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Active Student Engagement in Online STEM Classes

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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This Tomorrow’s Professor post summarizes a recent article (Prince et al., 2020) that addresses the following questions: 

·      What is online active student engagement? How does it affect online students’ learning and satisfaction with their instruction?

·      What are specific strategies for engaging students online? How can I adapt familiar face-to-face active learning interactions to online courses?

·      How can I maximize the effectiveness of any online active student engagement strategies I adopt? 


The posting below is a summary by the authors of an important new paper; Active student engagement in online STEM classes: Approaches and recommendations, by M. J. Prince, R. M. Felder and R. Brent, that appeared in Advances in Engineering Education, 8(4), 2020. The paper is a review of methods of getting students actively engaged online and existing research that supports the methods’ effectiveness.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Mindfulness in Class and in Life: Mental Health and Emotional Resilience Alongside Academic Studies


Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Active Student Engagement in Online STEM Classes


Courses delivered online constitute a large and rapidly growing component of higher education. In the fall of 2018, roughly 35% of 17 million undergraduates enrolled in two-year and four-year colleges and 40% of 3 million postbaccalaureate students surveyed were taking some online courses (IES National Center for Educational Statistics, 2019). The percentages increased sharply in the spring of 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic swept through the world and caused a massive switch from face-to-face (F2F) to online classes. 

Extensive research has shown that active student engagement in F2F courses promotes the attainment of almost every conceivable learning outcome (Freeman et al., 2014; Theobald et al.2020), and studies have shown that engagement is even more important online. This Tomorrow’s Professor post summarizes a recent article (Prince et al., 2020) that addresses the following questions: 

1.     What is online active student engagement? How does it affect online students’ learning and satisfaction with their instruction?

2.     What are specific strategies for engaging students online? How can I adapt familiar face-to-face active learning interactions to online courses?

3.     How can I maximize the effectiveness of any online active student engagement strategies I adopt? 


The emphasis in the paper is on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, but most of the conclusions and recommendations are generalizable to other fields.


In the remainder of this post, the notation [Citations] appears several times as a stand-in for a long series of reference citations that follow the same text in the paper. To see the full bibliographic details and the tables of engagement strategies (Table 1 and Table 2) referred to in the post, access the paper at <>.


What is online active student engagement? How does it affect 

online students’ learning and satisfaction with their instruction?


Moore (1989) proposed three categories of online student interactions: student-content interactions (SC), such as a student working through an interactive tutorial or simulation; student-student interactions (SS), such as students working on a team project or participating in a discussion board; and student-teacher interactions (ST), such as those that occur in an instructor-facilitated discussion board or during virtual office hours. In everything that follows, online active student engagement refers to online instruction that involves all students in a class in activities that fall in one or more of those three categories. The interactions may be either synchronous (the instructor and all students are gathered at two or more sites simultaneously) or asynchronous (instructional materials reside online and are accessed by students at times convenient to them). 

Multiple studies of online education have found significant positive correlations between SC, SS, and ST interactions and various student learning and satisfaction outcomes [Citations]. SS and ST interactions in particular help relieve the feeling of isolation that students often feel in online courses by building social presence, students’ feeling of being with real classmates in a virtual environment [Citations] and teaching presence, students’ sense that their online instructors are real people who are personally involved in their instruction [Citations]. Numerous studies show that both social and teaching presence correlate positively with online students’ motivation to learn, academic performance, persistence to course completion, satisfaction with online courses and instructors, and intention to enroll in future online courses [Citations]. 

What are specific strategies for engaging students online? How can I

adapt familiar face-to-face active learning interactions to online courses?

Table 1 in the paper lists some online engagement activities sorted by their functions: to present course material, serve as assignments, or provide formative feedback to students and instructors. Every activity involves SC interactions, though for some activities those interactions are secondary to SS or ST interactions. A natural approach to engaging online students is to adapt familiar F2F course activities to an online environment. Table 2 lists such activities that integrate SC with SS and/or ST interactions.

