5 Online Learning Tips for Boosting Student Engagement

By: Sarah Roberts

From Columbia University to the City College of London and South Africa’s University of Pretoria, distance learning is extending beyond borders to every corner of the planet. Lists of the top online learning programs show that prestigious universities across the world are embracing this trend.  

While the future of distance learning looks bright, instructors and professors know that it can be challenging to keep their students interested and engaged. As a result, instructors are beginning to implement various tricks and tools to both keep their students’ attention and improve the quality of their courses.

Here are five ways you can grab your online class’s attention and allow students to get the most out of remote courses.

1. Make lectures short and sweet

How long can your class actively listen to your lectures? Students’ attention span may not be as long as you would expect. According to some education experts, you should aim to keep each lecture under 10 minutes. While that might sound exceptionally short, remember that it doesn’t mean you have to finish a whole class in just 10 minutes. Instead, give students a short break by using quick, real time quizzes that review what you covered. Alternatively, you can also give students a chance to comment and ask questions to review what you previously taught. After a couple of minutes, you can begin another short lecture. 

Breaking content into bite-sized chunks will make it easier for students to digest and retain the information. The short lectures can build on one another, like chapters in a book. At the end of the lesson, the short, sweet nuggets of information can fit together to build a bigger concept. This strategy also helps students organize what they’ve learned.

Although some educators dispute the notion that students can only pay attention for 10-15 minutes at a time, making lessons short can still be useful. For instance, one study found that in 85% of classrooms, only 50% of students were paying attention. Also, just because a class can struggle through a 45-minute lecture doesn’t mean that’s the optimal way to teach them.

man working on his laptop

2. Consider universal design principles to promote accessibility

Learners with disabilities might need specific accommodations to participate in online learning. However, many of the tools that help those with disabilities also improve learning experiences for people who don’t necessarily need them. 

Universal design (UD) principles encourage creators of products and environments to make them accessible to everyone. Proponents of UD believe that we all benefit when we promote accessibility for all. One great example of this concept is captioning. Captioning is a solution that is vital for students who are Deaf or hard of hearing. However, researchers show that everyone benefits from captions. Even if people can hear a lecture, they tend to focus and retain information better when they can read captions while they listen. 

Individuals with ADHD, autism and those learning English as a second language also find captions useful. Therefore, instead of only offering captions to those who request them, UD principles would encourage you to add this solution for all students. It’s likely that some students who are unaware that they’d benefit from captions will find them helpful.

Audio description (AD) is another example of a solution that provides accessibility for all. AD involves a speaker who describes the visual components of a video during breaks in the original audio. Like captions, the benefits of AD extend beyond individuals who are blind for whom this solution is designed to accommodate.

Students who are autistic benefit from AD because it helps them identify emotions. For instance, imagine a person in a video walking into a room looking angry. The description “Bob walks in looking angry” can provide the context that some students who are neurodiverse need to fully understand this scene. Verbit’s extended AD is especially useful for academic purposes because it offers more context than standard AD.

3. Incorporate gamified learning

Making learning fun is a tried and true way to engage students. However, gamified learning isn’t only for kids. Adding point systems and badges to lessons can motivate learners and add a competitive component. Also, many methods of gamified learning allow students to receive immediate feedback. 

For example, the popular children’s game, Minecraft, offers an edition that supports gamified learning. Children can use the game to explore historical sites and learn mathematical concepts like volume and area. Kahoot is another game that offers teachers an easy way to create quizzes that they can incorporate into their lessons.

Using games to mix up the usual lesson formats and keep things fresh is a great way to encourage students to engage with the materials. These lessons also work well for online learning, and they shouldn’t be limited to young students. Instructors of university students and professionals can use these methods to encourage teamwork and collaboration. Gimkit, for example, allows instructors to turn review sessions into a gameshow. University students can team up to compete as a fun way to review course materials.

student attending her virtual graduation

4. Make learning multi-sensory

Research indicates that students are better at retaining information when they absorb it through audio, visual and tactile channels. Also, everyone learns differently, so offering multiple opportunities to engage with content is a great way to boost engagement.

A simple example of multisensory learning is offering closed captioning so that hearing students can follow along while they listen. Adding a tactile component to learning takes this concept a step further. For instance, an online course may instruct students to use objects such as beads, dried beans or Legos to work out math concepts.

5. Encourage students to connect with one another

Distance learning can create a sense of disconnectedness, and teaching online may feel impersonal. Instructors can combat this by intentionally connecting with their students. Hosting live streaming office hours is a way to make up for the fact that students aren’t physically in the classroom. You can set up one on one video calls to meet students face-to-face, answer questions and learn about their personal experiences and motivations. 

Creating opportunities for student collaboration is another great way to foster an interactive environment. Consider using breakout rooms so that students can discuss topics in smaller groups. Breaking into groups can help shy students feel more comfortable than they would speaking in front of a large virtual audience.

Online collaborative projects also help prepare students to work in the real world. With many companies converting to hybrid and remote work practices, learning how to connect with people through virtual means will be a valuable professional skill.

When using platforms like Zoom to facilitate online learning collaboration, it’s important to offer accessibility tools like captions to ensure everyone can participate. Verbit’s captions integrate with these platforms making it easy to offer this accommodation.

man working on his laptop in a coffee shop

The benefits of effective online learning

Remote learning is here to stay. When instructors get it right, this option is a wonderful way to educate students. The added flexibility and cost-savings make higher education more attainable for millions of people. Remote learning also teaches students a lot about how to function in today’s evolving, tech-heavy professional world. With these engagement tricks in their teaching arsenal, educators can make the most out of virtual learning.

Verbit is an essential partner for educational institutions that are committed to providing accessible learning for their students. Contact us for more information about how our captioning, transcription and audio description solutions can help your university, college or school.