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Four strategies to boost student engagement during virtual learning

These strategies for increasing student engagement will boost learning, whether in person or remote. Add these to your digital teaching toolkit today.
Engaged Students in a Virtual Learning Environment Graphic | Hāpara
Engaged Students in a Virtual Learning Environment Graphic | Hāpara

Remote learning is still a relatively new routine that both students and teachers are becoming accustomed to. Many learners are attending school totally online in a remote setting, whilst others are completing at least some of their coursework online in a hybrid setting. As the face-to-face educational learning model transitions to an increasingly online format, teachers are grappling with how to boost student engagement. Even though it is different than being in a brick and mortar classroom, online learning can be a very meaningful and productive experience for learners. Creating a virtual learning environment that effectively engages students is a significant component of successful teaching and learning. There are several strategies available that can boost student engagement during virtual learning.

Build community and boost student engagement through synchronous meetings

Building strong relationships with students and being aware of their individual needs is a crucial first step for successful learning, regardless of whether it takes place in person or remotely. When students connect with their teacher and feel a supportive bond, they will be more likely to attempt challenging content and be motivated to master the learning objectives. Incorporating synchronous meetings where students and the teacher meet live at the same time on a video platform can help to build strong relationships and boost student engagement. When learners have the opportunity to interact regularly with their teacher and peers and feel part of a supportive community, they will be more engaged in their learning. Synchronous meetings can help students feel better connected to their school and decrease feelings of isolation. There are several video platforms that teachers can use to conduct synchronous class meetings, including Zoom and Google Classroom, the latter of which automatically generates an easily accessible Google Meet video link for each class you create within the platform.

To increase student participation during synchronous video meetings, there are several strategies you can use. You can hold larger class discussions with the entire class to cover major concepts, and then separate students into breakout rooms and provide a prompt, problem or question for smaller groups of students to collaborate on, similar to a classroom “think-pair-share” activity. This allows more timid students who tend to not speak out loud in front of the whole class the opportunity to interact with other students in a secure environment that is less overwhelming. Incorporating social-emotional activities into live meetings that help students to get to know each other by discussing personal experiences can also help build a sense of community. As the instructor, acknowledging student triumphs and planning activities that promote student inquiry and discussion is most likely to encourage online participation.

Create clear expectations and class rules

It is essential to create and consistently uphold clear classroom guidelines and rules so that students know what is expected of them in the virtual learning environment. To ensure learners understand the class expectations and rules, have them posted within the online platform you are using so that students and parents can refer back to them regularly. Clearly explain and model appropriate online communication and behaviors to learners, such as proper conduct during video meetings and acceptable email and messaging language in the chat. In order to reinforce this idea, a teacher could show video examples of what appropriate online conduct does and does not look like. One helpful online tool you can integrate into your classroom to facilitate organized communication during synchronous meetings is the hand-raising feature, which allows students to click an icon that displays a raised hand if they have a question. Using this function means the lesson is not interrupted, and the teacher can address student comments and questions in turn.

Another way to ensure students understand the expectations in the virtual learning environment is to create a consistent schedule that is posted online with links to the learning objectives and assignments, and daily videos that clarify the expectations. Be sure to discuss due dates and late work policies so that grading protocols are fully understood. Since the nature of online learning is very different from in-person learning, in that students are dealing with navigating technology, meeting several deadlines and other variables, you may need to communicate your expectations and announcements even more so than you would in the traditional classroom to ensure understanding. It is necessary to ensure that students are aware of the consequences if online expectations are not met, and you may need to reach out to both the student and the student’s parents to resolve any ongoing issues.

Boost student engagement asynchronously

Delivering content creatively in an asynchronous format where students can work individually at their own pace greatly increases learner engagement and helps build skills and knowledge. There are several virtual classroom tools available that can facilitate the asynchronous learning process, including Google Workspace for Education and the Hāpara Instructional Suite. Google Workspace for Education offers many tools such as Docs, Slides, Forms and Sheets that allow students to demonstrate their understanding. Teachers can create assignments and record asynchronous lessons using the Google Workspace for Education tools, and then post, grade and offer feedback through the Google Classroom platform. Students can view the recorded lessons posted within the virtual classroom, and then demonstrate their knowledge of the content by writing documents, creating multimedia slideshows, completing online quizzes, etc. Teachers also have the option to record their live sessions, which can be useful to post later so students who missed the lesson or who need to refer back to the material can easily access the information.

Teachers can measure student engagement online by monitoring when students turn in assignments, providing commentary and constructive feedback on student work, and responding to student questions. Hāpara further eases the management of Google Workspace tools by organizing all student work into one location in Hāpara Teacher Dashboard. It means that rather than searching every class and sorting through past assignments to find a missing task or to review student progress, you simply click on an individual Student Tile to see all of the student’s files in one easy-to-find location.

Hāpara’s Student Dashboard also helps students remain engaged in online learning by allowing them to log in to one central location to access all of their online coursework and communicate with teachers and peers. Rather than having to sign in to several different classrooms or other websites and scroll through numerous older assignments to locate necessary materials and announcements, students can access all of their coursework through the Dashboard, which even sorts assignments according to due date, so students can prioritize which assignments they need to complete first.

Maintain consistent communication and feedback

Another essential component to boost student engagement in the virtual classroom is to communicate with students on a consistent basis and offer timely, constructive feedback. One major benefit of synchronous sessions is that learners have the opportunity to receive immediate feedback from an instructor and their classmates, so it is important to offer regular live meeting times or set office hours in which you are available to meet and talk with students in real-time. The chat feature is a particularly useful method to get students involved during synchronous meetings, especially for the students who are apprehensive about speaking out loud in class. For example, the “waterfall” strategy is when the teacher poses a question, and students type their answer in the chat, but they do not submit their answer until the teacher prompts everyone to hit enter at the same time, resulting in a cascade of student answers in the chat. This can serve as an entertaining and non-threatening activity that can involve all students in participation.

