagement in webinars that followed a “PowerPoint Only” model).  Provide copies of all PowerPoints inside your LMS and remind students that they can review slides later.  Include key questions within the PowerPoint as these can shore up opportunities for interaction during the course and allow you to gauge student attention. Students also love short videos and recaps. Before uploading your slides, provide narration on each slide. Students will appreciate the engagement and the personal touch that narration brings to your course.

5. Poll while you lecture

We absolutely love this feature. If you have not used polling before, you may be surprised at how easy it is to implement.  If you already have scripted questions inserted within your PowerPoints, adding a poll provides opportunities for students to actively engage with the material.   You can ask on-the-spot questions or have them scripted (we may sound like a broken record here but just make sure your on-the-spot questions are presented in a way that allows students with visual or oral impairments to participate).  Importantly, the poll can be published for students to view when it is finished. In addition to having information about who was engaged, you will have information about who was not—this can be key in your efforts to make sure students do not “check out.”  

6. Post shared notes

Any content that students must or should have can be provided to them in shared notes.  Shared notes can be posted in the Chat, uploaded as an attachment, or if you have a shared notes feature in your LMS, provided for students to follow your lecture.  These breadcrumbs let students know what you intend to cover and may lessen anxiety about sitting through a course with no idea of what’s next. Again, accessibility is key here. Your institution’s teaching and learning professionals and/or student accessibility professionals would love to assist you in ensuring that all of your students have a rich academic experience.

7. Plan scheduled breaks for student interactions

Facilitating a course online can be exhausting.  A traditional lecture consists of you showing up with your materials, notes, and handouts, and then presenting/sharing knowledge about your subject matter and facilitating student feedback and discussions.  However, in an online environment you are also a technical expert, managing multiple processes for student engagement.  Therefore, be sure to schedule breaks before the course, mid-course, and even at the end of the course.  Here’s how that looks:  

  • Pre-course: Get students engaged and excited by sharing a song, video, or other media resource. You can reserve your energy, excitement, and enthusiasm and channel that into the lecture.  
  • Mid-course: Create group assignments prior to the course that allows students opportunities to showcase their work and perspectives.
  • Post-course: Encourage students to do a course wave. For example, if students have their cameras turned off during the course to conserve broadband, let them turn them on for a quick face meet. 

8. Have fun and prepare to entertain!

I (Toni) am an entertaining professor—it’s my true calling and I have student testimonials to support my claim.  But for many of my colleagues who are not and know they are not, think about what truly makes you excited about your course…every instructor has personal (and perhaps even funny!) stories to tell that connects who they are as people with the content, which in turn can create connections with/and for students. I feel the need to provide a disclaimer before I go any further. This point is not intended to take away the serious nature of higher education, your role as a subject matter expert, or a serious scholar.  With that said, just imagine you’re the student. How would you feel about coming to your online class?  That is the tough question you need to consider, especially if you are serious about engaging today’s students.  The answer should be that you realize how important it is for you to have fun and connect with your students.  If you grew up when there were rotary phones with dial tones, electric typewriters, and beepers, just know this generation appreciates instructors who bring their whole selves to the classroom. If you have a knack for comedic delivery, use it! And, even if you don’t, watching a few YouTube videos that highlight the basics of engaging an audience can be invaluable. The good news is if you grew up during the aforementioned times, you have a wealth of comedy and comedians—and academics to draw upon for tips on how to deliver content for entertainment. Still skeptical? As Levar Burton might say, “Don’t take our word for it!” Instead, take a look at, for example, Kasha Patel’s talk on the benefits of using comedy to explain science.

Tracey A. Carter is assistant professor of social science/human services and chair of the department at Allen University.  She has taught online since 2018 and serves as a distance education trainer. 

Heather M. Pleasants is an associate director in the Office of Institutional Effectiveness at the University of Alabama. She supports undergraduate experiential learning through working with faculty, many of whom teach online.

Toni Sims Muhammad is associate vice president of academic affairs and distance education at Allen University.  She has actively engaged in distance education research and practice for over 20 years.