6 steps for boosting student engagement in online learning

'Students are more likely to stay focused when information is provided face-to-face'
By: | July 16, 2020
Teachers can adapt small-group instruction and many strategies that in-person education effective to online and hybrid learning when schools reopen. (GettyImages/mixetto)Teachers can adapt small-group instruction and many strategies that in-person education effective to online and hybrid learning when schools reopen. (GettyImages/mixetto)

Keeping students engaged in online learning was a key challenge many teachers and educators identified after all instruction went remote this spring.

As educators plan for schools to restart online and in-person later this summer, many are working to improve students’ experience with videos and other remote learning platforms.

“Students are more likely to stay focused when information is provided face-to-face,” says Jana Hunzicker, the associate dean of Bradley University’s College of Education. “Additionally, they need ‘small bites’ and opportunities to process each ‘bite.’ In a classroom, this can be accomplished by teaching for 10 minutes and then stopping for students to discuss or apply a concept with one another.”

This approach becomes more difficult when instruction shifts to videos and online lessons. “Often, video lectures are too long and don’t offer students opportunities to process or interact with the content,” says Hunzicker, who teaches undergraduate courses in young adolescent development, middle school instruction, and reading/language arts.


More from DA: Why in-person elementary school should be a first step for reopening


Here, Hunzicker describes six strategies teachers can use to boost engagement in online and hybrid learning when classes resume later this summer.

1. Hold synchronous class meetings.

“It depends on the developmental level of the students, but students of all ages benefit from interactions that can occur most naturally through synchronous class meetings.

For example, Zoom meeting technology allows for large group meetings that can be subdivided into small group breakout sessions that can be supervised by the teacher.

So, for example, the teacher could spend 10 minutes presenting a concept to everyone, and then ask small groups to spend 20 minutes creating a model or solving a problem to apply the concept before returning to the full group meeting to present it.”

2. Maintain personal connections.

“Teachers build relationships with their students by getting to know them. It is important to know students’ names—and how to pronounce them correctly.

It is also important to know a little bit about each student, such as what extracurricular activities they enjoy, who their favorite band is, or where they work part-time.

When teachers can incorporate this knowledge into small talk before class and even as examples during class, students really appreciate it.”

3. Build students’ social-emotional skills.

“Students build skills by seeing role models, practicing, and getting prompt feedback. This is harder to do online, but still possible.

For example, a teacher can model respect for others by greeting students by name, apologizing for speaking over someone, and saying please and thank you.


More from DA: Risk-benefit analysis—What pediatricians say about reopening schools


Practice can be built into class assignments and expectations. For example, students can be taught to say, ‘I understand John’s point, but I would like to share a different perspective’ during class discussions.

Feedback can be as simple as, “Nice job being respectful to one another during our class discussion today.'”

4. Break classes into small-group instruction online and how do track skill-building.

“Yes. As I mentioned previously, small group instruction is a necessary component of online instruction. The best way to track students’ growth is through individual assignments.

For example, critical thinking can be assessed using an exit slip at the end of the class period, where each student responds to a question in one or two sentences.

A simple rubric can be used to assess students’ thinking and reasoning. Comparing these exit slips over time is likely to show growth.”

5. You can use social media.

“One example is real-time discussions on Twitter. Another is creating a blog or YouTube video.


More from DA: How to reimagine testing in post-COVID education


Any time students can engage with the real world or present to a real audience, they’re in.”

6. Design hybrid and blended models of instruction.

“One option here is an a.m./p.m. schedule, where some students learn at home in the morning and come to school in the afternoon, and vice versa.

We need to think carefully about what students need face-to-face and what they can do on their own to practice, apply, or extend what they are learning. This varies by grade level, subject area, and by student.”


DA’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on K-12.


Interested in edtech? Keep up with DA's Future of Education Technology Conference®.