The basics of building engagement and motivation for learning online

The fundamentals of effective course development and communication when teaching predominantly online, shared by Hasti Abbasi

Hasti Abbasi 's avatar
La Trobe University
10 Jan 2023
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Advice for teaching online

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How to communicate your online teaching structure to students – and why it matters
Communicate your online teaching structure to students before the course starts

Instructors’ course design and communication strategies are instrumental factors in students’ performance and learning outcomes in predominantly online courses. When teaching online, instructors need to develop effective communication techniques that are grounded in pedagogy and build strong digital connections.

Here, I share recommendations for how to establish a strong online teaching presence through effective course design and communication: 

Flipped learning 

Flipped learning, which reverses the traditional structure of listening to a teacher introduce a topic in class and then completing homework activities at home, works well with an online or blended learning model. Students in flipped classes engage in preparatory activities that may include reading, watching videos or micro-lectures, or completing pre-class tasks independently at home before attending a live face-to-face session. The live session is active and learner-centred, with class time used for collaborative work, projects, problem-solving, discussion, peer and teacher feedback, and activities that increase social learning.

Authentic assessment 

Integrate characteristics of authentic assessment in the learning activities that are introduced in the class. This means designing tasks that reflect real-life settings beyond the educational environment. These could include critical investigation of a project; case studies that require students to apply their skills in real-world settings; the use of the think-pair-share technique to allow students to identify a problem and share and discuss solutions; project-based activities; role play; and group discussions around a real-world issue or challenge. Make it clear to students that being more actively involved in the learning process will help them acquire and practise skills they will need to succeed in contexts after university. Performance-based activities that enable students to demonstrate knowledge and skills required in the workplace, for instance, may encourage attendance and engagement. 

Clear learning outcomes

Ensure that the course learning outcomes or goals are effective, explicit and purposeful, and that learning activities during lectures or tutorials are developed in alignment with these outcomes. For example, if learning outcomes include the ability to think critically and work well in groups, consider what skills students will need to develop during the course to successfully achieve these. Introduce student-centred activities that allow a level of independence, matched to each stage of the course, and that support the development of critical thinking. For example, small groups of students could be asked to find creative solutions to an industry-based problem. They could be guided in using project management tools, assigning roles and brainstorming together. Students can present their findings using PowerPoint, infographics, Padlet or screen casting and get feedback from their peers. Explain the importance of attending live class sessions in helping the students to develop and refine the skills and knowledge needed to achieve the learning outcomes and perform well in the assessments.

Quality lectures 

Deliver engaging lectures that promote dialogue between instructor and students, regularly check students’ comprehension and allow them to ask questions about the content. Lectures are more engaging when delivered in chunks so students can organise their ideas into categories, then complete related activities in order to apply what they have just learned. This provides an opportunity to ask questions and share ideas. Use engagement-boosting tools, such as Mentimeter, Padlet, Kahoot! or Diigo, to test students’ understanding of a topic in real time or encourage ideas sharing. These interactive and participatory elements will help develop strong teacher-student and student-student relationships and enhance students’ sense of belonging and connection when they are not physically together. Unpack or provide explanations about assessment tasks in the class and the relevance of class discussion and activities to these assessments. This may incentivise more students to attend the class.

Regular communication 

Post clear weekly announcements about that week’s teaching to build your presence online. These regular messages maintain student engagement, build rapport and keep students aware of what is required of them. If possible, stick with sequential and well-organised announcements through each week. Label the announcements with clear, informative titles so students can process the key information at a glance. 

Learning resources 

Provide students with relevant resources about the lecture topics, exams, quizzes and assessments. These resources could include textbooks, recordings, videos, e-learning tools, presentations from experts in the field, speeches, examples of industry problems and solutions or exemplary assessment submissions. This is remarkably effective in targeting individual students’ educational challenges and questions because it gives them access to suitable resources that they can work through in their own time. The educator’s role is no longer as just an information provider but they become a facilitator who equips students to be more independent learners. 


Improve teacher presence and student engagement with video announcements, instructional videos, informal video wrap-ups or pre-lecture videos. Videos can introduce important concepts, reduce cognitive load, address main questions and increase engagement in the online lectures. Apply multimedia principles when creating videos and presenting the material to avoid creating unnecessary cognitive load for students or a one-way transfer of information.

Orderly course structure 

Use weekly modules to arrange course content in a logical, orderly way. Provide students with a road map about the weekly modules with clear explanations of how and why the teaching and learning activities are connected. For example, construct your weekly topics in module pages that are clearly signposted as lectures and tutorials, both of which have subpages about lecture objectives, video preparation, reading lists, lecture slides, tutorial objectives, preparation, tutorial activities and links to discussion boards. This enables you to weave a narrative into the course structure, building emotional connection to the material and, in turn, better student performance. 

Social learning 

Provide space for peer-to-peer and student-teacher interactions through online discussion boards and forums. This enables students to interact, collaborate and exchange ideas and knowledge on different course topics and thus enhance their learning. By building in opportunities for reflection and collaborative learning, educators will receive fewer individual questions about common issues as these can be addressed on the discussion boards or forums. Students can exchange questions or ideas with peers rather than emailing their lecturer every time they are unsure about something. Rich and robust discussions enable students to become a part of a vibrant learning community in which they can actively participate to share their own and hear others’ learning experiences and perspectives. 

Hasti Abbasi is a senior educational development adviser in education services at La Trobe University.

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