10 ways to engage students actively online

Now that instructors have had a little time to transition to teaching online in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, it’s time to identify ways to increase student engagement online. Faculty, staff, and graduate students in Purdue University’s School of Engineering Education have put their heads together to offer 10 ideas for actively engaging students in online learning settings. These tips reflect our experience teaching and learning both face-to-face and online.

1. Consider student needs first. Make sure students can engage online. Hope4College provides a resource for helping to ensure that students have basic needs met (e.g., food and funding) and the tools for online learning (internet, laptops, tablets, etc.). Students with disabilities need accommodations for online learning; keep accessibility in mind.

2. Make space to process what’s happening. Consider together the disruption we all are experiencing; offer students opportunities to share what they’re feeling; acknowledge that they might be scared. Remind them that they are not alone, that you care about them, and that you are working to figure out what works in these unprecedented circumstances. Reassure them that you will help them learn and succeed in the course.

3. Be human, and recognize your students’ humanity. Education is a human activity — don’t let technology get in the way of engaging the human processes of teaching. If you teach synchronously online or record screencasts, be sure to show your face every so often — your students need to remember that you’re a person, too. Also create opportunities for students to be themselves and to express who they are.

4. Be interactive. Few students like watching someone lecture nonstop for an hour. Chunk the lecture into shorter segments; find natural points to break up the content; pose questions for the students to answer before moving on to the next lecture video. Establish groups of learners to discuss topics or work together on their own time in familiar social networking platforms and collaborative work spaces such as Box, Google Docs, and GroupMe. Consider forming academic and social support groups that can help students who don’t know other students or who are reluctant to reach out.

5. Be inclusive. Think about how your course activities foster interest, capacity and belongingness in students. Acknowledge student differences and incorporate opportunities for all to participate. This tip sheet has more information. While designed for Purdue’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, it applies broadly across STEM fields and beyond. Consider culturally responsive or inclusive teaching strategies.

6. Offer support. Make time for questions and help sessions via videoconferencing or apps like Slack or CampusWire. WhatsApp and GroupMe can also provide support. Consider holding virtual office hours by sharing your videoconferencing link with students.

7. Assess what you do to improve. Use classroom assessment techniques to help monitor what is working and what needs improvement. For real-time feedback, some conferencing software enables students to respond quickly with emoji, such as a show of hands, that are totaled for the host. Simple online surveys administered in your learning management system or through software like SurveyMonkey or Qualtrics can help.

8. Bring the same resources that you would use in face-to-face endeavors. Online learning is not a shortcut. In fact, in online learning, it’s even more important to employ good teaching practices, including advance planning, communication, establishing clear learning objectives at the beginning of a session, and reviewing key points at the end of class. Organize a team of helpers, and give them specific tasks when hosting online classes — moderate the technology or put students in breakout rooms, watch the chat for specific questions, prepare polls, and so on.

9. Share student questions rather than respond individually. Reply to all, create an FAQ, or provide a discussion board to share class questions. In Purdue’s Mentored Teaching in Engineering course, we offer a Teachers Corner discussion, in which participants post problems or challenges they’re facing, and other participants and the instructional team respond. We also have a Learners Lounge, where folks share community resources.

10. Keep track of engagement, and follow up. Let the students know you care about who participates and that you don’t want any students to drift away. Some students will thrive in online learning environments, but not everyone will embrace it. Identify those who are not participating, and find ways to help them engage. Conferencing software like Zoom lets you track when viewers have clicked away from the active window.

Donna Riley

Kamyar Haghighi Head of the School of Engineering Education, College of Engineering, Purdue University

We acknowledge Kerrie Douglas, Nathan Hicks, Brent Jesiek, Isabel Jimenez-Useche, Paul Leidig, Memoria Matters, Tamara Moore, Alice Pawley, Karl Smith, Ruth Streveler, Nicole Towner and Carla Zoltowski for their contributions to ideas included here.

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