What do we mean by engagement?

Student engagement generally refers to students’ level of investment, passion, and interest in the subject and course material, as well as the degree of interaction and the motivation shown by students to learn and progress through the course. It can be helpful to consider this in terms of three key relationships—with material, peers, and professor; in this guidebook we’ll discuss engagement with material (We cover engagement with peers and professor in another guidebook). Within a course, however, these elements are often interwoven and do not function separately from each other; the connection to peers and faculty often leads to greater engagement with the material and vice versa.

Why is student engagement important?

Supporting our students’ engagement in our courses is crucial as it leads to behaviors and dispositions known to increase student learning. In particular, levels of engagement impact students’ sense of belonging, levels of motivation and achievement, and levels of enjoyment (Frisby et al., 2014; MacLeod, Yang, and Shi, 2019).

What does engagement look like when teaching across modalities?

As noted, positive engagement is linked to increases in learning (Chen et al., 2010). In a brick-and-mortar learning environment, it feels easy to get a rough sense of student engagement based on students’ behavior in the classroom. Research shows that in an online learning environment, where students and faculty are physically separated from one another, it is not uncommon for students to feel isolated, frustrated, and disengaged (Croft et al., 2015). Similarly, faculty often experience a similar sense of disconnection in online classes, which is heightened in asynchronous environments (Walker, 2016). Thus, in an online learning environment, it is especially important to take steps to develop content, activities, and assessments that engage students—connect with their interests and motivations—and provide students and faculty with opportunities to interact.

How can we accomplish our goals at a distance?

When moving into an online environment for the first time, an immediate instinct is to try and reproduce our in-class experience as closely as we can—which typically means simply offering synchronous sessions in Zoom. Zoom or other video conferencing platform “classroom” differs significantly from a face-to-face environment. Zoom fatigue is real, as are significant issues of equity and accessibility. Informal feedback from students also reveals that they can feel less engaged and more easily distracted attending a synchronous class over Zoom than when in-person. An unstructured Zoom session makes it easier for students to “hide,” and leaves them with the immediate distraction of other activities on the web.

Consequently, it’s useful to think about the movement to the online space as adaptation to a new kind of classroom rather than a translation from the physical classroom. Skilled faculty take advantage of the affordances of the online space (Supiano, 2020). Doing so makes it possible not only to have an engaging and productive Zoom session, but also likewise create meaningful student engagement with other aspects of the course.

In what follows, we provide strategies and techniques for engaging students with the course materials in both synchronous and asynchronous modalities.

Connecting students to course materials

As with a traditional class, interacting with texts and “gathering” for class remain the primary ways for students to engage with course material, though how this is accomplished in the online course setting needs attention.


The primary means for students to engage with course materials is the one we already use regularly: reading. But, you may protest, we can’t even get our students to do the reading under the best of conditions! How can we ensure that they do the readings under challenging conditions? And if there aren’t any readily available or affordable options for texts?

Standard options include giving students reading quizzes, or directing them to answer discussion board reading prompts or submit short response papers, but you can also consider ways for students to be able to engage both with the text and each other more deeply and meaningfully. That is, you can create opportunities for students to read, analyze, and annotate texts together. Doing so can increase students’ sense of accountability and also enhance peer learning. Digital tools such as Google Draw, SoundCloud, and Panopto also allow students to annotate with multimedia, including images, sound and video files, and hyperlinks to other content.

Before diving more deeply into specific tools that can support this kind of engagement, there are two key things to keep in mind. First, what do you want students to get out of the material? Before choosing a technology, ensure that the uses of that tool actually enhance your goals for student learning. Second, how can you lessen the learning curve involved in the use of new technologies? In order to reduce student anxiety (as well as your own!) and increase their levels of engagement, build in time and space to demonstrate the new tool, model how you would like them to engage with it, and allow students to practice before they are asked to perform. Some tools to consider:

