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Incorporating Virtual Instructional Strategies that Increase Student Engagement

Joanne Ricevuto, Harcum College

Laura McLaughlin, Neumann University

Young adult with intruments in the background leaning on bed looking bored
Photo by Jakayla Toney on Unsplash

What do you do when you are on Zoom (or whatever platform you use) during a virtual meeting? Be honest. Do you pay attention the entire time, or do you multitask by doing other work or texting a colleague to say how boring the meeting is that it should have been an email? Well, if you're not paying attention during Zoom meetings, why do we expect our students to be any different? The pandemic has changed how faculty design courses, whether face-to-face, hybrid, hi-flex, or online. The challenge now is how to keep students on-task and engaged with the content. The following suggestions aim to help ensure student success and engagement in your next course.

Asynchronous Instruction

Asynchronous instruction increases flexibility. Research suggests that virtual environments are different from face-to-face teaching with respect to learning and need to be modified accordingly. When developed well, asynchronous instruction can provide valuable flexibility for both students and faculty, allow for deeper student learning, and result in more engaged learners.

Synchronous Instruction

Synchronous instruction supports a flexible environment when it is active, collaborative, and flexible. We also believe that synchronous sessions that can best support a flexible learning environment are dynamic and collaborative. Examples of an active synchronous session include using shared virtual spaces such as Google documents or Padlets that students can edit and interactive slides where students can answer questions (PearDeck or NearPod). Additionally, breakout rooms can be beneficial, allowing students to collaborate, share ideas, or complete assignments together during the live session.

Plan Instructional Activities

Determine which of your activities should be asynchronous, which ones should be synchronous, and which ones should be face-to-face. Consider dividing your classroom learning into two general categories:

  1. lectures/presentations/readings and

  2. active learning activities in real-time.

Begin by considering how to deliver content and balance learning activities between synchronous and asynchronous instruction. Lecturing can be a prerecorded event that students would watch independently and come to class prepared for discussion. Students should be involved with the content from the asynchronous modes by being active participants in breakout rooms, polling, ed-tech platforms such as Jamboard, Nearpod, Pear Deck, Padlet, and the like.

Plan Community Building Activities

After more than a year in a pandemic, many students feel disconnected. Students feel more detached from professors and their fellow students than professors believe them to be (Otter, Seipel, Graeff, Alexander, Boraiko, Gray, Petersen, & Sadler, 2013). It's conducive to establish a trusting classroom community. As instructors, we should strive to humanize the classroom regardless of delivery modality. An icebreaker is a great way to start your class session and create a sense of belonging and community. It is a quick (5 - 10 minutes) way to check in with your students in a non-invasive way. Incorporate a simple, anonymous rating that asks how they are doing/feeling at the beginning of every class by using the chatbox, Google forms (or something similar), or a poll. Such surveys give students an opportunity to express how they feel and provide you with immediate feedback.

Set up High-impact Learning Opportunities

Assign High impact learning opportunities so learners are engaged with the course content and learning regardless of the instructional platform. Some characteristics of high-impact practices include opportunities for real-life learning, reflection, feedback, and active engagement (Kuh, 2013). One high-impact learning idea is to have students interview a professional in their field and share their findings in a presentation with the class. The live sessions can allow students to collaborate and discuss the projects they are working on and connect to the course content. Students learn to network in their field and become familiar with professionals who will hopefully connect them with jobs in the future.

Provide Options: Promote Work/Life Balance

Mother looking at her phone with young child on one side and toddler on her lap
Photo by Vitolda Klein on Unsplash

Although we hope that all of our students will attend and participate during synchronous sessions, we suggest having options for times when they cannot be present. It is all too easy to forget that our students may have families (who may fall sick) and competing work obligations (Corbera, Anguelovski, Honey-Roses, & Ruiz-Mallen, 2020). If a student cannot attend a live synchronous session, they can still participate in learning through asynchronous engagement or completing alternative assignments. Likewise, we have found giving students choice when it comes to assessments is also a helpful way to provide flexibility. One student may prefer to present their project, while another may want to write a report. As long as students can demonstrate their learning, then flexibility only helps.

Final Thoughts

Learning environments work best when there is a mix of asynchronous and synchronous instruction and when learners feel connected to the content, to each other, and to their instructor. From our own experience and from working with faculty, we believe that long, extended synchronous sessions are ineffective and bring about frustration and fatigue for both faculty and students. Our research has shown "if done with purpose and intention using best practice to plan and implement online instruction, student learning outcomes improve along with retention and graduation rates, and access to diverse populations increases" (McLaughlin & Ricevuto, 2021, p. 21). Moving forward, we encourage you to be intentional about implementing virtual teaching and learning within our institutions as we continue to find new ways to engage our learners.

Scholarly teachers consider

Discussion Questions

  1. How can virtual learning be leveraged to provide supportive and engaging teaching and learning environments for faculty and students?

  2. How do you balance your synchronous sessions with asynchronous activities? What is one new way you might enhance class time by adding a meaningful active learning strategy?

  3. How do you, or how could you, chunk class time into segments that include community building, lecturing, and reflection to enhance student engagement and learning (provide specific examples).

Scholarly teachers apply evidence-based strategies


Corbera, E., Anguelovski, I., Honey-Roses, J., & Ruiz-Mallen, I. (2020). Academia in the Time of Covid-19: Towards an Ethics of Care. Planning Theory & Practice, 21, 191-199.

Kuh, George D. & O'Donnell, K. (2013). Ensuring quality & taking high-impact practices to scale. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges & Universities.

McLaughlin, L. & Ricevuto, J. (2021). Virtual instruction support for faculty. Issues in Informing Science and Information Technology, 18, 1-30.

Otter, R., Seipel, S., Graeff, T., Alexander, B., Boraiko, C., Gray, J., Petersen, K., & Sadler, K. (2013). Comparing student and faculty perceptions of online and traditional courses. The Internet and Higher Education, 19, 27-35.

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