Minot State University
Key Statement: This article offers strategies that can be used to provide an environment for students to interact and connect during virtual sessions and allow students to feel as if they are taking an active role in their education.
Photo by Chris Montgomery
During the past year, instructors have been faced with transitioning from traditional methods of teaching to virtual. Although instructors may be accustomed to methods of engaging students in a face-to-face environment, creating an engaging virtual classroom can be challenging. According to Schaufeli (2013), engagement refers to involvement, focused effort, dedication, and absorption. Effectively creating an engaging online course requires planning, creativity, and ongoing interactions. A main component of successful teaching and learning is student engagement (Khan et al., 2017), and understanding how to encourage interactions between peers and instructors is vital to effective learning. However, engaging students in an online synchronous environment is particularly challenging. This blog outlines
four strategies that can be easily implemented in a virtual environment, provides activities to support each strategy, as well as identifies a challenge for your consideration.
4 Strategies to Engage Students in the Online Environment
Strategy #1: Start Each Class Period With a Short Break-the-Ice Activity
When designing a virtual course, faculty should encourage regular interactions (Lumpkin, 2021). Martin and Bolliger (2018) identify icebreaker/introduction discussions as one of the most effective strategies to create engagement between peers. Starting each class period with a small activity that allows students to get involved immediately may increase participation throughout the class period.
Ask a simple true-or-false or open-ended question relating to course content for the day. Students can respond with their answers to the question in the course chat area. If a true-or-false question has been asked, students can “raise their hand” or give a thumbs-up in the virtual classroom to signify their response. Beginning the session with an engagement activity will set the tone for interaction throughout the lecture.
Raising a hand or typing into the chat is a quick way to share a response. Students can easily interact and participate without having to actually speak.
Challenges for consideration
Some students do not feel comfortable sharing individual responses.
Strategy #2: Use Digital Tools to Engage Students With Content in Real-Time
The use of technological tools has increased in academic teaching. In the virtual classroom, instructors should consider the use of digital tools for effective pedagogy. Using digital tools allows for student interaction in the virtual classroom in real-time, from any location. Digital tools provide an opportunity to create a dialogue among students and share learning experiences.
Instructors can pull up the digital platform of choice and share the screen so all students can view the screen. Tools such as Kahoot!, PollEverywhere, and Answer Garden allow students to respond to questions and interact in real-time in an online platform. Instructors can create quizzes, word clouds, and open-ended discussions using the previously listed platforms.
Students can anonymously participate in the class discussion. Anonymous participation allows students to participate freely without concern of guessing the wrong answer.
Challenges for consideration
If students can participate anonymously, they may not feel required to complete the participation task.
Strategy #3: Use Small Group Discussions Frequently
Break students into small virtual groups on a regular basis. Use a small-group breakout session to break up a long lecture. According to Blumenfeld et al. (1996), working with peers in small groups can transform students’ learning experiences by improving thinking skills and promoting intergroup relations. Creating small-breakout groups allows students who may not feel comfortable speaking in a large class setting to feel more comfortable sharing ideas. Additionally, students have an opportunity to actively participate, rather than simply listening to a lecture.
Create and distribute a list of discussion questions related to content discussion for the day. Break students into small breakout groups and assign each group a different question. Set a time limit in the breakout room and students should discuss the question from all perspectives. One student might take the role of facilitator to encourage conversation. Bring the group back together as a large group, and ask each group to share their thoughts on the discussion question they were assigned.
Students are more likely to share opinions in a small group and subsequently participate in a whole-class discussion after they have had an opportunity to analyze thoughts and formulate a position in the small group.
Challenges for consideration
Encouraging all members of the group to participate can be difficult. Some group members may dominate the conversation, and all perspectives may not be discussed.
Strategy #4: Implement Student-led Discussions
Increase student-led discussions in the classroom. According to Wagner and Gansemer-Topf (2005), peer teaching increases understanding of course content and allows students an opportunity to be involved in and take responsibility for their own learning. Student-led discussions allow students to gain practice as facilitators in addition to being effective participants. Peer-based active learning provides an additional opportunity for involvement.
Break students into small groups and provide short, discipline-specific articles for them to analyze. Give students approximately one week to prepare a short presentation (15-20 minutes) on their analysis of the article. Presentations can be spread throughout the semester. Student presenters will become facilitators of conversation and provide an opportunity for class discussion and participation.
Students may be more likely to participate in a discussion led by peers. Students want to help out their peers during a presentation, so will more likely respond when their peers ask them a question.
Challenges for consideration
Students may be intimidated by the idea of giving a lengthy presentation and leading a class discussion.
Student engagement is a critical component of meaningful learning and academic
achievement. However, it is particularly challenging to achieve engagement in virtual, synchronous environments. Students in a virtual environment may report a lack of interest,
and therefore produce a lower quality of work if they are not engaged in the same ways as traditional face-to-face students (Martin, 2019).
Therefore, increasing student engagement may result in favorable educational outcomes. Creating an environment for students to interact and connect during online sessions allows students to feel as if they are taking an active role in their education. Encouraging engagement may result in better learning, higher scores, and successful virtual courses.
1. What engagement strategies do you currently use in your class?
How could you modify them to work in a virtual classroom?
2. Which engagement strategies listed in this blog would you implement in your course?
3. What other virtual activity suggestions would support an engaged classroom?
Blumenfeld, P. C., Marx, R. W., Soloway, E., & Krajcik, J. (1996). Learning with peers: From small
group cooperation to collaborative communities. Educational researcher, 25(8), 37-39.
Khan, A., Egbue, O., Palkie, B., & Madden, J. (2017). Active learning: Engaging students to
maximize learning in an online course. Electronic Journal of E-Learning, 15(2), 107–115. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1141876.pdf
Lumpkin, A. (2021). Online Teaching: Pedagogical Practices for Engaging Students
Synchronously and Asynchronously. College Student Journal, 55(2), 195-207.
Martin, J. (2019). Building relationships and increasing engagement in the virtual classroom:
Practical tools for the online instructor. Journal of Educators Online, 16(1), n1.
Martin, F., & Bolliger, D. U. (2018). Engagement matters: Student perceptions on the
importance of engagement strategies in the online learning environment. Online Learning, 22(1), 205–222. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1179659.pdf
Schaufeli, W. B. (2013). Employee engagement in theory and practice. Routledge.
Wagner, M., & Gansemer-Topf, A. (2005). Learning by teaching others: A qualitative study
exploring the benefits of peer teaching. Landscape Journal, 24(2), 198–208. https://doi.org/ 10.3368/lj.24.2.198