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A version of this article appears in The Best of the 2021 Teaching Professor Conference (Magna Publications, 2021).
Connectedness and relationships are important for students’ learning experiences. But online instructors may be tempted to think it is too challenging to fully engage all of their students. How can instructors whet their students’ appetites and keep them coming back for more? In this article, we set up the student engagement buffet by providing context indicated by research and offer student engagement activities as ingredients for your online course.
Engagement in growth-fostering relationships provides a foundation for the development of both individual and relational competence as we build community with each other through connectedness and belonging. Drawing on the tenets of relational-cultural theory, Miller and Stiver (1997) propose that growth-fostering relationships encompass essential attributes called “The Five Good Things”: zest, clarity, sense of worth, productivity, and desire for more connection. These five elements are at the heart of connected teaching and can be enhanced through meaningful interactions and growth-fostering relationships.
Connecting with others is not a one-time event, nor is it a big production. Hartling and Sparks (2008) encourage us to consider connection as a continuum. They suggest that connection is not an on-or-off kind of thing. The extremes at either end of the continuum highlight chronic disconnection or growth-fostering connection. But there is middle ground where conditions within a relationship can either indicate disconnection or connection (p. 171). Schwartz (2019), who builds her work upon a foundation of relational-cultural theory, helps us understand that we build our capacity to grow and create growth-fostering relationships when we build connections through big and small interactions (p. 147).
Instructors often find it particularly challenging to engage students with content. While this is true for most courses, engaging students online provides an additional layer of complexity. Developing a community of inquiry can support instructors with engaging students. Here, social presence (Akyol and Garrison, 2008) is a crucial element. It is concerned with building relatedness and considers how engaged the learners are with one another and the instructor. This element includes indicators of belongingness, such as a relational learning climate, a group identity, and collaboration among group members. Social presence helps us to understand how we can go about creating growth-fostering connections.
Community-building activities help to set a tone of comradery rather than competition. In addition, they encourage students to feel a sense of ownership in the class and influence students’ success. Some might term these kinds of activities icebreakers; however, we prefer the term check-ins as the activities we suggest go beyond silly, get-to-know-you kinds of introductions. Instead, they ask for deep reflection and often include connections to the content learned in the class. Although there are many community-building activities out there, here we share two for consideration: Just One Word and Where Are You on the Train?
How it works: This activity invites students to consider how they are showing up for class. The specific question posed is, "What one word describes how you are coming to our class today?" We then provide students with a minute or two of private think time to reflect individually. Whether in large groups or small ones, the students share their words and why they chose them. We have also had students post their words to a Zoom chat or an online tool such as Padlet.
Benefits: This activity is simple and can be completed in a relatively short amount of time. It helps students consider their frame of mind as class begins since outside influences can determine how well they engage during class.
How it works: This check-in activity entails presenting students with an image. Picture a train with people spread out inside and around it. One is back at the station house; another is running behind the train shouting, “Wait!”; another is on the train saying, “I’m working hard”; and still another is in front of the train saying, “I already know all of this.” Instructors invite students to consider the class content and where they are on the train concerning that content. Instructors can have students share where they are and why in small groups or large groups.
Benefits: This is another simple activity that can be completed in a short amount of time. Students build connections not only with each other but also to the content of the course.
Whether in person or online, a classroom has a set of implicit rules or norms. Building norms as a class provides an opportunity to clarify norms and expectations for students and foster shared responsibility in the course. In collaborative contexts, a set of norms guides how the group works together and defines the productive behaviors or mindsets expected.
How it works: The instructor can provide examples of norms or propose norms and ask the class to expand on those or add additional norms. While keeping in mind that everyone in the class comes with different perspectives, the instructor can invite the class to consider how they need to work together during the time together so each person can leave with information that is valuable to their work. The students can reflect on and record behaviors they consider ideal for working effectively in a group. After reviewing the class’s suggestions and identifying themes, the instructor can review the proposed norms with the class and determine whether the class can support the norms before adopting them.
Benefits: Having a clear set of norms can build trust and connections among participants by making sure that everyone feels that they are heard and that their contributions and questions matter. Norms that are explicit to the entire group provide a structure for addressing behaviors that distract from the group’s goals.
A protocol is a way to structure a discussion so that it supports the learning of all participants. A clear purpose is made explicit and provides a scaffold for all students to be engaged. Teachers can develop discussion protocols for a variety of content including readings, videos, and images. Due to the richness that students bring to the table, a discussion protocol can lead to a smorgasbord of deeper thinking. Even though there are a variety of discussion protocols, we share two for consideration: Save the Last Word and Connect-Extend-Challenge.
How it works: This activity invites each student to share one most significant idea from the content, have others respond, and then provide “the last word” with that particular idea. The instructor divides students into small groups of three or four. The first student shares their idea or quote and explains why it resonated with them (around three minutes). The other participants each have one minute to respond—saying what it makes them think about, what questions it raises for them, and so on. The student who began has one minute to close discussion with a reflection. This repeats for each person in the group. When debriefing the experience with the class, the instructor asks, “How was this a useful way to explore the ideas in the content and to explore your own thinking?”
Benefits: The process is designed for students to build on each other’s thinking by sharing and reflecting on the ideas they present.
How it works: As students engage with the content, they consider the following questions:
Benefits: The protocol helps students connect new ideas to prior knowledge. It also encourages them to think about questions they have or challenges they face as they reflect on what they are learning. This protocol works well with the whole class, in small groups, or individually.
For these and other student engagement activity ideas, access the Recipe for Engagement website.
Akyol, Z., & Garrison, D. (2008). The development of a community of inquiry over time in an online course: Understanding the progression and integration of social, cognitive and teaching presence. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 12(3), 3–22. https://doi.org/10.24059/olj.v12i3.72
Hartling, L., & Sparks, E. (2008). Relational-cultural practice: Working in a nonrelational world. Women & Therapy, 31(2–4), 165–188. https://doi.org/10.1080/02703140802146332
Miller, J. B., & Stiver, I. P. (1997). The healing connection: How women form relationships in therapy and in life. Beacon Press.
Schwartz, H. (2019). Connected teaching: Relationship, power, and mattering in higher education. Stylus Publishing.
Hope Nordstrom, EdD, is the director of the Center for Teaching & Learning and associate professor of education at Lipscomb University, where she primarily teaches in the technology integration and leadership domains. Her research interests include intentional design, cognitive psychology, and optimizing student learning.
Julia Osteen, EdS, is the assistant director of the Center for Teaching and Learning and instructor of education at Lipscomb University. Professor Osteen’s professional interests include faculty coaching, teaching undergraduate and graduate courses, social-emotional learning, and faculty wellness. She is currently a candidate in Lipscomb’s doctor of education program.