Five Ways to Engage Students outside of the Online Classroom

ngage Students Outside of the Online Classroom

Ubiquitous learning—the idea that everywhere you go, you’re learning all the time—lets us take advantage of the concept that in every interaction, there may be opportunities for students to engage with our subject matter if we can just get them into that holistic thinking mode.

I am an avid knitter and like to knit all the time. When I need to learn something new about knitting, I’ll often go to YouTube or to some other online videos that I’ve seen. I might read a book or take an online course to learn some new ideas. I might talk with others who I see knitting or people who approach me. I like to knit out in public so that people might come up to me and talk about what I’m knitting.

Searching the web, talking with others, trial and error—these are good ways to learn things through experimentation and trying things out. But how does one get into this holistic thinking mindset in the classroom?

Student polling

I have done student polling in my American government class. And I’ve asked students to go out and ask people, “If you could change one of your constitutional rights, what would that be? Would you add a right? Would you get rid of a right? Would you amend a right? How would you change it and what would the result be?”

This accomplishes all sorts of things. First, students have to understand what their constitutional rights are. In particular, they have to understand their First Amendment rights and then, inevitably, they have to be able to explain them to other students, because the people they talk to often don’t know what their First Amendment rights are, let alone their other constitutional rights. And it gets students into some conversations about what these rights are and what they might change, what people like and don’t like, and what’s really there and what’s not there—what people thought they had a right to but don’t really.

So this is a great technique to get students to interact with this concept in a way that they wouldn’t by just reading a chapter. They take the question out to their home, to their relatives, to their children, to their classmates in other courses. Sometimes they’ll post the questions on social media. Sometimes they’ll ask their peers at work. There are all sorts of ways in which go out and ask that question, and it inevitably generates discussion. I always require students to talk to at least 10 people. And so that really gives them 10 dialogues about their constitutional rights. By the time they bring the information from their poll back to their classmates, they really know all about this concept and really internalize the depth of understanding, or lack thereof, in the community about these issues.

It’s a fun and engaging activity for students. They really enjoy it. It’s particularly great for first-generation students who’ve never been to college before and whose family members have not been to college. These individuals may not understand what this person does all day at school. So being able to bring conversations like this home is just really wonderful for those students.

Now, how do they bring it back? One of the easiest ways is simply to use the discussion tool in any learning management system (LMS). That’s what I generally do. I have students go out, ask the question, and then summarize the results, perhaps highlighting the most interesting or most surprising result and then sharing the results back with the class or with a small group of their peers. Students can share those results on the discussion board or talk in small groups. If it’s a hybrid class, this might be a jumping-off point for a conversation in the face-to-face classroom after they’ve done this engagement activity outside in the community. There are all sorts of ways that students can bring that polling back into the classroom.

Student interviews

Student interviews allow students an opportunity to interview someone out in the community. You might have students do this using video or audio, then ask them to share those results back with the class. Arranging a course-relevant person for the student to interview is important. For example, in a political science class, students might find a community activist, someone who is ideally active in a topic that is interesting to the students, and talk to them about what it’s like to be a community activist, how they got started, what they do to create action, how to be an activist, and questions of that sort.

Once again, students bring those interviews back to the classroom. This is a great opportunity for students to make good use of their mobile devices, which most own, and those devices usually have recording features that allow them to record an interview using just audio or audio and video, or even record right into a learning management system.

Students are often perfectly comfortable with these technologies and they’re really happy to go out and do this assignment. If they’re not entirely comfortable, it’s relatively easy for them to learn how to use these technology tools. Students, when given the challenge, are able to go out and learn how to use the technologies available to them, even if they’re asking their peers or talking to other people in the college for help. For fully online students who might feel a little bit more isolated, the campus technology center can serve as a resource, and I encourage students to visit if they need assistance.

Service learning

Service learning is one of those topics that people don’t always consider in online classes. Online students don’t expect to have to go somewhere else to do their coursework, especially during business hours when they may work or have other obligations. But some service learning projects don’t require going somewhere out of the way during the day. Rather, a call-to-action project asks students to challenge people to do something related to the class and see whether they do it or not.

For example, in a comparative environmental studies class, students might challenge their workmates to recycle in the workplace or challenge their neighbors to recycle in an apartment complex. Students could challenge people to get energy-efficient light bulbs for their most frequently used lamp or lighting areas or encourage digital activism through signing petitions or making donations to a charitable cause.

