“Teachers who inspire know that teaching is like cultivating a garden, and those who would have nothing to do with thorns must never attempt to gather flowers.”

– Anonymous

Enhancing your student engagement strategy can have a powerful impact on your courses, and the students who take them.  Engaged students are more motivated to learn the content, perform better in your courses, and are more satisfied with their overall course experience.  The downstream effects include the improvements in retention and completion that our institutions require to survive.

This 3-part blog series will focus on fostering student engagement as a teacher (Part 1), a course designer (Part 2), and a student guide (Part 3).  These 12 tactics are the foundation of an extremely effective student engagement strategy.  To demonstrate this, I was able to score 62 points (out of a possible 70) on the Online Learning Consortium’s QCTIP:  Student Engagement Quality Scorecard using only the 12 items outlined here.

Part 1 will focus on how to interact with students in a way that makes connection and engagement a given:

1.  You Set the Pace:

Why do we think we can hold our students to a higher standard than we hold ourselves?  Why would students be engaged in a class when we as teachers are (or feel) distant?  How could students stay engaged when they feel isolated and alone? What can we do to make our classes memorable?

As a veteran online instructor, my goal in every course I teach is to make it unforgettable. My students are no longer “trapped” in my lecture hall; I have to draw them in and earn their attention.  I work very hard to engage students with my lectures, assignments, and assessments; and keep them in the know of what is expected of them at all times.  I try to build the following connection points into my courses each week:

  • Weekly video announcements
  • Engaging presence in the discussion board multiple times a week
  • Email the class: when the gradebook has been updated, with a weekly discussion board roundup, and with at least one extra piece of content related to the current unit
  • Give personalized and meaningful feedback on lab assignments

It is my personal belief that when the students continually see me working in, and on, my courses they are motivated to keep the pace.

Bonus Tip:

Creating your own audio and video content will take student engagement to the next level.  It is nearly impossible for a student to feel disconnected to you as their instructor if they see or hear you every time they open your course to learn.

2.  Make it Personal:

In a world full of automation and bots, a little bit of personal touch goes a very long way.  Be the real, approachable, and positive influence that your students need.  Let them into your life.  Talk about your family and your hobbies.  Try to learn things about them that have nothing to do with class.  Learn how to pronounce their names.  Share motivational quotes, productivity tips, and stress relief strategies that show them that you want the best for them. 

Here is my favorite example of how I let my students into my world:

Any concern that a student had about me being unapproachable or challenging to work with evaporates the moment they hit play.  I am not a teaching robot on the other side of a computer screen.  I am a dad, a goofball, and a real live human being that wants to be alongside them on their educational journey.

What steps can you take today to let your student into your world?

Bonus tip: 

Find ways to improve upon the standard Week 1 personal introduction.  Use an Ice-breaker to draw students into the conversation.  Get them talking about their motivation to succeed in school.  Ask each student to create a short video bio to foster community.  This has the added bonus of teaching the students how to use the discussion tools in your LMS.  Kudos if you send each student a personal reply.  Use tools like VoiceThread, Flipgrid, Fold, and NameCoach to connect in as many ways as you can.  This is not always easy, but it is definitely worth it.

3.  Let Your Geek-Flag Fly:

I had to learn how to teach, but I was born to learn.  I have been completely obsessed with learning about the human body (and the world that we live in) since my parents gave me a microscope when I was 9.  There was a short detour where my focus was learning the Klingon language, but my wife doesn’t like when I bring that up (Sorry Liz).  I am a voracious reader.  I am always turning our kitchen into a science lab.  I don’t have an off switch. 

Do you practice what you preach?  You can’t get your students fired up about a topic if you don’t spark the blaze.  Show your students that you truly care about the content and they will be much more likely to come along for the ride.  Find great articles studies, or simulations to share with your students.  When you finish a good book about your subject matter tell the students about it and give them a quick overview.  Encourage them to continue learning outside of your classroom.  When you find a YouTube video or podcast that teaches you something interesting about your course content, pass it on to your students.  That kind of excitement about a topic can be completely contagious. 

Love your content.  Love your students.  Love connecting the 2.  Add a gallon of coffee and a dash of bad jokes, and you, my friend, will be an excellent online teacher.

Bonus Tip: 

Setup a Facebook Page or Twitter hashtag to share with your students.  This will foster a sense of community and allow them to keep finding your content after the course has ended.  

Feel free to use my GrowGrayMatter Facebook Page for inspiration.

4.  Compassion as an Engagement Tool:

Becoming a father has changed everything about how I teach.  When I look at my students, I now see that each and every one of them is someone’s Oliver O’Neill.  I can’t help but care more for them now. Raising my son has also taught me about the power of connecting with students by erring on the side of trust.

The work that we do matters, but I hope that the way we do it matters more.  Our students need us to be role models more than they need us to be critics.  When a student slips up, we have two choices.  We can kick them while they are down or we can hold out our hand to help them back up.  I feel like the latter is the only way that we can leave room in our courses for struggling students to amaze us. 

What can you do to show your students that you are firm, yet flexible?  Can you add some compassion in your email communication with students that reach out to you for help?  Do your students know that they can reach out to you if something outside of your course is making it hard to succeed?  Find a way to put a virtual hand on a struggling students’ shoulder, and you just might transform how they look at you and your course.

Sharpen your number 2 pencils.  It’s Quiz Time!

1.  A student sends you this email.  How do you respond?

“Hello Prof.  I am sorry for reaching out, but my daughter has been sick so I missed the submission deadline on this week’s lab assignment.  Do you accept late work?”

Choose the best response:

A.)  I wouldn’t send a response because it’s in the syllabus

B.)  “It’s in the syllabus”

C.)  “My name is not Prof! It is Professor X.  And it’s in the syllabus”

D.)  “First, never apologize for reaching out to me when you have questions. It is my job to help when I can.  I am so sorry to hear about your daughter.  I hope that she gets feeling better soon.  Here is the late work policy from the course syllabus (insert late work policy).  I am much more interested in what you learn than exactly when you learn it, so you can still receive partial credit if you submit your work by Wednesday”

Choose right, and you have made a student see that you are a guide at their side.  They are much more likely to connect with you and your course.  Choose wrong, and you are now seen as an obstacle to overcome.  You may still be able to teach this student, but good luck ever “reaching” them. 

Does this take effort?  Yes.  Will you occasionally get burned?  Absolutely.  Don’t let your students walk all over you.  But, when in doubt, choose compassion over condemnation

Bonus Tip: 

Don’t react; Respond.  The trust that a student gives you is a very fragile thing.  Don’t destroy it with a single act.  Tell your students what they need to hear, but do it in a way that preserves your relationship.  Be especially careful when dealing with difficult situations if you are HALT (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired). 

Final Thoughts:

These 4 tactics have the power to transform how your students view you and your courses.  But they are not the only ways to engage your students.  What have you used to increase student engagement in your online courses?  Feel free to share your ideas by commenting below.

In Part 2, we will focus on how we can use course design as a student engagement tool.

Don’t leave before checking out Part 1 and Part 3 of this series! 

I want to hear from you.  Feel free to:

  • Leave a comment below.  I will personally reply to each one
  • Tag me @GrowGrayMatter on Twitter or LinkedIn to move the discussion to my favorite social media channels
  • Send me a message through the contact form on the bottom of the About page

Crush it!

Dr. O


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