Decades of research show the value of instructor presence and student engagement for online learners. Yet many instructors wonder how well their efforts to foster engagement really work, leading some to question the value of discussion and other types of interactions.
We wanted to test online student engagement at our institution and so surveyed students about the interactions in their virtual classrooms. Their responses showed that students are more engaged with announcements, discussions, and feedback than many instructors believe and provided some useful practices for using these tools to foster student interest and learning.
Announcements are an important tool for demonstrating instructor presence in an online course. Because students lack the opportunity to ask clarifying questions of instructors during or after a face-to-face class, instructors need to offer more information about assignments and deadlines in an online course. Announcements are a place where instructors can personalize content, offer explanations, and provide examples for assignments. We found that 72 percent of participants “always” read announcements and a further 16.5 percent “usually” do.
Here are some of the best ways to use announcements:
One important tip is to avoid long pages of text in an announcement. Users tend to start skimming emails when they are longer than a couple of paragraphs, so keep announcements short. Consider breaking longer announcements into a couple of shorter postings during the week. Also, post an image, video, or other content whenever appropriate to amplify the message.
As you think of creative and meaningful announcements, simply ask: Is the student learning something new from this announcement? Am I supplementing what is presented in the course with my own expertise and additional scholarly resources?
Many online faculty question whether students really want (or even read) discussions, but we found that 88 percent of participants acknowledged the importance of interactions between students and instructors, while 62 percent noted the importance of interacting with peers. Discussions are where students can interact with their classmates and the instructor, share and build knowledge, and develop relationships. When asked how well the discussion forums meet student expectations, a slight majority (52 percent) of our survey participants stated that discussion forums meet their expectations for social interaction.
Here are some simple ways to maintain student interest in discussion:
While feedback on student work is one of the most important contributors to student learning, many instructors believe that students do not read it. But when students were asked how frequently they look beyond the grade and read the feedback left by instructors, 70 percent said “always,” and 18 percent said “usually.” Additionally, 62 percent said that they “always” incorporate the advice and feedback they receive in their feedback into their next assignment, and 28 percent said they “usually” do. Combined, this means 90 percent of students conveyed that instructor feedback is valuable and useful.
The secret to providing effective feedback is to make it detailed and actionable for the student. Here are some tips for providing feedback students will use:
Students value feedback as it helps them understand what they are doing well and how they can improve. To add an interactive component, invite students to set up a time to discuss their work with you so you can help them understand how they can maximize your feedback and strengthen their future performance. Discussions can take place via video chat, online chat, or email, depending on individual students’ needs and comfort levels.
Finally, when students seem disengaged with a course, try asking them why. Doing so will not only allow you to gather valuable information but also demonstrate your interest in their learning. Ask what works best for them and to implement changes on the fly. Students want to be engaged with their courses, and often just a few adjustments will make a big difference.
Daria S. LaFave, PhD, Cheri Ketchum, PhD, Chelsey Yeats, MA, and Elaine Phompheng, MA, are faculty at the University of Arizona Global Campus.