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Staying Present in Your Online Course

Being present in your remote course is key to keeping students engaged, leading to overall student success.  Here are a few ways to stay connected to your students and help them feel like part of your learning community.

Post regular announcements.

Post regular announcements to keep students informed and create an encouraging online environment. Being present doesn’t mean that you have to be online all the time. You can maintain regular contact with your students through weekly updates, video reminders, and full-class messages acknowledging students’ good work.

Provide an open discussion area.

Providing an open discussion area encourages connection for your students both to you and each other. Another way to build community is through an asynchronous discussion board.  This provides students a way to reach out to their classmates about topics that are not specifically related to a weekly topic or specific assignment.  For example, a student might use this discussion area to ask for help in finding resources for an assignment or to share details about a community event related to the course topic.

Create a Google Forms Survey to do a quick check-in throughout the term.

When asking for feedback, it’s important to ask questions about things you can change, and to respond to that feedback holistically. Two simple feedback questions that can be effective are: 

    • What is one thing your instructor could change to improve your learning in this course?
    • What is one thing YOU could change to improve your learning in this course?

Schedule an optional session in Zoom to do a live check in with your students.

Giving students the opportunity to meet with you in real time can help to build community in your course. Be sure to have some kind of interaction planned to keep students engaged.

Refresh Your Course for a New Term

This article outlines a few things you can do to make sure you’re ready for the new term.

Reflect on Past Terms

Before opening your course to students, take a moment to reflect on the last time you taught. How might you enhance your course for the upcoming term? Are there new teaching strategies you might like to explore? Here are a few articles about ways to level up your teaching.

Pre-Term Canvas Checklist

You may want to choose which courses to display on your Canvas dashboard. Each term’s new courses are displayed there automatically, but you can customize the display each time you log in.

You may need to copy course content and settings from a previous term into a new term to update the course for the new term without affecting the prior term’s course settings.

Along with updating due dates, you might make small or significant updates to content, discussions, quizzes, assignments, or even grades.

It’s also a great idea to review the academic calendar for the upcoming term. Take note of university closures and/or religious holidays that might impact your course plan.

Don’t forget to publish your course at the start of the term. Students can’t get into your Canvas course site if you haven’t published it!

This course design checklist outlines all of these and other important tasks to make sure your Canvas course is ready for students.

Prep Your Zoom Tech

Zoom, like most applications, runs best when you’re using the most up-to-date version.

If you use the Chrome or Firefox browser plugin to schedule Zoom meetings through Google Calendar, make sure the plugin is up to date.

If you’ve never used your Media Space account, be sure to log in at least once. This allows automatic copies of your Zoom meetings to be stored there.

If you’re holding scheduled Zoom meetings with your class, you may want to schedule your meetings from within Canvas. This will create Zoom meeting links for your course that students can access directly in Canvas.

Supporting Students Online

Online students can find it challenging to stay motivated and engaged in learning. Here are steps you can take when building online activities to help students make meaningful connections with you, their classmates, and the content.

Be present.

Encourage regular student/teacher communication and establish an encouraging online environment. You don’t have to be online all the time; you can maintain regular contact with students through weekly updates, video reminders, and full-class messages acknowledging students’ good work.

Be active.

Give examples and encourage peer-to-peer collaboration. A common misconception about online coursework is that students can’t collaborate. However, tools such as discussion forums, Google Hangout, and Google Docs make remote collaboration easy. When establishing collaborative activities, remember to define what you expect, including examples of the work you want them to produce. Examples help guide students and make them feel like you’re an active participant in the class.

Be clear.

Set expectations from day one, share course objectives, and keep a predictable schedule. Students feel more confident and are better able to focus on the meaningful work of the course if the logistics are in place early and throughout the course. It helps to have regular due dates and to attach learning objectives to major activities and assignments so students understand what they’re working toward.

Give regular feedback.

Help students set reasonable expectations for receiving feedback. For example, let students know you’ll post assignment updates on Fridays, or that you’ll comment on their work weekly. Not all feedback needs to be individual. Sometimes it’s appropriate to send tips and insights to the full class, such as in a summary email or announcement. However, when you want a specific student or group of students to revise an assignment, individual feedback is best.

