How can online instructors engage their students?
Active learning engages the learner directly in the learning process through instructional activities with differing degrees of interaction, whereas passive learning occurs indirectly and without interaction. Active learning is preferred because it triggers cognitive functioning. Furthermore, active learning is a component of Ignatian pedagogy (i.e., context, experience, action, reflection, evaluation) in its goal to teach to the whole person (i.e., mind, body, and spirit). This blog covers various instructional strategies and the digital tools that instructors use to engage students online through active learning. The purpose of learner engagement through active learning is to increase student satisfaction and student achievement.
What does active learning look like online?
Active learning can take on different formats and levels of engagement. The following examples include various disciplines from undergraduate and graduate level, hybrid and fully online courses.
Set the Stage
Tell your students what you expect of them in the online course. For example, one instructor provides a PowerPoint titled, Setting the Stage, to share course requirements for the online environment and address learning values such as the growth mindset versus the fixed mindset. Dweck (2009) defined it as those who underestimate their ability to learn may have a fixed mindset, while those who believe that they can learn by establishing attainable goals and applying effort to learn have a growth mindset. Students with a growth mindset want to be corrected; their ego is not tied to learning. Conversely, those with a fixed mindset do not pay attention to corrective feedback. They believe that learning should not take any effort because it is tied to their intelligence; their ego influences how they learn. See my post to Focus on the Process to Support the Growth Mindset of Students.
Make sure students know how to use the learning management system (LMS) tools prior to high-stakes assignments. For example, my college’s navigational template provides a Start Here folder with two orientation tasks for students: the Online Student Acknowledgement form assignment and the ‘Getting Acquainted’ discussion. Additionally, ask students to take a quiz of zero value to familiarize them with the course tools. Some instructors use a syllabus quiz to ensure students have read their syllabi. Another example is the use of the quiz feature to poll students’ practical experience on the course topic to better understand their prior knowledge on the subject and drive instruction to meet students’ needs.
Discussions can have well thought out open-ended questions or no questions at all. For example, one instructor has had great success without providing questions in his online discussions. Instead, he tells students the purpose of discussions and that they will find suggestions for these by listening to his podcast or video lecture for that unit.
Monitor. For equity, a best practice is to create a matrix of teacher-student interactions to track your response efforts over the course of the semester. Monitoring your discussion posts will curtail various biases and ensure consistency. I usually set up a spreadsheet to do this and include personal information shared in the ‘Getting Acquainted’ discussion to provide a more personalized context to my interactions with each student.
Roles. Provide structure and student agency to discussions by assigning roles (e.g., starter, responder, and wrapper) and rotating those roles during the course; my peer, Dr. Angela Rand at the University of South Alabama did her dissertation on this. I’ve encouraged instructors at my college to incorporate this. One instructor noted a major difference in learner engagement when using this practice; without it, she had the same student posting first and everyone else waiting to reply. Student-moderated discussions provide social presence to build an online community of inquiry (COI). See my blog post how to plan for an online COI.
Media. Our LMS, Schoology, has a discussion feature for audio or video recording to share responses besides via text. This provides both teaching presence and social presence to the online COI. Consider making some of your discussions media-based to provide variety and a different type of engagement than text-based ones. The exchange of media will close the psychological distance between you and your students.
Monitor. Schoology has a Student Completion option to monitor students’ completion of tasks (sequential or random). Once installed, instructors select the Student Progress tab to view task completion (view readings, visit links, submit assignments, post to discussions, & take a quiz). Students will see a green checkmark next to completed items. This is a passive learner engagement activity albeit a powerful one.
Groupwork. Student-led projects provide student agency in the design of their own learning. Provide the parameters, team roles (e.g., team leader/organizer, researcher, writer, & presenter), and peer evaluation forms to ensure everyone participates fully. Include expectations for group grade such as everyone provides proofreading of assignment prior to submission. Encourage student groups to set up their own ground rules for group meetings and task sharing. Monitor group work by asking to be added to the document workspace such as a shared Google folder.
