Are your students highly engaged in class, motivated, and performing to the best of their abilities? In a perfect classroom environment, every student would be engaged in the course, interested in the subjects, and performing to the very best of their capabilities. That's what every educator hopes for when they start teaching a class.

The reality for most classes is that while some students may be highly engaged and self-motivated, other students will base their involvement upon what is experienced in the classroom and whether or not their expectations are being met. While addressing student engagement can be challenging for traditional classroom educators, it can be even more difficult for online educators who cannot see their students or meet with them for a scheduled class time.

At the start of a new online class educators typically find that students are involved in the class with mixed feelings of excitement, apprehension, and uncertainty. From the perspective of a student, remaining motivated and engaged in the class requires substantial effort. While many students are self-directed in nature, and have an ability to sustain their involvement, there are often others who lack self-motivation and begin to disengage over time. As many educators realize, by the time a student disengages from class it is often too late to get them back on track. 

A challenge for instructors is that online class facilitation can take a significant amount of time. With a busy schedule it is natural to focus on contractual obligations and classroom management, and not notice a student who is slowly disengaging from the class until they are completely absent or have withdrawn. It becomes important then to take a proactive approach with online students and establish an instructional approach for helping them to stay focused and engaged in the class.

Defining the Concept of Student Engagement

When educators define the nature of student engagement it is usually done from a tangible (what is seen) perspective and this can be a subjective assessment. For example, if a student is posting participation online messages most every day of the week you might say they are highly engaged. The question is how active does a student have to be to meet these criteria? If they are posting messages on five days is that the same level of engagement as a student who is posting on six days? As a general guideline it can be assessed by how invested students appear to be in their class. This includes their involvement in discussions, asking questions, submitting assignments on time, and how responsive they are to other students and their instructor. If a student is going to be considered highly engaged in class, an instructor needs to observe several visual cues.

Why Does Student Engagement Matter?

Engagement matters because it indicates that students are involved in the class. When students are fully engaged, a distance education class begins to feel like a community. If students are not actively involved in their class, especially an online class, they can easily disengage, lose interest, and eventually withdraw. If the instructor doesn't intervene, these students may drop the course and a continual pattern like this may also lead to disengagement from their degree program. Visual cues are important then because they are indicators of how involved students are in the process of learning. These cues include qualities such as their level of effort, along with their responsiveness to feedback, communication, and coaching.

Discover How to Measure Student Engagement

When visual cues are interpreted it is often done in a subjective manner, looking at more than a student's tangible work product or written papers. The purpose of measuring engagement in the class is to raise an educator's conscious awareness of students and keep track of their involvement. It is easy to become so busy managing class operations and discussions that students who are not present end up being overlooked when they are not actively present. For those instructors who are detail minded they can create a spreadsheet and track the progress of their students. Some learning management systems provide analytics that allow an instructor to check on the progress of students in the course. The purpose of doing this is to pay attention to your students and how they are progressing.

Six Essential Strategies to Keep Students Engaged in Class

To assist educators with the process of prompting students' engagement in class I have developed a model called ENGAGE.

Examine class conditions as it can be conducive to or discourage active involvement. For example, do you post announcements that include a preview or wrap-up of the subjects or concepts for the week? Do you provide additional resources? Do you provide several methods of contact so that students can easily reach you? All of these strategies can help to create conditions that are conducive to learning.

Notice students' involvement and pay attention to their activities. If you wait until you provide feedback to determine who is active and who isn't, that may be too late to intervene. If there are features built into the learning management system which allow you to track students and their access to the course, this can help you identify students who are disengaging. You can also check who has completed the learning activities by the due date and develop a list of students who are past due.

Gauge the expected level of activity for an average student to establish a standard. As an instructor you develop a feel for the online class over time. You have a general idea of how much activity in the online class is indicative of an actively engaged student. Take that knowledge to help you develop a basic model and checklist that you can use, either mentally or in written form, to help monitor how your students are progressing.

Assess students and look for visual cues as you monitor their progress. As you monitor the progress of your students, and you consider how active they are based upon your expectations of their involvement, also consider how well they are performing. For example, a student can check in with the class on occasion by posting a brief discussion response and still not be substantively involved. A student who seems to be just getting by is someone who requires your time and attention.

Gain students' attention through some form of communication such as an email or a phone call if it appears they are not present or if they are disengaging from the class. It is important with an online class that you are proactively contacting your students any time you notice that they are struggling, not performing well, or they are not posting substantive contributions to the class discussions.

If you have developed a positive working relationship with your students, they may likely respond when you contact them by email. If you haven't been able to establish that connection, a phone call could be a helpful approach to reach out and establish your willingness to assist them. One of the primary challenges for making phone calls is finding a time that both the instructor and their students are available, especially if they are in different time zones.

Engage in the class as students will follow your lead. As a faculty director, I have observed many online classes with students who were not actively engaged and it was a reflection of the level of engagement of their instructors. Students often develop a perception that their instructor doesn't seem to care about the class if they do not appear to be actively present. However, even if an instructor is highly visible and engaged it doesn't guarantee that students will also respond with that same level of involvement. What an active presence does is to encourage them to be engaged and involved.

Always Be Engaged in Your Class

For instructors, being highly engaged in an online class requires proactive effort and involvement. It is possible to catch struggling students before they are disengaged; however, it can be challenging because keeping track of students does take time. If you are allocating only enough time to complete the required facilitation tasks, you may find that isn't adequate for taking time to contact students and conduct outreach.

One of the first steps you can take is to develop a standard of acceptable engagement for an average student. By developing this standard, you can observe patterns and reach out to your students as needed. Overall, it is necessary to establish a plan for conscious awareness of your students if you want to keep them involved. Student engagement in an online class is related to their involvement in the learning process, their retention in a degree program, and it is a contributing factor to their overall success.

As an instructor, you have a direct impact on how your students perform. Take the lead, show them how to be highly engaged, and demonstrate that you care when they are starting to disengage. It may take more of your time, but teaching and nurturing the development of your students will require time and effort on your part. While you may not see the immediate outcome of your efforts, if a student remains engaged in the course, you will have had a direct impact on their lifelong learning experience and this is likely why you became an educator to begin with – to make a positive contribution towards the academic growth and development of your students.

About Dr. Johnson

Dr. Johnson has worked in the field of higher education and distance learning since 2005. He specializes in distance learning, adult education, faculty development, online teaching, career management, and career development. Dr. J has a Ph.D. in Postsecondary and Adult Education, a Certificate in Training and Performance Improvement, and a Master of Business Administration, MBA. Presently Dr. J is a Core Faculty member for one of the premiere online universities, fulfilling his life's mission to teach, mentor, write, and inspire others.

As a scholar practitioner, Dr. J was published in a scholarly journal and he has been a featured presenter at an international distance learning conference. He has also published over 200 online articles about adult learning, higher education, distance learning, online teaching, and career development.

About Affordable Quality Writing

Dr. J founded Afforded Quality Writing in 2003 to offer skill-based resume writing and strengths-based career coaching. Dr. J helps hundreds of clients each year by providing a well-written and highly effective resume, along with instilling in them a renewed self-confidence and sense of purpose.

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