Boosting student engagement in an online learning environment

Lack of student engagement creates challenges when language learning moves online. Yuyang Zhao explains how to create an interactive environment that helps mitigate some of the key issues

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Xi'an Jiaotong - Liverpool University 

Xi'an Jiaotong Liverpool University 
12 Apr 2022
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Creating interactive online learning that keeps students engaged
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It’s not you, it’s me: taking responsibility for student engagement and interaction

Proactive steps educators should take to better engage students in online learning

For a language lecturer, it is important to create an interactive learning environment in which students have a strong sense of participation and engagement. So when teaching and learning shifts from the physical to the online classroom, new challenges emerge.

Having taught online for a while, I’ve found that students tend to exhibit symptoms of “online learning syndrome”. These can include:

  • lower attendance compared with on-site classes
  • a noticeable decrease in in-class activity participation rates
  • quiet students who find it hard to engage.

After identifying the issues, I have found the following changes to be effective in counteracting these negative effects:

Let students know what is expected of them in advance

To tell students what is expected of them, the teacher can send students an email before the semester starts, detailing what they should prepare and check in advance. These requirements might include: a stable internet connection, access to the relevant videoconferencing platform, their functional login details, and a quiet environment. Even a trivial technical glitch in the middle of a lesson can disrupt the flow and affect student engagement levels.

Based on my previous online teaching experiences, this year I intentionally told students that they didn’t need to turn on their webcams if they didn’t feel comfortable doing so. However, they were expected to be highly focused and to proactively participate in class activities. As a result, most students have been notably engaged in the classes.

Create an environment in which student agency is well supported

Students often find themselves drifting off in the middle of a long lesson, especially in an online learning environment where their attention span might be slashed significantly. Giving students agency in class activities helps maintain their engagement levels in distance learning. For example, when practising English speaking fluency, students are asked to purposefully use linking words to connect their ideas. The students are then paired up and asked to produce a speech on a topic of their choice. I introduce the rationale behind this activity and stress that students have total freedom to pick a topic they want to talk about instead of being assigned topics. This way, more competent students can take up the challenge of speaking on a potentially unfamiliar topic, while other students have the freedom to hone their fluency in a progressive manner by choosing a more familiar topic within their comfort zone.

Provide clear and concise instructions

A painful but inevitable aspect of online learning is that students tend to be distracted or their minds simply wander during a long class. In this case, checking students’ attention and giving them clear instructions are vital to the effectiveness of an online session. During my online teaching practice, I try to minimise my talking time and instead turn many teaching points into a poll or questions that require students’ input. It is through this kind of consistently concise and clear instruction that students are prompted to re-focus and maintain their willingness to be engaged throughout.

How to encourage silent students in an online classroom

Almost every class includes a group of silent students who seem to be present but rarely participate in activities. After recognising the issue, the teacher can put two actions into place. First, have a one-on-one talk with the students right after a class, and identify the real reasons behind their reticence. Most of the time, students genuinely feel noticed and cared for after the conversation and they can then let us educators know how to better cater to their learning needs. Following the talk, I create an Excel sheet with the names of the silent students; every time one of them answers a question or proactively participates in an activity, I record it on the spreadsheet, and inform the student at the end of the class how many times they contributed to the learning environment. To make it more fun, a reward system could also be put in place to encourage their participation.

Educators need to embrace shifting circumstances, especially during difficult and challenging times. Identifying students’ needs in these rapidly changing circumstances can help us better support them on an ongoing basis.

Yuyang Zhao is a lecturer in English for academic purposes at the School of Languages at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University.

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