Increase Student Engagement While Teaching Online

By Will Perry and Clinton Smith
SPRING 2021

Moving to an online learning environment is scary for teachers, students, administrators, and parents alike. Although blended and online learning have become online fads in education in recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic turned “I’d like to try that” into “You don’t have a choice.” The move to an online setting has sent many teachers—brand new and veteran—into a panic of how to teach in the new environment. Teachers have scrambled to keep students engaged without having them in a face-to-face learning environment.

Building student relationships is one of the tools to ensure student engagement in an online environment, and it is not a new innovation. Student relationships are key to being successful in an online setting. Strong relationships enable teachers to engage students and lead them to success in their learning. Quin (2017) found that strong teacher–student relationships correlate positively to higher levels of engagement, better grades, higher attendance, less disruptive behaviors, and lower dropout rates.

In our brick-and-mortar classrooms, we naturally found ways to build relationships with our students but, with some strategic planning, teachers can build strong relationships with their students online, too. If you are still teaching exclusively online, remember these principles to build strong relationships with your students and keep them actively engaged.

Stay connected.

You are not a computer that posts assignments and assigns grades. As the cliché goes, students “don’t care what you know until they know you care.” That’s overly simplified, but within those words lay the keys to success. Let students and their families know who you are by providing some of your background and interests. Take the time to get to know your students. Get to know their likes and dislikes and try to incorporate them into your lessons. Let students know that you care about them and their well-being, distress, and trauma. We need to make sure the basic needs of our students are being met.

  • Create virtual opportunities for students to connect with one another and with you. Schedule one-on-one check-ins to make that personal connection with students just as you would in the classroom.
  • Enrich your lessons by using personal examples and anecdotes, and encourage students to do the same.
  • Send weekly updates for due dates and important events through newsletters or blogs.
  • Provide opportunities through virtual games such as Quizlet, Kahoot, or activities such as show and tell, comedy time, charades, or a scavenger hunt.

Consider student needs.

Consider your students’ basic human needs before getting wrapped up in academic content. Pearlman (2020) says we need to consider Maslow before Bloom. The pandemic may have caused students to experience grief, distress, and trauma. We may need to make sure the basic needs of our students are being met.

  • Ask students regularly how they and their families are doing. Students have missed important events such as sporting games and seasons, graduations, band concerts, and other school activities, not to mention normal activities they’ve grown accustomed to, such as birthday parties, holidays, eating in restaurants, or taking their yearly vacation to the beach. Worse, others have experienced the illness or loss of family members or friends to COVID-19.
  • Listen to them. Students are missing out on daily interpersonal connections with their peers and their teachers. Consider a “virtual hangout,” where you share about the good things your students are doing during online learning.
  • Look for opportunities for students to talk about their lives, their concerns, and any problems they may be having with the lesson.

Provide opportunities for engagement.

Students who are engaged are more likely to experience academic success.

  • Consider formative assessment strategies such as using journal entries or exit tickets to engage students.
  • Increase questioning during lessons, like “How would you feel if this were you?” “What’s something that’s happened in your life that’s similar to this character?”
  • Create writing opportunities for students to share their thoughts and feelings.
  • Examine crises through stories or historical analysis, and ask students to describe similar experiences and if they can relate to how the characters feel.
  • Moderate a classroom chat or discussion board.
  • Create funny videos of a science experiment, read a children’s book, or take them on a virtual field trip.

Concluding Thoughts

Teachers are master relationship builders, so don’t let an online environment be a barrier to building student relationships. If you expect your students to be engaged, show them that you care about them, even from afar. Teaching in an online environment may be challenging, but focus on building strong relationships with your students and increase student engagement. Your students are depending on you!

Dr. Perry is Associate Director of Philanthropy at Vanderbilt University and a former high school Spanish teacher.

Dr. Smith is Associate Professor of Special Education at the University of Tennessee at Martin and the KDP Public Policy Chair.

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