In this exercise, students come up with the topic and the call to action—for example, change out 10 light bulbs in your home. Then they assign the challenge to personal contacts, neighbors, coworkers, or classmates. They might even use social media. (The one caveat here is that the 10 people must not all be immediate family members. Again, this is a community activity, and a student’s immediate family is not the community.)

Picking their project is the first step. Second, students choose their audience, whether a workmate or a neighbor. Third, they choose the call to action. Students are encouraged to give their audience at least three weeks to complete the call to action, depending on how complex the task is—more if they can. Students might send out a reminder every week or so to their audience, which creates a more active, less passive, waiting period.

At the end, students follow up and find out whether the audience did what they were asked. If they didn’t, why not? What prevented them from engaging in the call to action? Even if no one follows through on the call to action, as long as they took the appropriate steps, students can still get a good grade on this assignment. There are two takeaways from this assignment: one, it’s hard to get people to change. People want to do what they’ve always been doing and calling on them to change can be a challenge. And two, one person can make a difference.

Take other classes

While we spend a lot of time thinking about our own class, it’s really great for students to put their learning into context by picking other classes as a supplement. So where might this other class be? Students might take a massive open online course (MOOC)—these are free and customizable, and because it is not necessary to finish the courses, students can pick and choose what to focus on.

Students can also learn from YouTube or TED Talk videos, which helps them adopt lifelong learning habits and opens them up to follow the pathway of their interest related to their coursework. This generates excitement, as students tend to want to dig deeper when they’re able to direct their learning in this way, and it’s a great way to build enthusiasm about a class.

With this assignment, as with any assignment, making expectations clear is key. How much time should students spend? Giving them some context for these “alternative” assignments can be really helpful.

Home laboratory

In a home laboratory, students experiment with a theory and report their findings to the instructor or to the class. “Laboratory” tends to sound science-based, but there are many experiments students can do that are not necessarily science-related. For example, history students could search for something of historical significance near their home or along their commute.

A neat example that would work for a psychology class is to have students break an innocent social norm, like facing the back wall when they get into an elevator or facing the side wall—just doing something opposite of what is expected and then reporting on how people respond to that strange action.

And then of course, for the sciences, all sorts of home labs can be done with typical household products. (The Internet is full of ideas for different home labs.) Students are armed with the general steps and your expectations and then report back when they complete the experiment. The process gives them the opportunity to try several times and also gives room for failure.

That is another great way to learn: by having the freedom to fail. The opportunity for failure and the chance to learn from that failure is a fabulous thing for students. Expecting perfection with every activity can be incredibly stifling to students’ creativity and willingness to learn something new. To get them to stretch beyond what they know, there must be room for failure. And home labs can really create that space for failure, and for trying again, without the fear of being punished by a bad grade.

Giving students authority to be creative and to contextualize learning to their own lives, based on what’s interesting to them, makes the whole class more lively and engaging. It also gives instructors the opportunity to get to know students a different way, to get to know a little bit about their lives and their backgrounds as they share their selections in these types of assignments.

These assignments create community in the class, and that kind of community building really creates better retention. Students want to stay in classes where they feel like they’re part of the community. It creates a sense of caring. When an instructor creates activities like this, students feel cared for. And students tend to stay in classes where they feel like the instructor cares about them. These are all sorts of great reasons to do these types of nonstandard activities.


The aforementioned types of activities are likely new to students, which can cause anxiety. Keeping assignment instructions and expectations clear is important. If the goal is simply to get students thinking and talking, tell them that so they know just what you’re looking for and where they should focus their effort. Give them the rubric up front and tell them, “Here’s how you’re going to be graded.” I also encourage complete/incomplete grading, so even if students do the assignments by simply following the steps, they’ll get full credit. If they don’t do the work, they won’t get the grade.

It’s important, too, to keep in mind that these types of assignments may, at first, be quite fear-inducing and stressful for students. These may not be ideal assignments for the week of class, but consider implementing such engaging assignments further down the road, once a trust relationship has been built between instructor and student.

Adapted from the Magna Online Seminar presentation, Five Tips to Engage Students Outside of the Online Classroom.

Stephanie Delaney is the dean of the center for extended learning at Seattle Central Community College. There, she supports faculty in eLearning pedagogy and supports students in learning successfully online. She also teaches online courses in law and the global environment. Delaney earned her PhD in educational leadership in higher education/distance education at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

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