Engaging Students

Engaging Students

Table of Contents

While online classes provide students with more flexibility and new ways to collaborate, success in the online environment is directly related to how present and engaged the instructor and the students are in the virtual classroom. When students are engaged, they tend to perform better. When students are actively engaged in the material, they tend to process it more deeply, which leads to successful retention of the material.

Being present in your online class is not only about good practice and supporting student learning and engagement. Instructor presence and communication make the difference between a course categorized as a distance education v/s a correspondence course.

Engagement with the Instructor

Below are different strategies that can be used to encourage interaction:

Online presence encompasses the extent to which you come across as an empathetic person, form connections, and respond to students throughout your course. Every instructor defines their virtual self differently. It is useful to consider what information about yourself and your work you want to share and why you think it is important. Then, take time to think about the specifics.

Common ways to increase your instructor presence online include:

  • Provide an introductory video  so that students can see and hear you.
  • Post still images of yourself in the introductory materials.
  • Link or embed social media sites or feeds like your Twitter name, LinkedIn profile, or Slack group in your Canvas Profile.
  • Share your departmental website to help students understand who you are and what you do.
  • Use video or audio to provide updates throughout the course.
  • Provide prompt feedback on assignments (text, video, and audio) 

To provide additional context

Review the following information to help you be prepared for the experience of teaching online:

  • Garrison, D. R. (2007). Online community of inquiry review: social, cognitive, and teaching presence issues. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 11(1), 61+. Retrieved from https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A284325498/PROF?u=iastu_main&sid=PROF&xid=74a1227c
  • Kilis, S., & Yildirim, Z. (2019). Posting Patterns of Students’ Social Presence, Cognitive Presence, and Teaching Presence in Online Learning. Online Learning Journal [OLJ], 23(2), 179+. Retrieved from https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A593147940/PROF?u=iastu_main&sid=PROF&xid=a7a6f44a
  • Shea, P., Li, C. S., Swan, K., & Pickett, A. (2005). Developing learning community in online asynchronous college courses: the role of teaching presence. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 9(4), 59+. Retrieved from https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A284325600/PROF?u=iastu_main&sid=PROF&xid=1b775ff8
  • Be explicit about how students can reach you and your teaching assistants. Let students know what response time they should expect for questions/inquiries (e.g., 24-48 hours).
  • Establish an environment conducive to students coming to see you rather than resorting to academic misconduct if they have trouble getting an assessment done on time.
  • Be available at “crunch” times before assessment due dates.
  • The course shouldn’t appear like it’s running on auto-pilot. Students feel more connected to instructors who talk to them via instructional videos and Canvas Chat, as if in a one-on-one conversation.


By knowing in real-time the degree to which students understand concepts and can engage in higher-order thinking around the course material, instructors can nuance their approaches to foster learning. Audience response systems (ARS) can help with these assessments by measuring student progress toward desired learning objectives.

Ask students to share one burning question about the topic at hand—something that frustrates them, confuses them, or that they want a chance to ask you or their classmates. Before answering the question yourself, see what answers or insights the class can provide.

The Critical Incident Questionnaire (Brookfield, 2017) is done periodically and has five questions:
  • At what moment in class did you feel most engaged with what was happening?
  • At what moment in the class were you most distanced from what was happening?
  • What action that anyone (teacher or student) took this week did you find most affirming or helpful?
  • What action that anyone took this week did you find most puzzling or confusing?
  • What about the class this week surprised you the most? (This could be about your reactions to what went on, something that someone did, or anything else that occurs).
These responses may be collected, summarized, and reported back to the students at the next class session. Whichever method is chosen, it is important to close the feedback loop and share the data with students. This creates a great opportunity to discuss the shared responsibility for teaching and learning in a course.

Learn more and how you can import the tool directly into you Canvas course on the Using a PLUS/DELTA Assessment Technique page.

Whether commenting on a document draft online, dropping into a chat room, or acknowledging students in live sessions, make the journey with them. This environment is appropriate for the constructivist role of “the guide on the side.” Being present lets them know that you are an active part of their process.

Feedback to students about their performance is essential to keep them engaged in the learning journey.

  • Quick responses to discussion posts can help keep students on track for the next assignment or activity.
  • Turnaround time on the grading of assessments can also impact future student efforts. Students should never have to engage in the next assessment without receiving feedback on the previous one.
  • Detailed and positive feedback tends to be more effective than faint praise or unclear messages.

