“Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them become what they are capable of becoming.”

– Johann Wolfgang van Goether

This is Part 3 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 focused on how to build engagement into an online course by design.  In Part 3 we will shift our focus to what truly matters:  the students.

Student agency is a trendy buzzword in education circles for good reason.  Simply put, you give students agency if you let them have voices and choices in your online courses (say that three times fast).  By giving students a sense of control, you can increase their motivation to learn and allow them to show mastery of the content in a way that is more suited to them as an individual.

Here are the four strategies that I use to give students ownership, and the responsibility that comes along with it:

9.  Make your students famous:

“Talk to someone about themselves, and they’ll listen for hours.”  This quote, from Dale Carnegie, speaks volumes about the power of shining the spotlight on your students.  Students are much more willing to listen to us if they know that we are listening to them and value what they have to say.

The goal of our courses is not to show students how smart we are.  It is to show them that they are intelligent and capable of doing great work.  My favorite way to do this is by sharing a piece of student work with the class each week. 

I first got this idea when an international student shared a very personal story on a discussion assignment about healthcare in the developing world.  I shared the story via email (after receiving permission) because I knew that a lot of his fellow classmates would miss it.  The response was amazing.  5 students reached out to me with words of encouragement for their classmate.  The student was extremely grateful, and It felt like the mood of the discussion board changed after that.  Students were much more willing to open up, and the quality of the submissions improved for the rest of the course.

I quickly noticed a side benefit to this as well.  Students had a lot fewer questions about what I expected from them.  Sharing examples of quality work helps students far better than a rubric ever could.

Bonus Tip: 

Let students vote for their favorite discussion post (or blog) contributor at the end of the course.  Give the winner a few extra credit points.  This shows the students that you want them to take it seriously.  A little bit of competition can also go a long way to intrinsically motivate your students.

10.  Consider the Source:

If you want to know the best way to engage your students you should start by asking them.  I begin my courses with a survey.  Many LMS’s will allow you to “lock” the course until the survey is completed.

Here are some of the questions that I ask my students: 

  • What are the top 3 things that I can do to exceed your expectations in this class and help you learn as much as possible?
  • What is the primary way that you want to hear from me throughout the course (announcements, email, text)?
  • If this is your first online class: Are you excited to try an online class?  What is your biggest concern?  What can I do to guide you through this class?  What do you expect from your classmates?  I want to deal with any of your concerns right away so that we can get down to the business of learning anatomy
  • If you have taken an online class: What advice would you offer to a student that has never taken an online course?  What do you wish you had known before taking online courses in the past?  Share some advice for the students that are new to online education.

Bonus Tip: 

Flip the script.  Ask your students to think about how they are going to succeed.  Start here: 

  • What are the top 3 things that you are going to do to get the most out of this class?
  • How much time are you willing to commit to this course to be successful?
  • Have you read the course syllabus? Do you understand what is required of you?

11.  Give Students a Choice:

I loved to read choose your own adventure books as a child.  I was much more engrossed in the story because I was more than a passive observer.  In some ways, I was the star of the show. 

Students are much more likely to connect with the content if you give them a sense of agency and ownership.  The easiest way to do this is to provide them with choices.  The moment a student chooses how they are going to learn (and share that learning) you have created an environment where engagement is almost a given.

How can you use choice to draw your students into an assignment?  How many paths can they take to the same learning objective?  Let them choose from multiple assignments, discussion topics, and submission methods.  They will be much less likely to complain about the journey if they help to decide the destination.

Bonus Tip: 

Use this as a way to test out new assignment types that you usually wouldn’t “force” all of your students to complete.  This is how I first added video submissions and more expensive lab kits to my online courses without making them a requirement. 

12.  Don’t Let them Freak Out:

The most potent engagement tool that you have as an online teacher is the ability to keep students from disengaging in the first place.  Hope is such a powerful predictor of academic success.  Where can you find places to throw your students a “hope preserver” before they even know that they need it? 

The first place that I intervene is on day 3 of my courses.  Students have seen enough to know that they are in for a busy semester.  They now know that my classes are challenging.  Here is the script I use when I “pop in” to show them that they can manage the workload by teaching them my time management math:

“I know that there is a lot to do in this course, but I want to help you put it in perspective:

There are 168 hours in a week

If you sleep for 8 hours every night (56 hours) and work 40 hours, there are still 72 hours left.  If you spend just 10% of that time (7.2 hours), you will be able to consume the entire “feast” that I have laid out for you.  Here is what a sample week should look like:

  • Spend 30 minutes planning for each week and going over the Launch Pad material
  • Spend 30 minutes per week working on your weekly discussion
  • Spend 2 hours per week working on lab activities and lab quizzes
  • Spend 1 hour a week learning from (and taking notes) on your content review videos
  • Spend 1 hour a week working on case studies and lab simulations
  • Spend 1 1/2 – 2 hours per week studying and preparing for exams in whatever way works best for you

Voila!  There you have it!  You are on the path to success as a student.

Let me know how I can help.

Dr. O”

A message like this has the power to keep a student from throwing up their hands and giving up before they ever gave themselves a chance to succeed.  What message do your students need to hear to do the same?

Check out this video for more information about how I help my students with time management:

Bonus Tip: 

Time the release of any information that will have a positive impact on students grades the same way.  Pick a time when students are potentially disappointed about their progress to let them know that you offer extra credit, allow for test corrections, or throw out the lowest assignment score (if applicable).  Highlighting this kind of information at the moment a student needs it will have a much larger impact than making it one of 40 things you mention on your course syllabus.  Your empathy will not go unnoticed.

Final Thoughts:

Shining the spotlight on your students with tactics like these can empower them to take their learning to the next level.  Your students will feel much more connected to your courses once they see that you are listening to them and value their thoughts and abilities. 

What else have you tried that works?  What do you do to make your students feel like a partner in their learning?  Feel free to share your ideas by commenting below.

I hope that you see how the ideas covered in this series will allow you to:  

  • Form deeper connections with your students
  • Design epic learning experiences
  • Turn passive students into lifelong learners

Every journey begins with a single step.  Start now, pick an idea to focus on first, and choose your own adventure.

Don’t leave before checking out Part 1 and Part 2 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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