Get regular feedback.

Provide a Q&A space, and ask students for feedback about the course with enough time to make adjustments. If the Q&A space is public, students can answer questions for each other and everyone can view the answers. This builds community and gives instructors and students the opportunity to connect. Ask for specific course feedback via a survey, brief questionnaire, or written reflection. Whatever the format, it helps to focus the reflection around specific course practices, assignments, or assessments so students know what kind of feedback you’re looking for. Request course feedback by about the fourth week so you have time to make any changes before the course is over.

Give deadlines.

Help students manage their schedules by giving deadlines and scaffolding assignments. Without the rhythm of attending class in-person regularly, online students can fall behind and feel disconnected from learning progress. Regular deadlines can help students establish effective learning habits and stay present and engaged. Due dates should follow a consistent pattern. For example, short homework sets could be due every Thursday, and discussion activities each Sunday. Scaffold larger assignments by breaking the work into smaller segments with staggered due dates. By reviewing work in smaller pieces, you can also give more targeted feedback that students can use to improve their work.

Give challenges.

Encourage students to attempt challenging work but allow space for students to make mistakes. Communicate high expectations and signal that you believe students can meet those expectations. Giving students opportunities to correct mistakes can motivate them to take learning risks. For example, allowing students to resubmit an exam or project communicates that their effort is part of a larger learning process.

Give choices.

Through Universal Design for Learning, instructors offer students choices in how they learn, engage and demonstrate their learning. Giving students choices about how they’ll meet course learning outcomes motivates them to engage in the work and doesn’t have to be more work for you. Choice can be as simple as allowing students to write an essay, make a video, or build a slideshow to demonstrate their understanding of the content.

Connect classroom learning to authentic practice.

Help students find connections between what they’re learning and their lives, prior knowledge, and real world experiences. Consider how you can shape assignments so students can apply concepts to the real world rather than just recall information. For example, you could bring in relevant news stories that connect to course concepts, or work with case studies. Similarly, make sure your students feel represented in the course. Reflect a diversity of identities, perspectives and expertise through your curricular choices.

Cultivating Student Motivation

Fostering Student Choice and Decision Making

Those who do the work do the learning. If this maxim is true, how can we structure our classrooms so students have the power to make important choices about their learning without creating unnecessary chaos? How can they do more of the work while still relying on us for guidance?

When we give students the opportunity to make decisions about their learning process, they are more likely to form deep connections and practice higher-level thinking skills. According to Deci and Ryan as cited in Stefanou et al. (2004), students need “autonomy, competence, and relatedness…in social contexts” (p. 98) to learn and achieve self-determination. Students must actively construct their learning within intentional, social contexts. Students who feel they have some freedom over their learning are more likely to set “realistic goals, [determine] appropriate actions that accomplish goals, and [assess] progress toward the goals” whereas students who feel powerless to make their own decisions “lack volitional strategies and behaviors” (p. 98).

Choice alone does not guarantee student motivation. Students need the freedom to make choices that relate to their own lives and clearly connect to their immediate goals. Motivation theorists Patall et al. (2010) explain:

... choice may only be effective when it successfully satisfies fundamental needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. As such, having choice or the act of selecting alone is not enough to support motivation. Rather, choices need to be relevant to students’ interests and goals, provide a moderate number of options of an intermediate level of complexity, and be congruent with other family and cultural values in order to effectively support motivation (p. 898).

Because the types of choices we present to students significantly affect their level of motivation, consider how students might contribute to the choices provided in your class. Perhaps you provide two or three choices with an option for students to create their own proof of learning with your approval, for example.

Promoting Student Autonomy in Your Class

When examining the structure of your course, how might you incorporate one or more of the following approaches to promote student autonomy and greater motivation? Your answer may depend on your goals for the class and how you want students to transfer knowledge from your course into other contexts. Don’t feel you need to redesign your whole course or use all these ideas. Try out one or two, then make adjustments.

