As COVID-19 has spread across the country, many college instructors find themselves transitioning to online teaching. This unfamiliar way of instructing can present a number of challenges, especially when it comes to encouraging student participation. Traditional in-class discussions simply don’t work with distance learning.

This issue doesn’t only affect schools who had to make rapid shifts to online delivery due to a global pandemic, either. It’s a common challenge for any instructor in an online learning environment. But it’s still possible to keep students engaged with you, the material and their classmates.

Timothy Loatman, director of academic services for Collegis Education, has helped many instructors who are new to online teaching do just that. You simply need to take a slightly different approach than you would for an on-campus course.

“There are ways you can create similar experiences, but I don’t think online learning is directly analogous to face-to-face classrooms,” Loatman says.

Fostering an interactive environment that encourages students to participate is all about establishing expectations, making use of what you have and planning ahead. These tactics can help you get started.

5 Tips for fostering an engaged online classroom

There are numerous ways you can encourage student engagement, but eliciting regular interaction requires you to lay some groundwork.

1. Establish your presence

When students start a new class, they don’t yet have a fully formed opinion of what the expectations are. This is a huge opportunity for you as an instructor to set the precedent from the get-go.

“As an instructor, you should use the announcement tool in the learning management system (LMS) every day,” Loatman advises. He also thinks that your involvement upfront will have far more impact than your efforts later on. “Jump in with extra enthusiasm on the first day so that you set a standard of presence,” he adds.

While it might seem farfetched that your own involvement could affect students one way or the other, there’s plenty of evidence illustrating the value of making yourself visible. Research shows that instructor presence can positively affect students’ perception and even contribute to better learning outcomes. If you start the conversation, students are bound to join in.

2. Be as responsive as possible

While making frequent announcements is certainly important, you also need to communicate with individual students to keep them engaged. That means answering questions via email, treating the discussion forum as an ongoing conversation and providing prompt and thorough feedback on assignments. In fact, one survey of nearly 200 online students shows that quickly addressing questions and critiquing assignments are the most important strategies instructors use to facilitate learning.

“Even more than in a face-to-face class, instructors must ensure a quick turnaround time for feedback,” Loatman says. “In the online world, students are very accustomed to instant feedback.”

While inquisitive students are exactly what every instructor hopes for, you also need to manage your time effectively to avoid spending all your time responding to messages. Providing resources to students at critical moments can help you avoid answering the same questions multiple times without running the risk of making them feel ignored. Even if you haven’t taught online before, you’ve likely taught the same course in a physical setting. Loatman uses the example of an instructor who teaches the same communications class each term.

“I know that during the fall semester, three concepts were very difficult for my students,” Loatman offers. “Now in the spring, I have the ability to make an FAQ document and post it as an announcement. Or I can pre-load videos that serve as just-in-time coaching.”

3. Incorporate synchronous learning methods

It’s easy to think of your online course as a completely asynchronous education, but you’re better off including some real-time methods as well. Researchers argue that online learning should balance asynchronous and synchronous methods to help students get the most out of the material. Loatman also points out that some students respond better to different tactics. Incorporating both of these methods will ensure no one gets left behind.

You might be wondering what options you have for synchronous learning. Loatman is a big proponent of virtual office hours that occur near the time an assignment is due. Suppose we’re still using the example of a communications instructor who already provided some video and FAQ resources. That instructor also set three assignment due dates during that week.

“I’m going to offer my virtual office hours synchronously sometime before the deadline for each of these assignments,” he says. “Leveraging those asynchronous tools along with the synchronous virtual office hours is a great one-two punch.”

4. Assign collaborative projects

Collaborative learning has long been recognized as an effective way to deepen students’ knowledge and improve outcomes. There are a few ways students can benefit from working in groups in an online setting.

“The presence of their classmates makes the learning experience and the assignments a little bit more real,” Loatman says. Collaborative work also encourages students to interact more fully with one another. “Those collaborative groups are actually going to answer some of their own questions,” Loatman adds. “Instead of someone saying, ‘I don’t know what to do, so I should ask my instructor,’ they’ll say, ‘Oh, I can ask somebody in my group.’”

Believe it or not, online instructors report that incorporating group work in a virtual classroom can be just as effective as doing so in a physical learning environment. Research papers, presentations and debates are all still on the table. Students can even leverage technology to create videos that they then edit together for one finished project.

5. Leverage technology whenever you can

This tactic is infused into everything that takes place in an online course. You can email PDFs, share links to additional resources, upload videos and more. Students respond differently to different formats, so making use of all the technology available to you can help ensure that students continue interacting with you and their classmates.

One of the added benefits of online instruction is that you have access to documentation that simply isn’t feasible in a physical class.

“Not only can you see what a student said, but you also have a record of what you said to the student,” Loatman explains. “It helps hold everyone accountable.” This really helps ensure that all communication among students and instructors is clear.

Keep online students engaged

Online education was around long before anyone was concerned about COVID-19 – and it will continue long after. So while this health threat has caused some disruptions, there’s no reason it has to prevent students from learning and regularly participating. You may just need to implement a few changes to ensure students are engaged and on-track.

Evaluating students in an online setting is also unique. Get advice on this in our article, “Assessing Students When Your Residential Class Moves Online.”

If you’re looking for further assistance as you transition from residential to online education, we’d be happy to help. Reach out to us at info@collegiseducation.com.