Many of the activities listed in Tables 1 and 2 can be implemented in a synchronous class session using tools in Zoom or one of its alternative applications. For example, you may ask students to (a) raise hands physically or with Zoom’s raise hands tool to ask a question or volunteer to answer one you asked; (b) submit questions and answers in a chatwindow; (c) vote yes or thumbs up if you are simply seeking agreement with something; or (d) vote for one or more of several multiple-choice options in a poll.

If you want to conduct a think-pair-share or thinking-aloud-pair-problem-solving activity (two activities listed in Table 2) or any other synchronous small-group exercise, you can direct the students to communicate with their group partners via private chat, or for long activities, have Zoom sort them into preselected or randomly assigned groups of any size you designate and send the groups to virtual breakout rooms for a specified time. When the allotted time has elapsed or you decide to terminate the activity manually, Zoom recalls the students to the main “classroom,” where you may call on individual students or groups to report on what they came up with. If the activity involves writing or drawing, the students can use tools like Google Docs or Google Slides or Zoom’s whiteboard or Google Jamboard (also a whiteboard tool) to do their work and later share it with you and the class. If you want to add quizzes and interactive activities to your slides, you can install Google Pear Deck as an add-in to PowerPoint or Google Slides.

How can I maximize the effectiveness of any

online active student engagement strategies I adopt?

The meta-analyses of active student engagement strategies cited in the paper demonstrate that even if a strategy works well on average, the variability in its effectiveness from one implementation to another may be significant, and in some circumstances the strategy may even be counterproductive. For example, if an instructor assigns online group projects and provides no guidance in dealing with team dysfunctionalities, some students might have had better experiences and learned more by working individually. An implication is that how well active engagement strategies are implemented may have a greater impact on the effectiveness of a course than which engagement strategies the instructor adopts. 

Many of the references cited in the paper list teaching methods that correlate positively with students’ performance in all fields. The paragraphs that follow offer three recommendations drawn from one or more of those references that instructors should consider adopting to maximize the effectiveness of any online student engagement activities they conduct. 

Recommendation: Establish teaching presence and social presence early in an online 

course and maintain them throughout the course.

Studies cited in the paper identify measures that help establish and maintain teaching and social presence. Several examples follow for teaching presence:

·       Before the course begins, send a welcome message to all enrolled students describing the course, its importance in the curriculum, and the types of scientific, technological, economic, and societal problems the course material may help to solve.  At the same time, post a short video introducing yourself, perhaps mentioning your background, research, personal interests, and why you are enthusiastic about teaching the course.

·       Schedule a short get-acquainted video chat with each student in the first two weeks. 

·       Communicate course structures and policies explicitly and clearly, including information about assignments and tests and how course grades will be determined, and announce how students can contact you with questions (e.g., with postings on the class computer interface or discussion boards or with email messages). 

·       When you identify common points of confusion from direct communications, quizzes, assignments, minute papers, or exams, promptly send clarifications to the entire class by email or postings to discussion boards. 

Additional ideas are presented in the paper. Some of the ideas—especially those that involve direct communication with individual students—may be impractical in courses with very large enrollments.


To establish and maintain social presence, conduct any of the SS activities suggested in the paper. For example, 

·       Assign student teams to work on problem sets and projects, conduct library research, design and carry out experiments using simulations and virtual laboratories, or contribute to online discussion boards. 

·       In synchronous class sessions, assign small student groups to engage in brief activities in breakout rooms or private chats (e.g., answer questions, explain and illustrate concepts, start problem solutions or formula derivations and subsequently work out individual steps, analyze and interpret experimental data, troubleshoot defective processes and products, brainstorm ideas,…). Any of those exercises may also be conducted as think-pair-shares, in which the students first work individually and then get into pairs, compare their results with their partners’, and and work together to synthesize better ones. 


Recommendation: Make your expectations clear to the students.