  • Assignment and Assessment Choices: Students can demonstrate their learning through writing essays or reports, creating videos or podcasts, curating a portfolio, taking tests and quizzes, building models, giving presentations, etc. Provide a menu of choices for students to decide how they’d like to demonstrate their learning.
  • Student-created Tests, Rubrics, and Reflection questions: Students learn a lot from considering criteria to evaluate their work. Creating their own assessment criteria helps students think critically about the content they’re learning and how to illustrate that learning. Use student-created test questions, rubrics, or reflection questions when making your assessments.
  • Peer Teaching: Studies have shown that students retain less than 10% of what they hear during a lecture. By contrast, students retain 75% of what they learn by doing and 90% of the information they teach to others (Duderstadt, 2002, pp. 64–65).
    • Peer-to-Peer Teaching: when an expert student teaches a novice student. Peer tutors, teaching assistants, and mixed-skill cooperative learning groups are all examples of peer-to-peer teaching.
    • Peer Instruction: a “research-based teaching method that leverages the power of social interaction to drive learning” (Schell, 2013). Peer Instruction works best when students have been exposed to the content before class. Class time is spent clarifying the concepts through a seven-step process:
      1. Deliver a mini-lecture about an important concept.
      2. Pose a question.
      3. Give students time to think individually.
      4. Collect responses privately.
      5. Have students turn to a neighbor and try to convince them of their answer.
      6. Ask students to commit to a final answer, and collect those responses.
      7. Reveal the responses and the correct answer (if one exists), and facilitate a class-wide discussion about the answer and the reasoning behind it.
    • Jigsaw Teaching: a cooperative learning technique where each student studies one segment of the course content and teaches that segment to the other members of their peer group. The Jigsaw Classroom defines all ten steps.
  • Open Pedagogy: Open Pedagogy is the practice of teachers using Open Educational Resources (OER) and students completing openly shareable, non-disposable assignments. Non-disposable assignments live on beyond the course and can be used by others in the future. They have an authentic audience and purpose beyond meeting the requirements of the course.

Implementing Flipped Learning

What is a flipped classroom? Flipped Learning moves content delivery such as lectures, readings, and other forms of information to students’ individual learning spaces so classroom time is spent engaging with the material in more active, applied ways. Students come to class with at least an introduction to the concepts they can use in creative ways, with their peers and instructor there to support learning. This interactive class time may take the form of group work, experimentation, debate, project work, scenario analysis, in-class presentations, service-learning, problem solving, etc.

According to the Flipped Learning Network, The Four Pillars of FLIP are as follows:

  • Flexible Environment: Group work, individual study, and project-based learning are all supported in a flexible learning environment.
  • Learning Culture: Learner-centered, the flipped classroom includes students in the active construction of knowledge through active, applied practice using new skills and concepts.
  • Intentional Content: The instructor carefully selects content and curates it in text, video, and other formats “to maximize classroom time in order to adopt methods of student-centered, active learning strategies.”
  • Professional Educator: In a flipped classroom, the instructor is a reflective practitioner, examining their own practices with the aim to improve them. The instructor observes students at work in order to provide feedback and guide them toward greater understanding of the content.


Duderstadt, J. J., Atkins, D.E., Van Houweling, D. E., & Van Houweling, D. (2002). Higher Education in the Digital Age: Technology Issues and Strategies for American Colleges and Universities. American Council on Education. https://books.google.com/books?id=W_i6kquKzncC

Patall, E. A., Harris, C., & Wynn, S. R. (2010). The Effectiveness and Relative Importance of Choice in the Classroom. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(4), 896–915. https://www.immagic.com/eLibrary/ARCHIVES/GENERAL/JOURNALS/E101100P.pdf

Schell, J. (2013, August 26). The 6 most common questions about using Peer Instruction, answered. Turn to Your Neighbor. https://peerinstruction.wordpress.com/2013/08/26/the-6-most-common-questions-about-using-peer-instruction-answered/