Presentations. As for hybrid courses, maximize the face-to-face meeting by asking students to present their work to each other during seminar sessions in their level one courses. This is referred to as flipped learning when you use class time for student activities instead of teacher-centered activities. For fully online courses, students can share their media presentations (e.g., narrated PowerPoints saved as MP4 files, audio/podcast, or video projects) with other students in the Schoology Media Album. This tool allows students and teachers to provide feedback, as well as tags, titles, and captions.
Interactive products. Use premium ancillary interactive multimedia such as Cengage’s WebAssign for homework or supplant instruction with computer-adapted commercial products such as Pearson’s MyITLab. Take advantage of free educational technology such as EdPuzzle to engage learners while watching a video with questions to answer before preceding to the next segment; this tool provides the instructor with learner analytics. Use PeerWise to have students create questions on the topic of study for each other to answer; it’s also free.
How can students demonstrate mastery besides multiple-choice tests? These are still useful for testing recall. However, to engage the learner in higher order thinking skills, we should provide alternative assessments such as project-based learning, essays, portfolios, performance, products, and presentations. These do not need to be end-of-term projects. Formative assessments can be formal or informal (practice tests, digital exit tickets, & polls), which serve as comprehension checks during the course and subsequent student feedback. This is in contrast to summative assessments that test your cumulative knowledge on a topic at the end of the term. Formative assessments promote fairness by gathering evidence of students’ understanding throughout the course, which can be used to better inform/modify your instructional practices to meet students’ needs.
Mastery. Set tests for multiple attempts to help students achieve mastery. This triggers new learning and/or review of content, as student revisit content for answers.
Feedback & Guidance
Rubrics. Schoology provides blank rubrics for you to establish the criteria and scale for various tasks. For example, these can be attached to discussions and assignments. Rubrics provide consistency and speed with grading. The rubric feature on Schoology allows you to provide feedback at the criterion level and for overall performance. Additionally, you can tag your departmental student learning outcomes to these rubrics to help students understand why the task is important.
Scaffolded instructional feedback. Scaffolding instruction provides content in meaningful and manageable chunks of information. This entails providing visuals for structure, context, or direction and just-in-time definitions. For example, segment a lecture at viable points and ask reflective questions. For writing, break large tasks such as research papers into point-based phases of the writing process (e.g., outline, literature review with five citations, rough draft, & final paper). Design for tolerance for error by providing space to practice (e.g., mock interviews/comps/presentations, tutorials, & simulations).
Peer feedback. It is critical to provide guidelines and criteria for peer feedback tasks. For writing, assign a peer review of first draft papers utilizing MS Word tracked changes or Google Docs suggested edits. Access to the documents would be shared with the instructor for review. For media, use the Schoology Media Album. It will accept narrated PowerPoints if you save them as MP4 files.
Embedded librarian. Utilize the library liaisons in your course assignments. They can model the Socratic method of inquiry as a mentor. Your library liaison’s contact information should be included in the course’s Start Here folder along with pertinent information on access to the Library databases and digital literacy.
Evaluation of Course Design
Create a questionnaire to obtain course design feedback at midterm to determine any barriers and/or add additional questions to your student evaluations at the end of the term. For example, ask whether specific learning objects such as the narrated PowerPoints or audio files were helpful. Incorporate pertinent student feedback into small modifications during the term or redesign of your course for the following semester.
What are other ways to engage learners?
Based on my teaching experience, students come with vastly different skill sets. Provide students with strategies and tips on how to learn the content. Additionally, share bad examples of study habits that do not yield results for long-term memory (e.g., cramming for a test). Share how learning strategies build their brains’ schema on the topic and its relation to other subjects for long-term memory. See my Student Learning Organizer of Metacognitive Strategies on the Learning Strategies. It is shared with freshmen at my college. Also, see my list of cognitive strategies to share with students. The difference between metacognitive and cognitive being meta-awareness versus concreteness respectively. Most students are likely familiar with the structurally cognitive ones such as creating a concept map but not be familiar with the others.
How do you engage your students?
Sandra Rogers, Ph.D.
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