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3 Actions to Elevate Engagement in Online Classes

Updated: May 16, 2023

Rory O'Neill Schmitt, University of Southern California

Key Statement: Elevate engagement online by creating inclusive environments, demonstrating your own commitment and engagement, and empowering student voices.

Keywords: Online, Engagement, Empowered

How Can We Engage Students Online?

For the past decade, as a faculty member and manager, I’ve learned, taught, observed, and coached faculty with various methods of student engagement. These methods of engagement are equally applicable to online learning, and online learning persists as an effective global solution to education. Hybrid, hyflex, and fully remote classes are now mainstream. Using a theater metaphor inspired by a previous call to action (Schmitt, 2019), I will share an updated perspective of three strategies for engaging students in online learning environments, particularly in the face of adversity:

· Set the stage: Co-create a safe learning environment.

· Play the part: Show engagement.

· Inspire the players: Empower student voices.

lower left corner shows the sun rising over a tree-covered slope, and sunlight across a clear sky. A multicolored patchwork hot air balloon is being launched. The pilot is shown in the basket, regulating the burner flame.

Image by Austin Ban


Set the Stage: Co-Create a Safe Learning Environment

Before stepping into the metaphorical room (Zoom room, that is), teachers can create fertile ground for student engagement. Ways that you can create a safe and inclusive learning space in advance of class include purposeful planning (balanced with flexibility to pivot based on learner needs), clear advance communication of learning objectives and class activities, and genuine display of your commitment to support all students.

Teaching with empathy is the key to establishing trust and building supportive relationships with students (Steiner & Lemke, 2022). Beginning with the first class, instructors can invite students to introduce themselves. Together, the class gets to know each other and begins to co-create community. By learning each other’s names and the correct pronunciations, instructors can begin to build psychological safety.

When faculty share their dedication to students with their students and exemplify an openness to adapt to online learners’ needs, they are laying the foundation brick-by-brick where students can arrive emotionally connected, refreshed, relieved, open, and excited to engage in class with their instructor and peers, despite being physically distanced.

Play the Part: Demonstrate Authentic Engagement

During class, show your dedication, excitement, and enthusiasm. Poised faculty are centered and grounded, ready to teach, show compassion, and spark joy. Notice your energy and bring extra of the positive component to the room to foster excitement. When you exemplify your dedication to engaging students in meaningful ways, and you model an openness to learn, you’re inviting students to also make space for learning.

Teaching, especially online, involves acquiring new technology tools, media, software, and applications (Mentimeter, Menti, and Jamboards, for instance). As we explore these new tools, we can practice intentionality behind our selection of tech tools, always thinking of the “why” and how this bridges to our learning goals.

Yes, learning new tools can feel overwhelming at times. However, before accepting everything that comes along for newness’s sake or turning it all down to focus on curriculum and content only, think how you might be able to meaningfully grow and expand your repertoire. Faculty can show students that they learn new things, too. Students will appreciate the work you put in to try something new in order to create a positive and engaged online atmosphere. And it’s okay if instructors make mistakes; it actually can be good if they do. Vulnerability is a key trait of leadership. When we see our leaders make mistakes, sometimes we are reminded of their humanity, and we are simultaneously inspired to innovate, try new things, and step out of our comfort zones. This is a move towards engagement.

You can also allow space for students to take chances by inviting “wrong answers only.” Acknowledge that students don’t always have to know the answer or be right. Learning requires courage. Part of learning is navigating through uncertainty, testing solutions, and engaging in critical thinking exercises. You might even consider sharing a personal narrative of a mistake you made that ultimately enabled you to grow, or share a time you overcame adversity.

You can also consider changing up the structure of class week to week in order to foster unique learning experiences, particularly doable in online spaces. Invite curiosity by creating new avenues to connect to content. For instance, inviting a guest speaker (making sure this aligns with the learning objectives) can inspire self-efficacy in students and help them identify how course material has relevance today. Online classes are well-suited for guest speakers, as they are not constrained by travel requirements or even synchronous attendance.

When all else fails? Use humor, tell a joke, smile. Don’t take yourself too seriously. It’ll lighten the load for students. They often feel the burden of having to “perform” in live virtual classes and fatigue online is real (Zakrajsek, 2022a). Anxiety can grip students, shutting down engagement. Normalize fear and worry. Choose to build radical empathy.

Inspire the Players: Empower Student Voices

Now that you’ve set the stage and engaged, your next step is to create pathways for participation. Remember, engagement and involvement can look different to different learners (Yester, 2022). Engagement can occur through sharing a response in chat, completing a poll, drawing during an illustrative mapping exercise, raising a hand on the screen or with a click of the mouse, participating in role-play/real-play, speaking during a pair-and-share, having reflective writing time, participating in small group discussions, and debating a topic (Lee, 2019; Zakrajsek, 2022b).

This component also enfolds the previous two components. Show your students your genuine interest in their perspective (engagement). Give them space to share and respond in an inclusive atmosphere (safe space). You might reach out to students outside of class and invite them to elaborate on their exemplary work.

Every person in the room, discussion board, chat, or server has knowledge to share that will enrich the learning experience for everyone in class, including the teacher. Acknowledge that you value learning from them, too.

As Helen Keller is often attributed as saying, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much” (Adams, 2018).

Final Thoughts

Elevating engagement online requires a foundation of trust between instructors and students (Sedlovskaya, 2020). Igniting engagement can be accomplished through creating a safe, inclusive environment; demonstrating commitment; and empowering all student voices.

Discussion Questions

  1. Think back to your student days when you were fully engaged in a class. What did your professor do, say, or model to spark engagement in you and your peers? How can that be translated online?

  2. How can you use your personal narrative to inspire engagement in your online students amidst adversity?

  3. What do you consider the most challenging aspect about continuing to engage students online in a time of global change? How might the strategies suggested here help address that challenge?


Adams, K. (2018, June 26). Helen Keller: "Alone we can do so little. Together we can

do so much." AFB Blog. American Foundation for the


Lee, L. (2019, October 24). How to increase participation by asking better

questions. Edutopia.


Ricevuto, J., & McLaughlin, L. (2021, December 9). Incorporating virtual

instructional strategies that increase student engagement. The Scholarly



Schmitt, R. O. (2021, October 4). Fostering online student success in the face of

COVID-19. The Scholarly Teacher.


Sedlovskaya, A. (2020, September 22). Building inclusive virtual classrooms.

Harvard Business Publishing Education.


Steiner, A., & Lemke, J. (2022, May 12). 4 online teaching strategies to promote

collaboration and community. The Scholarly Teacher.


Yester, M. (2022, January 13). To connect with students, be open and honest.

Harvard Business Publishing Education.


Zakrajsek, T. (2022a, January 19). Don’t use Zoom fatigue as a convenient

scapegoat for exhaustion. The Scholarly Teacher.


Zakrajsek, T. (2022b, October 6). 4 strategies to warm teaching while maintaining

high expectations. The Scholarly Teacher.


About the Author


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