A common complaint of students in online courses is their difficulty understanding exactly what their instructors want them to do, especially if the students are new to online instruction or if the assignments and exams require skills unfamiliar to many of them. In F2F classes, they can easily get clarifications directly from the instructors and from one another, while doing so online is much less straightforward. Here are some effective clarification techniques:

·       Write learning objectives and share them with your students (Felder and Brent, 2016, pp. 23‒30). Clear statements of the kinds of tasks you expect the students to carry out on assignments and tests go a long way toward communicating your expectations to them.

·       Provide extensive formative assessment. “Formative assessment”  refers to gathering information about students’ knowledge primarily to improve teaching and learning rather than to help determine grades. Conducting formative assessment and sharing the results with the students clarifies your expectations, lets the students know how well they are meeting the expectations and what they need to work on to improve, and correlates strongly with student achievement (Hattie, 2009). Formative assessment techniques for online courses include interspersing online presentations (lecture clips, videos, slide shows, screencasts, etc.) with low-stakes online quizzes that provide immediate feedback; administering minute papers (after a synchronous or asynchronous lesson, have the students anonymously submit nominations of the main and muddiest points in the lesson, and soon afterwards clarify commonly nominated muddy points); and in synchronous courses, conducting in-class small-group activities. 

·       If student participation is important to you, incentivize it. Simply providing opportunities for interaction in online classes does not guarantee that you will get it from most students. For example, if you set up a discussion board and initially encourage your students to take an active role in posting ideas and responding to others’ posts, and then you never bring up their participation again, you are likely to be seriously disappointed at how few students participate after the first week or two. If the students’ participation and the quality of their contributions are important to you, make that point clear from the outset of the course. For example, include posting on the discussion board in your course grading criteria; provide guidance on what makes posts useful (e.g., “Can someone help me understand the solution she posted to Problem 3c on the exam?” and “OK, you begin with Bernoulli’s law, and….”) and not useful (e.g., “I’m confused about everything in this chapter”); show illustrative examples of good and bad posts; consider requiring a minimum number of posts to get full participation credit; and give slight additional credit for posts that are particularly insightful or use sources beyond what was expected. 

Recommendation: Take a gradual approach to adopting new engagement strategies.      

Tables 1 and 2 in the paper present a broad range of strategies for actively engaging students online, and the total number of strategies would be enormous if all their variations were listed. The idea is not to adopt every conceivable engagement strategy starting next Monday, which would overwhelm both you and the students, but rather to select one or two strategies that look reasonable and try them. Don’t just try them once—especially if the strategies are unfamiliar to you or likely to be unfamiliar to many students—but do them enough for both you and the students to get accustomed to them. If a strategy seems to be working well, keep using it; if it doesn’t, have someone knowledgeable check how you are implementing it, try their suggestions, and if doing so fails to help, stop using it. Next course you teach, try another one or two strategies. It should not take more than two or three course offerings to reach a level and quality of student engagement that meets your expectations.  


Felder, R. M., & Brent, R. (2016). Teaching and learning STEM: A practical guide. San Francisco: Jossey‒Bass.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410–8415.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta‒analyses relating to achievement. New York: Routledge.

IES National Center for Education Statistics. (2019). Fast facts: Distance learning.

Moore, M. G. (1989). Three types of interaction. The American Journal of Distance Education, 3(2), 1‒7.

Prince, M. J., Felder, R. M., and Brent, R. (2020). Active student engagement in online STEM classes: Approaches and recommendations. Advances in Engineering Education, 8(4).

Theobald, E. J., Hill, M. J., Tran, E., Agrawal, S, Arroyo, E. N., Behling, S., Chambwe, N., Cintron, D. L., Cooper, J. D., Dunster, G., Grummer, J. A., Hennessey, K., Hsiao, J., Iranon, N., Jones II, L., Jordt, H., Keller, M., Lacey, M. E., Littlefield, C. E.,… Freeman, S. (2020). Active learning narrows achievement gaps for underrepresented students in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117 (12), 6476‒6483.