5 Ways to Engage Students in Online Learning

Updated: Jun 24, 2020

Online learning represents a major pedagogical shift in K-12 and higher education. The transition to online learning offers many obvious benefits but the transitioning to online learning requires instructors to retrain and rethink their teaching philosophy. And online learning is not going away. Students largely support having online learning options, but will overlook the fact that success largely depends on the quality of their instruction. It is an unfortunate reality that online courses suffer low retention rates, leading to missed opportunity for credit and wasted resources. To address this, schools need to hire and retain knowledgeable professional who understands the basics of online learning. Being able to navigate online learning is a must-have for those seeking to be instructors from this point forward. And it is essential that all teachers learn prepare students for success. The most important factor for that success is engagement, which can present a major challenge to instructors of online classes.

I taught my first online course in 2015 and thought that the start-up of the course would be the most challenging aspect. But in fact, converting my in-class lessons into modules was fun and not nearly as time consuming that I imagined it would be.

Be active and responsive

The greatest challenge with online teaching is presence. This is especially challenging in courses that are asynchronous where teachers and students are not meeting at regular, set class times. If students are logging on at their convenience, it’s important that they receive feedback on previously submitted work, comments and have their questions answered. The more responsiveness they receive, the more they will continue to log on and keep up with the class. If a teacher is not present and not logging in, students will know not to waste their own time.

Gamify Learning

Okay. I know this is an online gaming website blog. But by “gamify” learning I don’t simply mean you assign video games to students to replace in class lectures and discussions. All you really need to do is add game elements to your instruction. Ever play a really challenging video game, and wonder why you gave so much effort? There are elements of gaming that have been well known for years to keep people playing. Candy crush is a perfect example of this. It is a task-based matching game that gives constant feedback to players. The game itself is fairly basic and by no means ground breaking (confession, I personally do not play this game but have been invited to by bored relatives on more than one occasion). Oddly, these elements of gaming are too often absent from more valuable learning environments. If nothing else, learning is a challenge, but adding game elements can motivate learners and create an environment of play. There are three basic elements of games that motivate people to play that can easily be applied to teaching: points, badges and leaderboards. Give points for correct answers to formative assessments. Give badges to students who get certain number correct. Let students show those badges. Create a leaderboard.

Create visually appealing design

Nobody wants to look at a boring screen. Online teaching can learn just as much from web design as it can from gamification. When choosing a template design, consider the course you are teaching. Think about themes that relate to the subject matter. Create a space that makes sense with your content. Remember, if your students are Western, the orientation of reading starts from left to right. The left side of the screen is the most valuable real estate. And don’t neglect the minor details. Choose a color scheme that makes sense and is appealing. Choose a font that is mature. Research has been done on fonts, and they do matter.

Use Smaller Chunks

In person classes provide for a captive audience. Discussions and in person learning activities force students to stay awake and engaged during these sometime long periods of class time. At home, however, if a student gets tired, bored, or distracted while working through a course module, there is not much you can do. But you can play along. Chunk your modules as short as possible. If students want to keep going, they can. If they want to pick it up later, they will. At some point deadlines will arrive, but it is the student’s responsibility to get there. But if they want to work in increments, it should be permissible. Now you will need to consider the nature of subject matter of your class. In Political Science, it is very easy to divide most courses into smaller component parts. For example, the big topic might be branches of government, the unit might be Congress, a section might be the House, sub-section committee structure, etc. The entire course pretty much gets broken down that way. I think this is true for most academic subjects being taught at the introductory level in college but you should make this determination on your own and weigh how small you think you should cut through your content.

Formative Assessments

The multiple choice and short answer format do not go away with online courses. However, these become much more complicated to administer in graded quizzes and exams due to cheating concerns. But multiple choice is alive and well. Create practice exams using multiple choice and short answer. Multiple choice questions are easy to self-grade and provide immediate feedback to you and your learners. In fact, formative assessments using multiple choice are great learning tool, provided there is immediate feedback given to student and there is a great deal of research to support this. You can go even further have students evaluate their results and explain why they chose their answer. Again, the course is being designed to reinforce students who are engaged. As they participate, they get feedback. And the advantage of multiple choice is that you will not even need to be there to score it.

Multiple choice questions are easy to self-grade and provide immediate feedback to you and your learners.

I think there is much more to say about designing multiple choice questions. A good one can be very useful, a bad one can be harmful, and some are just too darn easy. This is a topic I feel strongly about, but that will be for a different day

So, there are 5 ways to better engage your students in an online course. Please comment below if you have any feedback and subscribe to my site. I need friends!

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