A significant body of research attempts to define engagement. We can follow the National Survey of Student Engagement’s conceptual framework, which allows that student engagement is “an umbrella term for a family of ideas rooted in research on college students and how their college experiences affect their learning and development” (NSSE Conceptual Framework). The NSSE measures student engagement organized by quality of effort, involvement, academic and social integration, and principles for good practice in education. These can be measured by behaviors such as time on task, participation in classes and activities, group work, interaction with faculty, high-impact practices such as internships, service learning, and clinical experiences, and students’ perceptions of relationship quality, environmental support, and faculty expectations.

For the purpose of offering practical ways to increase student engagement in an online course, let’s think about this as connecting with your students. Your students experience at least three different dimensions of interaction in your course: learner-to-learner, instructor-to-learner, learner-to-content. As the instructor, you have a key role to play in setting up and facilitating all three types of interaction.

Arghode, Brieger, and Wang (2018) conducted a literature review on the topic of “How instructors can design online instruction for achieving learner engagement.” (You can read the full text of their recommendations.)

How you teach an online class can significantly influence how your students engage with you, their classmates, assessments, and instructional materials. Some students may feel comfortable and empowered by your selection of teaching methods and opportunities you give students to express their learning while others may feel minimized, overlooked, or inadequate. 

Challenges can include feeling as if they don’t belong, low Internet connectivity, distracting elements in the course, different time zones, low technical skills, learning English as a second language, access to technologies, reliance on assistive technology, communication expectations from previous learning experiences, religious and/or cultural mores related to appearing on camera, and more. It can be overwhelming to imagine all of the complex challenges individual students face, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. To find equitable solutions specific to your students, consider the following: 

  • How are you building students’ trust? 
  • How are you communicating to students that the class is an inclusive space?
  • How are you communicating to students that you have high expectations for achievement for all students, regardless of individual challenges? 
  • Which opportunities have you created in the course to invite students to share challenges they’re facing with you? 
  • Which opportunities have you created in the course for students to tell you about their learning progress (aside from assessments), and share their reflections and connections with you and the others? 
  • How often can students make choices in the class that affect their learning? 
  • How are you proactively reaching out to students who are at risk of disengagement?
  • When a student expresses a challenge to you, how are you expressing empathy and providing relevant resources? How rapidly are you able to respond? 
  • How often are you using multiple teaching strategies and giving students choices in how they demonstrate their learning, when possible? (This relates to the idea of Universal Design for Learning.)


Here are some principles and practical ways to connect with your students and build community in your online course.

Reach out and set the tone

  • Send a welcome email and/or announcement with a personal touch, such as a short video
  • Set up a low-stakes introduction forum for students to meet and greet one another in text, video, and/or with images
  • Introduce yourself to model for the students how to be approachable and professional

Create smaller groups within the larger classroom

  • Organize small group discussions that allow more back-and-forth than an all-class discussion, especially if the class is large
  • State discussion expectations that contribute to a collegial, respectful conversation
  • Assign pair and group activities

Give frequent, predictable, consistent feedback

  • Post announcements regularly (without overdoing it!)
  • Respond to student questions within a reasonable timeframe, such as 12-24 hours
  • Explain your turnaround timeframe for assignment feedback, and stick to it
  • Offer optional opportunities for students to connect with you outside of class
  • Build in short, low-stakes comprehension checks

Activate curiosity and build a culture around inquiry

  • Provide quick, interactive activities to focus students
  • Explicitly invite learners to ask questions and pursue their interests
  • Ask students to connect what they are learning with their lives outside of class
  • Give learners opportunities to apply their knowledge and skills
  • Make it fun! What do you like about what you teach? How can you help them enjoy the learning?

Demonstrate that you care

  • Acknowledge students’ outside responsibilities that may limit engagement, such as employment, health, and family
  • Push students to think more deeply and express your high expectations of them, for this shows them you believe they are capable
  • Connect students with campus resources and support services like Starfish
  • Check up on students who haven’t logged into the course in a while

Make learning tasks meaningful and available, and reduce the sense of insecurity around tasks

  • Inform students how activities are connected to learning objectives and why this activity will benefit the student
  • Write clear assignment instructions and offer answers to frequently asked questions to reduce students’ insecurity about a learning task
  • Organize your course so that students find what they need and can focus on learning, not navigation.
  • Ensure learning resources are available, i.e., links work, videos can be watched, materials are accessible to learners using assistive technology

How do I know if they’re engaged?

While it is beyond our abilities to make students engage, using principles and practices like these can create an environment which encourages student engagement.

Unsure if what you are doing is working? Our next module, Evaluate, will introduce you to tools and measurement approaches to help you reflect and revise as needed.

Innovation in your online teaching

This module has only covered the very beginning of teaching online. Discover new approaches to teaching online through the UNCG Teaching Innovations Office and its events, resources and support.

Module Complete

You can download a Teach key takeaways handout (PDF, 114KB).

Now that you have completed the module, click here to take an optional quiz to test your knowledge.

Learn how to plan a course on paper before beginning production.
Learn how to develop content, assessments, and activities that support course goals.
Learn strategies for teaching and communicating with students online.
Learn how to evaluate the effectiveness of a course post-offering.