10 Ways to Engage Students as You Teach Remotely this Fall

Photo credit: Paul H. Joseph / UBC Brand & Marketing

By Christine Goedhart

Engaged students actively participate. They are receptive, connected, invested, and motivated to learn.

You’re probably familiar with what student engagement looks like in the physical classroom, but what about when teaching online? How can you tell if students are engaged if you can’t see or hear them and if you are separated by space and time?

It may look a little different than it did when you were teaching in the classroom, but student engagement in the remote course is just as essential, because learning happens when students are engaged.

Here are ten ways to promote student engagement (and learning) in your course as you teach remotely this fall.

#1 – Get to know your students

Learning about your students and their unique situations, needs, backgrounds, goals, and interests will help you structure your course in a way that is targeted to them and encourages them to engage. It will also allow you to build trust and rapport, which is important because how your students feel about you will influence their interest in and engagement with the course.

You can start getting to know your students at the beginning of the term by sending out a survey. You can also solicit student feedback throughout the term by using impromptu polls, anonymous surveys, or reaction icons to gauge how things are going for them. Holding regular office hours or check-in sessions are additional ways to engage and connect with students.

#2 – Start every synchronous session with an icebreaker

Icebreakers are great for getting students to participate right away, drawing them into the session. They also make students feel seen, heard, and valued, and when students feel valued, they are more likely to engage.

An icebreaker can be as quick and simple as having students answer a poll, respond to a statement in the chat, annotate a slide, or offer an emoji to describe how they’re doing that day. If you have more time to dedicate to the activity, you can have students talk to one another in small breakout rooms or chat groups, or ask students to briefly share something with the class verbally. Either way, an icebreaker will be well worth the time you spend on it. Not only will it improve student engagement, but it will also help you get to know your students (see #1 above).

#3 – Break up synchronous sessions into small chunks

When students are joining your online session through their computers or devices, distraction is only a click away. Think of the last time that you participated in a webinar or Zoom meeting. How many times did you click over to check your email or social media? You can be sure that students are also doing this during your synchronous sessions.

Breaking up the session into smaller chunks of activities will help to keep your students’ attention. It will also give them an opportunity to mentally re-enter the session if they did get distracted. You can do this by building in different types of activities within the session (e.g. lecture, polling, small group work, typing answers in the chat, etc.), with each activity lasting between 5-10 minutes.

#4 – Break up the larger class into smaller, more intimate groups

The distant nature of the online environment can cause students to feel isolated and insignificant, leading them to disengage. Having students work with peers in small groups can help them feel like they matter and can facilitate the formation of connections with others in the course. This is especially important in large-size courses, where it is easy for students to feel like they are just a number.

You can use the breakout group function in Zoom or Collaborate Ultra to put students into small groups during synchronous sessions. You can also get small groups of students to interact asynchronously by using the Canvas Groups function. For example, instead of having one large class-wide discussion board, you can have a discussion board for each group of students so that they can build trust and engage in more intimate discussions.

#5 – Utilize tech tools to allow everyone to participate

You can use technology to your advantage in the online space to give everyone the opportunity to participate and contribute. In synchronous sessions you can use chats, polls, reaction responses, annotation tools, and breakout rooms. You can also get students to engage with one another asynchronously by using Piazza, discussion boards, CLAS, and Google docs/slides.

Different students might prefer different tools or modes of participation, so it can be helpful to use a variety of tools in both synchronous and asynchronous ways. This will ensure that you engage everyone.

#6 – Establish course norms

The online learning environment is probably new to your students (and to you!), and everyone might not be on the same page regarding the nuances of virtual classroom etiquette. Taking a little bit of time early on in the term to establish course norms or guidelines can help students feel more comfortable engaging with others and can prevent irritation or hurt feelings that might cause students to disengage with the course.

Examples of course norms include information on how and when to use technology tools (e.g. please only use the chat for course-related items) and statements that describe respectful ways of working and learning with others online (e.g. when working in groups, ensure that everyone gets a chance to talk). In addition to offering your own guidelines for the course, you can also ask students to contribute norms that they’d like to see, based on their own experiences with remote learning.

#7 – Keep it interesting

Making the course interesting is even more important in the online environment, where distraction is ever-present. Think back to when you taught the course before: What were you covering when the students were most engaged? What did they tend to ask questions about? What sparked discussion or even led students to do their own research outside of the requirements of the course? These are the things that you’ll want to highlight and emphasize when teaching remotely, because students who are interested will be engaged, and students who are engaged will learn.

Also, you probably won’t be able to cover as much material as you did when in the physical classroom, so this is a good opportunity to cut out, minimize, or revise the “boring” stuff so that you can focus on what is interesting about the course or topic.

#8 – Feature guest speakers

This is the perfect time to bring in guest experts or to feature people working within the field because you don’t have to deal with the hassles, expenses, and logistical nightmares of travel. To add some relevance and engagement to your course, all you need is a videoconferencing account (such as Zoom or Skype) and 15-20 minutes of your guest speaker’s time.

Consider your network and think about who might add an interesting and real-world element to your course. You can pre-record an interview with the guest speaker or invite them to your synchronous session for a live discussion. You can also draw upon existing media, such as TED talks or special features.

#9 – Reach out to students who don’t appear to be participating

If you notice that a student isn’t showing up to the synchronous sessions or is not turning in assignments, consider reaching out. Showing that you care about and value the student can help bring them back into the course and generate their engagement. If they see that you care, they will be more likely to care.

However, it’s important to realize that engagement in the online space can look different than engagement in the physical classroom. Just because students are not attending synchronous meetings doesn’t necessarily mean that they are not engaged in the course. They might prefer watching the recordings on their own time at 1.5X speed, or they might not be able to attend due to technical or time-zone issues. The online space provides students with different options for engaging and it is important to respect that online engagement will look different for different people.

#10 – Amplify your passion and enthusiasm

Students commonly state in their teaching evaluations that they appreciate the passion, excitement and enthusiasm that their instructor has for the course material, and that this helps them to get excited and engaged in the course. The online environment can feel very sterile, detached, and dull, so more than ever your students need to see your excitement, feel your passion, and be energized by your enthusiasm.

Now is a great time to reconnect with your love of the discipline and channel your inner enthusiasm and passion for the material you cover. Similar to #7 above, you can focus on the material and examples that are interesting to you. What about the course excites you? How can you show your students that you care about what you’re teaching? Excitement is contagious, so if you are engaged, your students are more likely to be engaged.


Are there any student engagement strategies you use that I didn’t mention, or any experiences you’ve had using the strategies listed above? Please share them in the comments below or send me an email. I’d love to hear them!

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