Stefanou, C. R., Perencevich, K. C., DiCintio, M., & Turner, J. C. (2004). Supporting Autonomy in the Classroom: Ways Teachers Encourage Decision Making and Ownership. Educational Psychologist, 39(2), 97–110. https://stats.lib.pdx.edu/proxy.php?url=https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1207/s15326985ep3902_2?needAccess=true

Active Lecture and Discussion Techniques

Research has long found that students often don’t retain most lecture material. For example, Donald Bligh reported that when students were not quizzed until three weeks after a lecture, they retained less than 10 percent (1998, pp. 46–47). Even more problematic is evidence that while all students learn better in an active learning environment (a classroom that replaces lecture with discussion, group work, and other forms of student-centered interactivity), lectures favor students who are “white, male, and affluent” (Paul, 2015). The challenge to create an active lecture is really the challenge to help students connect with the material in a meaningful way so they remember it and can use it in future contexts.

Creating a successful, engaging lecture requires:

  • A plan: What specific objective do you want to meet during this lecture? How does this lecture build from past and into and future lectures?
  • Focus: What three to five points will help to break the objective into manageable concepts or skills? How is this lecture unique, breaking away from their reading and other learning materials?
  • Engagement: How can you transform your lecture from a passive experience to an active one for students? How might they participate in the lecture?
  • Visuals or props: Which images, videos, or physical specimens will help students connect with the material?
  • Breaks and check-ins: How much time will your lecture require with breaks for questions and check-in periods for understanding?

Activating Your Lectures

When planning your lectures, consider how you might incorporate one of these active learning strategies to help students make meaningful connections to the content:

  • Capture students’ attention: Use questions, stories, or problems to engage students in the lecture. If students perceive the topic as a problem to solve, a story they can relate to, or a question to find the answer to, they are more likely to pay attention.
  • Connect content to students’ experience: If students are able to relate course material to their lives or their community, they will be more likely to remember and transfer these concepts to future situations. Develop questions and scenarios that help students make these connections, or ask students to develop them as part of class participation.
  • Encourage participation: About every 10 to 20 minutes, when students’ minds will naturally begin to wander, build in ways for students to participate. Ask students to turn to each other and discuss, answer questions, or create models of what they’re learning in text or image form. Have them move around, go to the board, and create examples of what they’re learning. (Wiersma, 2012)
  • Flip your classroom: Instead of using class time for lecture, faculty teaching flipped classes engage students in active learning assignments during class sessions and assign lecture material for homework.

Creating Active Discussions

How can classroom discussions be focused, engaged, and productive? Finding relevant ways to encourage student engagement without it feeling like wasted time can sometimes be a challenge. These techniques can help organize effective discussions:

  • Assign roles: Sometimes discussion happens as a full class, but often it’s a good idea for students to work in pairs or small groups. This ensures that every student has an opportunity to fully engage with the course content. It also allows students who may not otherwise participate (such as introverts or students who are new to the subject matter) to connect with the content and their peers. An effective group size is no larger than four students, but it’s okay if groups are slightly larger as long as every student has a specific role to play in the group. Roles may include notetaker, presenter, researcher, timekeeper, facilitator, artist, mathematician, summarizer, Devil’s Advocate, etc. (Barkley et al., 2014, p. 52).
  • Use guiding questions: Keeping the objectives of your class session in mind, what open-ended questions might guide students to reaching the goals of the session so that discussion is a process of discovery for them? For example, if an objective in a Pacific Northwest geography class is to understand patterns of human migration to the west, a guiding question to help spark discussion might be, “What factors are currently motivating people to move to Portland?” Questions like this promote critical thinking and encourage curiosity, so that even if students don’t know fact-based answers to that question, they will be willing to explore possible answers as they seek out facts to shape their understanding.
  • Use liberating structures: Liberating Structures are highly structured activities that promote relational coordination and trust. Liberating Structures are especially useful to establish class cohesion and a positive learning climate. The website Liberating Structures provides a detailed explanation of what Liberating Structures are and how to use them in your classroom with small or large groups to encourage team decision-making and leadership.

