Please Raise Your Virtual Hand: Increasing Engagement in an Online Classroom

May 31, 2019 Lynda Haas

Research has demonstrated that engaging students in the learning process contributes to higher levels of commitment from students, which results in better grades and a higher level of persistence (and thus, retention). Kuh et. al. found that student engagement can improve performance and persistence at even higher levels for underprepared students and for students of color (“Unmasking the Effects of Student Engagement on First-Year College Grades and Persistence” 2008). These findings are consistent with data from the National Survey of Student Engagement.

We know student engagement is important, but it’s not always easy to make it happen-- whether you’re in a traditional face-to-face class or teaching in an online environment, it takes some planning. Two of the most critical areas to plan out include: teaching students to engage with each other and providing the means for them to more effectively engage with your class materials.

Engaging with Each Other

Three ways you can facilitate students engaging with each other in order to better understand and appreciate what they are learning in your class:

  1. Discussion

Students need the experience of talking about the work they’re doing in your class. They will learn more and retain more if they are regularly communicating about the ideas being taught in class. But no teacher has enough time to discuss every class topic with every student in order to make sure they’re staying engaged. That’s why it’s important to create ways for students to talk to each other.

“Talking” of course becomes far more difficult in an online classroom. The most often used tool for facilitating online discussions are LMS platforms like Blackboard, Canvas, and Moodle, which all have built-in discussion forum tools. But there are several free technology tools that can offer features that you can’t get through the LMS, i.e. mobile access.  If you use McGraw-Hill Education’s Connect, the built-in Discussion Board and Blog tool are both easy-to-use, mobile-ready, feature-rich platforms for getting your students to engage with each other.

Pro-Tip: your students probably won’t know how to hold an effective, academic online conversation at first. Communicating effectively with others, particularly in a learning context, is a skill that definitely takes practice. To help students along, don’t engage the whole class in class-wide discussions every time--consider putting students into smaller study groups (ideally groups of 4 or 5) and then let them stay in those groups for several weeks. This will allow them to get familiar with each other and increase engagement and communication responses while online. For more great tips on how to structure and facilitate online discussions, check out this guide from the University of Waterloo.

For high-enrollment classes, take a look at this study, “Creating a Community of Inquiry in Large Enrollment Online Courses” (2017) by Baiyun Chen et. al., which found that structured online discussion forums in an undergraduate business course improved students’ quality of work.

  1. Peer Review

Knowledge at the university is shared through peer-reviewed communication; thus, peer review is vital to the way that knowledge gets made. That’s why you should make peer reviews part of your class no matter the discipline you teach.

For non-essay oriented classes, students can be asked to engage in peer-review with any of the work they’re doing in your class. Consider having students review and discuss how they took notes on a lecture, how they solved a problem, a previous assignment they completed, or how they responded to a question in a previous test.

Structure and direction are critical for success when doing peer-review online. While directions don’t have to be step-by-step details, it’s important to scaffold your peer-review interactions. Early in the term have students respond in simple, direct ways and after a few rounds of practice, increase the complexity of their required responses and peer edits. This approach will make communication and feedback easier for students working in a virtual environment. For more examples, try“How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity” by Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios-- an inspiring piece for thinking about how and why to get your students into the habit of being able to review and respond to each other’s work.

Peer review sessions can be hosted via a Discussion tool, or if you’re the adventurous type, there are several free tech tools that enable feedback and review.

  1. Collaborative Projects

Students will probably enter your class thinking “group work” is not for them, which is often due to previous experience where group work felt overwhelming, disorganized, or other members did not pull their own weight. But this attitude won’t serve them well in the real world, where they will often be required to work with others who similarly don’t plan ahead appropriately or hold up their end of the project. That’s why giving students the ability to practice collaboration will not only increase their engagement but will better prepare them for future job realities.

This might sound like a daunting task, particularly with the collaboration being mainly online (again, not that dissimilar from today’s modern telecommuter office!), but establishing earlier communication practices (#1 and #2) will help make the process significantly easier.

A few ideas for collaborative projects for an online class:

  • Writing: articles, reports, and presentations are often co-authored by two or more writers, so why not give students the opportunity to practice writing with others? Any writing assignment can be made collaborative--an essay, a written answer to a complex problem, a summary/review of a case study, a lab report, etc. Google Docs is a great tool for facilitating collaborative writing projects (also Google Slides for collaborative presentation projects).
  • Create a video: This will take a bit more set-up on your part, but if you’re interested in having students create a video together, check out WeVideo.
  • Create a website: Consider having groups work over an extended period of time to create a website that highlights some of the materials you’ve been covering in your class--it’s a great way for students to engage with the materials and with each other. Check out the free website builders Weebly and Wix.