During distance learning, communicating with learners through email, discussion boards and providing commentary and feedback are essential ways to engage with learners. In Google Classroom, a teacher can create a discussion board by posting a question, and then have students respond to the prompt and to each other. This technique further develops the concepts being studied and gets students more involved in the online learning process.

When a learner submits an assignment, teachers can make suggestions and provide feedback by inserting comments on the digital assignments within Google Classroom, and students can respond within the same platform. Hāpara Teacher Dashboard makes student communication even easier by allowing teachers to click on an individual Student Tile, and from there, the teacher can send direct messages to students or access their work to provide feedback.

Students can also collaborate together in groups in order to boost their learning engagement by communicating with each other through email and chats. Hāpara Workspace allows teachers to create student groups, which enables students to collaborate on projects together. Teachers can assign Google files to students from Hāpara Workspace, and students can then collaborate on documents and message each other, offering another way for learners to team up and learn together with their classmates.

There are so many ways to get students more involved in the virtual learning environment. By implementing creative strategies to boost online student engagement, teachers can help students develop both their skills and understanding during distance learning.

Update: May 5, 2021 

Looking for even more ways to increase student engagement online? Here are some additional strategies to try 

As we approach the final months of this unparalleled school year, some teachers and students have returned back to the classroom for face-to-face learning. Even though many teachers are physically back on campus, though, they are still conducting lessons virtually. Some are teaching in a hybrid setting or completely online, and at least some of their students are at home for distance learning. If you are looking for even more ways to boost student engagement online, here are some additional strategies. You can add these to your online teaching tool kit to help students to reach their learning goals and actively participate during online learning.

Continue to build community and maintain relationships

Building and sustaining strong relationships with learners throughout the school year is important. Simply checking in with them and maintaining connections is crucial to keeping them engaged. Sometimes we get so involved in delivering our content and covering the necessary standards.  We need to remember to stop and check in with learners and make those important social emotional connections, especially towards the end of the school year. 

One quick way to check in with students during distance learning is a remote “show and tell.” Learners can share their screen on a video call and show the class something significant from their life, such as a pet or souvenir. Jamboard is also a great tool that is compatible with Google Classroom and Hāpara Workspace and can be used for quick student check-ins. It’s essentially a discussion board where teachers can create prompts. Students can join the board and create notes to respond to questions. When used as a community building tool, a teacher can ask questions to enhance connections between learners. What was the best part of your week so far? If you could travel to any place in the world, where would you go and why?

Keep learners engaged with opportunities to collaborate

Jigsaw reading 

Students will feel more connected to their classmates and more engaged in learning activities when they are offered opportunities to collaborate with each other. Luckily, there are a vast array of tools that are designed for online student collaboration. One way to get learners working together on an assignment is to organize a jigsaw reading activity. The teacher gives a team of learners a chunk of text to read and discuss in a breakout room. Then learners report their findings to the entire class.

Class discussion board

Another way teachers can get students involved and to initiate discussion is to have them post ideas and responses on a class discussion board. Fortunately there are several discussion board tools available that are easy to use. Google Classroom has an option for a teacher to post a prompt with a Google Question. Students can post and respond to each other.

Shared documents

The Google Workspace for Education tools also lend themselves to student collaboration. Learners can access a document, slide or spreadsheet at the same time as their classmates in order to work on a project together. For example, a teacher could assign a section of reading for a group. Each team member would have some sort of “job” or responsibility for that specific text section. Jobs could include summarizing the piece, creating a visual representation of some sort, identifying and defining key vocabulary terms, etc. They would then complete their job in one shared document.

Gallery walks

Teachers could also have learners participate in a “gallery walk.” This would include completing projects or presentations using online tools such as a Google Slideshow, Google Drawing, etc. Students would then post them on an online platform for other students to observe. They could even provide school-appropriate, respectful feedback or questions through an online Google Form.

Ensure learners understand expectations

To maintain engagement during online learning, teachers need to provide clear expectations so that students know what is required of them. That way they can show proficiency and be successful during virtual learning. This is applicable to classroom procedures and academic expectations. 

One way to help students understand assignment expectations is to review the assignment’s scoring rubric so they understand the grading criteria. I also like to show exemplary student samples to help initiate ideas for my students and demonstrate what proficiency looks like. Hāpara Workspace is a great tool to help students gain a clearer understanding of course expectations because it displays a unit or assignment’s learning objectives. It also offers teachers a way to post assignments, resources and scoring rubrics in an organized platform that is easily accessible for students.


“Flip your class” to allow learners to work independently

Asynchronous activities help students take ownership of their learning and the opportunity to engage in content independently. These activities enhance learners’ understanding. They can then share their knowledge and enrich their understanding of a topic through meaningful synchronous activities and discussions with their teacher and classmates. 

For example, in a high school English course, a teacher could post a PDF version and an audio link to a novel in Google Classroom. The learners could read or listen to the story asynchronously. After accessing the content, they could complete activities that strengthen their comprehension of the section, such as a vocabulary activity, guided reading questions or a quiz from Google Forms. Then learners could post an intriguing idea or quote that resonated with them, as well as respond in a Google Classroom Question discussion board. Next, when the class meets during a synchronous live meeting, students are ready to discuss major ideas and themes to build a strong connection to the text. This type of activity would promote student engagement, both asynchronous and synchronous, in a virtual learning environment. 

There are so many ways to continue to keep students actively engaged during distance and hybrid learning. Take the time to try out some new strategies that will increase student participation and keep your online classroom thriving.

Learn what to focus on when building a culture of digital citizenship, including conversation starters for learners and educators!

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