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Improving Student Engagement During Online Learning: Five Tips That Work

October 1, 2021
Author: Debra Kidder
In the fall of 2016, I felt my own teaching becoming stale, even to myself. I had been teaching various grade levels for twenty plus years at that point. Day in, day out, same plans.

I needed more of a refresher than my district’s Professional Development days offered me. What was out there? What could re-charge my teaching batteries?

During a random search, I came across an expression that would change my life: online learning. By now everyone knows what online learning is. Not everyone knows how it functions, or how incredibly different it is from how it is used today.

Back in 2016, it was the shiny new certification in postgraduate education. I decided to go for it.

The topic was fascinating. Our first class answered the most basic questions: Who did online learning serve? Students with medical issues, and sometimes needed to take leave from school.

Online learning also served students in rural areas who lived over an hour from their schools. Additionally, those schools were underfunded and understaffed; these places could barely be called a school.

Students in urban areas who chose not to navigate gang infested streets to walk through metal detectors to get their education benefit from online learning. These students can safely engage with teachers and peers from their homes.

Families whose priorities were togetherness, travel, and alternate lifestyles needed the option of online learning opportunities.

One of the most important topics my professors introduced was about student engagement. Connection has to be purposefully planned to improve student engagement, because casual connections are missing.

The Importance of Connection in Distance Learning

Connection is one of the main elements that make distance learning effective at every level. When students feel connected to the instructor, they report higher levels of engagement and content recognition.

Student learning is improved when engagement is carefully planned and implemented. When a teacher encourages students to interact with each other in live sessions, break out rooms, or during office hours, connection is the result.

This connection changes a classroom into a learning community, which is the goal for a classroom whose students and instructor(s) may be separated by many miles. Remote learning does not need to feel isolating.

When learning activities are carefully crafted to focus on building a learning community, remote learning is more successful.While engagement is important in the traditional classroom, engagement in the online environment is imperative because it needs to be purposefully planned for students.


Below are five ways to stay connected to your students while teaching remotely:

1. Record a video of yourself greeting your students every morning and post it in your online course. Allowing your students to see your face daily, even if that is not required by your district, is a quick and easy way to establish connection.

For littler students it gives a sense of routine; for older students, it is a reminder that you are there, even when you’re not there at that exact moment. School students are more likely to stay engaged if they can put a face to their assignments.

2. Engage in one non subject specific activity a day. I am not suggesting a whole other lesson plan; I am saying that a quick, engaging, “what’s your favorite ice cream flavor?” type of activity boosts student interest. I refer to the National Day Calendar for inspiration.

Each day, on social media, the lovely people at National Day will tell you if it is National Apple Pie Day, for example, or National Middle Child Appreciation Day. There is usually more than one item on the list, and when food is involved, it becomes a quick and easy way to toss a question out (what is your favorite pizza topping?) that adds to the connection in your virtual classroom.

3. Change groupings. Most schools I know require group work at some point during the year. It is a great idea if those groups can randomly change. Changing student groups will communicate to students that you want to see how different personalities work together in online discussions.

This increases engagement by keeping the interaction and exchange of ideas fresh. It is the equivalent of changing seats in a face to face classroom. Make these changes randomly. The less you are like a machine, the more humanly engaged your students will be.

4. Let your students see more of your life. Allow your students to see into your world. They are not the only ones working remotely. When they see that you are also, they are more likely to engage with you.

Remember, in your classroom you would have pictures of your family on your desk (maybe?), you would tell stories about your dog, or vacations you took as a child while talking about geography.

Don’t forget, you will need to find new ways to incorporate those connections–they are just as, if not more important now that students are removed from you physically.

5. Write handwritten letters. Students rarely receive letters in a mailbox anymore. Each day, take a few minutes and write an encouraging note to a student. Don’t spend more than two or three minutes on this, but remember the payback is more than worth the investment.

Getting a letter in the mail for high school students and middle school students is a novelty these days. This simple act shows the student that you are indeed a real person during online learning, who does more than teach. You are a person who cares enough to value student engagement as much as content.

These letters would vary in length depending on what grade teacher you are.

Leading Students to Mastery

Remember that connection between you and your students increases engagement, and engagement increases mastery. This is why connection and engagement must precede content and curriculum. Engagement is important at all levels of online learning. Connection is important for all of us, inside of school and out.

Further reading

For further reading, this article from (2018) offers more information: Click here

Also, this article from the Online Learning Consortium (2015) offers more information on how to overcome barriers to student engagement in the remote teaching space: Click here

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