8 Best Strategies for Engaging Students During Distance Learning

Contributed By

H. L.

Assistant Principal

8 Best Strategies for Engaging Students During Distance Learning

Posted in Pro Tips | September 16, 2020

Distance Learning and Hybrid Education are different from in-person instruction. 

As districts nationwide have no doubt learned, distance learning is different—in good ways and in challenging ways—from the traditional in-person educational experience. In many ways, teachers and administrators have to be more intentional about their engagement strategies in order to provide the best experience possible for students. To that end, here are eight best practice strategies for engaging students in an online environment. 

Focus on relationships first. 

Relationships are the most important element of any learning format, but they are especially critical when students are online, because students can feel disconnected from the course and isolated from each other if they are not tended to. At the beginning of each course, have students post an appropriate picture of themselves as well as an introduction to a separate discussion area in the course. You should consider doing the same! Then, require students to engage with each other in a positive way about their introductions. Not only does this help students build connections with each other and with you, but it sends the message that in your online environment, you want students’ personalities to be able to shine through. 

Use online course content as a relationship-builder. 

Introducing content in the context of building relationships is always powerful, no matter the learning format. I never handed out textbooks on the first day, and I usually waited until at least day two to hand out a syllabus. Instead, I tried to teach an engaging content-related lesson on day one that would basically serve as a “hook” for the entire course. In an in-person environment, I liked to turn the class loose on a “big picture” question and spend the entire first class talking about ideas before relating it back to what we planned on studying for the year. 

Last week, I ended up filling in for an online class due to an emergency staff absence. Instead of the typical videoconferencing discussion format, I used cloud-based software and our learning management system (LMS) to have students brainstorm their answers to the same type of “big picture” content-related question. The screen came alive as students typed, doodled, mind-mapped, highlighted, and circled their answers and then discussed them with the rest of the class. We saved most of the course expectations and “where’s the bathroom?” type information for a later date and just focused on getting to know each other in the context of enthusiasm for the types of content and ideas to be covered during the rest of the year. 

Customize and personalize online tools. 

This is such a simple, but often overlooked, best practice. Your LMS should allow students to use creative (and school appropriate, of course!) avatars and other customizable features: background colors, bios, message signatures, and more. One of the big knocks against the more bare bones learning management systems out there is that they don’t let students do enough customization of their own profile features. It’s okay for students to build and curate fun online course personalities! 

Set clear expectations and time requirements. 

Working in an online environment is often more difficult for students than the traditional in-person setting. That’s because there’s often more unstructured time, more open-ended project requirements, and so on. One best practice to account for this is to set clear expectations for all course discussions, assignments, communication requirements, and honesty about the time commitment that is expected of the students. Students who have never worked online don’t know how long it should take to craft a discussion response or how long it should be. They don’t know how much time they should be spending offline to prepare for their online experience. You’ll want to help them do that. 

Find the happy medium for instructor participation. 

Too little instructor participation causes and enables student apathy. On the flip side, too much instructor participation can stifle discussion and other forms of student participation. Find the happy medium. In an asynchronous class discussion, for example, you want to interject just enough to elicit further conversation without creating the expectation that students have to hear from the instructor before responding to one another. Just as the holy grail of in-person instruction is to be able to sit back and facilitate student to student discussion, the holy grail of online discussion boards is to be able to stimulate thoughtful, substantive student to student posts and responses. 

Get visual. 

Online platforms lend themselves naturally to visual presentation, yet so many online course instructors think they have to stick with traditional direct instruction practices, like straight lecture or reading notes from an online presentation. Instead, you could meet with students live, but have prepared a video lecture ahead of time. Preparing a video lecture allows you to edit in other visual resources, from other videos to presentations, instead of trying to lecture live the whole time. It’s also more engaging overall. 

Assign project-based learning with 21st-century outcomes. 

Project-based learning (PBL) is a great way to teach objectives and assess mastery of content standards, because it’s more than just “doing a project” - you are making the chosen project the entire unit of learning. Instead of slogging through traditional lectures, notes, quizzes, and summative assessments, students instead engage in meaningful, relevant, real-world projects that not only teach content, but teamwork, presentation skills, and empathy. Because true PBL comes with a public presentation component, students learn how to achieve results in the real world via their online coursework. 

Provide and seek constant feedback. 

Just as great brick-and-mortar classrooms feature teachers who create 360-degree feedback loops with their students and are responsive to student needs, great online classrooms feature educators who have mastered the art of providing and seeking feedback every day. To keep students engaged, return online assignments quickly and with substantive feedback. Ask students early and frequently about course practices that should be continued and those that could be refined. Always be open with your students and they will respond in kind. 

Online learning is a different world. 

No matter whether your school has full-time online options this year or has opted to develop a more extensive system of Hybrid Education, the online component of education is a very different world. Some of the best practice strategies that work in person will also work online, with modifications. Other best practice strategies are really geared toward the online learner, because the requirements of online learning are so different. When you combine strategies that not only help students function in the online environment, but also engage them in meaningful ways, that’s when you know everything is clicking in your online learning environment.

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