Welcome to Week 4

Framing: Student and Instructor Engagement

What does engagement mean in an online learning environment?

How do we know we our students are engaged? Is it:

  • High attendance and activity participation?
  • Constant streams of questions and discussion?
  • Efforts to personalize learning and follow tangents?
  • Success on assignments?
  • Requests for more information or time on topics?
  • Packed office hours?
  • Something else entirely?

We often filter our perceptions of student engagement through what motivates us as learners and teachers. Engagement, however, is highly individual and contextual. Student engagement is influenced by individuals’ perceptions, culture, and background knowledge. Furthermore, motivation to engage and learn may be shaped by interests, perceived relevancy, access to trusted communities, and feedback.

Challenges to student engagement are common whether students are sharing a physical space or working in an online learning environment. As motivation can shift over the course of a semester (even within a day!), we must reflect on how our course design supports motivation or poses barriers to engagement. Three questions offer a starting point as we begin to tackle this topic:

Have I created structures to support student interest? Have I created structures to support effort and persistence, even when learning is challenging? Do I model or prompt effective self-regulation skills related to learning?

Students are in a safe space to learn and take risks.

Students are empowered to personalize learning and explore topics of interest.

Students find valuable and meaningful connections to their experiences, including future endeavors.

Activities and assignments have a clearly stated purpose.

Students are challenged but have supports to practice and apply new knowledge and skills.

Community is fostered and encouraged.

Students are given meaningful feedback throughout the course to grow and deepen learning.

Students are encouraged to set course-related learning goals

Scaffolds and supports are available for students to manage challenges.

Students have opportunities to self-assess and reflect about their learning and its application to their goals.

If engagement is really about student motivation, how much influence do we (instructors) have in an online course?

The short answer—A LOT! In online spaces, we support student engagement by building instructor presence in three ways:

  • Teaching presence includes all the ways you organize and structure a course to be easily navigated and aligned to clear outcomes (see Week 1: Course Structure and Communication). It also shows in specific assignment descriptions that draw on student interests and are relevant to their goals and course outcomes (see Week 2: Assignments and Feedback). Feedback is a significant form of teaching presence that supports continuous learning in your course. Teaching presence is the ‘classroom’ you create for students that influences their cognitive and social engagement.
  • Through social presence, you build community and ‘humanize’ your online course. When students comment about online instructors responding to messages, holding 1:1 or small group meetings, sharing stories or a joke, or checking in on the class regularly, they are noting social presence. Other ways of conveying social presence include using students’ preferred names, conducting icebreakers and community-building activities early in the semester, and providing weekly summaries noting student contributions to learning. Social presence communicates ‘I see you and want you to be safe in this space’.
  • When we use our cognitive presence, we support students to construct personal meaning from our courses. Our cognitive presence includes how we design experiences that require more than memorizing facts, the ways we encourage students’ thinking through feedback and interactions online, and the multiple ways we present and offer information sharing different points of view or explanation. It is only after establishing teaching presence and social presence that students will have the security and motivation to engage with content, classmates, and us.

In an online class, our presence is something we purposefully and overtly build into the course. Presence is the difference between instructors as facilitators and partners-in-learning versus ‘uploaders-of-content-and-assignments'.

What concrete steps can we take to build presence and support student engagement?

  • Strategy #1: Develop and maintain safe learning communities to encourage risk-taking and collaborative learning

    All students need to feel safe in a learning environment. Our social presence as instructors helps to set the tone and establish community expectations. Two videos can help us think about how we establish inclusive learning communities.

    Take time during the early weeks of the semester to form community and foster positive interactions. Simple activities include:

    • Survey students about access to and experience with digital tools you plan to use during the semester. Be prepared to provide instruction and support for any ‘new to them’ technology.
    • Assign website scavenger hunts or a syllabus quiz to help your class learn where to find information and to understand class expectations
    • Use icebreakers to help students find common interests and goals with classmates. Before engaging in high stakes collaborative activities, students need to create connections with classmates. Icebreakers may solicit some groans but make it fun and participate with the class. Here are some ideas beyond the ‘tell us your name and major’ discussion thread (icebreakers from Engaging the Online Learner: Activities and Resources for Creative Instruction by Rita-Marie Conrad and J. Ana Donaldson):
    One Word Think of one word that describes you and your future goals. Share your word and why you chose it. Review your classmates’ words and respond to someone whose word resonates with you. Try to find two additional words that you have in common.
    Things Share an image or object that best represents you and why you are taking this course. Share your image, why you selected it, and your expectations for this class.
    What Kind of Animal? Choose an animal that best represents you—not your favorite animal, but instead one that represents you as a person. Share your animal and four characteristics to explain your selection. Find a classmate whose animal shares two characteristics with yours. Respond to their post and together create a new animal that has the two shared characteristics plus two new ones.

    Give students time to become comfortable navigating your online course and to develop connections with classmates before placing them in groups for high-stakes assignments. Collaborative work is a powerful learning strategy but must be carefully planned and introduced to your class. See ‘Taking A Shot—Facilitate a Group Project’ for strategies to manage collaborative student work.

