With the advent of COVID-19 came a fast, mass exodus from on-campus teaching to online. An abrupt and unplanned migration, instructors worldwide were told to proceed as planned—just teach virtually. But that’s easier said than done. High-quality online education requires more than a Zoom account; it requires intentional instructional design and use of technology to enhance student engagement and, in turn, improve student outcomes.
Recently, four accomplished instructors from Pepperdine University known for fostering strong student engagement in their 2U-powered programs shared the challenges associated with engaging students online and their strategies for overcoming these obstacles in a special 90-minute faculty panel. Each instructor, Dennis Lowe, Chiconia Anderson, Gabriel Kassaseya, and Princess Walsh, offered their thoughts and practices related to the three types of engagement: behavioral engagement (how often and for how long students engage with course materials), emotional engagement (level of connectedness that students feel in their learning community), and cognitive engagement (how students think about and make connections with what they are learning).
Defining Student Engagement
Before diving into the demands of student engagement—the good, the bad, and the ugly—Lowe, who moderated the seminar, set the foundation for the conversation. He explained that while “student engagement” is a term frequently used in academic settings, it’s a multi-faceted concept that can mean different things to different people.
“When we talk about student engagement, we might be talking about anything from the extent to which students are demonstrating an interest in the course material, their level of class preparation, how much they’re participating in our live sessions, the extent to which they’re mastering the course concepts,” said Lowe. “And also the degree to which students feel connected to each other, as well as connected to faculty members.”
At its core, student engagement is a measure of a student’s level of motivation, focus, and processing of information. High student engagement can result in greater learning achievement, stronger satisfaction with learning experiences, and better graduation rates, whereas low student engagement can have a damaging impact on students and instructors alike.
The Challenges Associated with Low Student Engagement
“One of the things that I’ve noticed in the [online] classroom is that when students have a low engagement, they don’t remember the course material as well,” Anderson shared. Then, there’s a domino effect: they don’t want to show up to class when they don’t feel like they’re getting much out of the course material, they find more than one reason they can’t get online, they find other distractions on their computers or look at their phones. Low engagement most commonly impacts a student’s retainment of information and, ultimately, their grade.
Low student engagement also impacts instructors in the form of high burnout rates, especially in an online learning environment.
“If the student is not engaged, the instructor loses connection with the student,” said Kassaseya. “This can result in the instructor having low self-confidence in the material that they’re providing and maybe some self-doubt. This can also result in the instructor feeling a little disrespected by the students.” Academics are left to wonder, Am I doing something that’s not engaging enough for the student if they’re not presenting as interested?
Fortunately, there are several approaches instructors can take to overcome student engagement challenges. Read on for five strategies to enhance student engagement from Lowe, Anderson, Kassaseya, and Walsh.
1: Promote Connection
In an online environment, it can be difficult for students to build rapport and connections with one another, especially if there’s a tight agenda for a live class. One quick and fun way Walsh likes to engage students is by utilizing the Zoom name feature.
In Zoom, users have the option to create a name for themselves to be identified as during a session. Walsh recommends having each student change their name from a formal “first name, last name” format to something more interesting and personal. For example, an instructor could request students to change their name to “first name, employer, favorite skill they learned in quarantine.”
Walsh finds this tactic to be helpful because it doesn’t take much time out of the learning process, it works in both large and small groups, and an instructor can make it relatable to their course. It’s a great way to foster connection. Everyone gets to know each other on a more human level, which has the potential to build trust between all participants in the online classroom—student to student and student to instructor.
2: Build Interest in Course Material
While psychopharmacology may be compelling to an academic with years of experience in mental health, to a student, it may be the course they wish they could skip most. It’s topics like psychopharmacology that leave students questioning, How is this material meaningful for my career? How is this information going to transfer over to real life?
To get ahead of these types of queries, Anderson intentionally incorporates real-life examples of what she does in her roles outside of academia and relates them to the course material. She then asks students, “What are some of the things that you do in your life right now? Where are you working?” She uses that intel to relate concepts learned in class to what students are doing right now before they get to practicum or move on to graduation.
Personal interest in class subjects is also helpful to share with students. “It’s a starting point in sparking student interest in our courses—conveying our own personal interest in subject matter and being able to demonstrate that,” said Lowe.
Just like instructors read the non-verbal behavior of students, students are reading the non-verbal behavior of their instructor, paying attention to things like eye contact, gestures used, and vocal tone. They are also observing any movements made to detect the amount of interest an instructor has in the topic they’re teaching. By articulating personal interest in subject matter, an instructor reinforces the validity and relevance of what is being taught.