  • Google Docs is a low-threshold technology with which most students are already familiar and a solid means for collaborative annotation. You can not only limit the docs availability exclusively to enrolled students, but can also limit students’ annotation to “comment only,” thus avoiding accidental changes to the text itself.
  • If what you want the students to read is more visual in nature, you can create a VoiceThread where you can create a short video of you annotating the document, image, chart, or graph, and then students leave their own comments, asynchronously, which can be audio or video, alongside their own annotations. This creates a kind of “conversation” between the students and yourself about the document.
  • Hypothes.is allows for students to collaboratively annotate web pages and PDFs, meaning that you can see not only if they are reading but also how they are reading the materials. By installing a plugin to their browser, students can leave multimedia annotations on web texts and PDFs. As long as you know the student’s username, you can see their annotations. If you create your own account, you can also engage and respond to their annotations.
  • Finally, consider adopting Open-Education Resources (OER) materials into your course. OERcommons.org is a searchable database of readings, textbooks, integrated and interactive activities connected to the readings, all at no cost to you or the students.

Some helpful advice to keep in mind:

  • Be specific in your prompts and directions. Don’t just say “annotate”—make clear to your students exactly what they’re being asked to do. Share an example, if possible. This is especially important since students don’t have the typically before- and after-class opportunities to ask for clarification.
  • Model the kinds of comments and engagement you want to see from the students. VoiceThread is a great example, because you go first, showing the students what a response should look and sound like while also explaining the activity.
  • Explicitly connect activities to each other and make these connections visible to your students. Make sure you tell students, either before or after, why they did the activity, and explicitly address how it prepares them for the next step in their learning.

Synchronous Classroom Engagement

Live sessions have two specific goals: 1) allowing the class to see and interact with one another to build learning relationships and 2) efficiently helping students learn from each other. In order to make the sessions as engaging as possible consider the following:

  • Limit the amount of time spent in Zoom sessions and plan for more pauses than you normally would. Switch up what is happening in the Zoom session every 5-20 minutes. Also, strategically build in breaks to allow for both physical needs and offline modes of engagement (e.g., combine a bathroom break with an assignment to individually outline an argument from a given passage of text).
  • Use icebreakers, music, posted questions to consider, case scenarios, and current events to open your synchronous sessions.
  • Design engagement activities using breakout rooms, the chat space, Zoom polling, or even polleverywhere.com (a versatile and user-friendly online software).
  • Pair breakout rooms with a shared Google Doc for note-taking or collaborative work.
  • Consider making Zoom sessions optional, and remember that you can record sessions, making them available to those not attending live.
  • Take the “temperature” of the class at the beginning of the session (e.g. “what’s your energy like coming into class today?”) using the Zoom polling feature or using the emojis or “yes/no” options available in the participant window.
  • Make use of Zoom’s polling features to offer graded or ungraded (and fun!) quizzes.
  • Use the chat or Google Docs to have students brainstorm, reflect on key topics and take-aways, to solicit which ideas are still confusing, or to prime them for what comes next at the close of the session.

In order to keep live sessions short, engaging, and efficient, as well as to accommodate the wide range of student access issues, think about what you would most like to accomplish with the students while you are together, and move everything else into an asynchronous platform.

Asynchronous Engagement

Asynchronous work allows students to work at their own pace, reflect and review, and generate material at times when they are ready and at ‘their best.’

  • Preparing and collaborating in small teams, such as in a Google Doc where everyone contributes at a different time
  • Watching and reviewing lecture content
  • Responding to discussions
  • Creating and/or synthesizing material to enhance synchronous discussion

To learn more about creating asynchronous course materials, visit our Asynchronous Engagement page.


As we’ve seen, there are numerous possibilities for designing in significant engagement with course content. The literature makes clear that this engagement enhances student learning. Rather than get lost in the weeds or distracted with the novelty of the tools that exist in the online space, work to increase your competence in a small set, and then use the variety of affordances in this set to create multiple and dynamic means for both synchronous and asynchronous engagement. When doing so, remember to build community, remain present, leverage low-stakes activities, create engagement feedback loops—where activities, assignments, course content, and synchronous sessions connect and reinforce one another—take advantage of student engagement in order to assess how they are doing, and design for inclusivity.

