How to Improve Student Engagement in Online Learning Courses

student working on an online course

Published: February 2nd, 2023

Student engagement can be a big challenge for educators. This challenge is amplified when it comes to engaging online students.

For creators and administrators of online courses, it can be a struggle to engage an online student during a lesson or while they are taking an online course in their own time.

Fortunately, there are strategies to help student engagement that can help educators who utilise online learning environments. These strategies serve as a blueprint for how teachers can keep students engaged throughout online courses.

Why student engagement is important

Student engagement refers to the quantity and the quality of a student’s interaction with the coursework or the teacher. It is important for all learners to be engaged with their education – whether they learn online, in-person, or a combination of the two.

Engaged online learners are typically:

  • Active in the classroom.
  • Able to retain more new information.
  • Motivated to learn.
  • Not only understand what they are being taught, but also the reasoning behind the lesson.

Some online learning administrators consider successful online learning to be students making it through the slides, watching all the required videos, doing the required reading, and passing the final test.

However, online student engagement should be about more than that. Learners need to understand everything they’ve learnt on a deeper level than simply reeling off a list of memorised facts. Online courses should aim to immerse students in their learning, allowing them an in-depth understanding of the topic, and the ability to critically think for themselves.

The question remains: how is this achieved?

Student engagement in online learning: what works and why

Below are thirteen strategies that you can use to increase student engagement in an online learning environment.

1. Combine different formats

One of the best ways to enhance student engagement in online courses is to use different formats in the classes. This change in format will ensure that the lessons remain interesting.

Communicating the lesson to students doesn’t just have to be a slideshow presentation. Teachers can use videos, TEDx talks, discussion forums, emails, chat rooms, and interactive games to keep students interested.

Even when doing a slideshow presentation, teachers can embed audio and video, or link to outside web pages.

For technical classes, a teacher can screencast or record their own screen and then share it with the students. This will build a direct connection between student and teacher which can be useful for encouraging student engagement in higher education institutions.

2. Keep student participation flexible

The traditional approach of long lectures, where students simply sit and listen, is becoming outdated. Allowing participation and assessments to be flexible in timing means students are more likely to engage with the course material – particularly when learning online.

This all comes down to timing. Not all students work at the same pace, and this needs to be taken into consideration in the virtual classroom.

Additional time can be awarded to complete assessments. Tasks can be assigned asynchronously so that not all students are tied to the same timeline. Projects can also be assigned on a priority basis, allowing students to decide when to work on which projects.

3. Interactive lessons

Interactive learning strategies are a great way of making online learners feel more engaged with the content.

Interactive lessons ensure students will learn how to communicate and collaborate with their teachers and classmates. Lessons with an interactive component are also able to increase the energy of students, as they involve active learning strategies.

Interaction can be implemented through gamification (more on that below). It can also include asking students to conduct experiments at home and report their findings on discussion forums.

4. Gamifying course content

Student perceptions towards online learning can change when they enjoy the course. This can be achieved through gamification or by introducing elements of gaming into the lesson. This works especially well with younger students, although it can be applied in higher education.

To gamify lessons, awards such as badges or a points system can be introduced. This motivates students to participate and “win” throughout the course. These awards will give online learners a sense of achievement, especially if they can view a leaderboard. This has proven to be successful in engaging students.

5. Use the right technology

The right digital technology can go a long way in enhancing student engagement. Of course, the technology needs to be supported by the educational facility.

Technology in online courses needs to be accessible to students in different time zones. It must also be geared toward students with hearing or visual impairments.

In that case, the best technology should have text-to-speech translation, closed captions, shortcuts, and the ability to adjust the text size.

6. Provide feedback regularly

Online learning can be a very impersonal experience and can leave students feeling isolated and neglected. Providing regular feedback on a student’s performance and requesting their feedback on the course is vital for ensuring everybody’s needs are met. 

Giving and receiving feedback will ensure that students have a positive experience. Feedback can clear up any uncertainties they may have regarding current and future assignments.