For Walsh, she’s found that the design of course material can foster greater engagement. “The way you design your Powerpoint or your handouts is really important. They are a part of the engagement process—it’s not just about showing up to the live session,” she said.
Walsh recommends designing for how people learn: design for knowledge, for skills, for motivation.
Kassaseya takes a slightly different approach: humor.
“My method of teaching usually involves humor and light-heartedness to really keep students interested in what they’re learning. This can help motivate students and enables a more natural rapport with the instructor (rather than the instructor coming across as robotic),” said Kassaseya. If you can present as more human, your odds of connecting with students is greater.
But humor is not the only recommendation Kassaseya offered. He has also found that it’s important to create a safe environment for students to feel comfortable asking the questions they need to ask to stay interested. He suggests letting students know that they can speak freely whenever they have any comments, concerns, or feedback. Open up the door and they’ll take a step forward.
3: Keep Classes Relevant, Relatable, and Meaningful
“If students feel like what’s going on in their course connects with where they are emotionally and what they’re experiencing on a day-to-day basis, it makes it more meaningful and more relevant,” said Lowe.
To create an engaging class experience, an instructor must make it clear to students what they stand to gain by engaging in the material. Both Kassaseya and Anderson agree that integrating current events into the classroom provides a way to show connection.
“If there are any current events relevant to coursework, I bring in the articles and stories that everyone is talking about and relate it to what we’re discussing in class,” shared Kassaseya.
Kassaseya used the example of GameStop to prove his point. GameStop stock was recently on a wild roller coaster ride, with peaks, dips, and drops in a matter of a week. GameStop could be used in a business course and related to class material on financial markets to help students better grasp what they’re learning.
Anderson also sees the value in using relevant events in the classroom.
“Some of the concepts I teach about were created so long ago. Even though those concepts still work today, it’s not necessarily always clear how a theory from the ‘80s can be applied now,” said Anderson. She suggests merging theories or concepts from the past with current trends to bridge the connection between old and new.
4: Engage the Disengaged
When students are distracted, engagement suffers. Whether their camera is off, lighting is inadequate, only their forehead is showing on the screen, they’re multitasking, or they’re having a conversation with someone else in their household, each is a challenge to class participation.
Time and time again, Lowe has been confronted with these challenges. He offered up a solution he’s found effective.
“On my very first class day, I discuss the importance of class engagement and share that it is something that involves all of us; we all contribute to a positive learning environment,” said Lowe. “I then go on to say that past students have identified some things that they find distracting during Zoom sessions and show some images of people who are, during their Zoom sessions, lying in bed, on the phone, playing a video game, watching a sporting event on another screen, driving in a car—all distracted.”
Lowe has found that it’s helpful to show what it looks like to be disengaged and then have students adopt one of those habits that they’ve been shown for a photo. When they strike a pose, Lowe takes a screenshot that he then uses in later classes to exemplify what does not contribute to a great learning experience. Lowe also shows students images of an engaged learner in his first class as examples of what leads to a more successful learning experience.
While stating and clarifying expectations on class presence is important, Lowe balances his call for engagement by demonstrating his understanding of extenuating circumstances. He asks that students let him know if and when they need help or support during trying times, especially during COVID-19, so that he does not misinterpret lack of participation.
5: Facilitate Participation in Class Discussions and Activities
Most instructors have experienced that moment in class where they pose a question to students and get crickets. It’s uncomfortable and difficult to move on from. To encourage participation and prevent awkward silence, Walsh likes to do something she calls “popcorn.”
“I ask a question to the group and then I invite one student to answer that question,” she shared. “Then I invite the student that answered that question to call on the next student to respond, and so on. It’s a great way to keep students alert and engaged, and it provides students with an opportunity to build connection with one another.”
Kassaseya uses breakout rooms. Before he sends his students off to do group work in a breakout room, he lets them know that they will be asked to report out on the activity that they’re doing when they return to the main class. This way they’re not caught off guard, they’re prepared, and they’re ready to share their team’s perspective.
For Anderson, she’s found success in spotlighting students’ responses to asynchronous, which has led to fuller discussions in the live class. Students want to be highlighted and validated for the work they’ve been doing, so she incorporates their perspectives from asynchronous work to spark organic conversation.
While this isn’t an exhaustive list of strategies to advance student engagement, we hope these tips help stimulate ways to foster greater engagement in the online classroom. If you’re a faculty member in a 2U-powered degree program, your learning doesn’t have to stop here. The Faculty Engagement and Development team at 2U frequently hosts seminars on tools to increase student engagement. Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
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