Checking for Understanding

When using lecture or discussion in the classroom, it’s often difficult to tell what students have learned without testing them. Quick and easy formative assessments can gauge what students know without burdening you or them with a formal test. Edutopia’s Todd Finley outlined 53 techniques for engaging students during a lecture or class discussion while checking for understanding.


Barkley, E. F., Cross, K. P., & Major, C. H. (2014). Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. John Wiley & Sons. https://books.google.com/books?id=S82LAwAAQBAJ

Bligh, D. A. (1998). What’s the Use of Lectures?. United Kingdom: Intellect. https://www.google.com/books/edition/What_s_the_Use_of_Lectures/l-xxxqZXUU8C?hl=en&gbpv=0

Paul, A. M. (2015, September 13). Are College Lectures Unfair?. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/13/opinion/sunday/are-college-lectures-unfair.html

Wiersma, A. (2012, September 6). Crafting an Engaging Lecture. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/gradhacker/crafting-engaging-lecture

Engaging Students in Large Classes

Large classes pose unique challenges for instructors and students alike. Active, personalized learning is often best — but difficult in a large class. Structuring your course in specific ways can make a big difference in learning outcomes.

Communicate with Your Students

Introduce yourself and maintain regular contact. Even in a class of 100 or more, it’s possible to create a collegial atmosphere through regular communication between you and your students. Consider sending a weekly email or announcement with friendly reminders and updates, but also use it to share a bit about yourself. What do you love about the subject you’re teaching? What’s been in the news about your discipline lately? Share a picture of your dog or the last time you saw a hummingbird, and encourage your students to do the same. Give students a forum to share questions, ideas, and newsworthy information related to the course. Casual yet relevant communication helps students feel more connected to the course.

Give prompt feedback. To gauge what they know and how to adjust, students need regular feedback. This can be in-the-moment knowledge checks during class using clickers or other technology, weekly quizzes, or more qualitative feedback on written assignments. Whatever the format, feedback doesn’t have to be terribly time consuming. Students can even help — and learn in the process — by grading quizzes or commenting on student writing using your example as a model.

Communicate high expectations. Students tend to strive for the instructor’s expectations. To help motivate and engage, set high expectations but also tell students you believe all of them can meet those expectations given the right amount of focus and effort. Communicate your expectations clearly, and explain what part you will play in helping students reach their goals. This helps students feel supported, which also affects their willingness to achieve at the level you expect.

Build Community

Encourage contact between students and faculty. Ask questions and encourage students to do the same. Think of students’ questions as a gauge for how fast and in what direction the lecture should head. Move around the room so students at the back experience being close to the instructor. Set up a system for students to communicate with you outside of class via office hours, online Q&A forum, or email.

Develop reciprocity and collaboration among students. Students often find new and helpful ways to explain content when they can collaborate. Consider starting the term with permanent groups of five to 10 students as small, friendly communities within the larger class. This will help them connect in and out of class, study together, participate in in-class activities easily, and keep each other accountable — which is difficult for the instructor with a class larger than 40 or 50. You might assign each group a leader to regularly report progress, questions, and ideas.

Respect diverse talents and ways of learning. Students will come to your class with diverse experiences, expectations, and ways of learning. Rather than mold them to your way of teaching, create a flexible environment that helps students connect with the course material in their own way. This may mean giving them choices, asking them to help make decisions about the course, or giving them several ways to study or demonstrate understanding.

Focus Class Time on Student Learning

Engage in active learning. The more students do, the more they learn. You can help students apply course content in meaningful ways by using think, pair, share activities; short writing and discussion activities; and knowledge checks with clickers. Also, chances to go to the board or present information to the whole class will activate all students more.

Emphasize time on task. Time on task means the time students spend directly focusing on course content and practicing relevant skills. In a large class, any technique that helps keep students’ attention contributes to their time on task. That may mean using humor, taking breaks, using visual or auditory aids that serve as mnemonic devices, etc. Consider having students create visuals related to what they’re learning, which they could then share in class or online. Students are more likely to incorporate new information into what they already know if they are asked to create something that helps them make connections.

