Engagement in Synchronous and Asynchronous Environments

Students must engage in their courses in order to learn. But what, exactly, do we mean by “student engagement?” And what teaching practices and strategies help our students engage in an online class?

This article will discuss three dimensions of engagement (emotional, behavioral and cognitive) and teaching practices that encourage engagement including humanizing your course, communicating clearly and consistently, removing barriers to content and fostering community.

DELTA LearnTech YouTube Video


What is meant by “student engagement?”

How does an engaged students feel about the course? What do they do inside and outside of class? How does an engaged student think about course material? These questions correspond to three types of student engagement:

Emotional engagement

  • To be able to learn, students must feel positive about the course, their prospects for success, and the support they receive. They must feel motivated and valued.
  • If a student feels frustrated, threatened, unsafe or disrespected, they are unlikely to engage at all.

Behavioral engagement

  • You’ve provided instructional materials, delivered content, and created assignments. The student must take some action and interact with these materials, with you, and with each other to learn.
  • This activity is their behavioral engagement. They must attend class, pay attention, participate, and perform.

Cognitive engagement

  • A willingness to undertake deep, rather than surface, learning.
  • Cannot be seen directly, but the results of it are making connections, thinking critically, and digging deeply into tough problems or challenges.

To fully engage students, we must attend to their emotional engagement and inspire their behavioral engagement in order to support them in reaching the ultimate goal: cognitive engagement. How can we help them feel motivated and supported, keep their attention, and provide opportunities and guidance to think deeply and critically?

Four teaching practices that encourage engagement

Read through the description of the practices below and evaluate each for it’s value and appropriateness for your course.

Humanize your course

Are your relationships with students warm and friendly? Do they know something about you as a person? Are you aware of what students are going through outside of your course? Do you have interactions with students outside of scheduled class meetings?

If you answered “No” to the questions above, you might consider some ways to humanize your course to increase student engagement. Humanizing your online course will help students engage emotionally, which will help them succeed.

High-impact practices that humanize your course through building trust, presence, awareness and empathy can help with student emotional engagement. See the Humanizing Your Online Course DELTA Teaching Resources Page to dive into this topic.

Communicate clearly and consistently

Are your students constantly asking about due dates, where to find things in your course, and so on? Are they confused about what’s expected of them? Are they surprised when they get grades back on assignments or assessments? Do they find your course well-organized or confusing?

Communicating with clarity and consistency will help your students engage as they will feel less frustrated, know what to do when, and understand what type of learning you hope they will achieve.

Strategy 1: Take time to fully orient your students to your course

  • Use a welcome letter and a “Start Here” section in Moodle to orient your students to your course structure and expectations. Be sure to share expectations about student participation and engagement, and explain how participation will help them be successful in your class.
  • Create an effective syllabus
    • DELTA’s Syllabus Template is organized with best practices for communicating course information in mind.
    • You might include a syllabus quiz or scavenger hunt to encourage students to read it and highlight the most important points.
  • See the Helping Students Get Started in an Online Class DELTA Teaching Resources page for full details.

Strategy 2: Design your course for clarity and consistency

Strategy 3: Clearly define your grading criteria

Strategy 4: Provide regular, substantive feedback on learning

Regular and substantive feedback communicates to your students you are present and care about their learning. Importantly, it provides a way to help them track their learning progress, and can help you adjust your teaching when you see student are struggling.

Remove barriers to engagement with content

Do your students struggle to be interested in your course content, or think it’s not relevant to them? Do they have trouble getting through the readings, lectures, or videos? Do they have trouble grasping the concepts in your course?

If you answered “Yes” to any of these questions, it’s worth considering if there are barriers to engagement due to how content is presented in the course. Helping students feel interested in the content boosts motivation, and their engagement with and comprehension of each piece is important for them to succeed in your course.

Strategy 1: Recruit interest in the course content

  • Share the “Why.” Why did you choose the content? How will it help your students achieve the learning objectives? And why are those learning objectives important? What is the relevance to them? Students will be more interested in engaging if the content or growth in transferable skills has value and relevance to them.
  • Offer choices. When we feel we have some agency and autonomy it’s motivating. This might be through choices of media through which they access content, choices about assignment topics, etc.
  • Be inclusive in your teaching. Do students see themselves, or people like them, represented in your course content? Or does your content advance stereotypes of who does this work that leaves some students out? Can you work to provide more diverse examples?
  • Bring in real-world examples and applications. Real-world examples and applications can certainly help with understanding the “why,” but also serves to help you frame content as a story, which is an engaging way to present content.
  • For more information:

Strategy 2: Lower potential barriers to content

Strategy 4: Provide necessary scaffolding

When we are experts in something, we can take for granted the whole framework of concepts, ideas, and relationships of our discipline that we have built in our brains over years and years. Our students are just beginning to build their disciplinary frameworks, and information in their heads looks more like randomly scattered data points that might not have obvious connections for them…yet.

Foster community

Do your students support each other in your class? Do they carry on productive discussions? Do they collaborate well together? Do you feel a sense of a learning community in your course?

A strong classroom community helps with emotional engagement when students develop a sense of belonging and feel supported by their peers. A learning community can help with keeping students on task when they feel a sense of accountability, and can help students deepen their learning through hearing different perspectives.

See the Creating Student Learning Communities Online DELTA Teaching Resources Page to dive into this topic.

Back to top