Faculty Focus


The Most Overlooked Items That Can Help Keep Online Students Engaged

Student engagement is a popular topic and the overwhelming majority of the information on this topic is concentrated on the big issues of keeping students engaged, such as the importance of faculty presence in the classroom, adhering to deadlines and responding to students in a timely manner, and giving thorough feedback on assignments.

Yet there are other equally important facets of student engagement that are often overlooked or forgotten, such as the following:

Don’t be pedantic and ostentatious in your writings to students. Academic writing can be boring, over the heads of many students, and better suited to a scholarly journal than to most online courses. But what students don’t want or need is an online instructor who appears to write down to them and does not take into account their level of vocabulary and sentence structure understanding. Sure, it’s OK to push them a bit so they can become better—in fact, this is crucial—but overall, always adjust your writing so students can easily understand all you are offering. A bonus: the more they understand, the less they need ask you for clarification.

Keep your course tied to the world beyond your school. We want students to use the knowledge we give them to better themselves beyond the course. By taking a reality-based education approach, that is, continually transitioning the course material to the students’ professional and personal worlds, the students have more of a tendency to stay involved in the course and get enthused about the material taught. Showing our subject matter at work in “the real world” is just downright exciting—it’s why we became interested in our subjects—and this will rub off on our students.

Black-and-white text can be boring. One or two pages of black-and-white text is OK, but in any online course there are pages and pages of lectures, readings, materials, syllabi, rubrics, discussion postings, and/or emails—and more—that greet students at every step of a course. When this onslaught is always black-and-white text, with no change in font, font size, and/or appearance (e.g., bold and italic) a student can quickly lose interest. But like spices add zest and interest to a soup, the addition of a bit of color and changes in the font add zest to material—it helps keep students interested and can draw their attention to especially salient portions. There’s a bonus here: it can give the impression your course is not humdrum and stale!

Always inject enthusiasm into all student communication. This is an important item that too often is taken for granted. We cannot expect students to stay engaged in a course if the instructor does not appear to be. When they come across an online instructor who exudes enthusiasm about the course, the students’ learning, the subject, online education, and the course’s importance to the outside world, students will pick up on this and will find more enjoyment in doing assignments and learning.

Keep a positive spin on assignment feedback and student correspondence. It can be so easy to merely point out errors and not give any positive feedback. One of the easiest ways we can turn off students’ engagement with our courses is to make them feel they just can’t do anything right, their questions are stupid, and future efforts would be meaningless. Two items to keep in mind: (1) We can never react to students as if they are our equal in knowledge. They are in our course to learn from us, thus patience and the impression of wanting to help them are de rigueur for us; (2) We must always include positive feedback in any assignment (no matter how poorly done) and emails to students—this gives hope, it helps with self-worth, it shows that you recognize value in the student. Any human wants this, needs this—and in the online classroom it is critical.

Use students’ introductory information to help keep them involved in the course. Pay close attention to the information students offer when they introduce themselves in week one of your course. It can give you valuable insight as to why a student may not perform well later on in the course. It also offers an opportunity for you to create a better bond with students when communicating with them. Having this information can make the difference between a student’s falling off the grid and realizing the instructor does care and is there to help out.

Pay attention to and incorporate student evaluation comments. While some student comments can be skewed against what really did occur (and may be from students who are lashing out because of poor grades received), overall these comments can remind us of what we perhaps have put on a shelf or give us suggestions for changes we had not considered. Either of these can lead to a better course, and a better course translates into more engaged students.

Give students information and resources when they don’t expect it. Our courses begin with a gaggle of material designed to inform, teach, and challenge students on their road to mastering our subject. Yet throughout the course we can augment this with articles, cartoons, videos, audio, news items, and interesting facts that all relate to our subject, an assignment, a discussion thread, etc. Doing this offers new items to keep students involved; they demonstrate your continued commitment in the course; and each can help elevate the fun, excitement, and/or interest of the students.

Use your professional and personal experiences to keep students interested. Students look up to us because we have the knowledge and facilitation abilities to help them embrace the subject matter. But we are also the students’ equals as humans, and thus sharing our stories as they relate to the course material—or perhaps an item a student shared with us—can keep students more engaged, for they are getting a look at us “behind the screen.” And when we can take the course material and transfer into its professional and/or personal importance through our own lives, that is a powerful teaching and engagement tool.

Have students become “teaching aides.” As we get students more involved in contributing to a course, they will feel more ownership of the course, which improves engagement. Asking students to contribute websites and related material they consider helpful to the course, offer ideas for discussion threads, take the lead in any group projects, expand on interesting posts they raise in a discussion, or share with the class their use of the course material in their jobs gives the class a richer texture and helps student excitement in the course stay high.

Errol Craig Sull has been teaching online courses for 19 years and has a national reputation in the subject, writing and conducting workshops on distance learning, with national recognition in the field of distance education. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his second online teaching text.

Excerpted from Teaching Online with Errol: The Most Overlooked Items That Can Help Keep Online Students Engaged, Online Classroom, (February 2012): 6,7.