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How to Increase Student Engagement in Your Online College Course

“I know the deadline is at noon, but I don’t get off work today until 11:30. Can I get an extension?”

“I totally agree with what you said. Great response!”

“I don’t understand why my grade is so low. Can I do anything for extra credit?”

Sound familiar? Is your eye twitching just from reading these? We all want more student engagement in our courses, especially in our online courses. We like to think we get more engagement in our in-person courses, but in reality, there are only 3 students who talk, and the rest are trying to stay awake. We have an engagement problem in general.

It’s Not Them, It’s You

Have you ever taken a hard look at your assignments? Imagine you are your 19-year-old self, then look at one of your assignments, then gauge your motivation level. How’s your self-esteem doing now? Unfortunately, many times we make assignments in such a way that we will look cool in front of our other faculty friends. Like, my pedagogy is bigger than yours.

We need to start developing work for our students with our actual students in mind. We need to ask: How the assignment is relevant? How does it result in learning? How will it result in the student retaining knowledge? How will it not put them to sleep? How will it not make them want to drop the course?

Anyone? Anyone? Voodoo Economics

I remember one time I was teaching a World Literature course that covered poetry. I could tell that my students were cheating. So I took one of the questions from one of my assignments and Googled it. Turns out at least ten websites explain in detail all of the metaphors in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. The problem was not the students; it was my lazily composed assignments.

News flash: students will not be automatically engaged in your course. If you’re teaching a general education course, there’s a 50/50 chance they hate your subject matter and are just doing what they can to hopefully get a C. It’s OUR JOB to make the students engaged. Are you asking questions that can be Googled? Then don’t get mad if they give you a lame or plagiarized answer.

I Don’t Want to Talk About It; You’re Not My Dad!

Hey guess what; I have a secret. I know how to considerably increase the chances of student engagement. Ready? TALK TO YOUR STUDENTS. No, I don’t mean send a mass email to all of your students, and I don’t mean putting announcements on the main page in the course. I mean actually reaching out to students individually. Like a normal human being. If they’re doing well, tell them how awesome they are. If they’re failing, talk to them about how to improve. If they’re just cruising along with a C, give them credit for hanging in there.

These are real people with life situations of which you are totally unaware, with motivations and/or priorities you may not be able to identify with. Either way, these are people who signed up for your class to learn something or to use it as a stepping stone towards a goal. It’s our job to help them be successful.

There’s Just Something About Your Face

One of the huge drawbacks of online courses is not being able to see each other’s face. And I’m not talking about Zoom meetings. Those are the modern day hide and go seek. I can’t imagine 19-year-old me acting like an adult on those things. However, video assignments can force students to see each other discussing actual course material. This can really help how students interact with you and each other.

Also, giving students small group projects to do where they need to meet in small groups virtually without you can give them a sense of interaction and connection with their classmates. Yes, Zoom meetings leave a lot to be desired, but that’s because we try to use them as a hammer when we really need a wrench. Don’t try to use technology to replicate the classroom. Get creative by using the tool as it’s actually intended.

Engagement in an online course starts with the instructor. Not every student wakes up a says, “Yay! I have to write an essay!” or “Yay! I have to study the Industrial Revolution!” We know this, so quit expecting your students to get jazzed up on their own. Make it more engaging for them!

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