If a student hasn’t logged into the course, contact them to see what’s happening. The student may need help or encouragement.

Regularly use the Canvas course New Analytics” feature to monitor students accessing course materials, participating in discussion forums, etc. Contact low participation or no views students to encourage them to (re)engage in the course.

These touchpoints will help students feel less isolated and less likely to abandon the course.

  1. Before sending the message, please explore the resources on the Campus Resources to Support Students page. Share these with your students regularly.
  2. You may contact the students using Canvas Inbox. One-on-one communication between students and their instructors or advisors can be particularly challenging in a virtual environment. Instructors must follow all Federal Educational Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA) guidance on the Registrar’s Policies website. Review and bookmark the Sharing Sensitive Student Info-FERPA page outlining software approved for sharing information at ISU.
  3. Convey three things in a student support email.
    1. That you care about and believe in the student.
    2. The deliverable: What is the action you require from the student? By when are you requesting it?
    3. What will happen next? (if that action is or isn’t taken).

Practice being as concise as possible. Create a template to save time!

  1. If you are concerned about a student’s well-being or behavior, the Dean of Students Office is here to help! You can call to speak to a Student Assistance staff member at 515-294-1020, send an email to studentassistance@iastate.edu, or you can refer a student via our “refer a student” link at the top of the.

Just as in a physical classroom, some chitchat helps break down social barriers while creating interaction expectations. You may consider a slide that features a current event, cartoon, or trivia question to spark conversation. 

These emails’ goal is to let students know that we care about them, which we know is vitally important to student success. 

Engagement with the Other Students

These socially-focused exchanges are building blocks—a course will need a number of them for students to truly develop rapport. For example, a course should include at least introductions and the exchange of personal information before students collaborate on medium- to high-stakes assignments.

A defined introduction is a good starting point for building student rapport. Introductions may be in the form of a required discussion or through an activity designed to let students learn about one another personally and professionally.

Some best practices for online introductions

  • Promote “Netiquette is “Internet Etiquette” or the conventions of politeness about how we use the Internet and interact with others online. To provide a foundation for civility in the online learning environment, we promote the following Netiquette at ISU page and the ISU Principles of Community page for general guidelines when communicating in this course.
  • Keep the focus on the students (versus the course content).
  • Go beyond asking students to share basic information. Create connections with your students and between your students using an ice breaker discussion forum. Choose a few topics and have your students select one to respond to – make sure you respond with your answer, too! 
  • Give course credit for participation.
  • Introduce yourself in the same forum to model the expected and appropriate amount of personal information and disclosure and demonstrate rapport-building behaviors with responses such as “nice to meet you” and “I have also visited France” as students post their introductions.

Foster better student-student interaction

  • Intentionally and strategically foster better student-student interaction to build a more solid foundation for students’ discussions and interactions. To create an additional connection with your students, shares your responses.
  • Promote collaboration among students by designing daily or weekly assignments or projects.
  • Create a specific forum for questions regarding course assignments.

Explore Canvas Profiles

  • Ask students to complete written or video bio to facilitate the exchange of personal and professional information based on a format you define. For example, you can ask students to complete their Canvas Profile and then engage them in an activity to explore each other’s profiles.
  • Have students include their favorite quote within their Canvas Profile.
  • Then, ask students to identify two classmates whose favorite quotations resonate with them and ask those students why they selected the quotation. Have students share what they have learned with the rest of the class in a discussion board post.

It is important to design online course discussions that promote interaction. Provocative, open-ended questions will stimulate divergent thinking and reflection and generate interest so students will want to read each other’s ideas.

You must model the support and encouragement for diverse points of view, so there is a feeling of “safer” in fully engaging in these discussions. You can also promote student interaction by requiring students to reference ideas from discussions in graded assignments.

Along with assessing student comprehension through discussion questions, you can develop questions that require analysis, synthesis, and/or evaluation.

Without careful planning and facilitation, group work can frustrate students and instructors and feel like a waste of time. Use the suggestions from the Facilitating group work page to change the refrain of “I hate group work” to “what great group experiences!”

To encourage true collaboration, require members of the group to assume defined team roles and use a formal mechanism for team members to provide feedback about and to each other.