    When assigning collaborative work, tell your students what to expect when working with others: it’s not all rainbows and sunshine but it’s work that they will be collectively responsible for and will provide valuable experience for their future careers.  Make sure to provide some structure-- a detailed step-by-step agenda to ensure a great start and to maintain focus throughout the project.

    It’s Critical to Associate Grade Value: You have to give grades for online discussions, reviews, and collaborations. If you don’t, students won’t see them as important and will have less motivation to engage. In “Strategies for Creating a Community of Inquiry through Online Asynchronous Discussions” (2014), DeNoyelles, Zydney, and Chen found that assigning grades to online discussions is the biggest predictor of their success. Their recommended percentage for the final-grade value of online discussions is 10-20%, with no additional benefits observed when the percentage was higher than 20%. 

Engaging with the Material

Besides engaging with each other, students must engage with the materials you are presenting so that they can reach the course objectives.  This is doubly true for online classrooms since students won’t be coming to a face-to-face environment to “catch up” or discuss the learning objectives. One universal truth of all classrooms, virtual and traditional, is that if you don’t purposefully include assignments and tasks that require them to engage with the material, students will simply not complete the required reading. A student survey at UC Berkeley found that students completed about 60% of their assigned reading.

Fortunately, there are some great online tools that can help ensure that students are interacting with course materials.

  1. McGraw-Hill Education’s Connect Platform.

This platform includes an adaptive, interactive tool called SmartBook that is available in pretty much every discipline and connected to well-known textbooks. I tell my students that this tool is basically a “practice session” that will help guide and focus their reading. The platform asks them questions to figure out which concepts they understand and which ones they haven’t quite grasped yet, focusing their reading and practice time around the topics they need the most help with. The practice session has a game-like quality where students answer and find out immediately if they are correct (with explanations if they are incorrect). The only thing I need to do as the instructor is decide which objectives, topics, or chapters of a book that I want my students to engage with and make the assignment--Connect does the rest. No grading involved.


The other great thing about this tool is that it provides useful data in reports, both reports directed to the student and reports for the instructor. Students can see which topics were most challenging and can then choose to do further practice, and instructors can see not only which students completed the sessions and which didn’t--we can also see which topics each student (or the class overall) found most challenging. Really useful info.

Whatever technology platform you decide to use, don’t assign pages from a textbook and hope your students will read them--find ways to require your students to interact with the materials, and ways that don’t cost you time.

  1. Reflection Blogs.

Reflecting on the learning process, and on what you’ve learned, is a necessary and vital component to learning--in fact, many researchers across several disciplines have found that learning doesn’t really take place unless there is some reflection built into the learning process. A recent article that explains the important role of reflection in learning is “Making Experience Count: The Role of Reflection in Individual Learning” by Giada DiStefano et. al. Although this study comes from the Harvard Business Review, the concepts are echoed by research in cognitive psychology and education: reflection is necessary to learning and enhances the possibility of transfer of knowledge.

Try using blogs to encourage students to be more reflective. After they’ve finished an assignment, have them reflect on their process, what steps they took, what worked and what didn’t, and what they’ll try to do for future assignments

Getting students to engage is one of our most important tasks as online teachers because if students don’t engage, they won’t learn. Use the plentiful tech options out there to find the ones that work for you and that give your students the ability to engage with each other and with the materials of the class.

About the Author

Lynda Haas

Lynda Haas teaches rhetoric and composition at the University of California, Irvine, where for 10 years she was also a Writing Program Administrator. Her areas of research include digital pedagogy and digital literacies, visual rhetoric, and the intersections between writing theory, feminism, and cultural studies. She co-edited a book of essays entitled From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture, and recently presented a paper on accelerating the learning of international students at the Symposium on Second Language Writing. She has been using McGraw-Hill’s Connect for over a decade, and helped pilot several tools as they were released, including the facilitation of an inter-institutional assessment study using Connect's ""Outcomes Based Assessment” tool in 2010. Since then, she has served as a “Digital Faculty Consultant” for McGraw-Hill, talking with other instructors about Connect and digital pedagogy.

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