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Student Engagement Online: What Works and Why

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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The main goal of the monograph is to identify the approaches or techniques that have been proven to increase engagement. To achieve this goal, the monograph draws upon learning theories and research studies conducted in online learning courses and also some face-to-face situations. 


The posting below looks at ways of increasing student engagement online. It is from the Executive Summary in the monograph, Student Engagement Online: What Works and Why, by Katrina A. Meyer. Copyright © 2014 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. A Wiley Company. It is part of the ASHE Higher Education Report: Volume 40, Number 6, Kelly Ward, Lisa E. Wolf-Wendel, series editors. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Why Engagement?


Executive Summary

With more students needing a higher education and fewer resources available from the states, the productivity of higher education institutions has become of greater interest to state governments, national foundations, and other assorted groups. Given its importance to individuals and the economy, President Obama has stressed the need for higher education to control its costs and produce more and better graduates. By moving academic programs and coursework online, higher education institutions must ensure that students succeed in their online programs. 

Given the highly visible research on the National Study of Student Engagement (NSSE) and what it has revealed about engagement in the face-to-face environment, it makes sense to investigate the ways that engagement strategies can keep students enrolled in their online programs to completion and ensure they are learning what they need to succeed. This monograph presents the research on student engagement online and draws recommendations for instructors designing or teaching an online course. 

Are There Limits to Engagement? 

Students’ lives tend to present serious limits to what can be achieved with engagement strategies. They have employment or family demands that force them to attend part-time, or they may be inexperienced students and need to “learn how to learn” or to understand the basics of online learning. They may need to develop self-regulatory behaviors, motivation to succeed, and the ability to defer gratification. They may also have to develop an understanding of and skills for active learning and find time and willingness to put effort into their learning. 

Instructors also sometimes act in ways that impinge on student engagement by offering poorly designed online courses, dominating course interactions, and being unclear about the educational goals of course activities and what students are expected to achieve. These instructors may need to improve their online teaching skills or their understanding of how students learn; this may involve examining their expectations of what “instruction” is and what it is that instructors do to bring learning about. 

What Works to Increase Student Engagement in Online Coursework? 

The main goal of the monograph is to identify the approaches or techniques that have been proven to increase engagement. To achieve this goal, the monograph draws upon learning theories and research studies conducted in online learning courses and also some face-to-face situations. 

Use Learning Theories That Encourage Engagement 

Put simply, engagement strategies work because they are based on learning theories that stress student activity rather than passive learning. Active learning, collaborative learning, authentic and experiential learning, as well as several other theories that focus on getting the student to do something – be it cognitive or physical – work to engage them in their learning. These learning theories are “why” engagement works. 

Focus on Pedagogies and Active Learning Options

Pedagogies that stress student effort or work tend to engage more effectively. That means using assignments that ask students to do something – such as work in a group, solve a problem, prepare a project, and experience a situation – will more likely produce student engagement in his or her learning. 

Interact for an Educational Purpose 

Be it for online discussions, group work, or simple email exchanges, students need to know the goal and reason for the assignment. Instructors need to provide not only the goal, but also the rationale for the assignment, explaining what it will help students learn and why it is being done this way. 

Push Students to Think More Deeply 

Whether in the design of the assignments, directions to students about the assignments, or the evaluation criteria for students’ work, instructors need to ask questions, critique student responses, and provide additional context for the learning. Instructors also need to show students what deep thinking is. 

Teach Students How to Learn 

Not all students arrive at college with the skills to learn. College-level instructors are increasingly called upon not only to teach students how to learn online, but also to help them develop self-discipline and other self-regulatory behaviors. 

Evaluate Tools, Both Hardware and Software 

Developers will continue to work on improving existing online tools and creating new ones. Instructors will need to evaluate these tools in the online course to assess their impact on student engagement and learning and share their findings with others. 

Evaluate Online Classes over and over Again 

Instructors need to undertake more detailed evaluations of what happens in their online classes and focus on individual elements to determine what works for engagement and student learning and what does not. 

Assess Student Engagement and Its Effect on Retention and Learning 

Too often, research on engagement strategies has used engagement as the final outcome measure. But research also needs to chronicle engagement’s effect on student retention and learning to provide comparisons among engagement strategies and to help make the case that engagement is worth the extra effort. 

Are There Differences in Engagement Between Online and Face to Face? 

The research so far indicates that engagement may be engagement in both settings. The learning theories, pedagogies, and activities used in the course produce student engagement whether the course is online or face-to-face.