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 see the 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 see themselves represented in the course. Reflect a diversity of identities, perspectives and expertise through your curricular choices.

Need More Help?

We'd love to hear from you. Full-service remote support is available to all PSU instructors through the Office of Academic Innovation. Contact the virtual Faculty Support Desk, Monday through Friday, 9am to 5pm.

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