Building Community in Your Online Course

A community is a group of people who share a common purpose. In the context of an online course, a community includes not only students, but also the instructor(s) and, in many cases, experts from outside PSU. Establishing online community helps you and your students to:

  • Create meaningful learning experiences.
  • Answer larger questions beyond the scope of the class.
  • Increase student engagement and autonomy.
  • Have dialogues that support learning new skills and applying critical thinking.
  • Foster deeper learning connections.

To create and strengthen online community, build mechanisms into your course that encourage students to connect with you and each other. These can be technology features, collaborative teaching practices, or both.

Ideas for Building Online Community

Getting to Know Students

Understanding your students is crucial. An online course needs a meaningful place for students to share a bio and their interests in taking the class. Understanding their needs makes relevant and meaningful interaction easier.

Some ways you can get to know students:

Sharing Media

Encourage students to build their digital identity by sharing a piece of media — a photo, video, article, or sound clip. These PSU tools can help:

Seeking Help

Encourage students to develop a help-seeking strategy: Consider who your students go to for help and for answers to questions. As the instructor, you don’t have to be the only one. You could:

  • Invite a community expert to monitor a discussion forum for a week.
  • Have students help each other answer questions.

Supporting Choice

Allow for student choice in discussion forums or group work: Give students options in activities and/or assignments. Allow them to choose what’s most valuable and meaningful.

  • Each week, give students three topics to choose from — along with your guidelines and expectations for participation.

Setting Routine

The previous examples promote student autonomy and flexibility, key strategies in designing for adult learners — but routine is essential as well. For more engaging interactions and a feeling of inclusion, students need you to also supply:

  • Clear, simple, consistent expectations
  • Regular deadlines in a consistent, weekly format
  • Detailed instructions that outline involvement and collaboration

Digital Activities to Support Student Engagement

When educators think of the Internet as an extension of the classroom, the possibilities are endless. Strategic approaches to activity design can emphasize the learning possibilities of the Internet to increase student engagement both online and face-to-face.

Inhabiting digital spaces by engaging in and contributing to those spaces shifts our perspective from consumptive and numbing to thriving and generative. Hashtags, collaborative mind-mapping, social annotation, and digital field trips are just a few design strategies that help shift the way we think about engaging online.

Another way to increase engagement online is to create regular and meaningful touchpoints for students to interact with each other. For example, have students complete one large individual assignment that has components due every other week of the term. Then have them share each component with their peers in an online discussion forum to get and give feedback each step of the way. This strengthens the community of learners in the course and creates a spiral of actions that has built-in feedback loops for students to create an exemplary project. Be sure to give clear prompts for the kinds of feedback you expect students to give. Also share clear expectations that the forum is designed to create a community of learners through posts that offer new perspectives, encourage further discussion, demonstrate critical thinking, and/or model self-reflection.

Start Designing

Explore the following questions to inspire your activity designs and help you place students at the center of their learning.

  • How can this activity help students co-create knowledge?
  • How can what the students produce in the course activities and assessments be part of the content of the course?
  • How can you bring the students into the design of this activity early enough so the work becomes about students’ goals instead of exclusively the course outcomes?
  • How can this activity or assessment connect to a student’s personal experience and expertise, becoming meaningful and relevant to themselves or their professional practice?

By inviting students to become collaborators in the design of the course, educators can increase student motivation, foster discovery, and create environments for emergent learning. Lifelong learning develops by engaging students in thinking meaningfully and deliberately, and then co-creating their learning experiences.

Sample Activities

Here’s a small sample of possible activities to support student engagement. You can adapt the underlying ideas of most for both online and face-to-face courses. You can find many more by speaking with colleagues, exploring online teaching forums and repositories, and chatting with OAI. Remember to consider your learning outcomes, your own expertise with web technologies, and the previous questions.

Have Students Design Assignments

You can provide assignment choices or ask students to collaboratively come up with course assignments that feel relevant and motivating. By asking students to examine the course outcomes that interest them the most, you can make crafting a set of assignments and activities to meet that outcome an assignment in itself.