The feedback mechanism ensures that team members have an opportunity to modify their behavior and provide a method for assigning individual grades.

Take advantage of student expertise while building more community among students in your courses. These help teams serve like a student study group or peer-assisted learning group, where members go to one another for certain kinds of assistance (that you specify).

Consider integrating the practice, “Ask three, then me,” where students ask three classmates for certain kinds of help or information before contacting you, the instructor. Learn more about help teams in this Inside Iowa State Triads keep students connected article (November 19, 2020).

Engagement with Course Content

To encourage students to engage with the course content, you may employ one or more of these strategies.

These (no more than five minute) introductions involve the instructor talking  through four to five PowerPoint slides and presenting a general overview of the module content using Studio in Canvas or other video creation software.

As you plan assignments, think about what students do so well in the digital environment and build their work around those skills and behaviors. Online, students quickly shift from consumers to producers of content, and sharing is easy. Build activities that encourage them to co-create and peer review. Have students create or improve wiki pages on critical topics.

Students need to see participation as a skill that they can practice and strengthen to value it. The Gillis (2019) framework does just that. The instructor indicates that the methods used for assessing participation help students move from seeing their participation patterns as an inherent part of their nature (e.g., “I’m shy, so I don’t participate”) to understand that participation is a set of skills to develop.

Regardless of whether a student relies on assistive technology, having course materials that don’t create barriers to learning is an ongoing need for students in online education. Taking minor steps toward accessibility improvement of course materials is a good practice for educators to engage in on a frequent, periodic basis. Use resources found on the Digital Access Toolkit.

ISU Library resources

Iowa State University community members can locate these engaging student resources and more (physical and online access available). Insert engaging students online or the titles listed below into the Quick search via the ISU Library website.

Student Engagement Techniques book by Elizabeth Barkley

Barkley, E.F. (2010). Student engagement techniques (1st ed., Higher and adult education series). San Francisco, Calif: Jossey-Bass.

Distance education vs. correspondence education

The US Department of Education and the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) have defined the difference between “distance education” and “correspondence education” based on the “regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor.” The definition also notes that the student cannot primarily initiate the interaction. The instructor must initiate communication. Posted recorded lectures or textual materials online, along with exams or quizzes, will not meet the federal (and HLC) guidelines.
This resource is adapted from the following:
  • 7 Tips for Increasing Student Engagement in Online Courses. Retrieved from https://www.d2l.com/blog/7-tips-for-increasing-student-engagement-in-online-courses/
  • Conrad, R.-M., & Donaldson, J. A. (2011). Engaging the Online Learner : Activities and Resources for Creative Instruction: Vol. Rev. ed. Jossey-Bass.
  • DeBrock, L., Scagnoli, N., and Taghaboni-Dutta, F. (2020, March 18). The human element in online learning. Inside HigherEd. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/03/18/how-make-online-learning-more-intimate-and-engaging-students-opinion
  • Dietz-Uhler1and, B., and  Janet E. Hurn (2013, June). Strategies for engagement in online courses: Engaging with the content, instructor, and other students. Journal of Teaching and Learning with Technology, 2 (1), pp. 62-65.
  • Norman, M. (2017, June 16). Synchronous online classes: 10 Tips for engaging students. Faculty Focus. Retrieved on April 27, 2020 from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/synchronous-online-classes-10-tips-engaging-students/
  • Pasadena Community College offers some guidelines for regular effective contact with students.
  • Pelletier, P. (2013, September 20). What online teachers need to know. Faculty Focus. Retrieved on May 22, 2020 from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/what-online-teachers-need-to-know/
  • Redmond, P., Heffernan, A., Abawi, L., Brown, A., & Henderson, R. (2018). An online engagement framework for higher education. Online Learning, 22(1), 183-204. doi:10.24059/olj.v22i1.1175
  • Rochester Institute of Technology’s Building Rapport in Online Courses. Retrieved on May 4, 2020, from https://go.iastate.edu/YFWENJ
  • Rochester Institute of Technology’s Interactive Online Activities. Retrieved on May 4, 2020, https://go.iastate.edu/SL5LS8
  • Strategies for Engagement in Online Courses:: Engaging with the Content, Instructor, and Other Students. (2015). In Quick Hits for Adjunct Faculty and Lecturers: Successful Strategies from Award-Winning Teachers (p. 41). Indiana University Press.