Without a teacher providing regular feedback, it could be difficult to motivate students for the next project. Learners might not be aware of how well they did in prior projects and may be less willing to dedicate time and energy to the newest assignment.

Feedback can also be in the form of self-assessment. This gives learners the opportunity to grade themselves and offer input on their own performance.

If students are taking a quiz or a graded test, the results and feedback on their performance should be provided in a timely manner. Feedback on any graded work should be given to students before they move on to the next module.

7. Make use of visual aids

Online classes that are presented as blocks of text on a slide can dampen the creativity and energy of learners.

Online courses that contain visual aids enhance the learning experience by providing students with an alternate method of understanding the material. Some learners are very visual, and by incorporating images and videos that explain the work, these students can benefit.

These visual aids can be:

  • Images
  • Videos
  • Models
  • Graphs
  • Memes

Visual aids don’t only increase student engagement in online learning, they also make difficult concepts easier to understand and remember.

8. Get students to participate asynchronously

A key way to engage students is to have them participate asynchronously – not all at the same time. This addresses the needs of students with unstable internet access. It also helps students communicate with each other regarding the projects they are working on, or the time zone they are learning from – ensuring no one is left out.

When students work on the same tasks at different times, teachers are able to dedicate time to each individual student to help them with their specific needs.

9. Always test what students have learned

Course administrators may have a difficult time assessing how online students are coping with the coursework.

By presenting graded curriculums, which include tests and quizzes, teachers can determine whether the student understood the material. By testing students, both the educator and the student can quantify how they are progressing with the course materials.

Students’ understanding and critical thinking skills can be tested through pop quizzes, polls, short essays, or multiple-choice questionnaires.

10. Use non-graded tests and quizzes

Graded tests can be a point of stress for students. Although it is valuable in the online learning experience to gauge how well a student understands the course content, it can be combined with other methods of testing.

One of these is using ungraded quizzes. These quizzes not only increase engagement but also help students understand the coursework better.

By including pop quizzes that don’t count towards a final grade, students are encouraged to retain information, but without the stress of a final exam. These can be included throughout the course or at the end of each lesson.

The results of these quizzes should be provided to the students promptly – preferably instantly – so they can assess where they need to improve.

Once the module has been completed, students can take a graded test.

11. Promote social engagement

Learners undergoing online education often miss out on the camaraderie of classmates. Even though discussion forums are a great place to start, they’re not great for establishing a social culture amongst the students.

Educators can set up groups on social media where classmates can exchange ideas and jokes or even just update everyone on their day.

A social group has a double purpose: it builds a sense of community, and it can help a teacher gauge how uplifted and positive the group is.

12. Award engagement

Individual students can be awarded digital certificates. It’s easy to create these certificates, and when students receive them, they feel a sense of accomplishment.

Many online courses automatically award students with certificates upon completion. However, certificates can also be awarded throughout the course. They can be awarded to students who contributed to class discussions or performed best in a specific test or project, for example.

13. Make course materials mobile-friendly

Since the world has become more remote, a lot of people use their mobile devices as their primary digital connection to the world. This extends to using mobile phones to access online learning materials.

Educators need to keep this in mind and create coursework that can be interacted with on mobiles and tablets. Visual aids need to present well on smaller screens, and slides need to be optimised for phone screens.

Utilising interactive whiteboards in online learning

The importance of interactive lessons has already been highlighted. Another method to achieve interaction and engagement is to use interactive whiteboards, such as Promethean ActivPanel.

They can be used during in-person instruction or recorded as part of a lesson (where the entire in-person lesson is recorded and uploaded to the online course). When used like this, Promethean ActivPanel can act as a visual aid that encourages students to engage with the coursework.


What is one of the easiest ways to increase student engagement in online learning environments?

A simple and easy way to increase student engagement is to make use of polls. Polling allows students to practice what they learned and allow educators to see where there are gaps.

What can a teacher do to get the attention of students while presenting an online lesson?

Educators themselves need to be present and engaged while delivering online classes. Students quickly notice if a teacher is simply reciting the information without being actively engaged.

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