“There are three responses to a piece of design – yes, no, and WOW!  Wow is the one to aim for.”

– Milton Glaser

This is Part 2 of a 3-part series on enhancing student engagement.

In Part 1 of this series, we focused on humanizing online courses through our role as the teacher.  In Part 2 we will put on our learning experience designer hat and focus on how to build engagement into an online course by design.

According to a recent study, published in the OLC’s journal, Online Learning, well over 80% of our students believe that a well-prepared and well-structured course enhances their odds of success.  Courses that incorporate video amplify that belief even further.

Let’s look at the key ways we can use course layout and structure to draw students into the learning experience:

5.  Build Launch Pads to Help Your Students Soar:

Curiosity is a powerful tool.  If you can find ways to make your students curious about a topic, they will do the rest.  What can you do to excite your students about what they will be learning this week?  Can you trigger a sense of awe and wonder?  Connect the topic to an important current event?  Show them how the material will impact their future? 

Here is an excerpt from one of my Launch Pads to get your creative juices flowing:

“What are you made of?  Your first thought might be water, muscles, or even something fun like ‘sugar and spice.’  What if I told you that 1 type of cell makes up almost 70% of your body?  It’s not nerves, bone, or fat.  It’s not even muscle.  Humans are made up of around 37 trillion cells, and 25 trillion of these are red blood cells!  Contrast that with the fact that you are way less than 1% muscle (from a cell count standpoint).  Come with me to learn more…”

Now that I have captured their attention, we are ready to roll.  What can you do to launch your students into the content next week?

Bonus Tip: 

Turn your launch pad into a video to let your passion for the material “rub off’ on your students.  Your enthusiasm can drive student success. 

6.  Video is the Answer. What was the Question?

I genuinely believe that I owe all of my success as an online teacher to the power of video.  Today’s students expect a more interactive, engaging experience; one that helps them connect with you and the course content.  Video is the easiest way for me to inspire, empower, and engage my students in a way that makes them more likely to show up ready and willing to learn.

I have created more than 900 videos, but I started with 1. A video welcoming your students to the course is your chance to make a first impression and to share your expectations and hopes for them in your course.   Begin each week with a short video that motivates as much as it educates.  Use video to answer the tough questions and teach the tough concepts.  And most importantly, have fun!

Check out this video if you need an extra nudge to overcome your fears about making videos:

Bonus Tip: 

Make a video any time a written message could be taken the wrong way.  This will allow you to keep the tone of your message caring and supportive when you are talking about issues like late work policies and cheating.  Tough love is so much more effective when students see the love while you are being tough.  This is a perfect addition to the syllabus or course introduction.

Access the slides from my presentation titled “7 Ways Video can Enhance the Student Experience” here:

7.  Save the best for FIRST:

You don’t have 16 weeks to engage with your online students.  You have 1 week, maybe 2, before they will disengage and view your course as just another box to check.  Sadly, this is what many students have come to expect with their online courses.  The bar is set tragically low, so you have to let them know right out of the gate that your course will be different. 

Set the tone as early as possible.  If you want engagement, you need to be engaging.  If you want a high energy class, you need to “bring it” yourself.  Your enthusiasm can absolutely drive student success.  The students will notice, and respond, very quickly.

Get the ball rolling before the class has even begun.  I like to call my process Week 0 (some of you might call this ‘Start Here’).  My goal during Week 0 is to get my students comfortable and excited about the semester.  Here are some of the things I will use the week before classes being:

  •  Course welcome video
  • The course syllabus
  • Course navigation video
  • Information on how to be a successful college student

I focus on reaching my students in Week 0 so I can focus on teaching them in Week 1.  Students will then know that I take my job, and their learning, seriously before the class even begins. 

Bonus Tip: 

Building an organized course shell is not enough.  Teach your students the best way to use it.  Use walkthroughs and screenshots to show them the well-groomed path to the front door that you have made for them.  Don’t let them climb in the back window. 

Here is an example of how I walk the students through a part of the course that used to lead to a lot of confusion (and emails):

8.  Can You Create an Engaging Syllabus?

I used to have a serious problem in all of my courses.  I worked hard to humanize my classes, connect with my students, and share my passion for science every single day of the semester.  Well, actually, every day but one.  I would spend the first day of class going over a syllabus full of rules and punishments that looked like a cross between a life insurance policy and terms of service agreement.  First impressions are too important to waste on a syllabus like this

What words would your students use to describe you after reading your syllabus?  Would they use words like know, like, and trust?  Or, would you hear words like boring, scary, and strict?  How can you use your syllabus to connect with your students?  In what ways can you let your personality shine through?  Can a student tell that you care about them after they read it

Can you organize your syllabus so it is a resource that students will actually want to refer back to?  Can you move some of the content out of the syllabus and put it in a resource section in your course shell?  Can you add images, quotes, or a short video about your teaching philosophy?

Be creative.  Invite your students to help with the process.  Do your best to make it as friendly and welcoming as you are. 

Check out this awesome Syllabus tour from CheloniaGirl on Twitter:

Bonus Tip: 

A syllabus walkthrough video may be the best solution if you are forced to use a syllabus template that limits your freedom of expression.  This will allow you to remind students that your syllabus bark is much worse than your bite.

Final Thoughts:

These 4 design tactics can make your courses feel more inviting and instantly improve student engagement.  Give them a try and you will never look back.

What else have you tried that works?  How have you designed student engagement into your online courses?  Feel free to share your ideas by commenting below.

In Part 3, we will focus on how we can create engaging online courses by making our students the center of attention.

Don’t leave before checking out Part 1 and Part 3 of the 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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