Promoting Student Engagement in Your Online/DL Course


The concept of student engagement has become somewhat an enigma as educators move to the online and distance learning (DL) realm. Many instructors find it challenging to maintain a similar level of engagement as their face-to-face classrooms. This article explores the various aspects of online student engagement that aims at delivering a clearer operational definition of engagement together with teaching tips for online/DL instructors.

What is student engagement?

When we think of the engaged students in the face-to-face world, we think of students who participate, contribute, and are focused and motivated. And how do we evaluate that? Most commonly instructors adopt a rather subjective approach through observing a few indicators: do they appear to be attentive, are they participating in classroom discussions, or are they actively seeking interaction with classmates and the instructors? These indicators are valid, but a closer look at the definition of student engagement will reveal a fuller picture.

Bond et al. (2020) identified the following qualities of student engagement:

  1. It is the energy and effort that students employ within their learning community.
  2. It is observable via any number of behavioral, cognitive, or affective indicators across a continuum.
  3. It is shaped by a range of structural and internal influences, including the complex interplay of relationships, learning activities, and the learning environment.
  4. It feeds back to the learning community and continues to fuel further engagement.

      The third aspect, how to operationalize engagement, gives us a clear path to further disentangle the concept - the various components students will come in contact with when taking an online/DL course: content, peers, and the instructors.

      Types of Interaction

      Simply put, students need to do things in order to learn and much of this “doing” involves interaction with the various components in the learning environment: the course itself (content and its hosting platform), other students, and the teaching team (instructors & TAs). Keep some of these questions in mind when thinking about the different types of interactions. (Riggs, 2020)

      Visual of the three components of a learner-centered environment: student-content, student-student, and student-instructor interaction.

      • The interaction between students and the course requires the instructor (or content developer) to author the content in a way that promotes active learning, providing meaningful learning content and activities to every student.
        • How will my students interact with the course content?
        • Beyond reading, listening to/viewing lectures, what will students actually DO with the course content? 
        • How can they do so in their homes?
      • The interaction among students normally doesn’t happen spontaneously, but within a framework explicitly defined by the instructor. As the instructor, you are not fully removed from this type of interaction, but instead assumes the role of an observer and offers intervention as needed.
        • How will my students interact with other students? 
        • Beyond completing assignments and assessments independently, how will students work together to ensure that they feel like they are part of a learning community and have the opportunity to collaborate, think critically, be intellectually challenged, and make meaning with others? 
        • How can students work with others while they are isolated in their homes?
      • The interaction between students and the instructor goes beyond your screen time with students during a recorded lecture; it is best achieved by developing a facilitation plan that details how you plan to communicate with students (e.g. Q&A, office hours, grading, feedback timeline, etc.).
        • How will my students interact with me, their instructor?
        • Now that you aren't in the classroom with your students, how will students be able to interact with you? 
        • How might you guide student learning while also being flexible and trying to accommodate different student needs? What assignment expectations do you need to convey? What information do you need to clarify for students?

        Approaches to Engagement

        With these questions in mind, we can move on to some concrete strategies that can help you solidify the three interactions in your course. We are going to approach this from the following perspectives:

        Engagement through Design, Facilitation, and Technology defined. Design: This is to set the stage. An engaging course starts with a thoughtfully organized course with consistent goals, materials, activities, and assessments. You may also solicit support from the instructional design specialist, your department, or colleagues. Facilitation: This is show time. Facilitation is your direct instruction, the rapport, communication. It also calls for flexibility. As you interact with students and hear their feedback, you will need to make adjustments to your default plan in order to engage all your audience. Technology: This is your props. Technology, especially those derived for educational purposes, can be of great help in promoting engagement.


        Engage Through Design

        The power of course design is that it elevates teaching from simply developing a list of topics in conjunction with a host of content. Below are a few tips on how to design engagement into your courses.

        • Communicate your expectations of the course, modules, activities, and assignments.
        • Design your content around the expectations and display this coherence to students.
        • Select content that is relevant, current, and interesting.
        • Use formative assessments (e.g. comprehension checks, reflection/discussion forums, etc.), especially after readings, longer lecture videos, and primary content.
        • Integrate interactive activities during your synchronous sessions (breakout discussions, polls, Google Docs collaboration activities.) 
        • Diversify your mode of content delivery with a combination of readings, asynchronous lecture videos, synchronous sessions (e.g. lectures, review sessions, office hours), interactive activities, etc.
        • Use groups.
        • Consider flipped classrooms.
        • Consider using learning technologies (e.g. Perusall, VoiceThread, Flipgrid, etc.)

        Engage Through Facilitation 

        It is a common fallacy, especially in the online asynchronous sphere, that the instructor creates a rich learning environment and students are largely self-sufficient. Even in the most extreme cases, instructor presence is still required to maintain student engagement. Below are some general guidelines on how to enhance student engagement. For a detailed list, please refer to the Instructor Presence and Engagement Plan handout.

        • Maintain regular and open communication
        • Humanize your presence
        • Encourage students to collaborate with each other
        • Be prompt with grading and giving students feedback
        • Invite students to provide feedback
        • Be flexible when interacting with students
        • Be aware of student needs and have readily available resources

        Engage Through Technology

        The role that digital technology plays in promoting engagement continues to grow, with the advancement of technology itself as well as changing student demography to a younger and more tech-savvy generation. There are a variety of factors that can influence student engagement through technology, such as the digital literacy of both the instructor and students, 

        • Allow students to have a voice in what technology to use.
        • Explain the rationale behind technology use in relation to the learning objectives.
        • Provide thorough and clear explanations of how technology is to be used.
        • Provide guidelines on the proper use of technology and discuss etiquette.
        • Offer introductory sessions/activities dedicated to familiarizing students with technology.
        • Clarify resources for continuous tech support.
        • Provide alternatives to technology.
        • Avoid complicating assessments with technology.

        Assess Student Engagement

        Many instructors use an informal mid-semester assessment to gauge student engagement and receive general feedback. Alternatives also include holding focus group discussions with students, inviting an experienced colleague to observe student engagement or use a more structured survey.


        Related Posts


        Arbaugh, J.B., Cleveland-Innes, M., Diaz, S.R., Garrison, D.R., Ice, P., Richardson, & Swan, K.P. (2008). Developing a community of inquiry instrument: Testing a measure of the Community of Inquiry framework using a multi-institutional sample. The Internet and Higher Education, 11(3-4), 133-136.

        Bond, M., Buntins, K., Bedenlier, S., Zawacki-Richter, O., & Kerres, M. (2020). Mapping research in student engagement and educational technology in higher education: A systematic evidence map. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 17(1), 2.

        Dixson, M. D. (2015). Measuring Student Engagement in the Online Course: The Online Student Engagement Scale (OSE). Online Learning, 19(4).Riggs, S. (2020). Student-centered remote teaching: Lessons learned from online education. EDUCAUSE Review.


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