Jigsaw the Content

The jigsaw method has many components.

At base level, students form teams. Each student in a team is assigned a different task or area of study. Students then find ways to obtain the needed expertise.

Next, they break out into temporary expert groups with students from the other teams who have been assigned the same role or purpose. At that point, students study, learn, rehearse, question, negotiate, and share content with other members of their expert group.

At some point, students move back to their home teams and share their new knowledge. You could assign an ending quiz, presentation, game, or some other type of capstone event to summarize learning.

Build a Portfolio

Create an assignment durable enough to be portfolio-worthy and appropriate to the field of study. You could ask students to:

  • Create a professional Twitter account, which can help them grow their personal learning and professional network.
  • Interview a celebrity in their field or research current trends and build a curated digital newsfeed.
  • Write a blog of their learning process in the course. What concepts have direct application to their current practice, personal commitments, relevant interests, or professional pursuits?

Curate Course Content

After week five, consider assigning students to:

  • Find relevant scholarly articles to review and share as homework for the rest of the class.
  • Write portions of an emerging textbook for the class.
  • Write the introduction to an anthology of classic works, or curate a set of scientific articles and write introductions for them.
  • Find an article, website, or interactive media example relevant to the course content to assign for reading or viewing and lead a discussion surrounding it.
  • Create interactive online exhibits.
  • Have students study a media news feed for a particular topic, population and content area. This could include analyzing trends to understand their relevance.

Collaboratively Annotate

Invite your students to annotate in specific ways. For example:

  • Questioning: Have students highlight, tag, and annotate words or passages they find confusing.
  • Close reading: Have students identify formal textual elements and broader social and historical contexts at work in specific passages.
  • Gloss: Have students look up difficult words or unknown allusions in a text and share their research as annotations.
  • Rhetorical analysis: Have students mark and explain the use of rhetorical strategies in online articles or essays.
  • Opinion: Have students share their personal opinions on a controversial topic as discussed by an article.
  • Multimedia: Have students annotate with images and video or integrate images and video into other types of annotations.
  • Independent study: Have students explore the Internet on their own with some limited direction (find an article from a respectable source on a topic important to you personally), exercising traditional literacy skills (define difficult words, identify persuasive strategies, etc.).
  • Bibliography: Have students research a topic or theme and tag and annotate relevant texts across the Internet.

Tell Digital Stories

Invite students to create a multimedia-rich, digital narrative to enhance or extend course concepts.

  • Word-cloud interactions: Use them to crowdsource student interest, preference or understanding. A word cloud can also:
    • Highlight key themes and common vocabulary used in the course or some section of it, prompting students to look up any unfamiliar words before fully participating.
    • Introduce new and important terms before a class assignment or lecture.
  • A day in the life of a scientist, scholar or celebrity: Research a celebrity in your field and write a story of their typical day by examining their digital identity. Take on their role in an online discussion.
  • Micro-blogging course discussions: Create a course hashtag and conduct discussion beyond the LMS using Twitter. 140 characters forces students to think and connect in different ways.
  • Visualizing course concepts: Turn a paper into an infographic, storyboard, timeline, or mini-videos.

Create Thriving Online Discussions

Online discussion is a mainstay of online courses, and for good reason. Compared to face-to-face communication, online discussion has many benefits for adult learners, especially in flexibility of time and location. Importantly, its benefits extend to students in face-to-face and hybrid courses.

  • You and your students can enter, leave, and re-enter the conversation as time allows.
  • Students have time to reflect on what they want to convey before they post.
  • The conversation has a durable record, which you and your students can review throughout the course.

However, poor participation in online discussions has been identified as the biggest and most frustrating challenge for faculty who teach online (Hew & Cheung, 2012). Poor participation includes:

  • Posting few or no messages
  • Posting questions or messages unrelated to the topic or not appropriate for a full class discussion
  • Demonstrating superficial or surface-level critical thinking or understanding

Ask Good Questions

The questions posed have a large impact on how students participate. Questions that have only one or a few answers, or that can be answered with little more than memorized facts, will limit student contributions and peer interactions as well as hinder higher level thinking. For example, consider the following discussion prompt:

After reading textbook chapter 5, please describe challenges that social workers face due to social climate, economic changes, and political environment.