  • Strategy #2: Build a course with manageable, consistent expectations and a bit of variety

    Plan with balance in mind. Navigating websites and completing work online takes a bit more time, especially if students are reviewing content more often and completing multiple tasks across a week. Students may have outside responsibilities or access barriers impacting their work. Estimate the time impact on your students’ schedules by using the Rice University Enhanced Course Workload Estimator and consider whether adjustments in your plans are warranted. (Note: This is an updated workload estimator designed for online coursework.)

    As you plan each week, consider a 4-element framework to shape student activity:

    • Something to read
    • Something to listen to or watch
    • Something to discuss
    • Something to do

    The most crucial element in the framework is ‘something to do’---students need time to practice and integrate feedback on their learning. Overestimate time needed here to avoid creating busywork or overwhelming students. Use different resources and activities in each element across the semester to keep things from being flat or boring. For example, discussions can be through discussion boards, but also using audio and video recordings, collaborative documents, and small group synchronous sessions.

    Don’t forget to balance your time, too! Create a daily/weekly time schedule to balance course presence and boundaries for other activities. The Time Management Rubric (via Stein & Wanstreet’s Jump-Start Your Online Classroom) describes levels of instructor engagement across six areas of instructor responsibility.

  • Strategy #3: Balance asynchronous and synchronous experiences to ensure equitable access to community and learning

    An asynchronous course foundation is the most equitable online option and takes advantage of the flexible time in online learning. Asynchronous does not mean boring, though! The Bandwidth Immediacy Matrix shows how instructional materials and activities can be constructed along continuums of bandwidth and immediacy (response time):

    bandwidth model

    The choice to use synchronous sessions should align with your outcomes and objectives. Synchronous sessions come with ‘costs’ in terms of access and time—weigh carefully those costs for your students, especially if other options are available. Synchronous sessions should prioritize interaction over one-way sharing of content or resources

    Asynchronous Synchronous
    • More time for reflection and follow-up responses
    • Student and instructor can work at optimal or more convenient times
    • Customize information processing (e.g. replay a video segment, review a transcript)
    • Easier for more voices to contribute
    • ‘Real time’ conversations
    • Nonverbal cuing (limited, but still present)
    • ‘In the moment’ answers to questions; quick exchanges of information
    • Response delays
    • Open-endedness if there are no clear beginning and end points (i.e. getting ‘lost’ in the content)
    • Scheduling
    • Technology access
    • Fragmented or unequal conversations, especially with larger groups
    • Lag time for uploaded captioned recordings and transcripts
  • Strategy #4: Communicate enthusiasm and regularly connect students’ thoughts and contributions publicly

    Record a short (2-3 minute) introduction video at the beginning of each week. Use your video to welcome students back, introduce that week’s topic, and share your enthusiasm for what is ahead. These short videos help humanize the learning experience and articulate relevance. Don’t forget to include captioning!

    Provide a weekly summary to weave together content and preview the week ahead. A weekly summary can be a short screencast (no more than 5 minutes) or written announcement that includes:

    • Positive observations about student work the past week
    • Clarification of lingering questions
    • A ‘tying together’ of ideas and concepts to prior weeks
    • A preview of the week ahead

    In a smaller class, individual students can be asked to post a weekly summary synthesizing that week’s topic and what they are looking forward to learning about the next week.

  • Strategy #5: Encourage authentic, personal learning through activities and feedback

    Students will engage in courses that make direct, clear connections to their goals and lived experiences. How can you tap into those connections in your online course?

    • Ask students early in the semester to share their expectations and goals for your class. This is a great activity for Week 1 or something they can even begin drafting after seeing your ‘Getting Started/Welcome to the Course’ module.
    • Based on responses to their goal statements, find ways to build activities and assignments that relate to their lives and futures. Case studies, guest speakers, ‘real world’ problem activities/challenges, and simulations offer ways to personalize learning.
    • Give students the ultimate choice by offering assignments where they select the topic for study. Genius Hour, or 20% Time, assignments give students freedom to pursue personal topics of interest related to your course. Wondering how to make it possible? Check out Week 2: Assignments and Feedback Faculty Models to see how one UMW professor uses them in her classroom.

    The most direct conversations we can have with students are when we comment on their work and progress in our courses. Prioritize regular, specific feedback to students by using digital tools that offer options for text, audio, or video comments. This ‘Bite Size Canvas’ video highlights how to use feedback features across the Canvas platform:

Faculty Models

Below are some examples faculty have shared with us to share with you:

Michael Benson Course Model Andi Smith Course Model Varun Makhija Course Model Melissa Wells Course Model Patricia Oroczo Course Model

Now that You are Focused...Take a Shot!

You've read some background and seen some models so here are a few activities that you can try for yourself.


July 6th, 2:00 - 3:30pm


Watch the introduction of the July 6th, Week 4 workshop

Note: The introduction goes until the 5:38 mark in the video

Breakout Sessions


Watch the wrap-up of the July 6th, Week 4 workshop

August 4th, 10:00 - 11:30am


Watch the introduction of the August 4th, Week 4 workshop

Breakout Sessions


Watch the wrap-up of the August 4th, Week 4 workshop