Increasing Student Engagement in Online Courses

Here are five suggestions for increasing student engagement in online courses. You might be surprised to see that many of the suggestions center around increasing instructor engagement. This is because student satisfaction and retention rates are highly tied to instructor engagement. Thus, the more instructors model a high level of engagement, the more likely students are to both enjoy the class and respond with a higher level of engagement themselves.

  1. As an instructor, model a high level of engagement

    • Leave a footprint: In an online course, engagement means anything the students can actually “see” in the course environment. We might spend four hours reading discussion responses, but if we do not leave a written footprint, the students do not know we were there. To show your engagement, leave a footprint in the course several days a week. Examples of a “footprint” include announcements, emails, posting on the discussion board, providing feedback on assignments and activities, and sending out extra relevant resources.
    • Respond in a timely manner: When we respond to student emails or questions posed for us in the course environment, students perceive us as more engaged. Timely ideally means responding within 24 hours, but not more than 48 hours.
    • Grade promptly: Grading within a few days of submission allows students enough time to use your feedback to make changes to their discussions and assignments in the following module. If we are a week behind, they cannot use our feedback to advance and, as a result, their grade and motivation suffer.
    • Send weekly announcements: Sending an announcement at the beginning of the module helps orient students to the week ahead and shows them you are right there with them. In these announcements, you might summarize the last week’s materials and highlight key takeaways or themes you saw in students’ work. You can also use them to introduce the next week’s content and point out key deadlines or assignments, including your rationale for the assignments.
    • Individual check-ins: Once or twice a semester, send each student a brief individual email asking them how they are doing and if there is anything you can do to make their learning experience even better. This personal touch makes students feel seen and important to you.
  2. Create a sense of community
    • Students are more likely to engage with you and one another if they feel like they are part of a community and have a safe space to do so. You can create a sense of community through a welcome email to the class (and to each student individually), having a discussion thread in Module 1 in which students introduce themselves and say hello to one another, and having a Cyber Café where students can “hang” out and discuss the course and non-course related topics. Having each student add a headshot to their profile can also enhance a sense of community.
    • To ensure the course environment feels like a safe space, post Netiquette Guidelines in the course and/or in the syllabus outlining what will and will not be accepted as appropriate communication in the course. Monitor the discussions and, if necessary, promptly remove any inappropriate communication.

  3. Clearly articulate your expectations for participation from the beginning
    • If students know what is expected of them from the get-go, they are more likely to demonstrate higher engagement. A course that starts with strong participation is more likely to end with strong participation and vice versa. As such, it is important to create an expectation of and demonstration of engagement early on. You can articulate your expectations in the syllabus, the first course announcement, the discussion board instructions, and the grading rubrics.

  4. Incentivize student participation
    • Whatever is graded is seen by students as most important to us and to succeeding in the course. If you want students to participate a certain amount (e.g., respond to at least two of their peers on every discussion thread), then assign points for their participation in the grading rubric. And, as we noted above, be sure to communicate this expectation.

  5. Provide opportunities for students to work together and support each other
    • Partner or small group work: Although not all students are a fan of group work, judiciously and appropriately used, group work can enhance a sense of community and engagement.
    • Peer review activities: As an alternative to group work, students can act as peer reviewers of each other’s work. They might review and provide feedback to a peer on a paper using a grading rubric you provide. Students can then use peer feedback to revise their papers before submitting them for a grade. You can grade the peer review for completeness and helpfulness.

More Resources

For more ideas on increasing student engagement in online courses, have a look at these articles:


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Increasing Student Engagement in Online Courses by Dr. Michelle Pearce is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Revised 5/6/2020  

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