Once a few students have responded to the question, it’s likely that all potential answers will have been given. The rest of the students will have little to add without being repetitive. Also, fact-recall questions don’t help students identify their own knowledge gaps, explore multiple perspectives, or negotiate content meaning.

Use Open-Ended Questions

Open-ended questions — with many possible answers, or no single correct answer — can offer more extensive discussion opportunities. For example:

  • How do you perceive that plan as adequate to the problem?
  • Why do you think so?
  • Where might that plan derail?
  • What other plans are possible?

Questions that invite students to share their own point of view from their personal and/or work life also generate multiple perspectives. For example:

Reflect on an article, present examples that illustrate the point of the article, and explain why these examples were relevant by sharing your own opinions.

By sharing personal experiences and ideas, students can create a community where they can learn from one another, expanding their ideas through the experiences of others (Curry & Cook, 2014). The best questions allow learners to integrate their knowledge and comprehension of concepts and apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate them in real-world scenarios that reflect Bloom’s Taxonomy of critical thinking.

Use MANIC Questions

Curry and Cook outline an approach to discussion questions to promote deeper student interaction — not only with course content, but also with each other. Implementing MANIC strategy is straightforward. For each reading (or combination of readings, depending what the instructor chooses), students answer:

  • What was the Most important thing in the reading?
  • What was something you Agree with in the reading?
  • What was something you do Not agree with in the reading?
  • What was something you found Interesting in the reading?
  • What was something you found Confusing in the reading?

Students should quote directly from the text and give a detailed explanation. For each week’s assigned readings or videos, students are required to complete two tasks:

  • Their own MANIC responses (and they must answer all five questions to get credit)
  • At least five meaningful responses to their classmates (You can change the number of required responses at your discretion.)

Students post their MANIC responses and reply to others as a way to keep a conversation going, which allows them to interact with each other and course texts. Curry and Cook recommend these tips for implementing MANIC:


  • Provide an example.
  • Explain expectations.
  • Participate heavily.


  • Assume students understand the strategy.

Share Your Expectations

Another factor contributing to poor participation is unclear expectations. Without clear expectations, learners may not feel the need to participate. They may have difficulty understanding where to submit, how much they are expected to contribute, or what their messages should look like.

You can set several sorts of expectations to support student participation:

  • How much online discussion participation counts toward the final grade
  • What constitutes appropriate netiquette
  • How you will interact with students in discussions
  • Where to submit posts
  • When initial discussion posts are due
  • Number of interactions within other learners’ posts
  • When interactions in discussion are due
  • Expectations for quality of discussion posts

A rubric can help make many of these expectations explicit and transparent. The University of Wisconsin-Stout’s discussion rubric defines expectations about student participation in the learning community, netiquette in dialogue with peers, quality of writing and proofreading, and how understanding of readings and outside references will be evaluated.
Along with a rubric, providing examples can help clarify expectations. For example, some instructors inform students that messages like “agree” or “great” do not qualify as a sufficient contribution. Depending on course learning objectives and teaching strategies, the criteria for quality of discussion posts may include demonstrating an understanding of the topic through critical thinking, higher-order thinking and uniqueness of contribution.

Finally, to increase interactions among learners, many instructors ask students not only to post comments to the discussion questions but also to respond to one or two other students. If you employ this method, make sure you assign different due dates for initial posts and peer-to-peer interactions. This will help prevent learners posting on the last day of discussion, giving them no time to interact with each other.


Curry, J. & Cook, J. (2014). Facilitating online discussions at a MANIC pace: A new strategy for an old problem. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 15(3), 1–12. http://stats.lib.pdx.edu/proxy.php?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=99851956&site=ehost-live

Hew, K. & Cheung, W. (2012). Student Participation in Online Discussions. Springer. https://books.google.com/books?id=oO8h4IWr_UQC