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Connecting with Online Students: What Works Best?

Online Teaching and Learning

Connecting with Online Students: What Works Best?

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.

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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:

  • Overviews of upcoming weeks. While each module’s requirements are normally laid out at the beginning of the module, it is helpful to summarize the requirements in an announcement so that students can more easily plan. Provide an overview of the topic as well as deadlines, resources, expectations, and assignment advice.
  • Notes from the field. Students appreciate instructors providing updates from the field and professional experience on course topics to both make connections to real-world examples and demonstrate their interest in student growth. Offer supplemental, easy-to-digest sources—such as interesting TED Talks, concept videos, and infographics—as well as information on new developments in the field. Even a simple meme about a course topic can help connect students to the instructor and the course.
  • Reminders and nudges. Reminders of upcoming deadlines are important for keeping students on track with their projects. Break down big projects into small steps with a deadline for each step and remind students about those dates as they approach.

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:

  • Icebreakers. Use these to get students accustomed to a discussion format. Instead of playing a game like Two Truths and a Lie, ask students to express their thoughts about the course topic itself, which can highlight preconceived notions that students have about the topic and that you can return to throughout the class.
  • Recognition. Like many of us, students are motivated by public recognition of their achievements, and so you can generate interest by responding to individual student postings rather than to the discussion as a whole. You can say, “You make a good point that . . . Now, where can we take this?” Praise in public and coach in private.
  • Including everyone. Aim to respond to every student at least a few times in different discussions throughout the course to help everyone feel included and valued.
  • Modeling. When responding to students, model exemplary content you are looking for when assessing their work. 
  • Open-ended questions. To stimulate further engagement with the topic, ask questions that do not result in straightforward answers like yes or no.
  • Practical examples. Most students are not as good at abstract thinking as their instructors, so offer practical examples of course topics and questions that emanate from them to give students something tangible to discuss.

Feedback on student work

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:

  • Rubrics. Many students are unclear about the expectations for their assignments, so use rubrics to demonstrate the standards of excellence on which students are being evaluated as well as the difference between good and bad work.
  • Personalization. In addition to using the student’s name in your feedback, avoid giving multiple students boilerplate feedback. Instead, tailor notes to acknowledge details in student work.
  • Detail. Often feedback is too vague for students to understand. Provide substantive and detailed feedback that recognizes both strengths and areas for improvement, focusing particularly on issues for which you have deducted points.
  • Forward orientation. Too often instructor feedback focuses solely on what a student did wrong rather than explaining how to do it right. Always make sure that your feedback is forward-looking and actionable. Focus on what students can improve on.
  • Resources. When bringing up a problem, such as a particular grammar error, include a link to a resource that teaches how to fix it.
  • Learning support. Direct students to general resources at your institution (e.g., the library, writing center, or academic tutoring).

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.