Engaging Students Online

Engaging Students Online

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 both 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. 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. Only posting recorded lectures or textual materials online, along with exams or quizzes, will not meet the federal (and HLC) guidelines. Review communications on the Senior Vice President and Provost (SVPP) Division-Wide communications page.

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. To help with your next step, use the Video Creation strategies page.

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. To decide what strategy will work best use the Instructional Strategies page and create then  the Assignments strategies page.

Unlike a physical classroom, students online are in different places, living separate lives. Encourage them to share those distinct experiences and help them tap such skills for their coursework. Ask a critical reflection question regarding how the topic connects to their lives or current news using Discussions.

Regardless of whether a student relies on assistive technology or not, 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. To begin, review the Accessibility in Your Course page.

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, see the Video Creation strategies page
  • 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, see the Video Creation strategies page
  • Provide prompt feedback on assignments (text, video, and audio) (see the Interactive Feedback and Grading page).

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
  • Give frequent and substantive feedback throughout the course (see the Interactive Feedback page).
  • Let students know what response time they should expect for questions/inquiries (e.g., 24-48 hours) (see the Communications page).
  • The course shouldn’t appear like it’s running on auto-pilot. Students feel more connected to instructors who talk to them, as if in a one-on-one conversation, via instructional videos and Canvas Chat.


By knowing in real-time the degree to which students understand concepts and can engage in higher-order thinking around 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.

Learn more from the Audience Response Systems page along with the Top Hat page.

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. See what answers or insights the class can provide before answering the question yourself. To do this in Canvas, use the Discussions Strategies page. Need ideas? Review the 3. Use these example questions section of the Discussions page

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 it is commenting on a draft of document online, dropping into a chat room, or merely acknowledging students in live sessions, make the journey with them. This environment is very appropriate for the constructivist role of “the guide on the side.” Let them know that not only are they looking at you, but you are also looking at them. Use Canvas Chat or host Virtual Student (Office) Hours page. Review the tools available on the Web Conferencing page.

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

  • Quick responses to discussion posts can help keep students on track for the next assignment or activity. Learn how to incorporate discussions in your course via the Discussions Strategies page.
  • Turnaround time on the grading of assessments can also have an impact on future student efforts. Students should never have to engage in the next assessment without receiving feedback on the previous one.
  • The feedback that is detailed and positive tends to be more effective than faint praise or unclear messages. To learn how you can leave multimedia feedback, use the Feedback Strategies page.

To provide all your students with greater access, while using your time more efficiently, use the Virtual “student” (office) hours page.

If a student hasn’t logged into the course, contact them to see what’s going on. The student may need help or encouragement. Regularly use Canvas course “New Analytics” feature to monitor student who is 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 you do the check-in, explore the resources found on our Online Learner Support page and the Campus Resources to Support Students page
  2. To do the check-in via Canvas, use the Conversations/Inbox (Canvas Guides). One-on-one communications between students and their instructors and/or advisers can be particularly challenging in a virtual environment. It is imperative that Instructors follow all Federal Educational Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA) guidance on the Registrar’s Policies website.
  3. Review and bookmark the Sharing Sensitive Student Info-FERPA page. This page outlines which software may be used to communicate private information.
  4. 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 Office of Student Assistance page

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

The goal of these emails is to let students know that we care about them, which we know is vitally important to student success.

  1. Before you send the message, explore the resources found on our Online Learner Support page and the Campus Resources to Support Students page
  2. You may contact the students using Canvas Inbox. One-on-one communications between students and their instructors and/or advisers can be particularly challenging in a virtual environment. It is imperative that Instructors 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. This page outlines which software may be used to communicate private information.
  3. If you have a concern regarding 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 Office of Student Assistance page

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 the way 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 (PDF) along with 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 response with your answer, too! Use the steps on the Create an Online Icebreaker Discussion page.
  • Give course credit for participation.
  • Introduce yourself in the same forum to model the expected and appropriate amount of personal information and disclosure, and to 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 discussions and interactions for students. Use the Create an Online Ice Breaker page along with Discussions Strategies page. To create an additional connection to you students share 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 (watch the Profile overview video) 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 resonates with them and ask those students why they selected the quotation. Have students share what they have learned to 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

It is important that you model 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.

For example in a political science course, you can ask students to read a recent article about a natural disaster and, in a discussion:

  • Describe one social and one economic impact of this disaster.
  • Share their opinion on how might this disaster affect national policy, using the sources from the course to support this opinion.

Need additional information? Use the Discussions strategies page along with Edutopia’s The 40 Reflection Questions (PDF).

One strategy to build deeper interaction in an online course is to move from cooperation to collaboration.


Cooperative activities require students to do things together. Two typical structures for cooperative online activities are:

  • Pair-share. Students complete a short assignment, such as summarizing an assigned reading. They share their work with a partner to identify commonalities and differences in their work.
  • Peer critique. Students exchange work on a short assignment with a partner and critique each other’s work. You can provide a rubric that, for example, requires students to identify three effective elements of their partner’s work and three elements that could be improved.


Once students have had experience cooperating with partners, you can introduce activities that require collaboration. Collaborative activities require students to share ideas, co-create work, and reach consensus. Collaborative activities can be for pairs or groups of three to five students. 

Examples include:

  • Case analysis. Students individually complete an analysis of a case study you provide. Next, they work together to compare their work and arrive at a group analysis that synthesizes all of their perspectives. Students can receive partial credit for their individual work, with the remainder of the grade based on the group’s work.
  • Collaborative writing/presentation. Assign groups to write a paper or develop a presentation together. For additional ideas, use the Writing Activities page or the Remote Assessments pages.
  • Debate. Students work in pairs or groups to analyze and share either the pro or the con of a given situation or issue. Then pairs are required to respond to the opposing viewpoint.
  • Modified pair-share. Students complete a short assignment and share their work with one another student. Together, they must arrive  at consensus on their work to deliver a joint product. In addition to submitting their shared work, students can comment on their experience of coming to agreement.

Need more ideas?

Check out the extensive ideas on the University of Illinois-Springfield’s Online Instructional Activities Index page.

Tools for implementing

Use the Collaborative Tools strategies page.

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.

To learn more, use the Interactive Feedback strategies page along with the Peer Assessment page.

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 prior to contacting you, the instructor.

For additional information and tools, review the Collaboration Strategies page.

Explore the instructional strategies and tools

Design and facilitate activities for all learning environments.

A listing with applications that have been proven to meet the ISU’s security, accessibility, and purchasing standards.

Teach in ways that are equitable and inclusive in an online environment.

References and resources

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 April 27, 2020 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 course. Retrieved on May 4, 2020, from https://www.rit.edu/academicaffairs/tls/sites/rit.edu.academicaffairs.tls/files/docs/TE_Student%20to%20Student_Rapport_1.0.pdf
  • Rochester Institute of Technology’s Interactive online activities. Retrieved on May 4, 2020, https://www.rit.edu/academicaffairs/tls/sites/rit.edu.academicaffairs.tls/files/docs/TE_Student%20to%20Student%20_Activities_1.0.pdf
  • 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). Bloomington; Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.