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How to Engage Students in Online Learning

Online learning experts say there are four primary factors for keeping students engaged as the coronavirus pandemic moves traditional education online.

Online learning is a new reality for educators and students as we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Closures of schools and colleges nationwide have moved the education system online almost entirely in a matter of weeks.

If you are used to teaching in a traditional in-person school environment, you might be wondering how to adapt your teaching strategies to effectively engage students in an online classroom. Most experts agree that success in the online learning environment is based on at least four primary factors: community, collaboration, communication, and feedback. As the authors of “Six Instructional Best Practices for Online Engagement and Retention” put it:

How to Engage Students in Online Learning

“To promote a successful learning experience and to engage students with course content, course discussion, and their peers and instructor, it is necessary to create a sense of belonging. Online students need to feel that they are part of a specific community, their contributions to the course are acknowledged and incorporated, and their participation and insights are valued.” 1

Below are thoughts on the topic from online learning experts at Laureate Education, the parent company of the Laureate International Universities network, a global network of more than 25 accredited campus-based and online universities—including Walden University. Educators at all levels can use these teaching strategies and tips to engage students and provide a successful learning experience as education continues online during the coronavirus pandemic.

Build Community

“Building community is so important for all children. They need to be able to see and interact with their classmates and peers,” says Dr. Debra Chester, academic coordinator for Walden University’s Richard W. Riley College of Education and Human Sciences. “Students have been displaced from their schools due to the pandemic, and everything seems very unsettling. That is why it is so important for them, if possible, to see their classmates’ faces and talk together. Not only does this help build community, but it also helps provide some routine in a situation where routine is lacking for so many American families.”

“Social presence, according to Short, Williams, and Christie [John Short, Ederyn Williams, and Bruce Christie were researchers who developed the Social Presence Theory in 1976]—the feeling of community an online learner feels within the online environment—is the student’s most important perception and is fundamental to communication,” writes Dr. Eva Clare Stein, an academic scholar who shares her advice on engaging with students online with Laureate faculty.2

Dr. Stein shares the following strategies to help create that social presence and sense of community for students when teaching online:2

  • Provide opportunities for regular and meaningful participation in discussion forums.
  • Give students clear instructions on what you want them to do.
  • Be responsive to students (online learners often measure time in mere minutes—not hours, days, or weeks).
  • Give genuine encouragement and frequent feedback. 
  • Engage in friendly and conversational dialogue with the students, using student names whenever possible.
  • Create a student-centered learning environment.
  • Provide many opportunities for collaboration and virtual interaction (e.g., video calls).  

“It’s also important for educators to remember to meet the four different learning styles of their students in order to provide options for students to demonstrate their learning through multiple means,” says Dr. Chester. “Some students are visual learners, and they need to see what they are learning. Others are auditory learners and need to hear, and then there are the kinesthetic learners, who are hands-on learners. Read-Write learners will take notes and provide their knowledge through writing.”

Create Multiple Opportunities for Collaboration

Just because students and teachers are unable to work together face to face doesn’t mean they can’t still collaborate on projects as they learn online.

“Collaboration in an online classroom can take many forms, from contributing to a shared body of knowledge via a wiki or blog, to co-creating products with established stages or parts (“divide and conquer”), to working synchronously or asynchronously in groups to solve a complex problem or work,” writes Allanna Rocca, director of learning solutions at Laureate Education.”3

In an online learning environment, teachers can use creative teaching strategies to encourage teamwork from a distance. Assign group projects or partner activities. Make it easy for students to reach out for one-on-one help with an assignment. Take advantage of online tools that support collaboration while learning or working from home. Companies like ClassDojo, Adobe, Google, and Zoom are offering free software and other resources to support remote teaching and online learning now.

Create Multiple Pathways for Communication

Collaboration doesn’t happen without communication.

“To build a successful online community, students need the tools to interact and have conversations. Through conversation, we learn about each other, ourselves, the topic, how to get along, and make group decisions,” writes Stephanie Hossbach, director of relationship management, learning, and academic systems at Laureate Education.4

There are many ways students who are learning online during times of COVID-19 can communicate with one another and the teacher. These include:

  • Discussion forums
  • Instant messages
  • Blogs
  • Portfolios
  • Interactive whiteboards
  • Web conferencing applications (e.g., Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, etc.) 
  • Shared workspace applications (e.g., Google Docs)
  • E-mail
  • Text
  • Phone
  • Secure social media app  

Provide Timely, Relevant, and Actionable Feedback

“Meaningful feedback can be incredibly powerful,” writes Jane Schall, a learning architect at Laureate Education. “In an online course where others cannot see your body language, it is important that your feedback is thoughtful and supportive.”5

The feedback should be individualized and frequent, and it should challenge the learner to reflect on their work. Educators who are teaching online can use Schall’s recommendations below to guide their feedback to students in the online classroom:5

  • Start your feedback with an affirmative or positive comment and include something you genuinely appreciated about the assignment. Example: “Jose, it seems you spent a great deal of time on this assignment. I really appreciate your attention to detail!”
  • Ask clarifying questions rather than jumping to conclusions. Example: “I notice that you wrote that Lyme disease is caused by scorpions, and I was wondering if you could clarify your thinking.”
  • Use “I” statements and focus your feedback on your thoughts rather than interspersing your feedback with words such as “you” and “your,” which might seem like a personal attack. Example: “In reading your assignment, I find that I do not agree with this stance on the global economy and causes of poverty. Let me explain my reasoning.” 
  • Conclude your feedback on a positive note, so the last comment your co-learner reads from you is supportive. Example: “Though it seems we are in disagreement on a few points, I think your assignment was done exceptionally well with a great deal of detail.”
  • Before submitting your feedback, read what you wrote out loud and make sure it is both critical and supportive. If you fear that your response might be misunderstood, revise it before submitting it.  

If you want to learn more teaching strategies that can improve your effectiveness as an educator, consider furthering your college education by earning an education degree online from The Richard W. Riley College of Education and Human Sciences at Walden University.

Walden is the flagship online university of the Laureate International Universities network and has been providing distance education for 50 years.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering online bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral education degree programs. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.


Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,