Online Course Activities to Increase Student Engagement

I have learned that a few simple instructor activities greatly increase student engagement in an online course. Here are some of the most effective activities you can use in your courses.

Connect icebreaker discussions to content
The use of icebreakers has become widespread in online learning. But what kinds of icebreakers are best to use? My observations suggest that great icebreakers are those that pique students’ interest in the content while also helping them learn more about each other as whole people. For example, an icebreaker in a course about forensic biology might ask students to share an experience in their lives that made them think forensic biology is an intriguing field of study (their own experience, a film they’ve seen, or stories they’ve read).

The key is that the students begin to get to know each other through shared stories, but these stories are connected to the course content in ways that are personally meaningful to students. This allows the icebreaker discussion to flow into the content discussions that follow rather than create a space for “social chat” that is disconnected from the goals of the learning. Some students will immediately find peers they feel personally connected to through this story sharing. For students who are highly motivated by their relationships with peers, this gets the semester off to a great start.

Keep data on your students and use it to personalize feedback
In the first two weeks of an online course, students want to know that the professor is paying attention to what happens in the course. If the instructor goes further by noticing the student individually, a sense of trust begins to develop. Use information from icebreakers, pre-course surveys or early discussion forums to jot down one or two things you’ve learned about each student. For some students, your data might be about their lives or interests if these are connected to your content in some way. For others, your data might be about the way you noticed them approaching a topic or the way they lead their peers.

Whatever it is that you notice, make sure to let them know in your first round of feedback that you appreciate this part of them or find ways to relate their interests to the content you are studying. Avoid vague praise. Provide specific examples and make sure you mean what you say. If you notice that a student is very interested in some aspect of the curriculum, send him or her a link to another brief article or video resource on that topic. Suggest that the student continue to deepen his or her own thinking on this, and bring it into the course to enrich the learning of the group.

Present online discussion as a skill to be learned and practiced in your course
Just as being a good conversationalist is a skill, so too is being able to draw out interesting ideas from peers in online discussion forums. Most students want to be successful. When we explain that we want to help them learn to become a great online conversationalist, we tap into their intrinsic human desire to learn new skills. We also need to remind them that online discussion lacks the facial and voice feedback that helps us monitor what is happening in live discussions. We can model ways to replace facial and voice cues that are often missing in online discussion.

For example, we can start a reply in the discussion with expressive words or phrases such as “Hmm” or “I’m sitting here smiling because Jenny’s post made me realize that . . .” In the face-to-face classroom, professors often smile, nod, widen their eyes, move closer to the person talking, and give many other visual cues that they are interested in what is being said. When professors find ways to offer similar expressions of interest online, students often follow suit in their interactions with one another. This is one way of modeling social presence, which research has shown to be a key factor in student motivation and engagement.

Use humor to provide “dos and don’ts” for your assignment instructions
Humor can be used to help students notice and remember key aspects of a good discussion. Short videos made in GoAnimate or Moovly can show students in an animated cartoon format how not to complete a specific assignment.

For example, you can use cartoon characters who demonstrate poor listening skills to show students, with humor, how not to participate in a discussion. You can follow this with some examples of great ways to deepen a discussion (asking how a peer’s ideas would apply in X situation, sharing your own story or idea that relates to a peer’s post, bringing up ethical questions that you’re not sure how to resolve, etc.). The use of just a few seconds of silence in an animated video gets the idea across that the discussion has fallen flat. The videos can be just a minute long and still provide students with clear, memorable examples that tap into their desire to learn and practice the skills that will help them connect better with peers.

Coach on the sidelines to expand student interaction and reciprocity
Although my own preference is to remain highly engaged in discussion forums during the first week or two of a course, I am also busy coaching students on the side. I use emails, texts, and other means to let students know that I noticed something they said or did in the discussion. In the first weeks of class, consider focusing your comments on process rather than content. In other words, in addition to noticing what students said about a chapter in the text, tell them you noticed how they affirmed what their peers said in their posts and that their posts are a great example of encouraging further discussion. Then tell them you would like to see them take this even further by asking some good questions that their peers’ posts brought to mind. Give them a few examples of some kinds of questions that their own posts bring to your mind. You are likely to notice that some students model their questions on the examples you’ve provided.

Seed relationships between students and peers in your courses
Students entering into an online course often feel anonymous. They may feel uncertain about how their peers will perceive their comments or assignments. Some students experience anxiety about how their ideas will come across in written form. It can be very helpful for such students when the professor intentionally works to seed relationships by helping particular students find peers to work with in the course.

One way to do this is to send emails to students in the first few weeks to make suggestions about whom they might connect with in the discussion forum. You could say “What you said about _____ was really interesting. I’ve noticed that _____ (name of peer) seems to have a similar interest in what she posted and they might want to check out that peer’s post and respond.” If you decide to comment on the content of a student’s post, make sure to clarify that your goal is to help that student find good discussion partners.

Use midweek check-ins to guide discussions
Using a midweek check-in video or announcement can help instructors maintain their roles as “guides on the side.” The video or announcement should be brief—ideally five minutes or less if video is the medium. It helps if the announcement highlights things that are going well and brings up interesting shared points of view or good observations the students have made. The instructor can then ask a few questions to redirect the conversation or ask students to take their ideas further in the same direction. If you want to challenge the students in some new way, it is essential to clearly explain why the new direction is important and what questions you want students to address.

Set up discussions with creative thinking and experimentation in mind
Creativity develops best in environments that are low stress and not driven by predetermined outcomes. How then do we create discussion forums that will achieve our wish to keep students focused on content and to help them think creatively? Consider using discussion prompts early in the course that ask students to think imaginatively or to dream big dreams of world change and innovation related to what they are reading or researching. Ask them to make unusual analogies to something they are studying, and offer a couple of examples of your own. Ask them to respond to something they have read by posting just an image in a discussion post, and then have other students guess and discuss why they chose that image to relate to the content that week.

Try these strategies to increase engagement in your courses.

Rebecca Zambrano is the director of Online Faculty Development at Edgewood College.

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