Every Learner Everywhere

5 Practical Strategies for Using Digital Tools to Increase Online Student Engagement

The second annual Strategies for Success webinar series hosted by Every Learner Everywhere in January 2022 featured several presentations from college and university leaders on increasing online student engagement. Collectively they emphasized that methods for increasing engagement are key to ensuring equity for minoritized and poverty-affected students in digital learning environments.

Like the 2021 series, the 2022 Strategies for Success webinars featured faculty, instructional designers, digital learning specialists, and institutional experts presenting on practical approaches to a variety of teaching formats. An archive of the presentations, including those on online student engagement mentioned below, is available to watch on demand.

1. Create a welcoming online experience

As soon as a student enters the learning space — whether in person or online — they should feel like they’re in the right place and you are there to help them be successful regardless of their prior educational experiences or background.

In Strategies for Success in Online Teaching and Learning, Flower Darby, co-author of Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes, encouraged instructors to consider all the non-verbal ways students experience the class in order to make them feel welcome. For example, you can use images, colors, and basic graphic design to make the class feel warmer. She also recommends adding captions and alternative text to all images and videos in order to communicate that the digital classroom will be accessible and inclusive to all.

Assuming that you’ve already designed your syllabus to include diverse experiences and perspectives, you can signal that by including author photos and other visual cues that diverse voices will be welcome in the classroom.

Related reading: Culturally Responsive Pedagogy That Sparks Genius in College and University Students

2. Invite connection with students

Dr. Jeremiah J. Sims, former Director of Equity for the College of San Mateo, emphasized in his talk how building real relationships with your students can help them succeed.

“You don’t even get to see your students’ brilliance if they’re not yet in a space where they feel comfortable sharing it with you,” he said.

Rapport is particularly important for online student engagement, since students don’t always see instructors as real people, noted Sims. “The more we’re willing to show our students that we are real people, the more they’re going to connect with us and connectedness predicts academic achievement and persistence.”

One way to use digital tools to build rapport is to start each new course with a quick introduction to yourself, whether it’s a few slides at the beginning of a lecture, or an “about me” video at the beginning of an asynchronous class.

Include as much detail as you feel comfortable sharing, such as pets, hobbies, favorite travel destinations, and other things that can help students make a connection with you.

3. Reframe formative assessments to engage

Colorado State University instructional designers Tonya Buchan and Jennifer Todd gave practical ways to make students active participants in their own learning in their presentation on formative assessments.

Using formative assessments strategically can help instructors make an important mindset shift, noted Todd: “Instead of thinking ‘What am I going to teach today?’ you switch to thinking ‘What will students learn today?’”

Buchan and Todd walked participants through a worksheet that helps identify places in the course to use formative assessments, develop the right kind to meet the goal, and implement them.

Buchan noted that faculty sometimes tell her they don’t have time for formative assessments because of the amount of content they need to cover. “Conducting formative assessments is a way to address some of that content,” Buchan said.

Related reading: Can Technology Enable Authentic Assessment at Scale in Higher Education?

4. Regularly take the temperature

In his webinar, Starting with the Learner: Inclusive Instruction as Teaching with Social Justice, Professor Joel Amidon of the University of Mississippi suggested multiple ideas for instructors to solicit feedback and build relationships with students throughout a course.

He uses Google Sheets to create conversation grids with prompts such as “If you had a billion dollars, which charity would you donate to?” or “If you could have dinner with any three people from history, who would you invite?”

Each week, Amidon gives students a new prompt, then responds to their answers. “I’m becoming a better teacher because I have a little bit more knowledge about their experiences,” he said.

Another example he gave was including a weekly check-in module as part of the online course, where students can share their experiences for the week and ask questions about the course itself.

Darby also recommended regular surveys to solicit feedback. She suggested the format of “Stop, start, continue.” Ask students to reply with one thing they want the class to stop doing, one they want to start doing, and one they want to continue. Another example question she suggested asking is, “What am I doing in this class that is making you feel excluded?”

5. Use adaptive courseware to engage students on their unique needs

Take advantage of digital tools to help students engage in the material regardless of where their previous level of knowledge was. In their presentation on adaptive courseware, Dr. Kerry MacFarland and Dr. Harmony Tucker of Colorado State University suggested different ways to use digital tools to support students at different stages.

Before class starts:

  • Ensure students have the prerequisite skills to understand the material by requiring them to take a mini-course. Those who don’t need any review move on to the modules most relevant to them, while those who need a refresher get time to work through the skills.
  • Use adaptive reading assignments to save time walking students through the vocabulary, so you can use class time for problem solving.

During class:

  • Encourage class participation and get real-time feedback with clickers and polls.
  • Use a tool like Padlet for students to post comments during the class and to allow them to engage with each other’s comments.

After class:

  • Use adaptive courseware as part of homework to help students master core skills or apply those core skills to more advanced problem solving.
  • Identify which modules students seem to be struggling with, then reach out to students who seem like they need extra help.

More strategies for online student engagement

These were only a handful of the ideas our presenters had for using digital tools to engage students. Watch the webinars to learn more, and be sure to sign up to Every Learner Everywhere’s newsletter to hear about future Strategies for Success series.