Faculty Insight

Paul Merritt and Sarah Stiles, Georgetown College

PollEverywhere is a free tool (for up to 40 students) that can be used to engage students. Paul Merritt, who teaches psychology courses online at Georgetown, uses PollEverywhere to poll students about sensitive topics. He has found that using anonymous polls takes away the pressure to come up with the “right answer” on the spot and also gives students time and space to consider and share their responses. Sarah Stiles, who teaches sociology, uses emojis in PollEverywhere to get a temperature check on students’ well-being in the beginning of each class session so she can meet them where they are at. Polls can also be used before and after exposure to course content to assess whether or not students’ thinking has changed.

Lee Pinkowitz, MSB

MBA professor Lee Pinkowitz, in redesigning his Valuation course in CNDLS into a hybrid format, made the following adjustments:

  • To maintain active engagement with video lectures, he and the CNDLS team implemented the use of interactive lectures that included practice questions interspersed between the videos to check for students’ understanding of concepts as they are learned.
  • To increase participation and check for understanding of course materials, all students are required to post quiz questions to reflect their understanding of the course concepts. In the discussion board, each student is assigned to review two quiz questions created by their peers. You can read more about Lee Pinkowitz’ class in Issue 8 of The Prospect magazine (PDF).

Huaping Lu-Adler, Georgetown College

Huaping Lu-Adler designed and taught her History of Modern Philosophy class on the presumption that a student’s sense of wellbeing and academic learning are interconnected. With that in mind, Lu-Adler focused on two aspects of wellbeing that, based both on her personal observations and on studies she had read, can greatly impact a student’s learning experience in class: (a) their sense of belonging (feeling seen/heard/valued/understood); (b) their ability to manage, effectively, such stressors as deadlines, public speaking (as part of the participation requirement), and events that significantly affect our day-to-day life but are largely beyond our control (e.g. the current pandemic). To continue to give attention to these areas in the virtual learning environment, Lu-Adler adapted several student-student engagement routines from her in-person classes to the online space, including:

  • implementing “well-being exercises” at the beginning of Zoom sessions where she posed philosophical question prompts that also pertained to student coping skills, gave them time to reflect on the question for themselves, and then invited them to share with the class if they chose;
  • incorporating mini-video assignments for students to explain certain philosophical ideas encountered in class in short video segments that students posted for each other’s benefit; and
  • continuing peer-discussion and review processes around higher-stakes writing assignments.

Students noted that these practices had a significantly positive impact on their sense of connection to the material, their willingness to take risks in the course, and their overall academic motivation and achievement in the course.

James Olsen, Philosophy

In order to regularly check in on and assess the degree to which students are “getting it,” James Olsen has students do a “Muddiest Point” exercise at the end of each module in his online courses. The activity exists as an ungraded Canvas assignment where students respond to the following prompt: “What aspect of the readings and content from this unit do you feel least solid about? What nagging confusions or uncertainties in understanding the material are plaguing you? Or, if you’re comfortable with all of the material, which aspects were nonetheless the most difficult to understand as you were learning it, or perhaps were the most poorly presented?” Originally, he used the Speedgrader to respond to each student. This took a great deal of time, however, and students explicitly asked to be able to see what other students said. In order to maintain privacy and save time he keeps the exercise as an assignment, but now records and posts a single video responding to various “muddy” issues.

Martha Weiss and Randall Amster, Georgetown College

Metacognition is the term used to denote engaging students in reflection or otherwise promoting self-awareness of their learning process. Metacognitive essays or practices can be linked to most assignments in order to enhance student learning. Martha Weiss and Randall Amster designed an environmental studies course where several of the assignments require students to not only create a specific artifact, but to then reflect on that creation in a metacognitive essay. For example, students are required to create an audio-visual artifact in Voicethread (via Canvas) reporting on a researched innovation. Doing so requires what one might expect—in addition to details on the innovation, students provide an analysis with regard to several key metrics studied in the class. In addition to creating this artifact, students also submit an essay (metacognitively) reflecting on such things as why they chose that innovation, why it was important or worth analyzing, how it connects to their personal lives, and what and how they learned in the process.


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