8 New Ideas for Engaging Online Students

For many adults, taking a class online is a new learning experience. Even learners with the best intentions can get distracted when they’re supposed to be paying attention. They procrastinate when it’s time to log in and do their classwork. You can anticipate and prevent these issues by implementing these new strategies we found for engaging online students.

#1: Train instructors in online learning.

Many instructors are subject matter experts but they aren’t trained in adult education or online learning. You can’t just transfer an in-person learning experience to an online platform. The course’s curriculum, content and delivery must be designed specifically for online learning. An online instructor must understand not only how learners learn but also how to leverage technology to help them take in and retain information.

Even if an instructor has scored well on conference evaluations, an online environment requires a new skillset. Instructors have to practice being themselves on camera—an attention-holding, confident and personable self.

An online learning experience can become an isolating experience unless the instructor knows how to and makes time to support students and encourage them to interact with classmates.

If your association doesn’t already have a Train the Trainer program, that’s a good place to start. Make sure your program offers education in online instruction. If you don’t have these resources, check out:

engaging online students w video

#2: Give students a sense of ownership and control.

People are more motivated and engaged when they know they have some say in what they’re doing. Give students some choice in assignments. They may lean toward diving deeper into specific topics or may prefer one delivery method over another.

Self-assessments provide another opportunity for taking control over one’s learning destiny. If a student believes a lesson is too basic, allow them to skip over it or dive deeper based on their self-assessment or quiz results.

Give students an opportunity to make their voice heard by asking for feedback on the learning experience and content. Don’t wait for the end of the course to find out about adjustments you can make along the way. For example, you may think students will enjoy group projects, but find out they actually dread the idea.

#3: Plan for delivery diversity.

Engage learners’ brains by using a mix of content delivery methods—video, text, audio, and presentations. Bring in guest instructors and speakers so they don’t get tired of seeing the same face and hearing the same voice. Keep the element of surprise alive.

Don’t ignore the effect of audio: when someone talks into our ear, it’s strangely more intimate and we’re more likely to connect with that person and what they’re saying.

#4: Be a storyteller.

You might be sick of hearing about storytelling—it’s been a marketing buzzword the past few years. But, like all clichés, it has staying power because it’s based on fact. We love good stories—emphasis on good. We especially love reading or hearing stories that we can relate to in some way.

Stories tap into emotions, so we’re apt to remember information delivered in stories. If you’re reading something difficult, you’re more likely to “get it” if the writer uses an example to illustrate what they’re trying to get across.

Case studies are based on one of the most ancient stories: the hero’s journey. Behold the dragon (problem) and our hero (the student’s proxy), watch how the hero slays the dragon (solution), and see what happens next (impact).

Assign stories (or case studies) to read, or have students watch someone tell a story about how they applied a principle or practice in real life. Score bonus points if you can get a course alumni to do this. Use stories to illustrate the impact of what they’re learning—an additional motivator.

Don’t be afraid to use video. A cheesy video of instructors and members acting out a story may elicit some uncalled for grins but the point will be made and remembered. For example, at an ASAE conference, several members presented a video that illustrated a common problem for IT directors. Their point was successfully made despite the acting causing some chuckles.

Get students involved by stopping the story to find out what they would do in the hero’s place. Or show the same story from alternate perspectives if that’s important to the learning outcome.

Stories are a good opportunity to make your course timely too, our next topic.

engaging online students w breaking news

#5: Regularly update course content.

The course you deliver in 2018 should not be the same course you delivered in 2016. One way to differentiate your online course is to update the content with the latest:

  • Research and developments
  • News
  • Articles, videos, podcast episodes and conference session recordings
  • Policies and regulations
  • Opinions
  • Emerging trends and practices

Make it obvious that you’re not delivering a stale program. Keep your course relevant, timely, and current and you’ll be more likely to pique student interest and hold their attention.

#6: Assign success coaches.

I bet your competitors aren’t doing this one. In many colleges and universities, students taking online courses are assigned success coaches who:

  • Provide online learning and studying advice.
  • Offer resources to help students juggle responsibilities and manage time.
  • Learn about goals and help students identify or design a learning pathway.
  • Direct students to other organizational (association) resources—a good way to show non-members what they’re missing.

Success coaches take your online learning program to the next level. This value-add won’t be expected but proves your association is investing in learners’ professional growth.

Online learning can be a lonely experience. The more you can make it personal by connecting in some way with learners, the more likely they’ll stay engaged and become a raving fan.

Coaches can proactively reach out to students at specific course milestones. They can also be part of the intervention effort when a student is at risk.

#7: Encourage accountability.

Leverage the email notification feature on your learning management system. Schedule and send automated emails to students who don't log in for a certain number of days or don’t complete an assignment on time. Or, you can set it up so the instructor receives the notification instead and they reach out personally to students to see what’s going on with them.

Remind students they’re not alone and not being ignored by having instructors and coaches check in with them periodically. These check-ins are a good time to get feedback too.

Study groups can also act as accountability reminders—just like meeting friends at the gym. Students need to feel a sense of inner accountability too. And you can help with that—our next topic.

#8: Help students nurture intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivators like certificates and digital badges show others what you know and what you can do, but intrinsic motivators drive a person forward. Intrinsic motivation compels a student to keep doing difficult tasks, like juggling an online course with other responsibilities.

You want students to have a sense of purpose that fuels their course participation and engagement. They should know that what they’re doing here matters. Remind students how their new knowledge and skills will help them make a difference in the world, even in small ways. Talk about how this new expertise helps them improve or contribute to their company, industry or profession, or how it impacts their customers or clients.

Create and share talking points with instructors, teaching assistants, and success coaches that reinforce the purpose behind the course, the true meaning behind the certificate of completion or digital badge.

The efforts your association makes to improve the learning experience shows students that you care about their growth and success. When students become more engaged in the learning experience, they’ll get more out of the course, and they’re more likely to come back to you for additional education.


adult learning
Online education tips
student engagement
Ready to learn more?