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 the encourage engagement including humanizing your course, communicating clearly and consistently, removing barriers to content and fostering community.

See this page’s content in a DELTA LearnTech Video

How to Get Started

Consider 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 recognize and nurture all dimensions of engagement by helping them feel motivated and supported, keeping their attention, and providing opportunities and guidance to think deeply and critically.

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.

Humanizing 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. Resources and strategies for humanizing your course.

Communicating 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. Resources and strategies for communicating clearly and effectively.

Removing barriers to engagement with content

Do your students seem to find the content of your course uninteresting or 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. Resources and strategies for making content engaging.

Fostering 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. Resources and strategies for fostering community.

Strategies and Resources to Learn More

Humanize your course

There are high-impact practices that humanize your course through building trust, presence, awareness and empathy can help with student emotional engagement.

Communicate clearly and consistently

Orient your students to your course

  • A welcome letter and a “Start Here” section in Moodle are some great ways 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.
    • See the Helping Students Get Started in an Online Class DELTA Teaching Resources page for full details.
  • Create an effective syllabus
    • You might include a syllabus quiz or scavenger hunt to encourage students to read it and highlight the most important points.

Design your course for clarity and consistency

Clearly define your grading criteria

Provide regular feedback on student learning

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

Remove barriers / create paths to engagement with content

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, see the page on Recruiting Interest from the Universal Design for Learning Guidelines.

Deliver content effectively

  • Consider digital accessibility. Creating accessible digital materials benefits everyone, and is important even if you didn’t receive a letter from the Disability Resource Office about providing accommodations.
  • Deliver each piece of content through more than one modality (video, audio, text)
    • Offering content in various formats can help all students learn.
    • If you currently have just readings, see if you can find videos or podcasts that can provide another modality.
    • If you offer videos, be sure you have provided a transcript and captioning.
  • Chunk your content.
    • Research says that 10 minutes is about all we can expect students to watch of a video in one sitting…especially if it’s a really content-rich video.
    • Can you segment your lectures into multiple videos? Or, chunk content using NC State Books in Moodle?
  • In synchronous classes, use Zoom’s built-in participation tools or Top Hat to create active learning activities every 10-12 minutes.
  • In asynchronous classes, use tools like, H5P, PlayPosit, and gamification to make your content more interactive.

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 created in our brains over years and years. Our students are just beginning to build theirs, and it looks more like randomly scattered data points that might not have obvious connections for them…yet.

  • Provide vocabulary support, and links to background information.
  • Explicitly highlight patterns, critical features, big ideas, and relationships
  • Maximize transfer and generalization.
  • Read more from the Universal Design for Learning Guidelines

Foster Community

Create a culture of respect.

Let students get to know each other as people.

  • Let students introduce themselves.
    • Ask students to update their Moodle profile
    • Use breakout rooms, an introduction forum, or a collaborative Google slide deck with one slide per student to give students space to share something about themselves as they are comfortable.
    • Never force students to share photos or personal information.
  • Include some fun get-to-know-you activities.
    • Examples: fun polls, annotations, optional message boards about pets/animals, professional development info, etc.

Facilitate quality discussions

  • Mimic in-person discussions when you create Moodle forums
    • Don’t require every student to answer the same question.
    • Set up a debate in a Moodle forum.
    • Keep an eye on active discussions and comment/guide to keep the discussion vibrant and focused.
    • Consider asking students to use the Moodle plugin PoodLL to post video or audio to discussions.
    • Read more on DELTA’s Teaching Resources page on Discussion Forum Best Practices.
  • Use Moodle Groups if your class is too large for a meaningful full class discussion.
  • Utilize a Discussion Forum Rubric to set expectations of participation in Moodle.
  • Use Breakout Rooms effectively in Zoom.
    • Provide clear instructions to students before moving them into breakout rooms.
    • Provide a space for students to capture their breakout room discussion.
    • See the DELTA Teaching Resources page on Using Breakout Rooms in Zoom for more ideas.

Facilitate quality collaboration

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